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Be sure to read my Key Posts on the admissions process. Topics include essay analysis, resumes, recommendations, rankings, and more.

August 03, 2008

MIT Sloan Essays for Fall 2009 Admission

Before analyzing MIT Sloan School of Management MBA Essays for Fall 2009, I think it is important to take a look at MIT Sloan's core values:

Mind and Hand

The moment you step onto the MIT Sloan campus, you feel the palpable sense of energy and opportunity that is fueled by MIT's credo of mens et manus — mind and hand. At MIT, we believe that you must understand foundational topics at a deep level (mens) and be able to execute the practical application of these concepts (manus).

The concept of mens et manus percolates through the MIT culture and inspires a shared ethic. It says: let's look at the problem, invent the solution, and do something about it. Mens et Manus is the core idea that powers everything we do at MIT Sloan. Generations of students, faculty, and alumni have built their careers on it.

MIT is well know for transforming theory into practice and this is certainly true of its business school. In my experience those who can effectively demonstrate how and why they share this "core idea" are most likely to be accepted. (For those who can read Japanese, I suggest looking at http://web.mit.edu/sloanjapan/101/index.html and Kaz's MIT MBA留学日記 blog. My English language interview with Kaz is here).

Those in Tokyo, should most certainly attend, the Sloan event on September 4th at the Marubiru from 18:00-20:00. Click here for the full list of admissions events.

Sloan's application process is, in fact, very much focused on determining whether you share and can contribute, based on your own unique background, to their "core idea." This does not mean that there is only one way to write great essays for MIT Sloan. Nor does it mean that they are only looking for one type of student. That said, I think you can say that there are some right ways and wrong ways to approach their questions.

All questions are taken from the online application.

Cover Letter
Prepare a cover letter (up to 500 words) seeking a place in the MIT Sloan MBA Program. Describe your accomplishments and include an example of how you had an impact on a group or organization. Your letter should conform to standard business correspondence and be addressed to Mr. Rod Garcia, Director of MBA Admissions.

If you have attended SLOAN ON THE ROAD or visited the campus, you probably heard from admissions that MIT does not ask for the sort of standard goals essays that almost all other schools ask for. Honestly this one of the things I love about this school. Admissions knows applicants are going to figure out what they want to do after they start to an MBA program, so they think the question is absurd.

Having seen what happens to my clients once they graduate, I can say that MIT is often right about this: Many never do what they write in their essays. This is in no way intended as a criticism of my past clients. I tell this to all my clients so that they can relax and just simply concentrate on making sure that their goals are solid without having to think that these absolutely must be their goals. Just as long they are comfortable with their goals as one possible future, that is enough.

Still, goals questions are useful if you are trying to determine someone's vision and their ability to actually put together a plan (think business plan). Of course, a goals essay is simply the standard sort of essay that all kinds of graduate programs require. For other schools, think of them as a formal requirement that simply has to be met.

While I have written elsewhere about goals essays and recognize their importance, I have been wondering why other business schools don't simply copy MIT. In fact, HBS has done so. While an applicant to HBS would certainly need to say something about their motivations, they need not write a goals essay. Like MIT, HBS has recognized the standard short-term/long-term goals essay is simply a formal exercise that can be dispensed with unless someone has something really important to write about that topic.

Unlike HBS, MIT specifically requires that you write a 500-word essay in the form of a cover letter that will convince them why you belong at MIT Sloan. Goals in some way need to be there, but it is clearly not the focus, instead focus on your passions, values, and interests to show why you belong at Sloan. If you can answer the following questions in a convincing manner you will be on the right track:
1. Why do you fit at Sloan?

2. What do you want to learn at Sloan? Why? The more specific, the better.
3. What motivates you and how does this relate to what you can learn at and contribute to Sloan?
4. Can you briefly state what your values are? That is to say, what are your core beliefs that are likely to leave Rod Garcia and his colleagues with a better understanding about what kind of person you are?

These topics are not easy to get into 500 words, so don't put too much emphasis on the additional topic of professional goals.

Keep in mind that great cover letters result in job interviews. Assume the same about this one. How will your cover letter standout? If you don't know how to do a US-style cover letter, you need to learn. Here are two good sites for that purpose:

I think it is critical that you really are well-informed about Sloan, so in addition to making full use of standard admissions information, please take a look at MIT Sloan Management Review and listen to the MIT Sloan Management School of Management Podcast (available on iTunes).

We are interested in learning more about you and how you work, think, and act. For each essay, please provide a brief overview of the situation followed by a detailed description of your response. Please limit the experiences you discuss to those which have occurred in the past three years. In each of the essays please describe in detail what you thought, felt, said, and did.

This distinctive style of question that MIT asks is based on an interview method that I will discuss below. Before reading the rest of this post, I strongly suggest downloading a copy of MIT's excellent guide to behavioral interviews, The MIT Sloan Interview Guide, because reading it first will maximize the value of my comments below.

The behavioral essay questions that MIT (and now Stanford) ask have their origins in behavioral interviewing. This method is not old:
“Bill Byham, CEO and founder of Development Dimensions International, originated the behavioral interviewing method in 1970.”

In fact, the STAR technique outlined in MIT’s guide was developed by Byham as THE WAY to answer behavioral questions:

Byham calls an example of past behavior a STAR, because a complete example consists of a situation or task, the specific action you took and the result of your action. The result you describe doesn't have to be positive; it could be that you learned a valuable lesson from doing something the wrong way.

In his book "Landing the Job You Want: How to Have the Best Job Interview of Your Life" (Three Rivers Press, 1997), Byham
tells candidates how to identify the skills for a job; explore their own "behavioral dimensions" (the behaviors they use every day to get things done); and recognize and present a STAR with positive impact in an interview.

In addition to the MIT SLOAN Guide, I suggest also taking a look at the slightly different guide to the Star Technique that MIT Career Services provides.

The STAR technique is really the core method you need to use for answering behavioral questions in MIT essays. It is simply this (taken from the MIT Sloan Guide):

• Situation: define the situation or “set the stage.”
• Task: identify the task/project performed.
• Action: describe the action you took.
• Result: summarize the outcome

Just keep in mind that you need to be introspective as well, so write what you thought as well as what you did. Don’t just present “the facts” but actively interpret your actions. There is really nothing overly complicated about this as long as you understand that you need to tell a DETAILED story. Pure abstractions disconnected from a concrete set of action steps are highly likely to result in a weak answer. Similarly, grand actions not told in any depth are also likely to be weak. Identify specific actions that contributed to the result so as to establish a clear link between cause and effect.

As when answering any kind of question, another important consideration is to think very critically about what your story selection, understanding of the task, actions taken, and results say about you. Keep in mind that the whole point of asking behavioral questions is to determine how someone acts and thinks as a basis for selecting or rejecting that person. It is obviously critical to be aware of your own message.

MIT Sloan
specifically requires that these experiences come from the last three years. This time constraint is important to remember. Also keep in mind:

1. You need to show the capacity for analyzing and acting in different ways, so, while both essays should utilize STAR, don’t tell them in the same way. Make sure you are presenting different sides to who you are by telling your stories differently.

2. If at all possible discuss different situations in these essays, not two different stories from the same situation because you are trying present as wide a spectrum of events and qualities about yourself as you can.

3. You should ask yourself “What does this essay reveal about me?” If you can’t answer that clearly, you need to clarify your message. When asking this question, think about both what you intend the reader to think and what you might also be revealing. Control for the possibility of sending out unintended signals. One of the best ways of handling this issue is to have a very careful and intelligent reader review these essays. If you are working with an admissions consultant, they should be able to do this. Getting multiple perspectives on what you wrote will help you better understand your likely impact on an admissions' reader.

Depending on your selection of topics for Essays 1-4, you will be likely writing at least one, if not more, leadership focused essays. I have developed the following grid to help you outline leadership stories. The categories this grid employs may go beyond any particular school's essay requirements. Filling it out completely will help you write about your leadership in a way that will convince admissions of your leadership potential.
CLICK TO ENLARGE. EMAIL me at adammarkus@gmail.com if you want the original excel version.

How to use the grid:
1. Decide on a specific story.
2. Identify the most significant things you did in the situation- these are you action steps.
3. For each action step identify:
  • What skills or qualities you demonstrated to complete this step
  • The strengths you demonstrated to complete this step
  • The kind of leadership you demonstrated
  • What you still need to learn about leadership
4. Think about the results and identify how they relate to your action steps. So at minimum, you should be able to state the impact on others and/or yourself.

5. After completing the chart you will see that some aspects of your action steps may be repeated. If there is a total duplication and nothing new is shown, either you need to redefine the action step or you may decide not to focus on it very much.

6. Once you think you have two to four fully worked-out action steps, write your first draft.

7. Next, start re-writing. Eliminate duplicate points made between action steps. Make choices about what parts of each action to step to highlight. Given that there are usually word limits, you will have to make some decisions about what to include.

Simply providing a description of your actions, is not enough. Think about what it signifies about you. Think about what your actions reveal about your leadership potential.

Finally, thinking and writing about leadership is an important part of preparing for interviews because you can be certain that you will have to talk about leadership. So, you might find that the parts of the outline you jettison now will become valuable when you will want to have alternative stories for your MIT interview.

Essay 1: Please tell us about a challenging interaction you had with a person or group. (500 words or less, limited to one page)
Clearly think about what “challenging” means to you. We have all had challenging situations that ended badly and that we wish we had handled better, but that is not necessarily what you should write about here. For most applicants, I suggest focusing on a difficult interaction that ultimately shows you positively. They are not asking for a failure story here, so don’t provide one unless by so doing you can demonstrate something very positive about yourself in the process.

Essay 2: Please tell us about a time when you defended your idea. (500 words or less, limited to one page)
MIT is about the joining together of Mens et Menus (Mind and Hand), so it should come as no surprise that they ask about your ability to champion an idea. I use the word champion because defending sounds merely reactive and ultimately you must show your ability to serve as the champion for an idea whether you were acting on the offensive or the defensive. The idea might be an abstraction (“honesty”) or a specific analysis (“My calculations were simply better because…”), but, in either case, it should be very specific about how you defended the idea. Clearly this question is tailor-made for showing linkages between thoughts, interactions with others, actions, and means of communication. You need to show MIT that you have the ability to get other people to accept your ideas. This may involve a compromise, but should not involve failure. Think about what this essay reveals about your ability to work with other students at MIT Sloan.

If you are a maverick, a risk-taker, or simply unconventional in your approach, you should think about using this essay for the purpose of demonstrating that because MIT values original thinking. This essay is likely to take either the form of a leadership essay or an accomplishment. If you write about it terms of an accomplishment, but are not necessarily focused on leadership, see my analysis of HBS Essay 1, but keep in mind that you are telling only one accomplishment and not three.

Essay 3: Please tell us about a time when you executed a plan. (500 words or less, limited to one page)
DO NOT WRITE ABOUT YOUR PLAN TO APPLY TO MBA PROGRAMS! Hopefully no one will do that, but I know someone will. If there is one essay in the MIT set of questions that is well suited for a big story, this one is it. You can, of course, tell a small story here, but if you want to write about your biggest accomplishment that involved a significant amount of planning that is great. This essay is clearly about the joining of mind (plan) and hand (implementation). Focus on the execution of the plan, not its initial conceptualization. While there are no hard and fast rules, I would try to expend at least two-thirds of your word count focused on showing how you realized your plan. Make sure that you clearly state the result. An effective answer here will most likely be about a plan that has been effectively executed and has clear results.

Essay 4: Please tell the Admissions Committee whatever else you would like us to know. (250 words or less, limited to one page)
Unlike Essays 1-3, Essay 4 is not stated as a behavioral question, but the same instructions apply to it as apply to the other questions. You still should not be writing about something that took place longer than three years ago. What part of you that Rod Garcia really should know about is missing from or not emphasized enough elsewhere? Use this essay to give him a more complete perspective on who you are. My suggestion is to make sure you are comfortable with the content for your other essays before deciding what should be discussed here. You should avoid using this as a typical optional question like Chicago GSB's optional essay. Instead use this question as another way to help MIT understand you and to become convinced that you belong there. I suggest reviewing MIT's admission criteria to help you determine what topic you should write about here.

Supplemental Information You may use this section to address any specific circumstances related to your academic background. (250 words or less, limited to one page).
This essay is an opportunity to explain the strengths and/or weaknesses of your academic background.
You don't need a high GPA to get into MIT, but they are looking for applicants who have demonstrated intellectual curiosity, so utilize this space to help convince them of that. If you have to explain a weakness feel free to do so. It is better to provide an explanation for why you had a bad GPA in your second year of university than to make Rod Garcia and his team try to guess why. While you can use this space to explain something negative, the wording is such that I would try and use at least part of this space to write about something positive.

Given that MIT does not require the TOEFL, it receives many applications from those with low TOEFL scores. Many international applicants can obtain a much better GMAT than iBT TOEFL score. If you have a strong iBT TOEFL, I suggest submitting it so that Rod and his team know you have strong speaking and listening skills. Especially anyone with at least 100 and a 25 in Speaking should submit their TOEFL score. While such a submission is optional, I think it can only help you. If your TOEFL speaking or listening is below 25, I would not suggest submitting your score.

Finally, given the difficulty of iBT TOEFL and the increasing difficulty of even having a valid CBT or PBT test score, I think it is safe to assume that the number of international applicants to MIT Sloan will increase. This is on top of any domestic increases in applications due to a slowing US economy and any international increases in applications due to slowing economies and/or the relative low cost of studying in the US. While it is never easy to get into MIT Sloan, assume that getting into the Class of 2011 will be statistically harder than ever before.

POSTSCRIPT: See my report on the MIT Tokyo event. Applications were up 30% for Fall 2008 entry!

Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at adammarkus@gmail.com. Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to.
-Adam Markus
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