Go to a better blog!

You can find a better version of my blog at http://www.adammarkus.com/blog/.

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

December 30, 2008

Thank you!

This will be my last post for 2008. I just simply wanted to thank my readers for visiting. I am rather busy assisting my clients. I anticipate more blog posts after the 15th of January.


December 22, 2008

On consistency between your application and recommendations

I am frequently asked questions from MBA, LL.M., MPA, and other graduate school applicants about how much consistency there should between their application (essays, resume, and application form content) and their recommendations. This is a complex and annoying issue for many applicants, especially if they themselves and/or their recommenders come from countries where such recommendations are not a part of the academic and/or business culture.

Since the application and recommendations are not the product of the same person, total consistency would be amazing, unnatural, and highly suspicious. The applicant and the recommenders each have their own perspective. Of course, if you have a recommender who has worked with you on a single or on very few projects, chances are great that the stories they tell in their recommendations will have a significant overlap with the stories you tell in your essays and/or accomplishments in your resume or application form. On the other hand, if the recommender is someone you worked with for a long time on a variety of projects, the differences in the subjects of the stories that are covered is likely to be much greater. Of course, if you have a particularly important project or activity that you want to make certain that your recommender covers, let them know that. Hopefully you have selected someone who will cooperate with you.

I would hope that what you say about yourself in your application is reflected sufficiently in the recommendations that admissions is not left with the feeling that are reading about two different people. For instance, direct contradictions between your application and your recommender about your role in work or of your strengths would look odd. That is why it is important to make sure that you give your resume to your recommender and are certain that they perceive you in a manner similar to the way you perceive yourself. They don't need to tell the same stories you do in essays, but they had better be writing about the same person.

Hopefully you are selecting a recommender whose perspective on you will not be a complete contradiction. There are some situations where this occurs. For instance, female applicants sponsored by their companies might find it necessary to select a male recommender who just happens to be a sexist. In such instances, the applicant might have a guy, usually older, who wants to write about "how charming she is" and completely ignores her real talents. Sometimes, I advise such applicants to simply explain to their recommenders that such statements will not be viewed positively by an admissions committee that includes and is often directed by women. Other times, if the recommender is " a busy man" I suggest my client simply request that such unhelpful comments be eliminated. That usually solves the issue.

If, after selecting a recommender, you find that the person's version of reality is simply too far away from your own and they seem uncooperative, you might find it necessary to get a new recommender. I have advised a small number of clients to "fire" their recommender because it seemed like no other course of action was possible, but this is obviously not an ideal result.

For more about recommendations, please see Steve Green's previous post. Next year, I intend to cover recommendations in much great depth.

Questions? Write comments, but do not send me emails asking me to advise you on your application strategy unless you are interested in my consulting services. Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to. Before emailing me questions about your chances for admission or personal profile, please see my recent post on "Why I don't analyze profiles without consulting with the applicant." If you are interested in my graduate admission consulting services, please click here.
-Adam Markus
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December 13, 2008

Should I be simple or complex?

One thing that frequently arises when I work with my clients on MBA essays is the extent to which they should provide a simple or a complex portrait of themselves. My general strategy is to always say that I am greedy and therefore I want to learn as much about them as possible. Admissions committees, to a greater or lesser extent based on the questions that they ask, are trying to learn about you as a person. Tell them those best stories about you that will show you in all of your remarkable complexity. That said, the realities of page and word limits and the need to have a clear focus require some simplification.

While some schools like Columbia give very little space for the articulation of personality stories, even they are trying to find out about who you are and not merely what you have done. Your resume is a record of what you have done, the essays reveal who you are. Of course, recommendations will provide other people's perspectives on that, but until an interview takes place, the only way an admissions committee can learn about how you think about yourself, your own story, and your future is to read your essays.

Now telling stories about yourself is not an invitation to engage in mere self-indulgent confessions because good taste, discretion, and the necessity to market yourself effectively require that you exercise great judgment about what you write. That is especially why hastily written essays are so often bad. Such rushed content may have energy, but the assumption of "first thought, best thought" is often not only wrong, it is often fatal.

An effective approach to essay writing requires an initial brainstorming phase followed by reflection, revision, and some real serious consideration of overall strategy. Essays are read as a set and as part of a whole application, so it is best to see them as part of that holistic process.

I notice some applicants who think they need to continually repeat the same content from essay to essay within a single essay set. My assumption is if admissions read a story once, reading it again or reading one that is just like it in structure and theme is not likely to have much impact. Use each essay to tell focused stories that reveal a different aspect of who you are, how you think, and/or who you want to become.

Unless you are trying to create the impression that are there is little to you, presenting different aspects of who you are is important. People are complex, contradictory, imperfect and if you want to come across as a person you need to tap into that complexity. Being real, something I have heard admissions officers from such schools as Berkeley, Duke Fuqua, Stanford, Tuck, Chicago, and MIT say, is a core aspect of writing effective essays. Being real means presenting presenting different aspects of who you are.

You most certainly have to sell yourself, but do it authentically, and give admissions sufficient stories to connect to you as a person so that they decide that they want you as part of their community. These stories about your leadership, teamwork, communication skills, innovation, creativity, future vision, and accomplishments need to be in sufficient detail to have an impact on the reader. Merely sprinkling bits of detail will not be sufficient. You will need to choose between stories and can't possibly include everything.

You certainly have to think about your audience and ask what can you tell them that will most likely appeal to them? Don't do this at the expense of eliminating core positive aspects of who you are, but think strategically about what to focus on. For instance, at MIT, as I have suggested in my analysis of their behavioral questions, the ability to think and act differently depending on the kind of situation you encounter is certainly a net positive. In general, the ability to write differently and provide analysis of situations in different ways is an important way to communicate intelligence. This is something of value when applying to any school, but certainly even more so with essay questions like MIT's (or Stanford Essay C) that are specifically designed to gauge your emotional and analytical intelligence.

So back to original question: Simple or complex? Well, some of both actually. The art is all in the combination of the two and one of the core things that separates great essays from the rest.

Questions? Write comments, but do not send me emails asking me to advise you on your application strategy unless you are interested in my consulting services. Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to. Before emailing me questions about your chances for admission or personal profile, please see my recent post on "Why I don't analyze profiles without consulting with the applicant." If you are interested in my graduate admission consulting services, please click here.
-Adam Markus
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December 12, 2008

Submit a weak 2nd round MBA application or apply in 3rd round with a stronger application?

This question always comes up, so I want to provide my official answer: If your MBA application is truly weak for 2nd round and you can get it better by 3rd round, apply in the 3rd round.

Now, of course, this is a trick answer.

"Weak" is a relative term. "Weak" for HBS or Stanford might be perfectly fine for a lower ranked school. "Weak" is always in comparison to (1) other applicants, (2) the relative difficulty of admission, and (3) your potential for putting together a better application later. One person's "weak" is another person's "strong." If you are not sure if your application is weak, get the opinion of an admissions consultant or someone else who you think will provide you with a unbiased and well-informed opinion. Also, be honest with yourself and ask yourself how much of a difference it will make. If you can substantially improve your essays or your test scores, it might very well make sense to wait.

You might very well determine that your applications to your safety schools are not weak, but are weak for your preferred schools. In that case, apply to your safeties in 2nd round and to the others in 3rd round.

At this point, you might be thinking: "Adam is insane. This year is harder than ever before in the history of mankind. No one will get in 3rd round. Why I am reading his blog?" Actually, I am perfectly sane. The reason that there is a 3rd round is because there are spots to be filled. It is not easy, but applicants do get in. It is certainly not ideal, but that does not make it impossible. Especially for those applicants who have strong backgrounds, but for whatever reason, have not gotten it together in time for 2nd round, 3rd round is really an option. Even this year. We will know that 3rd round is no longer an option when schools eliminate it. Till then, it is an option.

Questions? Write comments, but do not send me emails asking me to advised you on your application strategy unless you are interested in my consulting services. Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to. Before emailing me questions about your chances for admission or personal profile, please see my recent post on "Why I don't analyze profiles without consulting with the applicant." If you are interested in my graduate admission consulting services, please click here.
-Adam Markus
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ビジネススクール カウンセリング コンサルティング MBA留学

December 11, 2008

Don't Be A Student Leader At Michigan State University

UPDATE: MSU dropped their charges!

I ask my readers to indulge me in going off-topic and being slightly political. I wanted to bring my readers attention to the fact that Michigan State University, the home of the Broad School MBA program, is no friend of student leadership according to FIRE (The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). My remarks follow the press release below:

BREAKING NEWS: Student Government Leader at Michigan State University Found Guilty of ‘Spamming’ after Criticizing Administrative Decision

December 10, 2008

FIRE Press Release

EAST LANSING, Mich., December 10, 2008A Michigan State University student government leader has been found guilty of "spamming" and misuse of university resources after she criticized the administration's plan to change the school calendar. MSU junior Kara Spencer had carefully selected and e-mailed 391 of the school's faculty members, encouraging them to express their views about the changes. Spencer, who plans to appeal her unconstitutional punishment, has turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.

"It is outrageous that MSU's Student-Faculty Judiciary would find against a student who did nothing more than write members of her community who might be concerned about a major administrative decision," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "MSU must immediately reverse this unjust punishment and revise its policy."

In late August, MSU's administration revealed to members of the Faculty Council the administration's plans to shorten the school's Academic Calendar and Fall Welcome (freshman orientation) schedules, and asked that comments about the proposed changes be submitted by September 30. Given the highly controversial nature of the changes, members of the University Committee on Student Affairs (UCSA) met and exchanged e-mails in mid-September to construct a formal response. UCSA consists of several student government members (including Spencer), several faculty members, and several MSU administrators.

On September 14, Spencer notified UCSA that she would send a personal version of the formal response to faculty members. She noted that she had "compiled a database of all faculty on campus" for this purpose. None of the faculty members or administrators involved in the discussion gave any indication that MSU would choose to repress the e-mail or charge Spencer with any breaches of policy. One of the committee members even encouraged her to proceed. On or about September 15, Spencer carefully selected 391 faculty membersroughly 8 percent of MSU's facultyand e-mailed them her version of UCSA's letter.

Spencer's e-mail argued that the proposed calendar changes "will greatly affect both faculty and students alike," and called for "an inclusive dialogue among members of the University community" prior to adoption.

On September 16, MSU Network Administrator Randall J. Hall summoned Spencer to a mandatory "investigation." The next day, Hall alleged that Spencer had violated as many as five MSU policies by sending what he called unauthorized "spam." After Spencer requested a hearing before the Student-Faculty Judiciary, FIRE wrote MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon, calling on her to end the unconstitutional investigation. MSU chose to proceed with the hearing, however, and Simon falsely claimed that the policy was acceptable because it was "content neutral."

MSU proceeded with its shameful hearing on December 2, and the Judiciary notified Spencer this afternoon that she had been found guilty of violating MSU's Network Acceptable Use Policy and of engaging in an "unauthorized" use of the MSU network. Today, Spencer was punished with a formal "Warning" placed in her student file.

MSU's "spam" policy prohibits the sending of an unsolicited e-mail to more than about 20-30 recipients over two days without prior permission.

"MSU's decision defies the First Amendment, fairness, and common sense," Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE's Individual Rights Defense Program, said. "MSU is effectively preventing the campus community from sending e-mails criticizing the administration to more than an extremely small fraction of the MSU community. The university should be ashamed, and the president should immediately overturn this illiberal finding."

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process rights, freedom of expression, and rights of conscience on our nation's campuses. FIRE's efforts to preserve liberty at Michigan State University and elsewhere can be seen by visiting www.thefire.org.

Adam Kissel, Director, Individual Rights Defense Program, FIRE: 215-717-3473; adam@thefire.org
Lou Anna K. Simon, President, Michigan State University: 517-355-6560; presmail@msu.edu

I think the idea that a student leader would find herself in such a predicament indicates that MSU has a real problem not only with free speech, but with student leadership and, by extension, lacks a commitment to leadership education. Clearly a university that punishes a student for showing initiative is not the ideal place to learn how to be a 21st century business leader.

By the way if you want to find out about which US schools take free speech seriously and which don't, visit the FIRE website and subscribe to their mailing list.
-Adam Markus
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December 05, 2008

Graduate Application Forms: All those little questions matter!

Sorry for the long hiatus. At least I can offer you something really long.

In this first post of the month, I wanted to tackle one of the most exciting parts of the parts of the graduate admissions process....


I will try to keep this post as amusing as possible. This is as much for your benefit as mine.

Just because it is rather complete, I will refer to the Wharton MBA Online Application for Fall 2009 in this post, but generally what I write here can be applied elsewhere, though obviously there are differences in the way application forms are structured. Also with some modifications, what I write here applies to other types of graduate degree applications as well.

Before we get into the application itself, I want to provide some general ground rules that apply to application forms in general:

1. Doing a weak job on an application form is sloppy and unprofessional.
It is a test of your patience and ability to collect and organize key information about yourself. Yes, it is dull, possibly annoying, and certainly not the most interesting use of one's time, but hey much of life is like that.

2. The reason admissions asks all those questions is because they take them seriously.
Given the huge number of applications that top schools need to review, you can be absolutely certain that if they ask for some information, they are doing it for a reason. By asking all applicants the same relatively well-defined questions, they have just another way to compare applicants across a broad range of criteria. Such information also serves as another form of verification.

3. Do it right the first time and you will be richly rewarded.
Quite simply fill out the first form as comprehensively as possible, copy the answers into a word document, and reuse it for subsequent schools, modifying as necessary. (You probably know this, but I will say it anyway).

4. Make a great resume first.
If you have a solid resume to begin with, doing these forms will be somewhat easier. For more about resumes, click here. If your resume seems to fail to provide a sufficient number of answers to the questions being asked about your academic, professional, and/or personal background, it is possible that you need a better resume. Use this opportunity to alter your resume.

5. Be Consistent.
There should be no contradictions between your resume, essays, and application form (Regarding recommendations, since you did not write them and have no control over their contents, minor contradictions are possible and not inherently problematic). Often when I do forensic reviews of applications that resulted in dings as a part of my consulting service, I find such contradictions. Give yourself enough time to comprehensively review everything you will be submitting.

6. Read the instructions first.
I know it seems stupid, but if you look at my earlier post on the Stanford application, you will see why it is worth doing so. Most applications will not have such traps in them, but still spend a few moments to review the instructions.

7. Do not volunteer potentially damaging information unless you have to.
As schools like Wharton employ firms like Kroll to do a background check on those they admit (especially to confirm that your recommender is actually your boss and not your secretary or your mother), I do think you should disclose anything that has a high likelihood of being discovered as part of a standard background check (Felonies, for example). What does a firm like Kroll do?

Wharton MBA admissions Director Thomas Caleel at the University of Pennsylvania admits that although they have instituted a stringent set of verification processes (which he declines to specify), along with Berkeley as well, hire an outside background verification firm, Kroll Associates, to do the work for them (details cannot be revealed, although Caleel says that Kroll Associates contracts local companies to help them navigate language and cultural barriers to verify data points), it is not always possible to catch the rule benders: “I take the subject of fraudulent applications very seriously. It’s something I personally have no tolerance for. Now in saying that, do we admit people who have ghostwritten applications? I am sure we do.” Although there is no foolproof system against fraudulent applications, Caleel claims that if and when they know for sure that the applicant has submitted a false application, dismissal is swift.

Given the recent Scoretop scandal, you can assume schools are becoming even more likely to investigate applicants. By the way, if you have weird stuff on your Facebook or MySpace or other SNS, you might want to delete it because increasingly admissions people, especially at the undergraduate level, are looking at applicant's SNS pages. Big Brother or Big Sister might be watching.

Wharton MBA Online Application Form for Fall 2009

Since you know your name and address, I will not bother with that part. I am assuming you can handle everything on your own until
"Personal Information II."

Personal Information II
While some of the information contained here is pretty self-explanatory, I would first like to address this charming question:
Have you ever been suspended from an academic institution? Well, I hope not, but if you have and admissions could determine that from reviewing your transcript, you will want to write about that in your optional essay. Of course, I don't think it is necessary to report on suspensions that occurred prior to university.

If you have ever been convicted of, or pled guilty or no contest to any felony or misdemeanor (excluding minor traffic violations) follow the link below and provide further information on a confidential basis: Wharton actually has a whole separate place to report this information. I would advise disclosure as a standard background check is likely to turn-up anything that has not been expunged from the public record, but ultimately such judgments should be made by you, possibly in consultation with legal counsel.

Family Information: Within the limited space provided give complete information. This information helps admissions understand your background. I am not sure to what extent Wharton ever factors in legacy admissions (I hope they don't, but I am not such an innocent to believe it), but obviously by asking whether you have relatives who attended Wharton or PENN more generally, they have the potential to actually do so.

Language: In general, I suggest only listing languages you actually could use, even if that the novice(level 0 out of their scale of 0-5). Listing a bunch of languages where you have a novice ranking looks pretty lame, so I would suggest keeping the novice language list to at most one language. If you studied a language in school and got a high grade, but don't remember much, the novice ranking is for you. If you took first year intensive Russian in one summer and forgot everything (My mom was right, I should have taken Spanish!), and received a weak grade (Mine was a gentleman's pass), I would not bother listing it. Be honest about your own functional ability level.

Application Source: This is marketing information for Wharton. Just answer this directly.

I think it is rather obvious why Wharton asks about this, so I will not bother covering it.
Actually, no I will cover this. Just wanted to make sure you were still paying attention.

Assuming you can count, Number of years employed should not pose much difficulties.

The next thing you are probably asking yourself is why are they asking me all this stuff that is already on my resume?
The reason is very simple, admissions wants to be able to refer to your employment history in a standardized way and they want to make sure that you specifically provide specific information in the categories they ask for. So why do they need a resume? First, they need it simply because they conduct blind interviewing. Next, a resume measures what you think is really important to know. It is a kind of self-evaluation. On the other hand, an application is what they want to know regardless of whether you think it is important or not.

I think many of the specific questions that are asked in this section are rather obvious, so I will only mention the ones that are likely to require strategy.

Job Duties
List multiple positions within this company here: Given that you have about 400 words more of less (1650 characters), obviously you might not be able to get everything you have ever done in here. Focus on the most important parts of your work and especially those aspects that you think best show your potential for your post-MBA goals. At the same time, make sure that you are not just providing accomplishments (you can do that on the resume), but also are providing an overall accounting of your duties.

How many employees do you supervise? Please explain this number briefly (i.e. direct reports, matrix organization, dotted line): Provide an honest answer to this question. If you supervise employees on a project basis state that. If the number has varied and you supervise significantly less people than in the past, you might try to indicate any such differences in your Job Duties description.

Reason for Leaving: Address this honestly and directly. If you have been let go as part of an overall cut in staff indicate that. If you were let go for reasons to do with your own performance, I don't suggest such disclosing such information (and obviously you would not want a recommender who would state that). If you were given voluntary early retirement, indicate that and the size of the package you received. If you quit because you wanted to hangout at your parent's home, drink beer, and have mom cook for you, get a life and come up with a better answer (I assume this does not apply to any of my readers, but I just wanted to make sure you were still paying attention). If you quit because you wanted to travel for a year, no problem, just make sure you write about that amazing experience elsewhere in the application.

Please upload your resume, one page only: Like many schools, Wharton only wants a single page resume, so if you have two pages or more, alter your format and prioritize your content.
Consider especially what you rather discuss in the Wharton interview when determining what to keep in your resume. If you have to cut something good, just get it into the online application.

School Information
The Wharton form is very clear about what should be completed here and there really is only one question that we need to look at: Awards. You have about 250 words for this section. You should only list academic awards here. If there is nothing here, don't make up something. Just give them the facts: Name of award, criteria for selection, and if a prize was given, what that was.

MBA Full-Time
General Information

This page has so many fun things on it!

Expected Major: Select one that is consistent with your goals and reasons for attending Wharton, except for Health Care Management, which has its unique processes, this is a totally non-binding choice. The only bad choice here is one that is not consistent with your Wharton 1 essay.

The 2000 Character Important Stuff That Really Matters:

The next five questions, all ask for lists related to your professional certifications, scholarships/awards, and extracurricular activities(during and after college). For some applicants this will be really hard to do because they have so much stuff :) to write about in one or more of these lists, but for others it will be hard because they have so little :( to mention. Whatever the case, provide honest and comprehensive information here and don't pad these sections with nonsense. You make have started playing golf, volunteering for the homeless, or studying French for last couple of months, but you should think twice before including it. Before completing this section, you should take a look at this post from the Wharton Admissions blog.

List any professional certifications you may have:
In addition to providing the name of the certification, provide the date you received it, the basis for getting it if impressive, and if it not a very popular certification, briefly explain it.

List the most significant college, university, community and professional awards, honors or scholarships you have received: Yes, there is some overlap between this section and the one found under School Information, Awards, but don't worry about it. If you have enough space list everything from both sections twice because that would be following instructions. On the other hand, if you have lots of stuff here in addition to the Awards from schools, prioritize this list and minimize the overlap.

Please list your extracurricular activities while in college, including any positions held, dates of the activity and the number of hours per week, listing your most important first: If you were involved in extracurricular activities that were a major time commitment and your grades suffered as a result, you will probably be mentioning that in the optional essay, but here you should still provide factual information that will support your claims. In addition to what Wharton specifically requests for each activity, if it is not clear what an organization is or what your role was from the title, briefly explain that. Regarding the need to prioritize this list, just think about which activities are most important to you and reveal the most about your potential and/or personality.

Please list your activities since college/university, including any positions held, the dates of the activity, and the number of hours per week, listing your most important first: Clients ask me about this one all the time. Here are the common questions and my responses:

Q: I don't have anything for this section. I work 120 hours a week and I would define sleep as my extracurricular activity. What should I do?
A: Explain that in the optional essay. It is better to explain your concerns then to have them noticed without you providing your interpretation. And as Wharton Admissions says about this issue, RELAX.

Q: You know I realized that I did not have any extracurricular activities about six months ago, so I astarted volunteering at... What do you think?

A: Sounds pretty bad to me, do you think that the highly experienced admissions officers at Wharton are naive enough to buy that? Forget it. If something commenced in 2008 and you have absolutely no prior connection to it or something like it, think twice before listing it here.

Q: What is the difference between an extracurricular activity and a hobby/interest?

A: While some extracurricular activities might classify as hobbies, the key difference is that extracurricular activities should be part of an organization.

Please describe any hobbies or related activities, not listed above, which hold special significance for you. List dates of participation and hours per week. Also explain which of these activities, hobbies or special interests you have enjoyed most and why: Here it is important to distinguish between activities that you have shown a long-term commitment to and standard forms of passive entertainment. If you are an expert of French cinema of the 1960s, it is perhaps worth mentioning, but if you like to watch movies in general, welcome to most of the human race. This section can be really good for explaining those aspects of your private life that have been sources of pleasure and interest for a significant part of your life. This section can also add some personality to your application. Just make sure you provide specific examples and don't just write something like "Enjoy cooking," but instead write about what type of cooking it is and whether you have taken any cooking classes and/or even just enjoy cooking for friends or family. By the way, if you have kids, this section is about them and you. If you have a strong religious commitment, please write about that here(as a special interest) if it does not fit above as an extracurricular activity.

If you have worked outside of your home country, please name the country or countries and duration: This final question is straightforward. Even if the work duration was small, but significant, mention it. No, junkets to Bermuda for a conference don't count.

Well, I am sorry that this is over. And no, I will not be doing this for other application forms anytime soon.

By the way, unless you are one of my clients, PLEASE DO NOT EMAIL ME QUESTIONS ABOUT APPLICATION FORMS. I simply don't have time to respond. You are free to write comments on this blog, which I will review. I may or may not answer the questions, but will post anything that is not spam or selling something. If you are interested in my graduate admission consulting services, please click here.
-Adam Markus
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