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

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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