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July 30, 2009

Columbia Business School September Term 2010 Essays

In this post I discuss the essay questions for admission to the Columbia School of Business September (Early and Regular Decision) 2010 MBA. Finally, don't forget to read my concluding remarks.

You can find my detailed discussion of Early versus Regular Decision here. While I worked with two clients who were admitted for Fall 2009 in the Regular Decision Round, applying Early Decision is still ideal for anyone who considers Columbia to be their first choice and is ready by the application deadline. Columbia takes Early Decision very seriously, so I suggest you do as well.

The Columbia essay set is rather small as we will see. It most certainly emphasizes why CBS best fits your goals (Essay 1), learning based on a practical experience (Essay 2), and learning from team failure (Essay 3). This is not an essay set that emphasizes personality.

The questions have not changed for September 2010, so those who have read my post on January 2010, will only find small differences (updated links, J-term specific content removed) in what follows. I have taken the September 2010 questions from the online application:

1. What are your short-term and long-term post-MBA goals? How will Columbia Business School help you achieve these goals? (Recommended 750 word limit)

Over the years, Columbia has been very consistent in the way they ask this question. At first glance, it does seem pretty straightforward and common, but if you have looked at other schools' essays, you will likely notice that something is missing from it. Compare it to Kellogg and you will see that there is no reference to the past. While one must certainly address one's past when answering this question, there should be no extended analysis of your career progress to date and you need not emphasize how your past experience will contribute to your future goals. Instead focus this essay on showing how Columbia will help you achieve your goals.

The resources available at CBS and Columbia University are vast, so figure out specifically what you want from the school. The program is flexible, so identify your needs from Columbia as specifically as possible. Also keep in mind that CBS recently changed its core curriculum. After all, you want to show them you love and need them For learning about what is hot at Columbia, I suggest taking a look at their blog: Public Offering. Also look at Hermes which provides news on the Columbia community. You may also want to write about taking a Master Class, so see the next question. Japanese applicants should most certainly visit http://columbiamba.jimdo.com/index.php.

Making a clear case why your goals are best achieved at CBS should be at the core of the essay. To make sure that they can see that, be very specific about what you need to learn at CBS to achieve your goals. I suggest reviewing some of the full course descriptions that you can find on their website.

If you are having problems clearly articulating your goals,
I suggest using my GAP, SWOT, AND ROI TABLE FOR FORMULATING GRADUATE DEGREE GOALS f (see below). I think Gap, SWOT, and ROI analysis are great ways for understanding what your goals are, why you want a degree, and how you will use it. (Click here for a GMAC report on MBA ROI. )

(To best view the following table, click on it. For a word version, please email me at adammarkus@gmail.com)

How to use this table:

Step 1.
Begin by analyzing your "Present Situation." What job(s) have you held? What was/is your functional role(s)? What was/are your responsibilities?

Next, analyze your present strengths and weaknesses for succeeding in your present career. REMEMBER:WHEN YOU ARE THINKING ABOUT YOUR STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESS DON'T ONLY THINK ABOUT WORK, THINK ABOUT OTHER ASPECTS OF YOUR LIFE. In particular, some of your greatest strengths may have been demonstrated outside of work, so make sure you are accounting for them.
Strengths: What are you good at? Where do you add value? What are you praised for? What are you proud of?
Weakness: What are you bad at? What are you criticized for? What do you try to avoid due to your own limitations? What do you fear?

, analyze the environment you work in right now. What opportunities exist for your growth and success? What threats could limit your career growth?

Step 2.
Now, do the same thing in Step 1 for your "Post-Degree" future after you have earned your graduate degree. IF YOU CANNOT COMPLETE STEP 2, YOU HAVE NOT SUFFICIENTLY PLANNED FOR YOUR FUTURE and therefore you need to do more research and need to think more about it.

Step 3.
If you could complete step 2, than you should see the "Gap" between your present and your future. What skills, knowledge, and other resources do you need to close the gap between your present and future responsibilities, strengths, and opportunities?

Step 4. After completing Step 3, you now need to determine how an MBA will add value to you. It is possible that an increased salary as a result of job change will be sufficient "ROI" for the degree to justify itself, but you should show how a degree will allow you to reach your career goals. How will the degree enhance your skills and opportunities and help you overcome your weaknesses and external threats? If you can complete Step 4 than you should be ready to explain what your goals are, why you want a degree, and the relationship between your past and future career, as well as your strengths and weaknesses.

The above table will also help you answer such common interview questions as: Where do you want to work after you finish your degree? Why do you want an MBA (or other degree)? What are you strengths? What are your weaknesses? What are your goals? Thinking about these issues now will help you to develop a fully worked-out strategy for how you will best present yourself both in the application and in an interview.

Making career goals exciting requires thinking about whether your goals are compelling. Admissions committees ask applicants to write about their goals after graduate school, but can applicants actually know what will be on the cutting-edge in two or three years? While many applicants will be able to successfully apply with relatively standard goals ("I want to be a consultant because..."), communicating aspirations requires going beyond the typical.

Be informed. Columbia Admissions needs to believe you know what you are talking about. If you are changing careers, no one expects you to be an expert, but you should come across as having a clear plan based on real research into your future. If you are planning on staying in your present industry, you should be well informed not only about the companies you have worked for, but about the industry as a whole. If you are not already doing so, read industry related publications and network.

Those who are changing fields should most certainly read industry related publications in their intended field. Additionally I suggest conducting informational interviews with at least one peer level and one senior level person in that field. Conduct a peer level interview to get a good idea of what it would be like to actually work in that industry. Conduct a senior level interview to get the perspective of someone who can see the big picture and all the little details as well.

Don't know anyone in your intended field? Network! One great way to start is through LinkedIn. Another is by making use of your undergraduate alumni network and/or career center.

No matter whether you are changing fields or not, learn what is hot now and try to figure out what will be hot by the time you graduate. Now, of course, this is just a plan and chances are that what is hot in your industry or field now may very well be cold in the future. The point is to come across to Columbia Adcom as someone who is not only well informed, but has CUTTING-EDGE knowledge. In addition to Columbia's
Public Offering blog, also look at ideas@work, and The Chazen Web Journal of International Business. Some other great general sources for learning what is hot: Harvard Working Knowledge, Harvard Business Review, University of Chicago GSB's Working Papers, The University of Chicago's Capital Ideas, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Knowledge @ Wharton, and MIT Sloan Management Review.

You may also want to do a search on itunes for podcasts: My favorites are Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders (from the Stanford School of Engineering, but totally relevant) Net Impact, Chicago GSB Podcast Series, and Harvard Business IdeaCast. INSEAD, IMD, LBS, and Wharton also have podcasts.

LinkedIn Answers: Also consider joining LinkedIn and make use of LinkedIn Answers. LinkedIn Answers is a great way to tap into cutting edge expertise (including my admissions advice!). Follow LinkedIn's rules and you will often be able to obtain excellent information.

Hoovers: For information about specific companies, Hoovers is just a great way to learn about key facts including competitors (a very useful way of knowing who else you might want to work for and to learn about an industry). While primarily focused on the US, Hoovers does have listings for companies worldwide.

Vault: For scope of coverage, this site is a must. Vault includes both career and admissions information. It includes both company specific and industry-wide information.

Other sources: Read magazines, websites, and books that relate to your intended field.

2. Master Classes are the epitome of bridging the gap between theory and practice at Columbia Business School. View link below. Please provide an example from your own life in which practical experience taught you more than theory alone. (Recommended 500 word limit)

Before doing anything, watch the Master Class video. If, at the end of the video, you are not highly motivated by what you have seen, don't apply to Columbia and reconsider whether you really want an MBA. From my perspective, the video does an excellent job of selling Columbia, of differentiating it from other top schools (see the HBS Case Study video for an interesting contrast), and of informing the viewer about exactly what practice is. The message is clear: Columbia will teach you how to do business, go elsewhere (HBS for case studies and Chicago GSB for lectures, perhaps) if you primarily want to just learn business theory.

At first glance, some might find this essay question difficult, but actually it is rather simple:
1. Pick an experience in your own life where you learned more from practice than theory.
2. State what the theory was.
3. Show how practice was a better teacher.
4. Describe what you learned.
5. Describe the outcome. This is not stated, but the proof of practice is in the result.
6. Keep in mind that you do not need to talk about the video or the Master Classes when answering this question. It is, of course, worth mentioning the Master Classes in Essay 1. You can view the Master Class Course Descriptions on the Columbia website.

Given that essay three is about team failure, I suggest you select an accomplishment for essay two and not a team story. It might be personal or professional. Obviously it should only be academic if the point is to show how you had to go beyond theory. Many applicants will probably write on a professional accomplishment story where they had to think and act outside of the box. This is quite a reasonable choice. Some applicants might write on something personal and it is possible for this topic to work but if that is the case, then you should be sure that what you learned and what the story reveals about you are both very significant.

3. Please provide an example of a team failure of which you've been a part. If given a second chance, what would you do differently? (Recommended 500 word limit)

This question combines two common topics- failure and teams.

I think the reason that business schools ask about failure is because they want to see that you have the ability to learn from errors and/or problems.
Some readers will find reviewing my analysis of Wharton's failure question helpful.

Clearly, teams play an important role both in most professionals lives and at most business schools. Assessing your potential as a team leader and a team player is an important way for admissions to determine whether you will fit in their program and have the kind of predisposition to succeed professionally afterwords. It is quite a change for Columbia to be asking about teamwork ability per se, but as you look at Columbia's curriculum you will see that teamwork plays an important part in the classroom.

I think it is important that we read what is written here very closely as it will help you see that there are multiple correct ways to answer this question.

First, keep in mind that you may not necessarily have been the cause of the failure because it just simply says you are a part of a team that failed. Therefore the team will be one where you are the team leader or a team member.

Second, given that they are asking specifically about a team failure, your failure should be one where the team itself was at fault. This might seem like an obvious point, but many weak answers to this question will focus on a failure and then focus on the team as at best a secondary consideration. Make sure that your essay is one where the team aspect of the story is strong.

Third, the team could be a failure in one of two ways. One option is that the team could simply have failed to complete its external objectives due to a problem or problems relating to the composition, actions, and/or dynamics of the team itself. For example, a team fails to create a new business model due to the fact that the team leader cannot effectively manage the diverse perspectives of her team members. Another is that the team could have succeeded at its external objectives, but you might perceive it as failure due to a problem with the team. For instance, you successfully led a team to complete a project, but by the end of the project, the team members complain that you did not effectively share project responsibilities. In either case, the basic structure for this essay would most likely be:

1. Clearly state what kind of team you were on.
2. Clearly state your role on the team.
3. Explain how the team failed.
4. Explain what you learned from the failure.
5. Explain what you would do differently if you were in the same situation.

Fourth, when you think about what you learned and what you would do differently think deeply about it because you will be revealing the depth of your thinking (perhaps your EQ) about teams. Assume that the reason Columbia is asking this question is because they are looking for more students who will be effective team leaders and team players.

4. (Optional) Is there any further information that you wish to provide to the Admissions Committee? (Please use this space to provide an explanation of any areas of concern in your academic record or your personal history.)

As with other school's optional questions, do not put an obvious essay for another school here. If you read the above, it should be clear enough that this is the place to explain anything negative or potentially negative in your background. If you have no explanation for something negative, don't bother writing about it. For example if your GPA is 2.9 and you have no good explanation for why it is 2.9, don't bother writing something that looks like a lame excuse. This is more likely to hurt than help you. In the same vein, don't waste the committee's time telling them that your GMAT is a much better indicator than your GPA (the opposite is also true). They have heard it before and they will look at both scores and can draw their own conclusions without you stating the obvious. That said, if you have a good explanation for a bad GPA, you should most certainly write about it.
You can certainly write on something positive here if you think its omission will be negative for you, but before you do, ask yourself these questions:
1. If they did not ask it, do they really need to know it?
2. Will the topic I want to discuss significantly improve my overall essay set?
3. Is the topic one that would not be covered from looking at other parts of my application?
4. Is the essay likely to be read as being a specific answer for Columbia and not an obvious essay for another school?

If you can answer "Yes!" to all four questions, it might be a good topic to write about, but my suggestion is to keep it brief so as to be consistent with the length for the other essays, ideally around 100-500 words.

Reapplication Essay
How have you enhanced your candidacy since your previous application? Please detail your progress since you last applied and reiterate your short-term and long-term goals. Explain how the tools of the Columbia MBA will help you to meet your goals and how you plan to participate in the Columbia community . (Recommended 750 word limit).

The period of Reapplication at Columbia is rather limited, 12 months from the time of the initial application. If apply to Columbia more than 12 months after an initial application, you should apply as a new applicant. Columbia's Reapplication Checklist can be found here. I You will not be able to submit new answers to essays 1-3, but will have to use only the reapplicant essay.

When judging reapplicants Columbia makes it perfectly clear what they are expecting. See here for their criteria.

Clearly this essay gives you the opportunity to:
1. Showcase what has changed since your last application that now makes you a better candidate.
2. Refine your goals. I think it is reasonable that they may have altered since your last application, but if the change is extreme, you had better explain why.
3. Make a better case for why Columbia is right for you.
For more about reapplication, please see here.

CONCLUSION: Columbia Loves to Be Loved
One thing that is consistent about Columbia Business School is that they want to know that there school is your first choice. If you have an alumni interview you can be expected to be asked about that very directly. See here for my advice on Columbia interviews.

If you have not yet done significant Columbia related networking, you had better do so. See my earlier post on the value of networking here.

Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at adammarkus@gmail.com. Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to.
If you are looking for a highly experienced admissions consultant who is passionate about helping his clients succeed, please feel free to contact me at adammarkus@gmail.com to arrange an initial consultation. To learn more about my services, see here. Initial consultations are conducted by Skype or telephone. For clients in Tokyo, a free face-to-face consultation is possible after an initial Skype or telephone consultation. I only work with a limited number of clients per year and believe that an initial consultation is the best way to determine whether there is a good fit. Whether you use my service or another, I suggest making certain that the fit feels right to you.

-Adam Markus
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