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June 15, 2010

Stanford GSB MBA Essay 3 for 2010/2011

This is the forth of five posts analyzing the Stanford GSB MBA Essay Questions for 2010/2011 Admission. The first post provides an overall perspective on applying to Stanford GSB. The second post is on Essay 1. The third post is on Essay 2.  The fifth post is on additional information, resume, employment history, and activities. My analysis of Stanford GSB interviews can be found here.

Four years ago, Stanford introduced behavioral interview-style essay questions. Stanford applicants now have the opportunity to write about their accomplishments, failures, difficulties, impact, and other characteristics. This has made the Stanford Essay Set a more balanced set of questions. If Essay 1 is ultimately about what you value and Essay 2 is about what you want, Essay 3 is about what you can do.

When Stanford GSB started asking behavioral essay questions, it was clear that they had borrowed this from MIT. This distinctive style of question 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 Stanford ask have their origins in behavioral interviewing. This method is not old (well, at least for me, since I was born in 1968):
“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 Stanford's 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.

Before looking at the specific questions, lets look at the instructions:

Essay 3: Answer two of the four questions below. Tell us not only what you did but also how you did it. What was the outcome? How did people respond? Only describe experiences that have occurred during the last three years.

Stanford GSB specifically requires that these experiences come from the last three years. This time constraint is important to keep in mind. One of the easiest ways to trash your application is to ignore this time limit. Essay 3 is the space to focus on the present or recent past.

I will analyze one question at a time, but four things to keep in mind are:

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.

4. All four options below allow for great variation and the most important thing is to tell the best stories you can:
We all have important stories to tell. We want to share moments when we have achieved great things or helped to shape the world around us. Essay C [Essay 3] lists four potential questions (or prompts) to help you identify which are the two most important stories you have to tell us. The prompts themselves are not as important as the stories that they bring to the surface.

  • Option A: Tell us about a time when you built or developed a team whose performance exceeded expectations.
  • Option B: Tell us about a time when you made a lasting impact on your organization.
  • Option C: Tell us about a time when you generated support from others for an idea or initiative.
  • Option D: Tell us about a time when you went beyond what was defined, established, or expected.

One thing that is common to all four is that you must tell stories that show how you had an impact. Keep in mind what Derrick Bolton has written about this question:
Unlike the two previous essays, in which you are asked to write about your life from a more “global" perspective, these questions ask you to reflect on a specific recent (within the last three years) experience that has made a difference to you and/or the people around you. The best answers will transport us to that moment in time by painting a vivid picture not only of what you did, but also of how you did it. Include details about what you thought and felt during that time and your perceptions about how others responded. From these short-answer responses, we visualize you "in action.

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.

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 Stanford interview.

Specific Comments about each option:

Option A: Tell us about a time when you built or developed a team whose performance exceeded expectations.
Given the word limit here, you really need to be focused on your most important action steps. I also suggest you don't just simply a tell story with the following structure: "I led a team of X people. I told them what needed to be done and they agreed. They did it. The result was..." Not only will this be boring, but it will not really highlight why this story best demonstrates your team leadership skills. It will also fail to answer the last part of the question: You need to show how the team went beyond what was expected. Don't be overly dramatic, but get admissions to understand the significance of what you have done. Don’t feel obligated to provide a work related answer to this question even though you may have developed such an answer for another school. Three questions to think about:
1. What skills or qualities did you demonstrate in the process of building or developing the team?
2. What does this story reveal about the way you interact with organizations and/or individuals?
3. Specifically how did your team exceed expectations? If this is measurable, indicate that as clearly as possible.

Option B: Tell us about a time when you made a lasting impact on your organization.
Leaving a lasting organizational legacy is another way that leaders have impact. If you think something you have done in the last three years will have a lasting impact on your organization, this is a great topic. Clearly indicate what that impact is and how you achieved it. I think it is particularly important to be very clear on why you think the impact you had will become your organizational legacy.

The one difficulty here is that the three-year limit on the topic means that the impact in question will actually not have been in place for very long. I think this is actually a poorly designed question in that regard. I think it could easily become a trap for those trying to fit an older story into the framework. It will no doubt frustrate those who ignore the three-year limit when they begin writing.

If you have the right story this can be a great question to answer.

Option C:  Tell us about a time when you generated support from others for an idea or initiative.

This question has changed from last year's "Tell us about a time when you motivated others to support your vision or initiative." Generating support is a bit wider than just motivating others.  The rewording actually broadens the question.  Unlike Option A, this need not be focused on a team. It is quite possible that the others you  who supported your idea or initiative don't report to you: Colleagues, supervisors, clients, and customers are all possibilities. I imagine this one will be very popular with consultants, analysts, and anyone who leads by their ideas. It is also a great question for those who lead by example. It also an effective for question for those who use strategy to convince others.  You might generate support through negotiating tactics.  You generate support through personal communication that really does motivate someone.  Or you might generate support through eliminating opposition to your position.

Option D:
Tell us about a time when you went beyond what was defined, established, or expected.

This question remains unmodified from last year. Actually, I have to say that I love this question. Going beyond something defined, established, or expected may involve breaking the rules. Stanford GSB is place for those who are not traditional and are flexible in their thinking. If you are a maverick, a risk-taker, or simply unconventional in your approach to adding value, this essay option is for you. Show how you alter the very rules of something that you have been a part of and have a positive impact as a result.

Behavioral questions are not necessarily harder than other types of questions, but they do have their own underlying logic: Past behavior is a guide to future behavior. Keep that in mind, so that Stanford GSB sees what you want them to see and believes in your future potential.

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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