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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 30, 2010

MIT Sloan MBA Essays for Fall 2011 Admission

I had the pleasure of working with six clients from six different countries who were admitted to MIT Sloan for Fall 2010. This was by far my best year ever for MIT.  I lucked out as I had the great opportunity to work with some incredibly smart and thoughtful people who also had all demonstrated high levels of leadership in their professional and/or extracurricular endeavors.   You can read testimonials from some of them here.  Based on their results, I have not felt much reason to change much of my analysis from last year, except for some edits and the analysis of the one new essay question, the topic of Essay 2.

Before analyzing MIT Sloan School of Management MBA Essays for Fall 2011, I think it is important to take a look at MIT Sloan's core values:

Mind and Hand

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). For those interested in the LGO Program, I suggest taking a look at this blog by a member of the Class of 2012.

If you are able to, I suggest visiting campus or attending a Sloan-on-the-Road event. 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 website.
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.

Keep in mind that great cover letters result in job interviews. The purpose of a cover letter is accompany a resume.  In MIT's case the cover letter does not only accompany the resume (Limited to 1 page and 50 lines), but the whole MBA application.   Still assume the point of this cover is to get you an interview!  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:

If you have attended Sloan-on-the-Road event 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 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 real goals. Just as long they are comfortable with their goals as one possible future and can be convincing both on paper and in an interview, 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 often 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. 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 provide Rod Garcia and his colleagues with a better understanding about what kind of person you are?

In the process of answering these questions, you need to briefly tell a story about you had impact on a group or organization. My suggestion is to use that story as way of expressing something very important about you in terms of your values and fit for MIT Sloan. I would not suggest making this example, the principle topic of the cover letter, it is just one topic. The words "include an example" clearly indicate that this is just topic that you should address in your cover letter.

These topics are not easy to get into 500 words, so you really need to think very carefully about the most important things you want Rod and his colleagues to know about you.

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

The behavioral essay questions that MIT (and now Stanford) ask have their origins in behavioral interviewing. This method is not old:

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

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

• 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 all three 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 1-3, 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.

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 describe a time when you went beyond what was defined, expected, established, or popular. (500 words or less, limited to one page)

This question is almost the same as Stanford Essay 3 Option D. The only difference is that MIT includes the word "popular" and Stanford does not. Actually, I have to say that I love this question. Going beyond something defined, expected, established, or popular may involve breaking the rules. Both MIT and Stanford are places 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. Leadership is often tested most profoundly in situations where one has to go against "common sense," organizational tradition, and/or the interests of others. In one way or another show how you possess the courage to act in the face of opposition.

Essay 2: Please describe a time when you convinced an individual or group to accept one of your ideas. (500 words or fewer, limited to one page)
This is the only question that changed in this year's application. It is quite similar to Stanford Essay 3 Option C.  Compared to last year's question on mentoring someone, this is a rather open-ended topic.  I also consider it very close to the heart of MIT as the subject matter really is about a very practical aspect of ideas: Convincing others to take yours seriously.  The idea might be large or small, those who are convinced might be an individual or a group.  A group might be a team, it might be a client, it might be your friends, it might be senior management of your organization. What you want to do is explain what the idea was and then how you convinced the individual or group to accept it.
Provide a simple, clear, and concise explanation of the idea. Keep in mind that discussing the idea in too much detail is likely to interfere with focusing on the key point: Your ability to convince others about an idea.  Focus on the methods you use:  Did you convince others based solely on logic?  Did you appeal to them emotionally? KEY QUESTION TO ASK YOURSELF: Why was it hard to convince them?  If it was not hard to convince them, this essay will likely be very ineffective because it will be a poor test of your ability to convince other people.
Essay 3: Please describe a time when you took responsibility for achieving an objective. (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 responsibility that is great. Simply state why you took responsibility. Focus on the execution of the objective, 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 objective. Make sure that you clearly state the result. An effective answer here will most likely be about an objective that has been effectively executed and has clear results.

One issue that will arise here is the meaning of the words "
when you took responsibility" as this clearly indicates that someone actively wanted the responsibility in question and was not merely given it. Good workers are given responsibility all the time, but leaders take responsibility. If you are given a responsibility, you are merely carrying out someone's orders. If you take responsibility, you are showing initiative. I suggest you make sure that you are showing initiative and not merely a good worker doing a job someone has assigned to you. 

Supplemental Information
You may use this section to address whatever else you want the Admissions Committee to know. (250 words or less, limited to one page)
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. Unless absolutely necessary, you should avoid using all of this space to discuss something negative. 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.

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 is safe to assume that receives many applications from those with limited English speaking and listening skills since 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 105 and a 25 in each section should submit their TOEFL score. While such a submission is optional, I think it can only help you.

MIT accepts both tests.  The disadvantage of taking GRE is that MIT does not use ETS's official concordance table and does not seem to have an actual guide for what constitutes a good GRE score.  I asked about this subject at the Tokyo Event in August 2010 and got the impression that they fully accept and are in no way biased against those who take GRE, but was told that there is no concordance table, so it is really clear what sort of GRE score they want, aside from the obvious- a high one!

My analysis of MIT interviews can be found 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 interested in my admissions consulting services, please see here.
-Adam Markus
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