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

June 28, 2011

Columbia Business School Essays for January and August 2012 Admission

Columbia Business School has again changed their essay set.  This year, applicants applying for 2012 admission will need to write three essays and answer one short question.

You can find testimonials from my clients admitted for CBS here (including one client admitted for J-Term 2012!).
Before discussing the essays, I will discuss who J-Term is for and differences between Early and Regular Decision.

The Accelerated MBA, J-Term, can be great program for those who don't need an internship. All my admitted J-term clients have one thing in common: Real clarity about their goals and strong track records in their professions.  J-term is not for career changers, it is those looking to enhance their position within their present career trajectory and/or entrepreneurs. It is critical that you explain why the January Term program is right for you. According to the Columbia website:
The Accelerated MBA is ideal for you if
  • you are an entrepreneur;
  • you want to join your family business;
  • you plan to return to your current employer;
  • you are sponsored by your company;
  • you want to remain in the same industry;
  • you have built a strong professional network in the industry of your choice.
The program is designed for those students who do not want or need an internship. The principal advantage of the 16-month program is its accelerated format, which allows members of the smaller January class to network quickly and effectively and return to the workplace sooner.
Obviously you need to make the case in Essay 1 (The Goals/Why Columbia? Essay) that you meet the special criteria for this program and that an internship is not something critical for you. For those who don't need an internship, this is really a great program.  

Applying for Early Decision is 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. CBS ED really is unique among top MBA programs and the decision to commit to it should not be taken lightly. For my most complete discussion of this issue, please an earlier post, which I will update some year.  If you decide to apply for Regular Decision, it is in your interest to apply as early as you can because like the best Broadway Shows, the seats will fill up early.

Given significant changes to the questions, I have again had to rethink some of the strategies I used successfully with clients who were admitted in 2009, 2010, and 2011.  You find testimonials from some of them here.  

All questions are taken from the online application.

SHORT, BUT CRITICAL QUESTION ON GOALS: What is your post-MBA professional goal? (200 characters)
Take this very short statement seriously.    While some schools have included such statements as a part of the application, it is not usually the case that such a short statement would be included among the essays.

Remember this is 200 Characters, not words.  This would be about 40-50 words.

CBS actually provides examples of possible responses in the online application Essay page:

Example 1: “After my MBA I want to build my expertise in the energy sector and learn more about strategy and decision making by joining a consulting firm specializing in renewable energy and power companies.”

Example 2: “After my MBA I hope to work in business development for a media company that is expanding its market share in Asia.”

Example 3: “My short term goal is to work with an investment firm that utilizes public private partnerships to invest in community development projects.”

As you can see from the above examples, CBS is looking for a short, but a very clear statement of what you intend to do after your MBA.  If you have difficulty explaining your immediate post-MBA plans in the space given, I think that is likely an indication that your plans are too complex.  Think of this has the briefest possible elevator pitch (see below for more about elevator pitches) you will make for yourself.  Obviously what you state here should be backed up by what you discuss in Essay 1 (or the reapplicant essay for reapplicants).

I think it is best to conceptualize this as an extended elevator pitch because 750 words is too long to be deliver in 1-2 minutes, but could be delivered in 5 minutes.  Your job is to convince admissions that your goals fit what Columbia offers.

Considering your post-MBA and long term professional goals, why you are pursuing an MBA at this point in your career? Additionally, why is Columbia Business School a good fit for you? (Maximum 750 words)
This a somewhat revised version of Columbia’s standard question.  The big change is that this year, Columbia is specifically asking why now in reference to your present career.  As result, you will need to explain “Why an MBA now?” in relationship to the work you have done so far.  The balance of this question is still focused on the future so don’t let your explanation of your past experience crowd out answering the primary parts of this question: Your goals and fit for Columbia. CAUTION: DO NOT OVER-FOCUS ON YOUR EXPERIENCE HERE, I AM SUGGESTING YOU DISCUSS SUCH EXPERIENCES ONLY IN THE CONTEXT OF AN ARGUMENT ABOUT  WHY YOU NEED AN MBA AT THIS STAGE OF YOUR CAREER.

WHY COLUMBIA? 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 will likely want to write about taking a Master Class. Japanese applicants should most certainly visit http://columbiamba.jimdo.com/index.php.

October 13, 2011 Update:  Also see http://adam-markus.blogspot.com/2011/10/why-choose-columbia-business-school.html for why Columbia students love Columbia.

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 GapSWOT, 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.)

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 August ED and RD applicants 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 BusinessSome other great general sources for learning what is hot: Harvard Working KnowledgeHarvard Business ReviewUniversity of Chicago GSB's Working PapersThe University of Chicago's Capital IdeasStanford Social Innovation ReviewKnowledge @ 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 ImpactChicago 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.

Describe a life experience that has shaped you. The goal of this essay is to get a sense of who you are, rather than what you have achieved professionally. (Maximum 500 words)
This a significant modification from the personality question that was asked last year.  The one constant is that CBS is looking to learn about you as person rather than to have a professional accomplishment essay.

Bad answers to this question will likely to do the following:

  1. Focus too much on action and context and not enough on providing an interpretation of who you are.
  2. Focus on a professional accomplishment.
  3. Focus on an important life experience that does not really have any clear selling points about who you are.

I mention the above because I view these as typical problems I see with ineffective answers to this type of question.

An Experience which has shaped you: UCLA has actually been asking about such topics for many years. What is nice about the CBS version is that it is rather open ended.  Some possibilities that I can suggest:

  1. A critical academic experience that determined your career direction.
  2. Overcoming an obstacle that improved your leadership, teamwork, communication, or other MBA-program and/or career goal relevant skill(s).
  3. An experience that taught you very important life lessons that you have applied.
  4. An experience that has played a critical role in the decisions you have made in your life.
My suggestion that you try to come up with at least a few options before focusing on one personal story.  Some questions to ask yourself:
  1. Is the story one that is so obvious from other aspects of my application that much of it is redundant?  If so, you need another topic.
  2. Is the story one that might actually say something negative about me?  If so, you need to either modify the story or find a different one.
  3. Is the story one that helps CBS see why I have the characteristics of someone who can succeed academically and/or professionally?  If not, you really need to think whether the story is worth telling CBS.

Essay 3 is completely new for this year. You have to pick one of three options. Each option is quite different. While all three are only 250 words long, you may easily spend much more time writing this essay than Essays 1 or 2. Especially Options A and B are likely to require significant thinking and research. The only option that I recommend for those with very limited time is Option C as it will likely require significantly less to conceptualize and/or research than Options A and B.
The annual A. Lorne Weil Outrageous Business Plan Competition is a student initiative managed and run by the Columbia Entrepreneurs Organization (CEO). The competition encourages Columbia MBA students to explore creative entrepreneurial ideas that are sufficiently ambitious in scope and scale to be considered "outrageous." Students explore these ideas while learning firsthand what goes into the development and presentation of a solid business proposal. Develop your own "outrageous" business idea. In essay form, compose your "elevator pitch." (Maximum 250 words)

While I think this question really is mainly for those who have entrepreneurial objectives, it could also be used by those who want to highlight their creativity.   I think anyone whose stated goals to CBS are entrepreneurial has a real obligation to write on this topic.  For everyone else, it is just an option that should be exercised if you have a good idea.

I think it is a very good idea to look at the winners of the Weil Competition to get a sense of what Columbia perceives as outrageous in order to realize the following:

1. You should actually be coming up with something that is practical in terms of its implementation, not something so outrageous as to be absurd.
2. The winners of this prize have been actual scalable businesses that serve a real need. Some are very standard in terms of their function, such as retail products, while others serve more of a social entrepreneurial purpose.
3. They might be rather niche products or services, but alternatively (like 2011's 1st Place winner, PoWaSol) have the possibility of serving a very number of consumers.
4. To get a sense of what kind of elevator pitch is actually used, I suggest watching some of them on Youtube. I watched 2011 1st Prize winner Srikanth Nimmagadda's pitch for PoWaSol and 2011 2nd Prize winner Andres Small ’12 and Alex Nobel's pitch for Flipper (I WANT ONE!).
While you should not drive yourself crazy making sure no one has ever come up with your idea before, please try to make sure that are not reinventing some obvious wheel: Google is your friend!

SELLING YOUR POTENTIAL CONTRIBUTION TO THE CBS COMMUNITY: Option B: Columbia deeply values its vibrant student community, the building of which begins at orientation when admitted students are assigned to clusters of 65 to 70 fellow students who take most of the first-year core classes together. During the first weeks of school, each cluster selects a Cluster Chair. Further strengthening the student community are the nearly 100 active student organizations at Columbia Business School, ranging from cultural to professional to community service-oriented. Leadership positions within the cluster and/or clubs offer hands-on management and networking opportunities for students as they interact with fellow students, administrators, faculty members, alumni, and practitioners.
You are running for either Cluster Chair or a club leadership position of your choosing. Compose your campaign speech. (Maximum 250 words)

Just as in Option A, you are being tested on your ability to effectively sell something to someone in a very limited amount of space. Instead of selling a business plan, you are now selling your potential to contribute as Cluster Chair or as a club leader.

London Business School has for years been asking applicants to explain how they would specifically contribute to particular clubs and activities, but CBS is taking that a bit further in as much as you actually have to write an actual speech designed to convince your fellow students.  A successful answer here will do the following:

  1. Demonstrate your knowledge of what a Cluster Chair does or of the specific club you are interested in. Therefore, to successfully write an answer to this question, you actually need to know quite a lot about being a Cluster Chair or the club you are interested in. Beyond reviewing the CBS website, I strongly recommend making contact with current students or recent graduates (See Essay 1 for links to CBS resources).  In particular, if you are interested in a club, you should make a specific attempt to learn about that club.  Gold stars will go to those who are not shy and get actual information from students.  
  2. Show clearly why you are the right woman or man for the job. Your selling points, whether based on past experience, personality, or particular skills should be clear.
  3. Show clearly what you would do if you held the position. It is not enough to say elect me, explain what you agenda would be.
  4. Communicate this in a compelling fashion.  You are making speech to get elected, so you need to engage your audience and convince them.  
  5. After you have written your speech, actually deliver it in order to revise it.

A GIFT: Option C: Founded nearly three decades ago, the Executives in Residence Program at Columbia Business School integrates senior executives into the life of the School. Current executives in residence include more than a dozen experts in areas ranging from media and investment banking to private equity and management. A hallmark of the program is one-on-one counseling sessions in which executives advise students about their prospective career choices.
Select one of the current executives in residence with whom you would like to meet during your time at Columbia. Explain your selection and tell us how you would best utilize your half hour one-on-one session. (Maximum 250 words)

ANYONE CAN ANSWER THIS QUESTION! Unlike Options A&;B, which I would consider to be hard, Option C is much easier to write.  I am betting that CBS gets more Option C answers than Option A or B answers.  A good answer would do the following:

  1. Show you understand enough about a particular executive in residence to select him or her. The question above includes program links. You should read the bios of each executive to select who best meets your needs.
  2. Align with your career goals and reasons for pursuing an MBA.  I think this might be too obvious to state, but I am doing it anyway.  You should be able to justify why a particular executive in residence would best meet your needs.
  3. Explain what you would hope to learn.
I call this a gift, not only because it is a relatively easy question to answer, but because you are being presented with a great opportunity. The opportunity to speak a senior industry professional might very be the best half hour of your CBS experience. How will you make the make most of it?

ANY CONCERNS?: Optional Essay
Is there any further information that you wish to provide the Admissions Committee? Please use this space to provide an explanation of any areas of concern in your academic record or your personal history. (Maximum 500 words)

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.

The online instructions: Reapplicants: If you have applied to Columbia Business School within the past year, you are required to answer the "What is your post-MBA professional goal? " question and submit the reapplication essay. If your last application was more than one year ago, you must answer Essays 1, 2 and 3.

REAPPLICATION ESSAY: How have you enhanced your candidacy since your previous application? Please detail your progress since you last applied, reiterate your post-MBA and long-term professional goals, and address why Columbia Business School is a good fit for you. (Maximum 750 words).
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. 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 my many posts on 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 their 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.

-Adam Markus
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If you would like to arrange an initial consultation for my counseling services, please complete my intake form, which is publicly available on google docs hereand then send your completed form to adammarkus@gmail.com.  You can also send me your resume if it is convenient for you.  Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to.  See here for why.

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