MBA applications

The International House of Pancakes test for MBA application essays

In an earlier blog post, I argued that many MBA applicants—often with the help of MBA admissions consultants—have “over-managed” their MBA essays and sucked much of the soul out of their applications.  If you know anything about human nature (or the insane workload of MBA admissions committees) you probably realize that soulless MBA essays will probably get you nowhere, unless you’re an otherwise perfect MBA candidate. (But if you’re pretty much a perfect MBA candidate, why are you wasting your time reading this blog?  Shouldn’t you be doing something completely perfectly amazing and superhuman right now?)

For those of you who aren’t superhuman, I’m convinced that it’s absolutely critical to sound passionate about your business pursuits in your MBA applications, regardless of whether you’re writing about past successes or future goals.  Fundamentally, MBA applications are a test of your ability to market the product you presumably know best:  yourself.  If you can’t convince an MBA admissions committee that your career will reach exciting new heights post-MBA, why should anybody offer you a coveted spot at an elite business school?

This is particularly true for aspiring entrepreneurs or anybody who runs a family business.  If you can’t get us excited about your future plans in a 400-word MBA essay “elevator pitch,” it’s hard to believe that you’ll ever succeed in getting investors or customers excited about your company.  If you plan to start a business—or want to continue running your existing business—you’ll be doomed to failure if you can’t get investors, employees, and customers to buy into your product.  And why would any elite MBA program want to admit a passionless, unconvincing wannabe entrepreneur?

So if you’re an entrepreneurial sort and you’ve already written drafts of your essays, you’re probably wondering:  are your essays convincing and passionate, or generic and soulless?  And how can you tell?

As luck would have it, I’ve developed a simple, high-calorie tool for determining whether your business ideas are compelling enough for your MBA application.  I call it the International House of Pancakes test, because I really like breakfast.

Here’s how it works:  if you’ve already used the name of your company in your essays, replace the name with “International House of Pancakes.”  If the essay still makes sense, you’ve probably written an essay turd.  Your essay needs to capture your excitement for your specific industry and your particular company; if you replace the name of the company with a restaurant name, you should get complete nonsense.  (Unless, of course, you’re actually planning to run a restaurant.  In that case, I know a guy who is really, really great at testing menu items.)

To illustrate the International House of Pancakes test, here’s a real draft of an essay written by one of my favorite students (let’s call her Ms. ERP, since that’s the best-sounding word in the excerpt below), with the name of the school removed to protect her privacy:

Upon graduation from [an MBA program], my short-term goal is to manage operations for the International House of Pancakes Group – the $16 million chain wholly owned by my family.  With our proprietary SMARTE training program, internally built ERP software, and strong reputation in Canada, I am excited about helping the International House of Pancakes reach its full growth potential.  As the COO, my initial priorities would be to improve International House of Pancakes’ day-to-day operations and to expand our presence in the Middle Eastern and Asian markets.  Since the profitability of our Canadian locations is declining due to rising costs resulting from government intervention, I need to streamline our organizational infrastructure so our company can grow internationally and with measured risk.  I would continue to identify potential areas for investment, lead negotiations with potential partners and suppliers, and manage new initiatives.

The paragraph is dry and clinical, but it still makes sense, right?  And that’s a huge problem.  The essay was supposed to be about her family’s business in the education industry.  Honestly, it really is an innovative, interesting firm that could plausibly be wildly successful on several continents.  But you definitely wouldn't know that from reading this essay.  There’s no life to it, no vivid description of her work, and absolutely no hint of passion for her company or industry.

Right now, you might be chuckling at poor Ms. ERP:  “Ha ha ha!  That silly Ms. ERP!  I would never do that in my own essays!  I love what I do, and it shows in my MBA essays!”

Oh yeah?  Try swapping out the company name in your essays, and see if it still works.  You might be surprised:  it’s shockingly easy to let your MBA application essays devolve into generic, vapid corporate-speak, no matter how geeked up you actually are about your career.

The story ends well for Ms. ERP.  After I sent her the International House of Pancakes version of her essay, she cursed loudly and showed my handiwork to her father, who laughed and said that I was a jerk and that he really liked me.  Ms. ERP then revised her essay to paint a vivid, energetic picture of her family business, and she now attends a super-elite U.S. business school, despite a GMAT score in the mid-600s.  But she has, unfortunately, maintained an aversion to pancakes to this day.

 

Is your MBA application “over-managed”?

Last spring, I spoke with an MBA applicant who had been wildly disappointed during the 2012-13 admissions season, despite the fact that he had a reasonably successful career, an outstanding academic record, and a 700+ GMAT score.  The applicant—let’s call him Mr. D, since there were way too many dings in his life earlier this year—had also spent roughly $10,000 on MBA admissions consulting services.  And he wasn’t too happy. I asked Mr. D to send me his MBA application essays, so I could try to figure out exactly why things didn’t work out for him.  And the essays were generic as all hell.  The essays were soulless, passionless, and filled with vapid buzzwords.  The essays weren’t bad, exactly, but they certainly weren’t attention-grabbing.

Mr. D’s career vision essay was particularly lifeless, and I immediately knew that his admissions consultants had pretty much rammed the essay topic down Mr. D’s throat.  It was clear that the career vision didn’t come from Mr. D’s heart, and it was equally clear that MBA admissions committees noticed.

I’m not here to bash MBA admissions consultants; many of them do excellent work.  But I am 100% convinced that the incredible growth of the MBA admissions consulting industry has created an unintended consequence:  in the quest for perfect applications, many MBA applicants have created punchless, over-processed, sanitized essays that say almost nothing about them.

And nobody wants to read that crap.

If you don’t believe me, check out this 2010 Poets & Quants interview with J.J. Cutler, Wharton’s then-deputy dean of admissions.  My favorite chunk of the interview appears on page 3 of the article:

People write what they think we want to hear. They get over coached and over prepared. Some people make excuses. They are not genuine. We just want people to be authentic and let us make the decisions from there. You just see a lot of people who have been over-managed in the process. It’s hard to see or hear their voice. Again, a lot of people who think there is a right answer, but we’re not looking for a single right answer.

People have their essays read by too many people and before you know it, the essays don’t say a whole lot. You feel like you are being sold as opposed to being told. Sometimes, coaches inhibit a real voice from coming through.

I couldn’t agree more.

I’ve worked with MBA applicants for roughly a dozen years, and I’ve watched the MBA admissions consulting industry grow exponentially during that time.  A decade ago, only a very tiny percentage of MBA applicants hired admissions consultants, and most applicants didn’t even know that admissions consultants existed.  But the MBA admissions world has changed radically, for better and worse:  by some estimates, 30-50% of domestic applicants and 80% of international applicants now use MBA admissions consulting services of some sort.

Again, I think that many MBA admissions consultants do an outstanding job of helping applicants present a clear, charismatic vision of their past and future.  But whenever you invite a friend or stranger to examine your MBA essays, they’ll inevitably encourage you to iron out the rough edges, polish your language until it’s silky smooth, and eliminate any overly-ballsy phrases.  If you’ve written a raw, passionate essay about your career vision, the editing process might suck all of the emotion and energy out of your writing.

Unfortunately, many MBA admissions consultants simply don’t want their clients to take risks.  Experienced admissions consultants have seen plenty of applicants with certain profiles gain admission to top MBA programs; if the consultant has never seen an application like yours succeed in the MBA admissions game, the consultant might—very understandably—try to change your message so that it more closely resembles that of other successful applicants.  And in the process, your essays become less unique, and less “you”.

Nearly every MBA admissions officer in the world will insist that they want to see the “real you” in your essays, and for the most part, adcoms are being genuine when they ask you to be genuine.  Sure, if you’re a lousy MBA candidate, no amount of honesty will help—but then again, neither will the help of the best MBA admissions consultant on the planet.  And if you truly are a deserving candidate, admissions consultants might "over-manage" the honesty out of your essays—and that definitely won’t help, either.

So be as blunt, genuine, and passionate as you can in your essays, and don’t let friends, strangers, or MBA admissions consultants suck the soul out of your business school applications.

Looking ahead to fall admissions season? Start in January.

It’s the dead of winter right now, and 2013 first-round MBA deadlines won’t be here for another eight months or so. That’s almost enough time to bring a baby to term, so if you’re looking ahead to the next admissions cycle, then you still have plenty of time to worry about the GMAT and your MBA applications, right? As crazy as it may sound, I would argue that you should probably think about starting your GMAT prep before the snow starts to melt. If your goal is to produce the best MBA applications you possibly can—without turning your life into a stressed-out nightmare right before the application deadlines—then summer might be too late to start your GMAT studies.

Unless you’ve already been humbled by the GMAT, you’re probably thinking, “Come on, you stupid ninja dude! If I start in June, I’ll still have TONS of time for applications.”

You might be right. And you might be desperately wrong. In an effort to scare the poop out of you, here are two stories about guys who started their GMAT prep in June, but still didn’t have enough time to produce their best MBA applications the following January.

In May 2011, I received a phone call from a gentleman—let’s call him Mr. U, since he’s from upstate New York—who planned to quit his (thoroughly unsatisfying) job so that he could focus exclusively on the GMAT beginning in early June. He intended to spend the summer pounding the GMAT into submission, and then he would spend the fall writing amazing MBA application essays.

And guess what? Stuff happened. His arithmetic and algebra skills were an utter disaster, and he needed far more study time than he’d hoped. He needed an extra couple of weeks to fully transition out of his job. He ended up having some unexpected family obligations as the summer and fall wore on. He got distracted by some home repair projects. Some unavoidable trips—mostly for out-of-town weddings—interrupted his GMAT studies. And because his math skills were so crappy, Mr. U battled burnout after a couple of months of studying, and had to take the GMAT twice to get his target score.

Between the GMAT struggles and the non-GMAT distractions, Mr. U didn’t start writing his MBA application essays until late December, and he pulled a few late nights in early January to get everything done. His applications weren’t very polished, and he definitely suffered through some unnecessary MBA essay agony.

It all worked out for him in the end—Mr. U currently attends a top-ten MBA program, and his life is pretty awesome—but he suffered through the harrowing process of receiving rejection letters from five of his six target MBA programs. If he had started earlier, Mr. U might have had some extra options, and he definitely would have saved himself some pain and stress.

The second story involves a more recent applicant—let’s call him Mr. FP, since he loves skiing in fresh powder, just like everybody else in Colorado. Mr. FP started working with me in June 2012, and earned his 730 in August. No problems there. He figured that he would have the entire autumn to work on his MBA applications.

But again, life got in the way. His boss gave him some summer evenings off to focus on the GMAT, but autumn was payback time, and Mr. FP ended up working ridiculously long hours from late August through the end of December. A few family dramas also ate some of his precious free time and, just like Mr. U, Mr. FP ended up finishing some of his second-round MBA applications at literally the last minute on January 3. In the end, his MBA applications weren’t perfectly polished, and we’ll both be sweating unnecessarily as we await decisions this spring.

Please don’t let this happen to you. You might think that the GMAT and MBA application process will take just a month or two, but all sorts of things can derail your progress: a bad GMAT test day, a sick family member, MBA essay writers' block, a natural disaster, unexpected work issues, a marriage proposal from your significant other, or a promotion that requires extra hours. Or your underlying GMAT skills might be worse than you expected. As Mr. U painfully discovered, weak quant fundamentals or weak reading skills can substantially delay your GMAT test date.

(Incidentally, even the official GMAT blog agrees with me on this:  at the end of this post, the GMAT brass encourages you to start your prep early.)

So if you’re truly serious about your MBA goals, make sure that you give yourself enough time to weather every possible distraction. If you start in January but succeed in achieving your dream GMAT score in February, that’s wonderful—you’ll have time for some Colorado ski trips this winter, and plenty of time for b-school visits in the spring and summer. But it takes a ton of time to write great MBA applications, and if your life isn’t perfectly smooth during the course of your GMAT studies and the MBA application process, you’ll ultimately be thrilled that you started working on the GMAT early.

GRE vs. GMAT, part III: the test-day experience

As threatened in my last blog post about the differences between the GRE and the GMAT, I recently retook the GRE exam for the first time in several years, and I want to report an incredibly boring observation:  GRE and GMAT testing rooms aren’t exactly fun places.  I think I looked like a less-bloody version of this guy by the time I walked out of the exam. If you’re thinking about applying to an MBA program sometime soon, you probably already know that standardized tests are unpleasant, but you might be wondering whether the GRE is easier to beat than the GMAT.  The answer is… maybe.

For starters, I absolutely loved a few things about the new version of the GRE.  As I mentioned in an earlier GMAT blog post, the GRE is now section-level adaptive, not question-level adaptive.  That means that you can flag questions within any given section, and come back to them later. The GRE even includes a handy little review screen, so that you can see exactly which questions you’ve flagged or skipped.  That saved my ass at least once:  I whiffed on a quant question, and completely failed to fill in the bubble.  No harm done, though:  the review screen helped me catch the omission.  Thank you, GRE.

The other nice thing about the GRE is that the first half of the exam is relatively gentle:  the first quant section and the first verbal section contain the approximate GRE equivalent to 500-level GMAT questions.  So the GRE starts with two 30-minute essays, followed by one non-threatening quant section and one fairly straightforward verbal section.  Then you take a 10-minute break.  And that’s good, because if you’re like me, you’ll need to pig out after two hours of testing, even if those two hours aren’t particularly intense.

But after the break, things got rougher.

I had three sections remaining:  one quant, one verbal, and one experimental section, which turned out to be quant.  The good news is that the quant sections weren’t too awful, and I’d argue that the hardest GRE quant questions are much easier than the hardest GMAT quant questions.  GRE quant questions feel substantially more formulaic:  you’ll see plenty of fairly straightforward algebra, a hearty dose of relatively orthodox geometry questions, some nonthreatening data analysis, and only a light sprinkling of number properties, overlapping sets, and probability.

The GRE does seem to test statistics (standard deviation, median, mean, range, percentiles, etc.) more deeply than the GMAT, but that’s the only quant topic that seemed as difficult on the GRE as on the GMAT.  If you’re scoring in the mid-40s on the GMAT quant section, you probably won’t have a terribly hard time on the GRE, as long as you spend some extra time on statistics and avoid silly errors.

The second verbal section, on the other hand, kicked the crap out of me.

The 20 verbal questions were a roughly even mix of reading comprehension-type stuff (including some short, critical reasoning-style passages) and vocabulary-based questions.  Out of the first 10 questions, I skipped six, because the vocabulary in them made my eyes bleed.  I also struggled through the reading comprehension, despite the fact that I’d guzzled enough Red Bull to make my wings flap uncontrollably—the passages were ludicrously convoluted and not particularly interesting.

I was sweating right up until the last second of that section, and I had to look up eight vocabulary words after I finished the test.  Not fun.  I won’t pretend that the GMAT verbal section is much more enjoyable than its GRE counterpart, but there’s a special feeling of helplessness that sets in when you can’t decipher the vocabulary in a GRE text completion or sentence equivalence question.  It hurts.

Out of the 20 questions on that last verbal section, I was completely sure that 12 of my answers were correct, but all I could do was hope for the best on my eight educated guesses.  It worked out for me in the end (my score was a perfect 340), but I definitely got lucky on some of those vocabulary questions.

So now that I’ve had the chance to suffer through the new version of the GRE, let’s talk about whether you might actually gain an advantage by taking the GRE instead of the GMAT.

I would argue that the GRE is a better test for you under only two circumstances:

  1. You’re better at vocabulary than grammar.  I don’t know whether I’ve ever met anybody who fits this description.  Maybe a really well-read native English speaker who lacks the discipline to do well on sentence correction?
  2. You’re comfortable with statistics and algebra and geometry, but you struggle on the toughest GMAT-style questions.  It’s possible that a test-taker with moderately strong quant skills—and relatively little propensity to make dumb errors—would have a much easier time on the GRE.

If these two characteristics apply to you, then maybe the GRE is worth a look.  After all, almost every major MBA program now accepts the GRE.  And despite the challenges of my second verbal section, I’m convinced that the GRE offers a less excruciating test-taking experience than the GMAT.  But unless you’re an unusual test-taker, the bad news is that the GRE is very unlikely to offer you any particular advantage in MBA admissions.

Although this little corner of the internet is called “GMAT Ninja,” the author of this blog post also offers GRE tutoring services in Denver, Colorado and online via Skype. If you’re not sure which test to take, feel free to call or email to discuss your specific situation.