Tag Archives: 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.

GRE vs. GMAT, part I: MBA admissions

If you spend your time carefully reading MBA application instructions, you might have noticed that nearly every major U.S. business school now accepts both the GRE and the GMAT.  There are still a few exceptions (at the time of writing, BYU and the full-time Haas MBA program hadn’t jumped aboard the GRE bandwagon yet), but it’s possible to apply to the vast majority of top MBA programs with only a GRE score.

If you’re struggling with the GMAT, the GRE might sound awfully tempting.  The GRE has no data sufficiency or sentence correction questions; instead, you’ll see the GRE’s (relatively non-threatening) quantitative comparisons and grammar-free vocabulary questions.  Better still, the GRE is generally rumored to be easier than the GMAT, and the GRE costs $75 less than the GMAT.  Not bad, huh?

But wait, there’s more:  with the changes implemented to the GRE in 2011, you can actually go back and change your answers on the test now!  Sounds great, doesn’t it?

The GRE inarguably offers a more pleasant test-taking experience than the GMAT, but you might be wondering:  can you actually get into top MBA programs with only a GRE score?  At least at the moment, the answer is a very wishy-washy “yes, but…”

For starters, we don’t really have much data on average GRE scores at top business schools.  According to a 2012 survey conducted by Kaplan, only 16% of MBA applicants have even considered using the GRE for their MBA applications, and far fewer have actually applied to business schools with a GRE score.  As a result, MBA programs really aren’t able to give us a clear idea of the average GRE scores for its admitted students, since so few admits actually take the GRE.

The (somewhat) good news is that our friends at ETS have created a nifty GRE-GMAT score converter, which means that you can, at least in theory, convert any GRE score into an equivalent GMAT score.  For example, if you’re using the pre-2011 GRE scoring system, a 700 on the GMAT would have been roughly equivalent to a GRE composite score between 1400 and 1450, depending on the exact breakdown of your quant and verbal scores.  If you’re using the new GRE scoring system (on a wildly inconvenient scale from 260 to 340), you’ll need to score somewhere between 323 and 328 to earn the equivalent of a 700 on the GMAT.

The trouble is, it’s not clear whether MBA admissions committees put much faith in the score converter. Everybody in the MBA world knows how to interpret GMAT scores, but some adcoms aren’t yet 100% comfortable making judgments based on GRE scores, even with the score converter.  A friend of mine works closely with the admissions committee at a top-ten MBA program, and he claims that the admissions committee is taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the GRE; the adcom certainly isn’t going out of its way to encourage applicants to take the GRE instead of the GMAT… at least not yet.

And that makes perfect sense, considering the lack of data on MBA applicants, students, and graduates who have taken the GRE.  Decades of GMAT validity studies tell us that the GMAT is an excellent predictor of MBA students’ performance during their first year of business school, but the GRE simply doesn’t have that sort of track record in the MBA world.

The bigger problem is that the GRE is unlikely to offer you any particular advantage over the GMAT.  Most tutors and test-takers agree that the GRE “feels” easier than the GMAT, but don’t be fooled by the “feel” of the tests:  I very rarely meet students who perform substantially better on one test or the other, even if they “like” the GRE better.  The tests are similar enough that relatively few MBA applicants actually gain an advantage by taking the GRE instead of the GMAT.

So should you completely avoid the GRE if you’re applying to business school?  Not at all—obviously, admissions committees are open to admitting students without a GMAT score, even if they aren’t 100% comfortable interpreting GRE scores yet.  But unless you have some very specific test-taking preferences—which I’ll discuss in my next blog post—it’s unlikely that the GRE will greatly improve your chances of admission, either.

 

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, call or email for more information… or try reading the second part of this series on the GRE vs. the GMAT.

minimizing MBA application essay agony

It’s that wonderful time of year when most applicants have finished their battles with the GMAT, and are now suffering through the long process of writing a bunch of MBA application essays.  And for most of you, this part of the MBA application process really isn’t much fun.

I’m not going to give you another one of those “how to write a good MBA application essay” lectures.  There are hundreds of (often very good) blogs and books and articles that cover that ground, and I don’t think that this is a good time to add to the cacophony.

Instead, I just want to give you some advice on how to minimize the pain involved in writing the essays.  Every year, I watch several dozen applicants descend into writer’s hell, and it’s never fun to see deserving MBA applicants suffer from a hideous case of writer’s block right before their deadlines.

So in honor of the upcoming second-round MBA application deadlines, here are few tips to help you avoid MBA essay paralysis:

tip #1: don’t “binge-write” your MBA essays

So you’re trying to write inspired MBA application essays, huh?  The type with some nice, creative flourishes that will help the adcom realize how brilliant and fun you are, right?

If so, don’t even think about trying to write your MBA essays in one sitting.  Or in two or three sittings.  The best essays are the result of small amounts of writing and revision, completed over the course of several weeks or months.

I discussed this in a crusty old blog post a few years ago, but the idea is that you’re likely to come up with your best ideas when you least expect it:  at work, at the gym, in the shower, or on the subway.  If you spend, say, a few minutes a day on each of your MBA application essays over the course of several weeks, you’ll give your subconscious mind plenty of time to come up with brilliant phrases, ideas, and flourishes for your essays.

The only way this can happen is if you stretch out your preparations for each MBA application.  Plan to spend at least a month on each application, working for a few minutes each day, letting your subconscious and semiconscious mind do at least some of the heavy lifting.

Trust me, the slow, five-minutes-at-a-time approach beats the heck out of staring at a computer for 12 hours on the day before the application deadline, while your hairline quickly recedes.

tip #2:  simplify your language

Far too often, MBA applicants write insanely dense essays that are almost impossible to read.  They contain pretentious vocabulary and ridiculously long sentences, and they sound like an overwrought academic discourse on philosophy.

There are two problems with this.  First of all, if you decide to write in the most “sophisticated” style you can muster, you’re probably torturing yourself in the process.  It takes a lot of time and brainpower to cram your essays with GRE vocabulary words.  Why torture yourself by trying to write in such an unnatural style?

Secondly, very few people actually enjoy reading dense, academic text.  Simple, clear language is an infinitely more effective way to communicate with suffering MBA admissions committee members who read literally thousands of essays each year.

So don’t overdo it.  Keep the language clear and unpretentious, and don’t make your essay sound like a GMAT reading comprehension passage.  Try to write as if you’re having a chat with your best friend.  You’ll be able to write faster, and your essays will be far more appealing to the poor adcom members who have to read them.

tip #3:  play with your friends

This is a simple—and probably obvious—piece of advice:  don’t try to write your MBA essays in complete isolation.  If your budget and preferences allow you to hire an MBA admissions consultant, that’s great.  If not, call a friend or a family member, even if none of them know anything about the MBA admissions process.

Here’s the thing:  sometimes, you get brain-locked when you try to write about how awesome you are.  And sometimes, even a relatively clueless advisor can help you get unstuck; simply babbling to a good friend can help to relieve your essay-writing paralysis.

This might seem like a ridiculously uninteresting piece of advice, but you might be surprised by the number of inquiries I receive from miserable, frustrated writers… who have literally never told a soul about their MBA essays.  Don’t make that mistake.

tip #4:  don’t worry about the word count… yet

Another refrain that I hear constantly from MBA applicants:  “Writing this crap is so hard with the word count and everything!”

That’s completely true.  Writing your first draft is hard, and the word count is a pain in the ass.  But your first objective is to get your ideas onto the page, and then you can worry about the word count later.  If you worry about the word count prematurely, you’ll be paralyzed and miserable.  So when you start writing, ignore the word count completely at first.

If your goal is to write the most perfect essays you’re capable of, then you’ll inevitably spend plenty of time editing and rewriting parts of the essays.  If you want to avoid unnecessary pain, spew your ideas onto the page as quickly as you can on the first draft—and worry about trimming the essay later.  Don’t let the word count disrupt the flow of your writing, or else you may never finish the first draft.

tip #5: be honest with yourself:  writing is hard, and your first draft will probably suck

Whenever I take on a challenging writing project (and in case you don’t know me personally:  I’m nearly finished with my third full-length book, and I used to do lots of strange freelance writing work), my first step is to write the words SH*TTY FIRST DRAFT at the top of the page.

Why do I do that?  Well, because I like to swear.  And also because I need to remind myself that writing is hard, and that I’ll never finish my first draft if I try to make it perfect.  My first draft will mostly suck.  Pieces of it will hopefully be brilliant.  I’ll spend tons of time revising it.  And that’s OK, because it’s much easier to polish a crappy draft than to create a brand new one from scratch.

So accept your imperfections as a writer, and just get the words onto the page.  Don’t edit while you’re writing—again, you’ll have plenty of time to edit later.

Let’s face it:  it takes a lot of time to write great essays for MBA applications.  But if you let go of some of your inhibitions and “anal-ness” on the first draft—and if you work slowly and steadily on your application—you won’t suffer nearly as much as the last-minute binge-writers.  You’ll be happier, and your odds of admission will hopefully be a little bit better.

five-minute rule for MBA essays

When I was a teenager, I worked in a crappy chain diner in the Midwest, where I received my first introduction to the “30-second rule.” Over the following decade or so, I heard varying versions of the 30-second rule in bars and restaurants: there was the 5-second rule, the 10-second rule, and–for the slowest and most unethical restaurant staff–the five-minute rule.

If you have to ask: whenever an employee drops something in a restaurant, somebody is likely to shout “30-second rule,” meaning that whatever fell on the floor is still “good” if you pick it up within 30 seconds. (Assuming, of course, that no customers or managers are watching.) Silverware? No problem, it can go out to the customer’s table if it’s picked up within 30 seconds. A hamburger fell on the ground? No worries, we have 30 seconds to pick it up and put it back together. A slice of pie? Trickier, but definitely doable if you scoop it up, put it in the microwave, and top it with some ice cream.

You’ll never eat out again, right?

And does this have anything to do with MBA admissions?

Yeah, sort of. It’s midsummer, which means that the most ambitious MBA applicants are beginning to throw all of their spare time into the GMAT. The earliest first-round deadlines are less than three months away, and this is the time of year when you might be thinking, “okay, I’ll spend two months studying for the GMAT, and once that’s done, I’ll focus on my essays.”

I tell everybody the same thing: don’t wait until the last minute to start your MBA application essays. Many of you probably know this, but writing these essays is exponentially more time-consuming than you might think. A set of four, 400-word essays might not sound like much, but it can be unbelievably tough to put your entire life in a flattering, readable, 1600-word package, especially if you’re trying to avoid sounding like an egomaniac. Almost every applicant (and this goes for non-MBA applicants, too) underestimates the amount of time needed for MBA applications, especially if your energy is simultaneously sapped by the GMAT.

If you’re still doing battle with the GMAT and your MBA application deadlines are getting close, I strongly recommend employing the five-minute rule. (Every time you drop food on the floor, wait five minutes before picking it up. It’ll taste great, and build your immune system! Oops, sorry, wrong industry…) Every day, spend about five minutes on your essays, even if it just means brainstorming a little bit, writing a phrase here or there, taking a couple of notes, or crossing something out. Sometimes, you’ll be inspired to do some serious writing, and that’s great. At the very least, you’ll keep yourself engaged in your MBA essays, and they’ll always be somewhere in the back of your head.

This might sound silly, but many professional writers will tell you that they come up with their most brilliant ideas and phrases at the most random times–in the shower, at the gym, walking the dog, or whatever. Their “ghost writer” (i.e. their own subconscious) is doing most of their work, but they have to make sure that they “tell” the ghost writer what to work on.

I’m not going to tell you that you’ll be able to completely finish your essays in five minutes a day, but I guarantee that you’ll make some great conceptual progress if you’re 100% disciplined about looking at your MBA applications for a few minutes every day. By the time you’re finished with the GMAT after (hopefully) a month or two of studying, you’ll at least have a great set of notes and outlines, studded with brilliant phrases. At that point, the task of turning your MBA essays into something truly spectacular will be much, much easier.