Tuesday, May 26, 2009


I am going to be on partial hiatus as a blogger for the next couple months. Very sorry if I don't publish your comments or respond to your emails for a while, but please have wonderful summers. To others in the class of 2011, see you in September!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

5 Tips for the Dreaded Stanford Essay A

Because Stanford Admissions will likely release the class of 2012 essays in the coming weeks, I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss Stanford GSB Essay A, which is often cited as the most difficult of all business school application essays. In fact, I know of at least one potential applicant who stopped considering Stanford after learning that GSB Admissions Director Derrick Bolton and his staff want to know, "What matters most to you and why?"

When I first learned about that essay the summer before I applied, I knew that I wanted to write about relationships. I didn't know what any of the supporting ideas were going to be and I didn't have a clue how I was going to structure the essay, but I knew intrinsically that what matters most to me is building new and developing existing relationships.

After settling on this topic, I avoided sitting down and writing this essay for as long as I could. I had one "burst of genius" when I was lying awake in bed one night in early September. I took out my laptop and wrote one paragraph in my pajamas. That paragraph remained the opener to my essay, virtually unchanged through more than ten iterations.

For another month, I favored writing business school essays on the much easier subjects of leadership, career goals, and learning from a mistake. I finally picked up essay A again about three weeks before it was due. I spent a full Saturday sulking in my living room as I struggled to introduce ideas that I thought were relevant and to answer the second part of the question, Why. I continued to flounder up until the deadline. I even changed my essay just four days before it was due to a letter format, and then changed it back to the original. (I still prefer the letter format but was told by several people that it didn't work as well.)

Unfortunately, dear applicant who may be reading this, I have no silver bullet. There was no "Aha!" moment in my writing process. The ideas just trickled out slowly and very painfully.

I have created a short list of tips that I hope will help you in your endeavors. And readers who have also been through this process, please add your thoughts in a comment below.

Essay A suggestions:

1. Start early. Yes, I do encourage you to write your essays in a strategic way--many people suggest writing HBS essays first (if you are applying) because they are short and force you to reflect on a wide variety of experiences; others say to write the essays for your last choice school first progressing to your top choice last. Both of these are reasonable strategies. Whatever you do, please give this particular essay some serious thought early in the application process.

2. Trust your instincts on the subject matter. I have heard of people writing their essay A on wide variety of subjects, including community service, teaching, learning, achieving life-work balance, supporting family, perpetual self-improvement, and giving back to the impoverished community from which the author came. Lots of subjects work; family is a popular one. Don't worry about being unoriginal. And don't worry about your subject being too "out-there" or too broad (many people told me my subject was too general). Just don't try to emulate other people's essays and do go with your gut, even if you initially struggle to articulate your thoughts.

3. If you don't have an idea, start reflecting... NOW. A friend of mine successfully wrote this essay by sitting down and mapping out his entire life trajectory and then looking for a pattern in his educational, career, and extracurricular choices. This strategy takes considerable time and self-examination so don't put it off.

4. Answer the entire question. Make sure to answer the why portion of the question; that is really the meat. As I wrote earlier, most subjects can work. But they can't work if you don't explain what your subject personally means to you, how it has shaped your decisions, how it influences your values, and what it means for your future.

5. Get help. I have heard a couple times that Derrick or someone on the GSB adcom once said that if you are willing to show your essay to more than three people, you haven't dug deeply enough. I have no idea if anyone really said that, but I believe that sentiment is "hippopotamus shit" to quote one of my favorite movies (80's trivia bonus points if you know what flick I'm referencing). I hated sharing my essays initially, even the dry career goals essay. But by the time I got to my Stanford essays, which I wrote last, I had gotten over my propensity for essay privacy. I implore you to do the same. Other people's input is invaluable. And to be clear, I am not suggesting that you have editors rewrite your essays, just that you "open the kimono" and get input from friends, family, and colleagues who know you well. (I had two colleagues, my significant other, one parent, and two friends read my essay A.)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Newsflash: VCs Ignore Business Plans

According to this recent article in the New York Times, venture capitalists care not for business plans, but rather are looking “for 'market validation,' hard evidence that the entrepreneur has actually sold his product or at least lined up enthusiastic potential customers.” And they don't want a 50-page presentation; they want a couple powerpoint slides or a short conversation.

So does this mean MBA students all over the world can ignore business plan competitions, stop wasting time on business plan class assignments, and refocus their energies on developing and implementing go-to-market strategies for new businesses? (I hope so.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Derrick Bolton Interview

There is a new Derrick Bolton (Stanford GSB Admissions Director) interview published in Business Week this month. Interesting new info (for me):

1. Applications being way up is a myth.
2. 21% of the class of '08 accepted a job abroad up from 14% of the class of 07. (Let's see if this emerging trend continues in '09)
3. The new curriculum has twice as many international course offerings.
4. The new Phil Knight campus WILL open during the 2010-11 school year! (Recently, it looked like the opening date might be pushed back to fall 2011)
5. Internship search for class of 2010 has been similar to that of prior classes. (No hard numbers offered)
6. Stanford GSB accepts the GRE as an alternative to the GMAT. (Actually I knew that, but I thought it was worth mentioning)

Mildly outlandish statement: "[The Stanford GSB curriculum overhaul has] been among the most exciting developments in management education in probably the last 20 or 30 years." Way to set expectations high, DB! (PS - is "mildly outlandish" an oxymoron?)

Annoying attempt to pull in younger applicants: "As a school, we see a lot of people waiting because they think business schools want them to wait. [They] think they won't be competitive until they have four or five years of work experience. And that's not true."

I am one of those stubborn people who thinks that experienced classmates are a huge asset in business school. One of the things I liked about Wharton is the higher average age and work experience of its matriculating students. The average number of years of work experience at Wharton is six, with just 2% of students having 0-2 years of work experience and 40% having 7+ years of work experience. By contrast, Stanford's median work experience is 4 years; HBS's average is 4 years. (More detailed HBS age distribution info here. Scroll down to the Oct 1, 2008 entry)

Great answer in response to the question, "As Stanford moves ahead, what is the biggest challenge it faces?":
...If you look at students who are applying to medical school or law school, they're applying for the education. There's certainly a credential element there, but when you talk to those students and look at the publications from those schools, they're about the education. Business schools have in the last couple of decades gone astray and really put too much emphasis on the post-school benefits and not enough on what transpires while you're there. I think our industry overall has made a really big mistake of overemphasizing those ancillary benefits. Applicants have interpreted that as being the reason you go to school. That's probably the thing I worry about the most at Stanford. How do I make sure that we're picking people who and want to take this [education] and make themselves better people, managers, and leaders, in support of our society?...

Monday, May 11, 2009

The REAL Admissions Essays

In celebration of my last full workweek in 2009, I want to share the list of real business school admissions essays. I pulled this off of the Business Week forum earlier in the 2008-09 admissions season. Credit goes to BW poster sandiego with a little help from replying posters.

Very funny:

Harvard: Of which Fortune 1000 company are you going to become the CEO and why would you pick that company?

Wharton: Of which Fortune 1000 company are you going to become the CFO and why would you pick that company?

MIT: Draw an ASCII picture of your favorite Lord of the Rings character and describe three lessons that today's business leaders can learn from Lord Of The Rings.

Stanford: Why? (100,000 words recommended)

Chicago Booth: Provide a detailed statistical analysis of why Chicago-Booth is #1 in BWeek and never higher than #3 in USNews. Do the math in your head.

NYU: How badly do you need a vacation from your ibanking job, and what makes you think you will be able to get back into ibanking upon graduation?

Yale SOM: Which nonprofit organization do you plan to run, and what about running a nonprofit makes you feel important?

Columbia: In your opinion, what is the best way to sabotage the Whartonian CFO of your company and become CFO?

UC Berkeley Haas: What makes a hippie like you think you can succeed in business? Use the words 'sustainable' and 'green' at least twice in your response.

Cornell Johnson: Describe how awesome being an Ivy Leaguer would make you feel.

UVA Darden: How badly do you want your ass to be kicked by our professors on a scale of 9 to 10?

Notre Dame: Describe how awesome Irish Football is, and list ten ways we can make our MBA program as well-known as our NFL training program.

London Business School: Answer NYU's essay and use the find/replace function to replace all 'NYU' with 'LBS', 'New York' with 'London' and 'program' with 'programme'.

Wash U Olin: How early are you willing to wake up to serve coffee to our medical students?

UNC Kenan-Flagler: See Notre Dame but replace Irish Football with Tar Heel basketball, and NFL with NBA.

U of Phx (pick 2 of 4): When your boss finds out you have enrolled here, how loudly will he/she laugh? Have you ever wasted a lot of money on something useless before? Would you be willing to appear on a billboard or would you rather keep your enrollment a secret? What is 5+8?

Tuck: Do you remember summer camp? How amazing was that!?!? Don't you wish you could go to camp for 21 months? Attach a letter you wrote to your parents in fifth grade summer camp explaining how awesome it was.

UMich Ross: What was the craziest thing you did while tailgating during undergrad, and are you prepared to tailgate like a pro again? In your essay, try to include the words moonshine, goat, and anus.

Kellogg: Explain why you think good quantitative skills are not required in business and discuss the importance of teamwork in situations in which no one is skilled enough to do the job by himself.

UCLA Anderson: Have you seen that show "The Hills?" Isn't it amazing? Discuss your strategies for getting into clubs to party with the cast of "The Hills" so you can feel important.

Duke Fuqua: What are your short-term and long-term career goals? Begin your essay with the sentence, "My career goal is to provide investment and business advice to the much more successful graduates of the Duke Law and Medical Schools."

Carnegie Mellon Tepper: Draw an ASCII picture of your favorite MIT student and list three things that business leaders can learn from MIT.

INSEAD: List the number of languages in which you are fluent, and explain how knowing a bunch of languages and studying in one of the world's slowest economies for ten months will make you an effective business leader.

CEIBS: Would you rather be upper middle class in the US, or rich in China? Pleeeeeeeease say rich in China!

Happy Monday!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Facebook & Prematriculation

There is a wave of Facebook-friending going around the Stanford GSB Class of 2011 circuit right now. I have accumulated about a dozen "friends" from my class, most of whom I talked to for <10 minutes at admit weekend, some of whom I have never met in person. I mean, it's nice to connect with people and stay in touch, but it's a little weird to me. I think I'm going to hold off friending anyone until I get to school and figure out who I'm actually going to be friends with.

Also, I just pruned about 50 friends from my account and am not eager to see the number of relative unknowns jump up again. Dear reader, don't assume that those I defriended were frenemies; in truth, I don't have the balls to ex-communicate those I truly dislike. Rather, the people I cut were mostly folks with whom I went to college and of whom I have zero recollection. When I accepted their offers of friendship, I assumed a dozen photo albums and a list of favorite flicks might jog my memory... nope. CUT. Also, I made the rounds of removing friends of friends with whom I partied once... four years ago.

Advice to other prematriculants: always accept your new classmates' friend invitations, but refrain from extending many yourself until you have figured who you're actually going to be friends with... unless you are one of those super people who just loves to keep up with their 2,038 close friends.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

GMAT Tutoring

Patrick Curtis, a first-year student at Wharton and founder/CEO of WallStreetOasis.com emailed to inform me of a new GMAT tutoring service that WallStreetOasis has just launched. Details of the service can be found here. At first glance, it looks good to me*, at least price-wise and concept-wise.

My GMAT tutoring experience:
I personally used Veritas tutoring and was only marginally satisfied. I paid $2,800 for 14 hours of private tutoring, which was their least expensive in-person tutoring package. (Insert cartoon character with eyes popping out here.) It took over three weeks to get matched with a tutor, which was unacceptable because I had initially planned to take the test within four weeks of signing up, which the company rep told me was a reasonable expectation. Veritas did pay the fee required to change my test date, but the lack of follow-up and unresponsiveness left a very bad taste in my mouth.

Once I had a tutor, I liked her a lot. She did what the WallStreetOasis program promises to do -- focus quickly on trouble areas (e.g., data sufficiency, sentence corrections) to maximize score increase. I took the test late last summer after using just eleven hours of tutoring over the course of three weeks (effectively wasting $600). I broke the 700 threshold and scored 6.0 on the writing portion. My quant score hovered around the 80th percentile, which I was not happy about, but in the interest of sanity, summer vacation, and essay-writing, I decided not to retake it.

Generally, my tutor's value-added service was focusing my energy on my personal trouble areas of the GMAT in a very short period of time. I got a reasonable score the first time I took it, so I can't complain too much, and I should also mention that the reason I signed up for Veritas is because a friend (now at Darden) got an 800 after using their private tutoring service. Wow.

In a nutshell, I think tutors are a good idea for the time-strapped applicant who has some extra cash. I like the WallStreetOasis service because its minimum package is 5 hours for $875. Had it existed when I was studying for the GMAT and had I had one or two recommendations from satisfied customers, I likely would have signed up for this intro package and added hours if necessary.

Quick request:
Good luck, and please let me know if you have any experience with a GMAT tutoring service you would like to share. Also, has anyone seen a good post on admissions consultants? I didn't use one to prepare my applications, but would like to link to a post that discusses them in my sidebar. Thanks.

*I have no personal experience with this particular service. Buyer beware.

Monday, May 4, 2009

How to Attain the Best Recommendation Possible

I am still working on my project to compile advisory posts from a wide range of bloggers (see work-in-progress in sidebar), but I haven't yet found one that I like on getting good recommendations, so I'm going to give it a shot.

The recommendation potion of the business school application can be daunting because you have to ask colleagues to take time out of their days to write positive things about you, and then you have to trust them to write positive things about you. The asking part shouldn't be difficult, as long as you give each recommender plenty of time. The trusting part is extremely challenging... unless you give them very clear guidance. So the majority of this post will discuss how to guide your recommenders to write exactly what you want them to write, without writing it for them. (Some schools explicitly instruct you not to do that; others don't, but generally it is a no-no).

Three easy steps (well, the third step is actually pretty involved):

1. Select recommenders (a) who are clear thinkers (i.e., articulate both in speaking and writing), (b) who know you well, and (c) who you trust to meet the deadline.

2. Ask them at least 2-3 months before they are due. If you can, ask in person. Ask those you cannot meet in person by setting up a short phone conversation to ask.

3. HELP THEM by providing a short, tailored profile. The profile should be written in the third-person voice and should include:
a) who you are (1-2 paragraph autobiography)
b) why you want an MBA (several bullets)
c) what your short and long-term goals are (several bullets)
d) themed examples of your work with each recommender, which he can use to illustrate your "story" in his recommendation (see below)
e) an updated résumé (one-page)

The profile gives each recommender broad context of YOU--who you are, what you've done, what you want to do, and why you want an MBA--so that he can write a convincing recommendation. Parts a, b, c, and e can be recycled across all recommenders, but part d must be tailored for each recommender. In total, your profile should be 3-4 pages long, including your résumé. Developing your profile will take time, energy and forethought, but it is potentially the most critical step for getting the best reco possible and gives you a head start for the rest of your application. Start early and get the profile into your recommenders' hands ASAP.

Part d (examples of specific work with your recommender) serves to remind your recommender how great you are and of all the amazing things you did for him. More importantly, this section of your profile ensures that YOU remain in control of your application story and that the application you write is consistent throughout. (A key piece of advice I got from a Stanford GSB alumnus at an info session last fall was to make sure that your story "fits" together logically). To provide the best fodder for your recommender:

1. Brainstorm a long list of positive examples of your work with each recommender. Eliminate any recommenders for whom you cannot develop a compelling list.

2. Develop and write a takeaway for each example. E.g., at one point with one of my recommenders I was switched from project to project several times and still managed to do an okay job; the takeaway I wrote was, "PAFAW is adaptable and flexible under quickly changing circumstances."

2. Group the examples/takeaways logically and develop categories that encompass them (e.g, problem solving & analysis, communication, presentation, team-building). You can develop different categories for each recommender. Think carefully about what themes matter to you in your overall story. For example, I wrote my Stanford Essay A ("What matters most to you and why?") about relationships; to get my recommenders to reinforce this theme, I included numerous examples of my relationship-building and team-building experience to help them understand and articulate this important pattern.

3. Write a sentence or two that describes each category. E.g., under my "Interpersonal" category heading, I wrote, "PAFAW surfaces conflict, acts on feedback and brings camaraderie to his/her teams."

4. Then list the takeaways/examples accordingly (hint: they should support the category statement).

I won't pretend to know how much recommendations matter at each school, but I think it is safe to assume that they are a critical component, or the schools wouldn't ask for 2-3 each. I know you are busy with all of your applications and are not eager to take on more work, but from my experience, developing a comprehensive and customized profile for each recommender will dramatically increase the chance that your recommendations reflect your best self and that they reinforce your story. Suck it up.