How to discuss your extracurriculars in your application

I often come across discussion threads where people ask others to evaluate their odds of admission. Many of them will include discussions of community involvements or extra curricular involvements such as these.

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Often these sections exceed the length of their education and professional work experience.

The problem is that these applicants have given their extracurricular activities as much real-estate on their profile as their work experience, but the former is not nearly as important as the latter. The dirty truth is that business schools generally do not really care about your extracurriculars at all. This is for two reasons.

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First, strategically, whereas college admissions has retrospective criteria (what have you done to earn this spot?), business school admissions has prospective criteria (e.g. what will you do with this opportunity?). This is because an MBA is an entirely elective degree. Whereas you need a JD to practice law, no one needs an MBA to practice business. Therefore, any good application needs to explain what the candidate will do with the degree on their professional journey, and even insinuate what negative consequences will befall them and the world if they don’t obtain it. The answer to this question lies in work experience and narrative, not in your free-time hobbies.

Second, tactically, extracurriculars are just not as valuable to business schools. Colleges (especially elite colleges) really value the community experience and look for students to take leadership in this important area. That’s why they give steep scholarships to athletes and little admissions boosts students who will round out difficult-to-fill spots in the orchestra (like oboe players). Talking about your extra curricular activities on your college essay made sense because you had something of value to offer to the school. In contrast, the whole point of business school is to secure an internship and later a full-time job offer. Almost all extracurricular activities exist to advance that singular goal. For example, the finance club meetings will either be to network with prospective banks or to tutor students on building models in excel. Playing the oboe at business school gives you a lot of money in a worthless currency.

The right way to talk about extracurriculars

There are two ways that extracurriculars can be useful in your application. The first is when they accentuate your Narrative. Say that you are a consultant who wants to come to business school in order to improve economic opportunities in Latin America. While this may be a sincere and profound interest, it is a hard story to tell if your work experience has been entirely in the United States, even if it gave you relevant skills. That’s because you need to show the admissions committee that you are already working on this mission; if your mission instead seems disconnected to your past professional experience, your mission comes across as insincere and your application uncompelling. Say that one of your community involvements is with a Habitat for Humanity chapter in Latin America, or volunteering for a community organization helping to integrate Latin American immigrants. Even a quick mention of those activities could really bolster your narrative.

Second, they humanize you and make you seem more interesting. Reading MBA applications gets boring really quickly. Anything you can do to pique the interest of the adcom plays to your favor. On your resume, in your personal section, include a few interesting or surprising activities, hobbies, or accomplishments. “Running” is not interesting and “traveling” is not surprising, so don’t include those.

How Admissions Committees Evaluate Candidates - The Problem with "Odds Threads"

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Countless MBA blogs allow applicants to post their admissions profile for others to evaluate their chances of admission at different MBA programs. Usually the criteria asked for will be something like the following:

  • GPA
  • Undergraduate Institution
  • GMAT Score
  • Past employers
  • Extra curriculars / activities
  • Certifications
  • Volunteer work

These “odds threads” fundamentally misunderstand several key parts of the admissions process.

Problem 1: They confuse checkboxes for sliding scales.

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The trouble is that these forums breed the belief that the more “extra” someone is in each of these categories, the better chance they have at admission. Someone with a 4.0 GPA must have a higher probability than someone with a 3.8 and 790 better odds than a 750, right? Not quite. This is because applications are evaluated in a two-step process.

The first step is the sorting. The first four criteria in the list above are “check box” data fields. The admissions committee looks at these criteria first to run an initial screening of the candidate pool. The goal from this initial screening is to sort candidates as “highly competitive”, “competitive”, or “not competitive” for admission at that particular school.

A highly competitive applicant will have a GPA and GMAT that is at or above the business school’s overall average, earned a degree from a school well represented from among the student body, and worked at a firm that either places well at the school or (ideally) recruits a lot of MBAs from that institution to return. A competitive candidate will have most of those criteria. An uncompetitive will have few or none. Once this sorting is done, the top category is fast-tracked, and middle is evaluated, and the bottom is dropped.

The second step in the process brings us to Problem 2

Problem 2: They ignore the key selection criteria of Narrative

Since there are far, far more “competitive” candidates than a school has spots to give in a class, the admissions committee needs a second screening to further winnow the class down. This second step evaluates a candidate’s Narrative. Admissions committees want to admit students who have great personal stories, who are going to make the most of their spots in the MBA class to accelerate their career trajectories, and who will change the world for the better. Once you make it through the first screen, regardless of GPA or GMAT, the best story wins.

Put another way, passing the “checkbox” criteria mentioned in Problem 1 will get the admissions committee to listen to you. The narrative is how to convince them. If your narrative lacks focus, clarity, simplicity, credibility, specificity, emotion, logic, values, and everything else we put into our narrative work, even an 800 GMAT score will help you – you will be denied.

You’ll notice that our MBA Odds Form asks for something not included on the list I pulled from the blogs above: personal narrative. Your personal narrative is the single most important factor for determining whether you will be admitted to an MBA program, offers the single biggest return on your time investment, and is the only part of your application that you control 100%.

In short, if you were to plot out the probabilities on each of these checkbox criteria, you would not see a smooth upward sloping line, but rather a step-function as candidates are first sorted, then evaluated individually on their narrative story, the quality of which has a more random distribution.

Problem 3: They focus on the wrong things

 Remember this version of you from your college essay? Cut it from your MBA application.

Remember this version of you from your college essay? Cut it from your MBA application.

Remember your college application? Remember how you talked all about your community involvements and extracurricular activities? That silly essay about your love of track & field and how it's a metaphor for your leadership style? Many people who submit profiles for evaluation devote as much real estate to their hobbies as their actual work experience. This is a huge miscalculation because while business schools care a great deal about your work experience, they care almost nothing about your hobbies. Here’s why.

First, strategically, whereas the admissions criteria for college (and law school for that matter) are retrospective (i.e. they ask what have you done to “earn” or “deserve” a spot in the class), business school admission criteria is prospective (e.g. what will you do with this opportunity?). This is because an MBA is an entirely elective degree. Whereas you need a JD to practice law, no one needs an MBA to practice business. Therefore, any good application needs to explain what the candidate will do with the degree on their professional journey, and even insinuate what negative consequences will befall them if they don’t obtain it. The answer to this question lies in work experience and narrative, not in your free-time hobbies.

Second, tactically, extracurriculars are just not as valuable to business schools. Colleges (especially elite colleges) really value the community experience and look for students to take leadership in this important area. That’s why they give steep scholarships to athletes, and little admissions boosts students who will round out difficult-to-fill community positions (such as oboe players in the orchestra). Talking about your extracurricular activities on your college essay made sense because you had something of value to offer to the school. In contrast, the whole point of business school is to secure an internship and later a full-time job offer. Almost all extracurricular activities in business school exist to advance that goal. For example, the finance club meetings will either be to network with prospective banks or to tutor students on building models in excel. Playing the oboe at business school gives you a lot of money in a worthless currency.

In your MBA application, your work experience is king. Give it the real estate it deserves.

If you want an honest appraisal of your Odds of Admission, check ours out here.

How do I know when my MBA application is finished?

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One of the most challenging parts of the MBA application is knowing when your application is finished. Your MBA and the school from which you get it can have dramatic impacts on the future trajectory of your life, so it's easy to overthink every detail. Many applicants agonize for hours over every word choice, signing into the online application portals at all hours to change a word or two, only to change them back a day later. Wouldn't it just be easier if you could determine that you were, in fact done?

When we run a Final Check on application packages, we comb through every detail with the lens that we know the admissions committee will use. That's a little hard for individual students to replicate, but here are some things that you can look for yourself:

1. Is your resume in the template of the target MBA program?

This is a super easy way to fit in, and demonstrate your commitment to the school. Plus, it creates sort of a cognitive dissonance for the adcom to read a resume in their school's template and then reject that student -- essentially causing the document they are viewing to disappear.

2. Does your whole application tie to one simple story?

You are not under oath. You do not have to tell the whole truth, so help you god. In fact, explaining every part of your job, explaining every reason for why you pursued every opportunity, or listing the many divergent career options that interest you will not help your application, but hurt it. Your application is telling a story, and the best stories are simple linear ones. The best story characters are have clear motives and take decisive action. Often the key to telling a great story in your application is not to add things in, but rather to cut out all extraneous details.

It is also important for every part of your application to tell the same single story, from your resume to your recommender. If your essay is all about working in renewable energy, but your resume is all about finance, the adcom might not think that you're all that credible. The easiest decision that the Adcom can make is to not admit you.

3. Have you mitigated your weaknesses?

Your application is an argument and the best arguments bring up the opposing case and offers counter points. Do you have a lower GPA? Find space in the application to explain why that is the case and what you have done subsequently to prove that academics are no longer an issue. Is your work experience less impressive? Then point out all the ways in which your employer, position, client, or projects were impressive. Ignoring your weaknesses is not a winning strategy. The adcom will still see them, they just won't have the benefit of your counter argument.

4. Have you connected your candidacy to a larger problem you're trying to solve?

Adcoms don't like "admitting students" so much as they like "funding solutions to problems." In that way, you can think of them less like hiring managers and more like venture capitalists: ready to provide funding and mentorship to entrepreneurs out to tackle big markets. If you are able to argue that you have spent your career fighting to solve a specific, important, and urgent problem (ideally one that resonates with the school’s unique values) and that you are now poised to achieve the next level of impact, if only you were equipped with the unique resources that an MBA has to offer, you will be a much more credible candidate than a generic professional looking to go to graduate school.

5. Have you had a second set of eyes? 

One of our most popular options this time of year, with the HBS deadline coming up on September 6th, and both Wharton and Stanford GSB on September 19th, is our Final Check service, wherein we comb through the entire application offering feedback on ways to tighten up and improve your answers, aligning your resume with your essays, and correcting any grammar and spelling errors. For the rest of the Round 1 season, we are offering same day / 24-hour turnarounds. Click the button below to check it out!

Post-MBA Goals: go for idealistic or realistic?

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Very few MBAs actually follow through with the career goals outlined in their admissions essays. Even for those who do, the average tenure in a post-MBA job is less than two years. (So don't sweat nailing that perfect job, or be too sure that you indeed found the "right one")

That said, the "Post-MBA Career Goals" section of the application is a critical part of the overall package. Far from being a "gimme" question in the short answer section, MBA admissions officers scrutinize your post-MBA career goals and evaluate your suitability for their program based on your response.

So what questions MBA admissions officers asking when they examine your post-MBA goals?

1. Are they realistic?

Does this candidate understand which career moves are possible -- through an MBA and this school in particular? Has the candidate done his or her research in advance as to what these jobs entail? If not, it shows a lack of preparation and raises questions as to whether the candidate has the maturity to use their spot in the MBA class to the greatest effect.

2. Is their desired outcome impactful?

It's hard to give an admission slot in short supply to someone who doesn't seem like they will do very much with it. The mission of Harvard Business School is to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. Therefore its adcom is looking for those with a grand vision. The same is true at many other schools. On a practical level, yes, this means changing jobs. But you need to paint a broader picture of the mission you will be serving in the process.

3. Does the applicant's career goals align with their personal narrative?

If not, the adcom may believe that the applicant is not being authentic. In any case, people naturally find those who are consistent about their motivations and interests more compelling. Narrative is something that we do especially well.

4. Do these career goals require an MBA?

Do MBAs from our school recruit for them? If not, it's almost embarassing to tell them to the admissions committee as it shows low commitment and low research on the part of the applicant. Every application needs an argument for why the MBA is the catalyst for your future increased level of impact. If the MBA is a nice-to have, or worse a frivolous educational experience, then you'll only be admitted once the serious candidates have their turn.

Impact! And how to include it in your resume

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Some applicants believe that their business school applications are little more than the facts of their resume. And why shouldn’t they be? Many prognosticators of admissions odds ask only for your GPA, GMAT, Undergrad, and most recent employer to reach their predictions. After all, those facts are immutable, admissions committees are familiar with them, and any other attempt to dress up an application is just sleazy marketing, right?

Wrong.

It’s pretty easy to see for yourself why it's not just the facts of the story, but the story itself that matters. Consider the following examples out of news articles:

#1: 36.5% of Americans are obese.

#2: Rising rates of obesity will cost the American taxpayer an additional $200B per year, and reduces available funding for education.

What is the difference between these two statements? In a word, Impact.

While the first statement captures the complete statement of fact, the second captures what it means, what the damage is, and why we should care. Only an educated reader, who knows that obesity is growing, that it is expensive, and that its costs will require tradeoffs in governmental priorities, might be able to read the first statement and infer the rest. But even then, the first sentence does not include enough context to know what point you're trying to make.  Are you telling us about obesity because you want to talk about growing sizes in retail clothing? The need for sturdier cars? Or looming budgetary tradeoffs?

When you write your business school application, it is imperative that you tell a compelling story for why your work is important and why a bystander with little knowledge of the topic (i.e. an admissions officer) should care about it. If can make the admissions officer care about the personal impact you are making in the world, he or she will likely care about you, and whether you are admitted. This is how applicants with sterling credentials can still be denied from top schools when their submissions focus on facts rather than impact. Consider some examples that one might find in a personal essay:

Accomplishment without impact

I am a credit risk analyst at Deutsche Bank, have worked on four deals valued over one billion dollars, and have been promoted twice

Accomplishment with impact

As a credit risk analyst at Deutsche Bank, I developed a new model that helped us better price risk among less credit-worthy customers, allowing the firm to issue more loans needed to grow small businesses.

See how the second narrative is stronger because it not only explains the actions taken but the impact achieved? Of course, we at Ivy Admissions Group don’t just stop there. We’ve argued time and time again that to have a truly exceptional application, one must also tie their achievements and impacts into a broader personal narrative

Accomplishment with Impact and Narrative

My mother was a small business owner, and growing up I saw firsthand both how difficult it was for entrepreneurs like her to get the capital they needed to sustain their businesses. Small businesses are the key to growing the modern economy, with 67% of new jobs coming from small businesses. I joined Deutsche Bank because I wanted to help people like my mom achieve the American Dream, and was able to do that by developing a new risk model that made small business loans more affordable.

Mark Zuckerberg's advice for MBA applications

Facebook CEO and noted dropout Mark Zuckerberg gave the commencement address at Harvard’s graduation this year, and he left the graduates with an important nugget of advice for applying to business school. If you weren’t paying close attention, you may have missed it.

Here is the full video. The quote in question comes right after 6:00:

Here is the quote:

One of my favorite stories is when John F. Kennedy visited the NASA space center, he saw a janitor carrying a broom and he walked over and asked what he was doing. The janitor responded: “Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon”.

What did the Janitor do in his reply to strike a chord with the President? In a word, he offered a purpose for his work.

Say one of the Janitor’s Window Cleaner peers applied to business school. If we were on the admissions committee and came across his resume, we might see lines such as “expertly cleaned all glass surfaces with 10% fewer streaks and peers” or “implemented new harness safety program, dramatically reducing falls.” 

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Now let’s consider the Janitor. What might his business school resume say? Maybe, “Enabled the success of the moon-landing by providing clutter-free work spaces that enabled calm, decisive mission management” or, “Aided the President’s key national priority by maintaining safe, clean, and functional work spaces that top engineering talent would want to work in.”

Why do we find the second resume more compelling even though they have similar performance in similar jobs? In the first case, the Window Cleaner demonstrates an achievement-orientation and a desire to do his job better than others, but his impact starts and ends with himself. His resume explains why he is a better worker, but it does not explain why we should root for him to be successful. We never learn why we should care about how well he does his job. Meanwhile the Janitor, much like the Third Stone Cutter in an earlier blog post (check it out if you have the time), extends his impact outside of himself. In doing so, he creates a cause -- a vision, a meaning, a mission --- big enough for all of us to root for. The purpose of his work is clear and all of us can feel a part of it.

When we help clients craft their admissions essays, we never lose sight of the fact that Admissions Committees are made up of people who find meaning in their work by believing that it matters on a global scale who they decide to extend offers of admission. Whether at undergraduate colleges or MBA programs, all Admissions Committees want to give those spots to the people they believe will make the most of them. The surest way to make that argument in your application is to clearly explain not only the nature of your work, but its purpose as well. 

What Stonecutters know about writing a compelling MBA admissions essay

Harvard is home to a famous allegory often attributed to the late management guru Peter Drucker. The fable initially came to my attention from an address Harvard University President Drew Faust made in 2008 on the future of business education. It is The Parable of the Three Stone Cutters and while many versions of it exist, this one is mine:

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The Parable of the Three Stone Cutters

A rich nobleman was on a journey far away from home, when he encountered three laborers toiling away in the quarry by the side of the road. When his caravan stopped for a rest, he called out to them and asked each what he was doing.

The first rested his arm on his pick, wiped the sweat from his brow, and replied, 'I’m making a living – as honestly as I can.'

The second stood tall, puffed out his chest and replied, 'I’m working hard to become the best stone cutter in all these lands.'

The third barely looked up, instead pointing a finger skyward. 'I’m building a cathedral.'

The question that often follows this parable is which of the three stone cutters is the most compelling? Let’s put it another way. If you were an MBA admissions director and had one final spot in your class for a stone cutter, who would you admit? Are they all the same, or do their answers reveal something important about their work and motivations? Let’s examine them in turn.

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The First Stone Cutter is transactional. He is providing for his family and the nature of his work is ancillary. He provides no reason as to why he is a stone cutter instead of some other profession. Maybe his true calling was to be a brick layer. He doesn’t bring any passion to his description of his work and so we’re not that excited about it either. If we were to consider his future, what would we expect his next career move to be? We really have no idea. His vision offers no roadmap of where he’s been and where he is going. We really know nothing about him.

The Second Stone Cutter is professional. He is motivated to become the best version of himself. With confidence, we may assume that his current job is a necessary step on his path to become a better stone cutter. We can imagine a set of follow-on jobs – surveyor, foreman, architect – that he may pursue once he has learned everything he can at his current job. Sure, stone cutting may not be that interesting to us, but we can admire someone’s dedication to their chosen profession. Yet somehow his story is still lacking. His vision starts and ends with himself. He sounds like he is gliding through the world, not improving it. He offers no “cause” that we can be behind if we were inclined to support him, except perhaps a scholarship for stone cutter school.

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The third stone cutter is aspirational. He tells us nothing about his specific work or how he came to pursue it, yet we understand him instinctively. We know why he is doing what he is doing and have a clear road map of where we think he will go. He offers a mission that is audacious, concrete, and larger than himself. It’s a vision we can root for and one large enough for us to imagine concrete ways of helping.

What makes the Third Stone Cutter so much more compelling than the other two is his narrative. Though he may be engaged in the small work of cutting a single stone, he vividly shows us how it fits into a greater mission. His purpose in life has shocking clarity. In our hearts, he is so much more than just a stone cutter. He is a “cathedral builder”.

Now, think about how you can apply this parable in your MBA application. How can you become the Third Stone Cutter?

"Narrative" vs "Brand" - Which is best?

Many admissions consultants focus on "brand" while we at Ivy Admissions Group focus on "narrative." Every future leader who works with us on a Complete School Package has their personal narrative developed through our proprietary Narrative Bootcamp.

What is the difference? Which should you maximize in your application? 

Brand

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A brand statement is a pithy phrase used to describe an admissions candidate. In 25 words or fewer these statements seek to capture the essence of who you are, what you have done, and where you are headed. These statements are relatively easy for people to write themselves. For example, 

Battle-tested female veteran accomplished in leading analytical teams in high pressure environments seeking a job as an investment banker in Chicago.

Athletic and analytical male ex-consultant with start-up experience seeking to build competencies as a general manager at a large manufacturing conglomerate.

The problem with these statements is that they just sort candidates into buckets. All they do is tell the admissions committee who they are supposed to compare the candidate against, not why this candidate is the best one. In this way, brand statements for people are just like brand statements for cereal -- they tell us that Lucky Charms is different than Shredded Wheat, but don't offer a compelling reason why it is the best.

Narrative

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In contrast to the who, what, and where of a brand statement, a personal narrative focuses on the why. Whereas the brand statement distills the facts on your resume, the personal narrative is a story arc that connects your personal inspirations and motivations to your career aspirations. In the case of an MBA application, a personal narrative will inform the admissions committee how you ended up on your current life story arc, show where this arc will take you by projecting it into future, and then argue why business school is the logical next step in your career because it is the perfect bridge to connect the two. Consider a narrative we can tell for the military officer in the first brand statement above:

I joined the military as an intelligence briefer because I wanted to personally advise senior leaders, work with top-talent peers, and thrive in a team-first culture. As I complete my service, I'm applying for an MBA because I want to transition to investment banking where I can still experience all the best qualities of my former job, while also helping reinvigorate businesses back home in the Midwest. 

This narrative is much more compelling than the brand statement above because it explains to the admissions committee why the applicant did what she did, what she values, where she is going, and how an MBA will help. It makes total sense why she is going to business school and the admissions committee should give her a spot in the class. She is a person, not a product.