The Eisenhower Matrix: A Five-Star General’s Application Strategy


Want to apply to business school like a master strategist? How about like a five-star general?

General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States, led the allies to victory in World War II not necessarily through the innovative tactics of Omar Bradley nor the personal ferocity of George Patton, but rather through superior planning. By staying focused on the most important tasks on his plate, keeping track of other tasks on the back burner, and removing unnecessary distractions, he developed what we know today as the Eisenhower Matrix.

On one axis, the question is asked whether a task is important – as in "how essential is this task to mission victory?" On the other axis, the question is asked if the task is urgent – "is this task time sensitive and does it have a deadline coming up soon?" Tasks are arrayed on this matrix according to the answers to these two questions.


Eisenhower would start with tasks in the top left box and accomplish them immediately. His goal was always to keep his top left box as clear as possible. He would then move to the bottom left box and quickly delegate those tasks to his subordinates. These were tasks that needed to be done, just not necessarily by the General. His key contribution here is picking the right person to accomplish the task, and following up to make sure it is completed. He then moved onto the top right box and decided when in his schedule he would get to these important, non-urgent tasks. If he didn’t plan them correctly, these tasks could quickly become urgent and fill up his “Do” box. Finally, if any tasks fell into the bottom right, he would simply cut them out of his calendar completely. His time was simply too important to be spent on things that did not add value.

We recommend building two Eisenhower Matrices during your application process. The first is for your GMAT study regimen. While your GMAT score is just a single data point in the over-all application, it is a necessary component and in part determines the strata of schools where your application will be competitive.


The second is for your MBA application process itself. Applying for your MBA is a marathon, and if you don’t sequence your priorities correctly it is highly likely that you will not sequence your work correctly. For example, filling out your application forms and asking for letters of recommendation before developing a narrative almost guarantees that whatever you produce will lack the thematic clarity and focus of a good application. It’s the equivalent of filming a movie without first writing the script. Another pitfall is to do the same before you decide whether to hire an admissions consultant and which one. Starting on applications before finalizing both decisions can lead to a lot of wasted effort before the consultant can find and fix the flaws in your story, and refocus you on higher-value parts of the story.

Impact! And how to include it in your resume


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?


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.” 


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.