MBA admissions tips

Author and consultant Paul Bodine answered questions from B-school applicants about the admissions process.

Here's a transcript of the online conversation.

Business school applicants are always looking for advice and strategies to write winning essays, perform well on the interview, and get into their dream business school.

Paul Bodine, author and admissions consultant, recently fielded questions from BusinessWeek reporter Francesca Di Meglio and the public at a live chat event about applications and getting accepted to top MBA programs.

Here is an edited transcript of the chat with information on everything from the importance of campus visits to deciding how to handle the failure essay properly on an application: PaulBodine2008: Starbot asked about applicants with weak postcollege extracurriculars getting into top-five business schools.

[The question was accidentally deleted from the system.] Business schools understand that IB and consulting folks, for example, have to work ungodly hours, but poor post-college extracurriculars is still a weakness that you need to compensate for, especially at the top schools.

If you have specific reasons, like a family crisis, then you should discuss that in an optional essay.

Most of my clients who get into the top schools have strong undergraduate as well as strong postgraduate [extracurriculars].

Sandip: I want to know how much weight adcom gives to a GPA in an application of a person with six years [of work] experience.

PaulBodine2008: The more work experience you have, the less adcoms care about undergrad GPA.

If your GPA is 3. 0 or higher and you have a high [say 620 or above] GMAT, then you should be fine.

Of course, at the top schools any blemish could be a reason to ding you in favor of someone else, so it also depends on where you're applying.

Soni: When asked about failure-related topics, is it advisable to write personal or professional? PaulBodine2008: Great question.

It depends on what material you've used in the other essays in that essay set, as well as which of your failures are the strongest stories [for example, what taught you the most?].

Given two failure stories of equal power, I might choose the personal one because it reflects less negatively on your career profile.

DWright: How important is it to visit a school's campus before applying? Does it appear as a "lack of interest" if you do not visit? PaulBodine2008: Schools will tell you they don't care if you visit.

But if you live in the Bay Area and never made it to Satnford's campus, that will hurt you.

Talking about your campus visits is one of the ways you can personalize your business school discovery process - for example, to show the schools that you have made extra effort to get to know them.

But INSEAD would not penalize someone from Mumbai for not making it to their campuses.

Starbot: From your experience as admissions consultant, do you see MIT Sloan's] preferred candidate profile to be different from perhaps Wharton's or Columbia's]? For example, would it be fair to say that MIT Sloan prefers those with Engineering/CS academic or career backgrounds, and have career goals in manufacturing/IT rather than banking/PE? PaulBodine2008: No, I don't think MIT Sloan has preferred applicants in terms of applicants' academic or professional background.

They want applicants to know about their strengths in multiple areas.

The preferred applicant profile at MIT is someone who makes a strong case that MIT's resources fit well with their career goals.

Soni: When asked to prepare a presentation about self, what should be the approach? PaulBodine2008: If you're referring to essays like Chicago's] PowerPoint essay, then your approach should be holistic: Try to communicate your entire profile and what makes it distinctive vis-a-vis other applicants.

At the same time, I recommend focusing more on your personal and community involvements in these presentation essays and de-emphasizing the professional, since you will have other essays in which to focus on the professional.

I do think these presentation essays should be strongly visual in nature.

desaiguy: If a school asks for two letters of recommendation, should they be from different employers or does that not matter? PaulBodine2008: The most important criteria are that [a] the two letters be your strongest recommendations, [b] that both of them know you very well through sustained work with you, and [c] that they each focus on different stories/examples.

If two supervisory-type people from your current employer meet those criteria, then you're O.

K.

However, if you worked for four years for one employer and only the past year for your current employer, then the schools will definitely want a letter from the previous boss [as well as the current one].

Sandip: This year, the volume of applications is comparatively higher.

Any suggestion for international students, apart from applying early? PaulBodine2008: Well, you will need to work even harder than ever to stand out from the pack, since much of that increased volume is coming from overseas.

That means accentuating what's distinctive about your professional, personal, and community experiences and trying to project as much personality and focus in your essays as possible.

You should also work harder to network with people from your target schools, because showing personal knowledge of schools is one way to stand out from the crowd [since many applicants don't work hard to demonstrate specific knowledge of schools].

If you are still a year or two away from applying there are other more substantive things you can do to stand out from the pack [raise GMAT scores, seek leadership roles, be creative in your community involvements and hobbies, etc.].

Soni: How [should you] write an essay that involves more specific details about college such as community and culture? PaulBodine2008: Soni, not sure which essay question you have in mind, but as a general rule, I recommend using college-focused essays to talk about grades.

There is greater benefit in talking about your involvements and leadership, but of course special academic experiences like research, etc.are also worth discussing.

The best way to approach these essays is as a "journey," [where] you, for example, started college believing X and Y, but through your experiences you matured and grew and your perspective changed.

Sandip: Coming to extracurricular activity - most of us get a chance to participate, rather than leading an NGO or a voluntary organization.

Do you think participating in a social organization puts you at a disadvantage anyway? PaulBodine2008: No, participating in a social organization is in no way a disadvantage.

However, many applicants tend to volunteer at the same types of organizations, Habitat for Humanity or tutoring, for example.

Doing so is commendable, of course, but it doesn't help them stand out from other applicants.

It's true that it's hard for young people to find leadership roles in major volunteer organizations.

But one way around this is to volunteer at smaller organizations or to start one of your own.

Doing so will increase your opportunities for leadership experiences while also making your profile stand out a little bit from all the people who work as ESL tutors or volunteer at Make-a-Wish [both wonderful things to do, of course].

TheOsho: When one's goal is different from what he/she is doing at present, is it required to connect the present and future goals in the goals essays? PaulBodine2008: You should try to connect your current role to your post-MBA goals as much as possible.

For example, if experiences in your current role influenced your decision to change careers, explain how.

If you gained skills in your current role that are relevant to your post-MBA goal, state them.

But it's O.K.

if there's little connection between your current job and your post-MBA goals as long as you [a] give compelling reasons for why you want to change careers, [b] can show how you became interested in the new career, and [c] can show that you have done all the due diligence in learning about the new career [e.g., informational interviews, etc.

].

chengpp: Can you recommend a few schools with strong health-care/biomedical tracks in the top 20? PaulBodine2008: Kellogg, Wharton, Duke, Vanderbilt, Yale, Haas, Rochester], and Harvard Business School] all have strong health-care programs [though in varying ways].

As for biomedical tracks in particular, you would have to check with the schools.

Chitown: Do you believe, with the right amount of effort and work, one can increase his or her GMAT score from average to 700 plus? PaulBodine2008: Usually the gains in GMAT score that you can achieve through prep programs such as Kaplan or Manhattan GMAT are substantial but not breathtaking.

So if you average 600, then leaping into the 700s even with a lot of preparation is probably not so common.

Of course, it can be done if you give yourself enough time, make it your top priority, and invest in a rigorous prep program.

Good luck.

TheOsho: How specific should the career goals essay be? PaulBodine2008: Well, you shouldn't give them a business plan, but you should provide, say, a minimum of one long paragraph in which you sketch out short-, middle-, and long-term goals that mention specifics such as niche/industry segment, your possible job titles at various points, perhaps some firms you would want to work for.

If your goals are entrepreneurial or nontraditional you may want to devote even more space to making them credible.

This can be done by educating the reader about the niche you'll be focusing on or providing some market research-type numbers on the size of the market you plan to enter.

More than half a page on goals alone would probably be excessive.

DWright: Applications [often offer] significant space to cover "background" information [for example, family history, job responsibilities, reason for leaving a position].

Since they're not essay questions, is it O.K.

just to fill in using lists or do we need to go into detail? PaulBodine2008: Good question.

I would give them as much information as you can.

That is, I would not just provide lists or bullet point answers, but mini-paragraph answers [sentences].

You should err on the side of an over-full answer rather than a sketchy one because you want to try to maximize every opportunity in the app to give them new information about you.

desaiguy: Understanding that recommendations should come from the most qualified people to write them, does it make a difference if the recommender is an alum of the school to which he or she is submitting the recommendation? PaulBodine2008: Yes, if the recommender knows you well, is enthusiastic about you, gives lots of illustrative examples, and is hopefully a supervisor.

Then, yes, being an alum of the school is icing on the cake and can definitely help you.

It's not enough by itself to help you, however, if he doesn't know you well or gives a superficial recommendation.

Sandip: One common question we international students face is that most of the college-nominated ambassadors are either too busy or bored answering lots of questions.

Since we cannot always visit colleges in the U.S., is there anything you can suggest to get more info about colleges? PaulBodine2008: I think you need to move past the official school ambassadors and do some investigating on your own.

For example, contact the presidents of the school's student clubs and ask them questions [if you can't find them online, ask the school for contact info].

Contact the alumni association and tell them you want to speak to local alumni or do Google searches on the school to see what kinds of names you can find.

Even if you're only able to establish e-mail contact, these interactions can help.

TheOsho: Is it O.K.to use business-related words or phrases in the essays? PaulBodine2008: Yes, but you want to avoid hitting them with too much technical language and terms [IT product terms, etc.] or jargon such as "value proposition.

" A lot of applicants do this, so if you don't you'll, be helping yourself stand out from the crowd.

Afshar: I would like to know about the criteria for applying for scholarships in business schools? What exactly do they look at [when] short-listing the candidates? PaulBodine2008: Some schools award scholarships based on merit, so you can't do anything but hope you are a strong enough applicant that they'll want to offer you money to come.

Obviously, this is more likely to happen at schools where your raw numbers [GMAT, etc.] are much higher than the school's average.

There are also more specific scholarships, such as Stanford's Dhirubhai fellowship, where [aside from being Indian] you have to describe your vision for India's future, etc.

Sandip: A GMAT of 660, GPA 3. 6, six years of [work] experience, three years international with two years in research in the U.S., currently project manager in charge of biz development for U.S. operation, average community involvement.

What are my prospects? PaulBodine2008: Everything looks great except for the GMAT score.

Can you bring that up? If not, you will have trouble getting into top-10 schools.

Soni: Can you help us in writing our resume? What should we do and what should we write and what shouldn't we write? PaulBodine2008: You should omit the objective line and cut out most of the technical language.

Focus instead on bullets that show your impact and quantify it.

The bullets themselves should be "mini-accomplishments," not descriptions of job duties.

Make sure your resume supports both the themes and the specific examples you're presenting in your essays and recommendation letters.

You want every part of the application to reinforce every other part, while also providing new information not available elsewhere.

TheOsho: Selecting a school based on one's career interests and schools' strong area [say, finance] is how I have selected my target schools.

But is it a good strategy? [I ask] because for example, this way, most applicants to a school known for finance will be the ones wanting to major in finance, and this means more competition as the schools want diversity.

PaulBodine2008: That's an excellent point.

Yours is a good strategy, but to get around the difficulty you just mentioned, you could also add some schools to your short list that are not famously strong in your target field but do have resources to support your goals.

Doing this might enable you to get in as one of its less traditional applicants.

Another strategy would be to apply to well-rounded schools such as Michigan] or Wharton that are so strong in so many different fields that there's no "typical" applicant profile.

FrancescaBW: We have just a few minutes left.

Paul, why don't you tell us about your latest book? PaulBodine2008: Thanks, Francesca, I'd be glad to.

Later this year my book Perfect Phrases for Business School Acceptance will be published by The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP).

FrancescaBW: We should note that McGraw-Hill is the parent company to BusinessWeek.

PaulBodine2008: The book aims to give applicants examples of effective writing for all of the main essay types and essay sections.

For example, effective paragraph-length examples of challenge essays and goals essays, but also examples of essay introductions, conclusions, and responses to typical interview questions.

The examples are meant to get applicants started writing their own material by showing them how many different ways it's possible to present material effectively.

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