We’ve kind of been hitting this theme a lot so far this season and partly that’s because you come to EssaySnark for the goodies you can’t get just anywhere. Nowadays, with the admissions offices being (slightly) more transparent with how they handle their admissions processes, and with more and more admissions consultants out there hawking…
Smart school administrators keep their mouths shut about their competition. Because like really, how could you know??
EssaySnark has trouble enough keeping track of all the changes and trends going on across the MBA landscape, and it’s OUR JOB to keep track of them.
How can you expect a school admissions person to know what all the other schools are doing with their curricula, research, and programs every year?
If you hear an admissions person or a school dean say that theirs is “the only” school that has such-and-such, well, they’re almost undoubtedly wrong.
The utter ridiculousestness part of this is: Many rankings systems rely on deans to rank their peers.
YES!! Some deans apparently have a hard enough time keeping track of what's going on in their own schools! How in heck do they have a clue what any other school is doing? TYFT https://t.co/9jwu55eLRZ
— Essay Snark (@EssaySnark) June 13, 2019
EssaySnark is not going to change that system — though we do think you should be aware of it! It’s just one of the many reasons we think rankings are stupid.
We are much more concerned, though, about the influence that we hope to have in the context it matters: What you say in your essays.
If you feel tempted to write in your essays that you want to go to some school because it’s “the only” school that has such-and-such — based on what you heard a dean or an admissions person say — then you’re probably only repeating a fallacy. And that seems kinda lame. Like, in this era, we should all be vigilant about not perpetuating fake news, right?
If you don’t see the problem with that, fine. You’re right. Repeating to the school what the school themselves said cannot be that much of a crime. But much more important to consider is the actual utility of such a statement on your chances of admission. Will it help you? That’s the lens through which to evaluate everything you say in your MBA app.
Even though the school themselves said that they’re “the only” school for blahbaddyblah1, for you to say it is not helping you to make your case for why you want to go to that school. It may seem like it’s making the case, but it’s not.
Because presumably, the thing-you’re-citing as so important is, sure, cool and maybe groovy and perhaps Top-100 level awesome. But if you don’t make it into the school you’re slathering all this praise on, you’ll go somewhere else, and that school will serve your professional development needs just dandy. Which kind of refutes the whole idea of pitching one school on being “the only one” for you. If schools are essentially interchangeable, then talking up one feature in an essay as being soooooo important can sort of come across as butt-kissing. Just a bit. You know?
We know where this comes from though, and it’s not an intentional evil. It’s just how stuff happens. Like a game of telephone.
(We won’t name names or anything but) we’ve heard bschool deans utter absolute nonsense in media interviews, probably in full innocence and not meaning to actually lie, but they end up totally misrepresenting what’s available in other schools when they do it. And you, innocent BSer, hear this dean say something, and you latch onto it as a Good Reason, and don’t investigate further. You take it at face value, but it turns out maybe not actually in the real world to be true.
It’s kinda like the thing about an MBA admissions consultant who advertises that they used to work as Admissions Director at Business School X, implying what an advantage that must be. That may sound very, very alluring — wouldn’t you want to get the help of someone who used to evaluate applicants? They must be the insider of all insiders! They will bring all of the secrets!
But there are some serious issues in moving from one side of the admissions table to the other, the biggest being that evaluating an end product to decide if it’s someone to accept is a totally different task than coaching a candidate on how to work through their raw material to construct that end product, that will then be accepted by the admissions person. Sure, they’re both about looking at you with a critical eye to see if you have those traits that the business schools want in their classes. But it’s a very different set of skills to help someone build a great application, versus saying, “Yes, no, waitlist” on the other end of that process.
It’s the same type of thing with a school bragging about its awesome initiatives, programs and opportunities. When an admissions person does their song and dance at an information session, they’re in sell-mode: They’re telling you all the great things about their school. It’s only natural to want to do some compare-and-contrast in how differentiated they are against their peers.
Because you know what? All the schools really start to sound the same if you’ve been listening to a few of these pitches.
The rep from the school isn’t intending to lie. They are just phrasing things that way to showcase their advantages and their benefits. Or, maybe, someone who did some competitive analysis of their new offering against the marketplace of their competitor schools came up with the conclusion that theirs is a new program, that no other school has it, and they’ve tagged that into their marketing ever since, believing it to be true.
It almost definitely isn’t.
If you hear something at School X and get all excited about it, then definitely take notes on that — it could be something that’s really powerful to talk about in your essays, when you can articulate the reason you get excited about it.
But if someone tells you their school is “the only” to do blah blah blah, then skip that part if you reference it in your apps, and also, don’t be deterred from researching the MBA marketplace for yourself, to see if that same feature exists at some other school, too. Ask around. See what your contacts say. It can be a little awkward to stumble into this for yourself. You hear that School X is “the only” school that has such-and-such, and then the next day you’re talking to a student at School Y who asks which other schools you’re considering, and you say, “School X, because they’re the only ones that have such-and-such” and she’s all, “We have such-and-such. We’ve had that for years.” And you’re like, “Oh.”
Of course, there’s exceptions to this statement, but on the whole, there aren’t that many new things out there in bschool-land. Schools tend to copy each other. Maybe School Y doesn’t have exactly the same thing but they have something really similar, or they’re calling it something different. One example is the major (or concentration, or whatever your school calls it) of Organizational Behavior. That’s an old standby that every school offers; most schools have a required course in the core curriculum, that all students take, in Organizational Behavior. Well guess what? Booth just renamed their version to “Behavioral Science” which ya gotta admit, sounds way sexier.
Most schools do have what the other schools offer.
Perhaps School Y school isn’t broadcasting its presence on campus so loudly, maybe because they’ve had it around a long time and it’s not the latest shiny object that’s being featured in their own PowerPoint, or they have so many other fabulous things that they aren’t making that a #1 priority in their marketing. This is another reason why your own school research can be so fruitful, since you can uncover those hidden gems — and if you are able to feature those in your essays and talk about why they’re important to you, it can go a long way to making a convincing argument.
Saying in an essay that they’re the only school to offer some certain program isn’t that compelling. It just says they have the program. Tying your statements into your own personal reasons is always a more powerful way to pitch your reader.
And basically: Critical thinking. Critical thinking is how to live in this world. Not being critical, but being a careful consumer of information you’re being told.
Including by us!
Think stuff through. Vet it for yourself. Make sure it makes sense before you adopt it for your worldview.
Or your essays. 😀
ETA 2 weeks later: Refreshingly, we just saw MIT Sloan admissions respond to a question in a chat with “I don’t know how we compare to other schools.” Yay Sloan!
1 Does anyone know how this should be spelled? Doesn’t look right. Suggestions? Leave ’em in the comments please!
This paragraph is stolen from our just-published 2019 MBA application guide for Kellogg in our discussion of Kellogg Essay 2: Please. Please. Do not use values like “collaboration” and “teamwork.” That would be pandering. In some very rare cases, yes, there is a Brave Supplicant out there who does truly care about such qualities. But…
A crucial part of your school research process is talking to students, ideally on campus when you go for a visit, or second-best at a school’s recruiting event, or if nothing else, then hopefully at minimum by phone. You’ll want to talk to them in-depth about their experiences (Pro Tip: not about your apps). Do this with as many students as you can, at all the schools that you’re interested in.
But! Warning! This is a one-dimensional source of information!
The hardest thing of all is that once you’re talking to students at one school or another, all they do is rave about THEIR school, and perhaps explain why they chose School X over School Y when they were in your shoes — but it’s IMPOSSIBLE to do a truly apples-to-apples comparison since nobody goes through 2 bschool programs. So all they can say are the things they like (often parroting what the school promotes, like “Columbia! It’s amazing! We’re at The Center of Business!”) or every now and then you’ll find some disgruntled student who is more forthcoming on what they don’t like about their school…. but this is pretty rare, because they know how much student satisfaction ties in with rankings, and everyone wants their school to be highly ranked. Plus, once you’re there, you become part of the cult and you’ve drunk the kool-aid, so expressing negatives about your choice can make you feel ostracized from the tribe. Most people aren’t that brave (or aren’t that pissed off about whatever they’ve experienced as negatives to voice it to a stranger met in this context). And, having YOU choose their school validates THEIR own choice for having chosen it, too. Complicated human emotions.
Recent grads are sometimes better able to have perspective but they too can be subject to those same factors, and hop on that bandwagon to try to convince new admits to sign up.
Here’s a refreshingly introspective editorial piece from a current Stanford student (the college, not the bschool) who recognizes the issue.
Definitely keep talking to people. But as we’ve cautioned before: Be a sponge, yet have a filter.
Fit: The Ferrari is super sexy but have you ever tried to drive one of those things? Or just ride in it – stiff. Or just get in and out of the darn thing.
Fit is when you find your peeps. It’s when you find your tribe.
We’re not trying to imply that everything about your bschool experience will be, or should be, comfortable. Maybe the challenge of driving a Ferrari is what you need for awhile in your life. Or maybe, if you’re already someone with caviar tastes, the challenge of driving a Ford is what you need to evolve as a person. You know, to, like, keep the ego in check and make you humble.
In bschool-land, fit comes in many forms. It comes in many questions. It’s things like:
Do you want to go to a large school or a small school?
When starting out your research for an MBA, a good way to filter out appropriate schools is by the size of the program. There’s a few angles to this, including:
- Does the business school have a lot of other degree programs? If so, there’s obviously going to be a lot more students on campus. Schools like Wharton and UC-Berkeley and Michigan and NYU offer undergraduate programs in business. While you probably won’t be interacting with the college kids at all during your MBA studies, it does make for an overall bigger school and gives the place a different feeling, with more stuff happening and more people involved.
- Does the school have a wide variety of MBA programs? If they offer a part-time and/or executive MBA, do students in those tracks interact with the full-time classes? Some schools have a more segregated approach, based mostly on class scheduling; part-timers and EMBA students are around during evenings and weekends whereas full-time students take classes during the day. Other schools like Columbia offer mixed classes where you may be studying alongside people from the different MBA programs along with law school students too.
- Most important: How big is each entering class of full-time MBA students? This information is easily found on the schools’ websites and on the BusinessWeek school listings.
Most people focus on this last metric – class size – when they talk about the size of a business school. Harvard is one of the largest MBA programs, with about 900 people in each entering class. This means that there are almost 2,000 students at school every day – which is quite a lot! It also means that their network is vast, global, and diverse. Many people feel that that alone is a key benefit to attending a big school.
By contrast, you have schools like Yale, Tuck, or Berkeley with only around 250 students in each class. Such a small class size fosters a more intimate environment. There’s a greater likelihood that you will get to know the majority of your peers at one of those schools than would even be possible at a larger school. It also means that there are fewer professors on campus, but the ones who are there are more likely to be permanent members of faculty and it is often easier to forge longer-term relationships with teachers who are more embedded in the university like that.
So, as you can see, there’s a tradeoff. What you should be thinking about is, what kind of environment will you do best in? Some like the experience of meeting new people all the time. Others feel that they may get lost in a community that’s too large. What’s your personal learning style? Think back to your college days, and what type of environment that was. Did you attend a larger school or a smaller one? Do you think that was the ideal for you? If so you can seek that out for business school, and if not then this might be an important factor to use in choosing your school targets.
Using school size as a filter can be an easy way to make the first cut on which schools might be appropriate for you, to start to narrow down your choices.
Another much less methodical approach is choosing schools by the people who went there.
Different schools attract different types. You find out someone went to School X; that gives you info about the school. Do people you work with have MBAs? Where did they go? As an extreme example, you could compare the manager who went for a local MBA vs CEO who went to Harvard (obviously we’re playing to stereotype there but often, stereotypes hold true). Look through your network, find out who you know went to bschool and — especially if they graduated within the last five years — reflect on what type of person they are. Sometimes (not always) that can give you a degree of insight about the school.
This really only works for more recent grads, however. It wasn’t until the past ten-ish years that schools began putting such an emphasis on culture, and they only have the luxury of doing so in times of increasing app volumes. When app volumes go down, then they select the best candidates they can out of the pool and they might not be quite so discriminating when it comes to character and these qualities of individual fit.
Or if all of this is too much trouble:
Don’t worry about “School Fit” — just apply to the Top 10 schools. It’s bound to work out!
We spent most of the past few weeks laying out pointers and cautioning against mistakes we see MBA applicants making all the time, which can essentially be summarized as one big warning about how much time this is going to take and that you need to be working on it earlier than you ever imagined…
Just in case you were starting to wonder why you put in all this effort only to have to sit on your hands for what seems an interminable amount of time while the schools figure out if they even want to meet you to interview… Today we have a fun update to share! This person sent in a happy update once they started their first semester at their Dream School last Fall. We are sharing it with permission so that it hopefully can infect you with excitement for what you are working towards.
B-school has pretty much lived up to the hype. And all the things I heard about the first semester are actually true – recruiting hits you earlier than you thought it would, there are some tough courses, and it’s easy to sometimes get blown away by the diversity you see in your class. This last point, more than anything else, has been what I’ve enjoyed most at NYU Stern in the two months I’ve been here. And by the way, the EQ thing seems to be true too. My classmates are highly accomplished in multiple ways, but they are mostly nice and helpful human beings as well.
As you had suggested, this was the right choice for me – I love the people, the exposure to media that I have here, and yes, New York!
But when I was randomly going through some of your latest posts, I find one very interesting comparison between Columbia and Stern (not the first time you’ve pitted those two against each other). I entirely agree with you – Stern is still seen as an ‘inferior’ school by many, even some of my current classmates! There are some who have remarked that they decided to attend Stern only because either they got a sizeable scholarship or that it happened to be the highest ranked school they could get into. This is rather perplexing to me, and even disheartening. Stern was one of my top choices, as you know, and I have been more than impressed by the quality of the student body, professors and the access that I have to all top companies across industries so early in my MBA. What else were these people looking for? This ‘status anxiety’ is rather disappointing.
That being said, I do wish we had some time for career exploration before recruiting began. It starts too early in my opinion, and the process is even more stressful because of the increasing conversion rates for summer internships into full-time offers. Most students see getting a big summer internship as their primary goal, after which the second year promises to be more relaxed. This is not entirely surprising for international students though, as the number of companies ready to sponsor them have reduced significantly in the last two years.
Anyway, I have to get back to work. I promise to be back again for another update in a few months.
All the best for the admissions season!
And all the best to you, too, former BSer! And all we can say is: When trying for an MBA, it’s very easy to get caught up in the hype and FOMO and get confused around what an MBA will actually bestow. Going to a “top” school becomes paramount, and there’s a good chunk of Sternies who end up there only because everywhere else that they tried turned them down. Stern remains one of those sleeper schools that flies under the radar, but which in our eyes is an underappreciated gem! But if someone wants an MBA because of the prestige they think it’ll bestow, then an admit to NYU and NYU only is gunna be a letdown. It’s not an ego-enhancing school. Maybe that’s why we appreciate them so much, because they are high quality and innovative and they have been strong carriers of culture and values since the beginning of time. That’s one reason it was so enjoyable to work with this BSer when they were applying to bschools, because it seemed that they were choosing their targets intelligently, for personal and professional reasons that went beyond the shine, to the substance. Always gratifying to see a candidate like that make it in to their top choice institution!! And always fun to get reports like this from the field when they start in on the adventure. All of you now applying: Don’t forget about the ‘Snark, ya hear? We’d love to post updates like this from your experiences, too, when the time comes next Fall. Fingers are crossed for all of your successes to come!! 🙂
Are you just starting to kick the tires on the idea of going to bschool?
Hopefully you’ll put into it at least as much effort as you would if you were buying a new car.
We don’t mean “effort” like hanging out in applicant forums. Reading all the posts in the Harvard Business School thread is highly unlikely to be a useful expenditure of your time. You may as well be hanging out in a fanforum on the latest Real Housewives segment. There is hardly anything of concrete value to be had if you’re there.
Obviously we’re biased. 😀
That doesn’t mean you can’t hang out on those boards if you like to, but often they’re filled with half-truths and falsehoods along with one or two kernels of data you can use. Sifting through all of that is fine but recognize that it’s entertainment. You’re there because your brain enjoys reading about other people’s trials and tribulations and opinions. You’re not there to learn how to get into Harvard.
Really, the process of school research should be approached at this early stage like you’re shopping.
If you’re in the market for a big-ticket item, then likely you start by reading up on the thing. Whether you want to buy a house and you’re spending all your time scouring the real estate sites, or you’re looking at cars and you’re immersed in makes and models and options packages, or you want to buy a new surfboard or the latest iPhone or some gadget, you’re probably doing it by reading the web.
You can do that with bschool too. It’ll at least help you get acclimated to the whole process, and perhaps get an appreciation of the challenges of breaking in to a school like Harvard or Wharton or Kellogg or wherever.
But if you really want to understand what the options are, you need to experience them in person. We have already suggested that you plan a road trip to get on campus and see these schools for yourself. If you can do that, we highly recommend it.
That’s not the only thing you can do, though. At this early stage, you can be nurturing a mindset. You’re in “shopping mode” where you’re researching and investigating and finding out what’s available. You’re taking inventories of all the options and filing them away in the brain. You’re being a buyer where you’re looking to see what the market offers, and finding out what’s important to you.
Before you start shopping for a new car, for example, you are vaguely aware that there are cars, and trucks, and SUVs, and gas, and hybrid, and all-electric. But you probably don’t really know what you personally care about. Your priorities are not yet fully formed.
The only way to discover what matters to you in a business school is to learn about business schools. Saying “I want an MBA!” is only the beginning. Most people have very little appreciation for what an MBA is about.
Maybe you know that you’ll learn finance and accounting and stuff (or at least, we HOPE you know that!). But what else is there?
What does bschool even teach you? What does the MBA involve?
Then, you need to go to the next level. In college, you declared a major. Does it work that way in business school too? Will you major in some specific topic or discipline like you did in undergrad?
Well you might, at some schools — but not most. Some allow you to declare a concentration or an area of focus, but most only require their standard core curriculum and then you get to determine the rest of your education, based on electives. Every school does this part differently. Some even require you to apply to a specific concentration or program within the curriculum, like the Columbia Value Investing Program which is very selective and not everyone makes it in. These are the details that you need to be conversant in if you’re going to be applying there as a finance person (just to use that as an example).
So, knowing what’s common to all MBA programs, and what are specific to the school that you’re interested in, is very important.
None of this even is touching on the other very important aspect of culture. A school’s culture is developed through any number of forces, including school size, location, physical placement of the bschool on the overall university campus, and most especially its leadership and where the administration places its attention. A school like Haas was one of the early adopters of culture as an important element of their school; other schools have also surfaced culture more directly as part of their pitch to the marketplace of MBA applicants. Most recently Tuck embedded their values into their essay questions, telling candidates that “Tuck students are nice, aware, accomplished, and smart” or some such, and asking applicants to write about themselves in those dimensions as well. (Not an easy essay question to do!! We hope and pray that Tuck modifies its approach at least somewhat this season.)
So at this early stage of your MBA journey, you need to go into shopping mode. Be a sponge (but have a filter). Soak it all up, and take lots of notes. Talk to everyone you can. Figure out all the ways that an MBA can be done, by learning about how these different schools do it.
Later in the process, you’ll move from “shopping” mode as a buyer, to “selling” mode as an applicant, where you need to package yourself up and present yourself effectively in the essays to pitch the adcom on why they should select you. That’s the essence of this “school fit” thing that you may be hearing about. The dynamics will be different then, when you go from the fun part of all this researching and excitement of hearing about the adventures of bschool, to the stressful part of identifying the elements that the schools care about in your own profile, and figuring out how to tell the best stories in those essays, in response to the school’s essay questions, in a way that lets you highlight those qualities well. Writing essays is to some extent a marketing exercise, and your approach there needs to have your audience in mind. You’ll be in a position of wanting the adcom to pick you so that’s a seller’s mindset, where you need to be attractive to the one who is choosing.
Then — hopefully!! — later on, after you have done all the hard work of convincing these adoms, you will switch back into buyer mode again, when you (again, hopefully!!) will be in a position of choosing between two or more great offers of acceptance. You will be amazed at how much the tone of the admissions process changes once the schools have said “yes” to you and they are actively courting you as an accepted candidate who they hope will matriculate. For the Class of 2022 candidates, that’s way far off in the future, so let’s not get too ahead of ourselves with the optimism.
For now, leveraging the buyer’s mindset as you gather information and learn learn learn about what options are available is the fun part. Doing this type of on-the-ground firsthand research is the very best way to discover what you want out of an MBA experience, and to find the school and the school community that can give that to you in a way that fits your personality, priorities, and style.
When we say “do research on the schools” then that may be a turn-off, as it can sound like work, like we’re giving you a task to complete. But really this is where you can do some exploring and future-self dreaming. You may also want to pop for the Comprehensive Profile Review at some stage along the way, to make sure that your dreams are lining up with the realities of your profile, and gain even more fuel for the research effort at hand. Either way, enjoy this part; being a shopper and learning about options can be exciting and fun, and now is the time to be tackling that.
Yesterday we teased with the opening of a back-and-forth we had with a last-year Brave Supplicant who was tormenting over a decision on which great MBA program to choose. We invited them to lay out their thinking for us. Here’s what they wrote back: Hi ES, First of all, please feel free to use…
Choosing between 2 MBA programs means you need to look at ROI, cost, location, tuition, financial aid – getting accepted is only half the battle, it seems! Let’s talk through some example cases.