News, advice and resources for business school applicants

Application Tips

Admissions Tip: The Interview Final Touch

Over the last months, we’ve focused on helping applicants prepare to answer the various questions they’ll be posed during their interviews, but there is one in particular to which we have not paid much attention.  Today, we wanted to offer a few tips in navigating the nearly inevitable interview finisher: “Do you have any questions for me?”

This seems like a harmless inquiry, and indeed poses a great opportunity, but there’s actually a fine line to walk here.  You certainly want to take advantage of this opportunity to show the interviewer that you appreciate his or her time, perspective and knowledge.  In determining what to ask, however, you need to avoid those questions to which you could easily find an answer on the school’s website (remember that it’s imperative that you show you’ve done your homework), as well as those that are so specific or obscure that they will stump the interviewer.  Another sort of question to avoid are those that seem to be critical of the program or too concerned with other applicants; now is not the time to ask about application volume or the strength of the pool this year.

What does that leave?  More than you might initially expect.  We’ve found that a great approach is to ask your interviewer about his or her own perspective and experience.  Current students and alums, who involve themselves in the admissions process are generally those who are having or have had a positive experience in business school.  If your interviewer falls into one of these categories, he or she will likely appreciate the chance to talk about a favorite class or professor, or comment on involvement in a certain club.  Meanwhile, when engineering questions to pose to full-time admissions staff, remember that these individuals likely have less in-depth information but a longer-term perspective on the program than would someone who is currently attending or has attended.

Armed with these tips, you should be able to foster a positive and productive conversation, learn a bit more about the program in question, and make a positive impression on your interviewer.

If you have further inquiries about the best questions to pose in your interview (or any other aspect of the interview process), contact Clear Admit directly and sign up for our mock interview service.  We offer school-by-school interview guides, strategy sessions and mock interviews to help you perform at your best on interview day.  Also, do not forget to use the Clear Admit Interview Report Archive as a resource for interview preparations!

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Admissions Tip: Understanding Background Checks

With a slew of schools releasing the last of their R1 notifications in the coming weeks, we know that many of our readers will be asking about the background checks conducted by leading programs.  Here are some quick facts to help explain the process:

1) What are background checks?  Background checks involve the verification of information that a candidate has provided in his or her MBA applications.  Although the process varies from school to school, it usually includes checking that an applicant attended the undergraduate (or graduate) school(s) that he or she claims to have attended, received the grades indicated and earned the GMAT score reported.  It also involves the verification of the candidate’s employment history, job titles, starting and ending dates and salary/bonus information.  Finally, some background checks involve contacting recommenders to verify their support and confirming applicant involvement in community activities.

2) Do all schools conduct background checks?  When do they do this?  How do they have time?  Many of the leading MBA programs like to verify the information that has been provided by applicants.  This is typically done only for those applicants who are admitted, since there is no sense in expending resources to verify information for applicants who do not make the cut.  Most background checks occur in the spring – after decisions for most rounds have been released and students begin sending in their deposits.  In many cases, the schools outsource this function to a professional risk consulting firm like Kroll.

3) Why bother with background checks?  Don’t the schools trust me?  The purpose of background checking is to protect all stakeholders of the MBA program (students, faculty, staff, alumni) from those who would falsify their backgrounds to gain an unfair advantage in the admissions process.  Some schools opt to investigate the backgrounds of a relatively small sample of randomly selected admits, hoping that the mere possibility of a check will give applicants incentive to be as honest as possible.  In a way, this measure therefore serves to increase the adcom’s trust in its applicants.

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Admissions Tip: Essay-Writing Difference Makers

We often stress that, to present oneself effectively in application essays, it’s critical to think carefully about what a given question is asking and what this might indicate about a specific school’s admissions priorities.  Of course, it’s also imperative to communicate clearly and appropriately regardless of the target program or particular inquiry.

As many applicants are feverishly putting the finishing touches on their essays for programs with deadlines this week and next, we wanted to offer a few general guidelines to keep in mind during that final revision.  Time is tight, we know, but a few small changes can make a considerable difference, so today we’re going back to basics and offering a few broadly applicable tips on tone and style to keep in mind when polishing the written elements of your applications.

1. Be Professional.  While a number of schools ask fun questions and most urge applicants to be themselves rather than submitting “overly polished” materials, it’s important to remember that this is a graduate school application and you should approach your essays with a degree of formality.  You do want your unique narrative voice to come through, but even professional writers know to vary their tone based on their audience.  As such, you should avoid using slang and conversational speech patterns in your writing.

2. Emphasize Action. A common pitfall for many applicants is lapsing into the passive voice, constructing sentences about how some unseen force or agent acted upon something or someone else (e.g. “we were required to” or “the project was completed”) rather than putting their own thoughts and actions at the fore.  By making a conscious effort to write “I/he/she did x” rather than “x was done to y” you can make your comments more informative, dynamic and, often, more concise.

3. Avoid Repetition.  It’s often a good idea to give the reader a sense of an essay’s direction through an introduction and to sum up the key ideas through a conclusion, but ideally each sentence of an essay will add some new information to the document or build the reader’s understanding of what you’ve already written.  Keeping this rule in mind as you revise can help trim a response down to the word limit and ensure that you are including as much relevant information about your candidacy as you can within the allotted length.

For those of you still struggling with your essays as the deadlines approach, feel free to reach out to Clear Admit for help with last-minute application reviews.  Best of luck to everyone!

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Admissions Tip: Avoiding Common Pitfalls, Part II

Last week we offered some advice to help applicants avoid common pitfalls in writing their essays for the Round 2 deadlines.  This week we’d like to offer some more advice.  Although these tips might not apply to everyone or to every school, these are some good basic strategies to employ.  For personalized advice about your applications, contact Clear Admit directly.

1.    Think strategically when delving into anecdotes that are highly personal.
  While breaking up with your college sweetheart may have had some impact on who you are today, you’ll want to be careful about using personal matters as the basis for an essay.  While there are certainly exceptions, we find that examples from the professional sphere or from extracurricular activities typically make for stronger, and more compelling, essays, as they speak to the things that the admissions committee cares the most about, including qualities and skills that relate to professional success.

2.    Keep it current.  In considering which examples to explore in an application essay, one should choose college and post-college experiences to elaborate on, as these experiences will appear to have the most relevance for your application and provide the greatest insight into the person you will be on the campus of the MBA program.  In other words, if your essays prominently feature stories from high school, you are likely making a strategic mistake.  Younger applicants may find examples from college their strongest, as they may not have accrued the same leadership and teamwork experiences that older applicants with more work experience have.  All applicants, though, should include at least one recent story in their set of essays.
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Admissions Tip: Avoiding Common Pitfalls, Part I

Today we would like to offer a handful of essay pointers in brief in order to help applicants avoid common pitfalls as they gear up for the Round Two deadlines.  While we should caution that every applicant is unique and that some of these tips may not apply to everyone, we wanted our readers to have an introduction to some of the basic strategies they should be employing.  As always, contact Clear Admit directly for more tailored advice to your candidacy.

1.    Remember your reader. 
In application essays and résumés, applicants often get caught in the technicalities of their work, losing their reader in jargon.  Keep it simple in order to make your discussion easy for your non-specialist audience to understand.  Such clarity will help the reader to appreciate the nature and significance of your work.

2.    Be specific.
  Specifics are of the utmost importance in application essays, as the adcom wants to see details of what you’ve accomplished in the past, what you would like to achieve in the future, and how you are a good fit for the particular MBA program.  Explaining the reasons for your interest in the school will also help to differentiate you from the many other applicants arguing their case for a place in the MBA class, as they will show that you not only have clearly articulated goals, but also that you have a deep understanding of the MBA program and how it is uniquely appropriate for you*.  Though applicants sometimes worry about the word limit, it is important to keep in mind that you can replace often vague and generic points with specific ones without adding any length.  For instance, rather than stating that you would make a great and lasting impact on X industry, you can state that you would do A and B.

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Admissions Tip: Plan of Attack

With November wrapping up this week, Round Two deadlines for a number of programs are just around the corner.  As most applicants are targeting multiple schools and still working to narrow down their school selection, we wanted to take some time today to stress the importance of taking a deep breath and a step back and formulating a timeline for the coming weeks.  Establishing a set of incremental goals with regard to essay composition and recommender management at this point in the season will help you to avoid feeling overwhelmed and ensure that your aims are realistic.

One of our most important pointers pertains to the process of writing essays.  The urge to make progress on multiple fronts leads many applicants to work on essays for several schools in parallel, an approach that can be problematic.  One reason for this is that when one spends time immersed in three sets of essays at once, it’s easy to lose sight of the full picture he or she is presenting to any one school.  While it’s important to be oneself in the application process, it’s also crucial that an applicant tailor his or her materials to each school, a process that is made harder when constantly going back and forth among responses for various programs.  Another issue is that it’s easy to waste time implementing the same edits across documents for multiple schools, or to lose track of what one has changed in which essay.  For these reasons, we generally recommend focusing one’s full essay-writing attention on one program at a time.

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Admissions Tip: The Long Essay

Essay content you’ve polished for one school often serves as a great starting point for the next application, but as we’ve often said, customizing this text for the school in question is key.  One particular challenge we see applicants struggle with each year is effectively expanding a short essay they’ve written for one program in responding to a question on the same topic but with a longer limit.  With this in mind, we’d like to offer some pointers on converting condensed comments to more extensive remarks.

1) Expand in proportion.  When taking an existing response as a starting point for crafting a longer document, one good rule of thumb is to build upon each subject to more or less the same extent.  While elaborating on your work to date might involve less time and work than the more research-intensive “why School X” discussion, it’s generally prudent to maintain balance among subjects and provide all of the major pieces of information a school requests in equal measure.

2) Maintain focus.  One frequent issue with long essays is that they sometimes lack a clear sense of direction.  To ensure that the reader is able to understand the relevance of your remarks and follow the connections among the various ideas, it’s a good idea to include transition sentences at the beginning of each paragraph that tie the subsequent remarks and examples to the topic of the essay and clearly state how certain statements relate to the question.  This exercise also serves as a check for the applicant in making sure that all of the details in the essay are related to the subject.

3) Finish when you’re finished.  While it’s important to take advantage of the opportunity that each essay presents to share information about your candidacy, you shouldn’t feel obligated to reach the upper end of a suggested word limit/range if you feel that you’ve already addressed the question and presented a full picture of your interests and background.

Good luck to everyone composing essays with an eye to R2 submission!  For more tailored guidance on essays in particular or the application process in general, feel free to contact us.

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Admissions Tip: The Comparison Trap

We wanted to take some time today to discuss a frequently made mistake in the application process.  In their desire to make their case to their target MBA programs, many applicants devote sentences and even paragraphs to explaining why the school in question is their “first choice” and arguing its superiority over other schools.

Though certainly understandable, this is actually not a very productive exercise.  Let’s consider a few reasons why, from the schools’ point of view:

Tell me something I don’t know.
  A popular strategy – and not always bad one – for applicants seeking to demonstrate their fit with one school above any other is to study its website to understand the program’s self-determined selling points, and then profess an interest in those.  The thing that essay writers don’t always consider is that while a school’s distinguishing characteristics might be the factors that set it apart from others, this is not necessarily what the admissions committee wants to read about in an applicant’s essays.  The very admissions officer reading your file spends months every year pushing this marketing message out to prospective students.  Members of Harvard’s and Darden’s admissions staff know all about the merits of the case method, Kellogg and Duke’s admissions committees are already up to their ears in team-orientation, and Stanford and Yale could not be more aware of the benefits of a small class size.  This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t touch briefly on these key points (the schools highlight these for a reason), only to suggest that to put together a really compelling application, it’s important to push beyond high-level differentiators and immediate association and demonstrate that you’ve learned about the program on a deeper level.  In making room for this level of detail within a restrictive word limit, cutting other schools out of the picture is a great starting point.
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Admissions Tip: Interviewing the Interviewer

We’ve been offering a good deal of advice lately on how to conduct oneself and prepare responses to MBA interview questions.  Today we’d like to highlight the importance of thinking about what you might ask. Virtually all business school interviewers conclude their discussion by offering the applicant a chance to ask some questions about the program.  While it might be tempting to claim that you’ve already learned all you need to know about the school, this is actually a great opportunity to gain additional insight, show your enthusiasm about a specific element of the curriculum or community, and demonstrate that you appreciate the opportunity to learn from your interviewer’s experiences.

Here are a few simple guidelines to keep in mind while thinking about what you might ask:

1. Focus on the positive.  Now is not the time to conduct due diligence or express skepticism about a school’s academic program or career resources.  You’re still marketing yourself to the adcom at this stage of the process, so you’ll want to project enthusiasm and demonstrate a desire to become more familiar with a program’s merits and your potential fit.

2. Avoid the obvious and the obscure.  Because this is an opportunity to tap the interviewer’s unique knowledge and point of view (and he or she will assume that you did your basic research before applying), it’s best to avoid asking questions that could be answered by perusing the school’s website or speaking with anyone you might happen to encounter on campus.  On the other hand, you don’t want to ask something so obscure or specific that your interviewer might not have an answer.  Seeking the interviewer’s opinion on or impression of some element of the program often makes for a discussion that both parties will find interesting and enjoyable.

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Admissions Tip: MBA Interview Prep

With interview invitations from a number of programs already on their way out to Round One applicants, we wanted to offer some more advice on this element of the admissions process.  Last week we posted some very basic etiquette information that will help candidates ensure that everything is in order on the big day.  Today, we turn our attention to some steps one can take to prepare for the interview itself.

1) Know what to expect. This might go without saying, but interview types and duration vary across programs.  For instance, nearly all invited Stanford applicants interview with alumni, while on-campus Wharton interviews are conducted by second-year students and admissions staff.  Candidates for Columbia admission participate in an informative resume-based chat, while HBS and MIT interviewers have in-depth knowledge of the applicant’s entire file.  Thinking carefully about the format of the interview and the person conducting it will influence the sort of questions you might come prepared to ask and help you arrive at a mindset conducive to success.

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Admissions Tip: MBA Interview Etiquette

With interviews imminent for Round One applicants, we wanted to turn our attention to this important step in the admissions process and share a few very basic pointers on interview etiquette.  Though the content of your application materials and comments during the interview are of paramount importance, it’s also crucial to put one’s best foot forward and make a positive initial impression.  Here are a few guidelines for interviewing applicants to keep in mind:

1) Dress the part.  Unless meeting with an alum who explicitly specifies a more casual dress code, assume that business attire is appropriate. Continue reading…

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