The Admit Office's Hate List Excuses don't cut it, say seasoned admissions officials. Here's what not to say, from the folks who have heard it all
Whether it be gaps in your employment history, significant job-hopping, or a lower-than-you'd like GPA or GMAT score, many prospective B-schoolers have something in their applications that they worry doesn't reflect their true abilities. Is the worry justified? Actually, say admissions counselors, yes. "If you think the admissions committee will question something, we probably will," says Alison Merzel, co-director of MBA admissions at Ohio State's Fisher College of Business]. Advertisement
You can try gloss over the shortcomings, or you can make excuses. Either way, you won't win any points with B-schools admissions offices. Fortunately, most schools' applications include an optional essay with an open-ended question like, "Is there any further information that you wish to provide to the Admissions Committee?" that's designed so you can explain any mitigating factors behind the data. "The more information that we have about you, the better," says Beth Flye, assistant dean and director of admissions and financial aid at Kellogg.
While some applicants might think that drawing extra attention to a problem could be a bad approach, admissions officers say addressing problems head-on—and demonstrating why you can succeed in spite of them—is a much better strategy than trying to hide behind them. "Don't leave a gap in your application that would leave us wondering. Address it, and then move on," says Christina Ballenger, co-director of MBA admissions at Ohio State.
But how you address the problem can make all the difference. In fact, admissions directors say MBA candidates sometimes go overboard trying to compensate for the weaknesses (or perceived weaknesses) in their applications. Here's what they say are some of the most common tactics that backfire.
1. Making Excuses Instead of Offering Explanations When addressing problems in your application, beware the fine line between explaining and making excuses. "We want everybody to take responsibility for their lives," says Rose Martinelli, associate dean of student recruitment and admissions at Chicago's Graduate School of Business. "Excuses drive me nuts."
For instance, in explaining inconsistencies in your application, use the old writing teacher's cliche, "Show, don't tell," as your guide. Daniel Garza, assistant dean at the University of Texas' McCombs School of Business, encourages taking a "journalistic approach": sticking to the facts, rather than editorializing. In other words, "Don't have a pity party for yourself in your application," says Ballenger.
"What I look for is complete honesty," says Brian Lohr, director of admissions at Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business. "There's an ethical component there, too." If you say you're a "not a good test taker"—and admissions officers say lots of people do— demonstrate how you've taken steps to deal with it in the past. ("And you can't tell me that if you only took the test once," Martinelli adds.) Low GPA? "Make a case for how it will be different this time around," says Anne Coyle, director of admissions at the Yale School of Management. No quantitative courses on your transcript? Talk about the statistics class you're taking now to catch up, says Kellogg's Flye.
And remember, there are only so many elements of your application you can explain away. "I'm too busy" is one excuse that often sends eyes rolling, especially when it's used as a catch-all to explain low test scores, lack of extracurricular involvement, and lackluster essays. "We get applicants from people working Herculean hours who still manage to turn in top-notch applications," says Wharton Director of MBA Admissions Thomas Caleel. "If you're too busy, maybe it's better to wait until the next round to apply."
2. Writing What You Think They Want To Hear "A lot of people assume—incorrectly—that's we're looking for a love letter," says Wharton's Caleel. While he says his office stresses this point "until we're all blue in the face," every year applicants still try to second-guess the admissions committee by writing what they think is the "correct" answer, losing their own voice in the process.
The tip-off, Flye says, are essays that sound "almost too crafted," and interviews that sound "almost scripted." Soojin Koh, interim director of admissions at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, says she sees candidates every year who opt for memorization instead of self-reflection. "They try to regurgitate our viewbook and Web site, repeating back our own buzzwords," she says.
Carrie Marcinkevage, MBA admissions director at Penn State's Smeal College of Business, says such "obvious schmoozing" is one of her biggest pet peeves: "If I read one more essay that says, 'If I didn't have to work for a living, I'd do volunteer work'—when the person has no background in volunteerism, or 'I would travel because I want to see the many diverse cultures of the world'…""
3. Getting Too Personal On the other hand, telling the admissions committee just what they don't want to hear can be a risky strategy as well. While there's no consensus among admissions officers about what topics are off-limits, a good general rule is that if it's inappropriate for dinner-party conversation, it probably doesn't belong in your B-school essay.
Martinelli says the key question for her is, "Is it relevant?" In general, she cautions applicants to avoid the victim mentality in their essays. Bringing up a difficult situation—for example, a close friend's stint in rehab—could offer real insight into an applicant's character. Or it could just reflect poorly on it. "If it doesn't relate, we would question the judgment," says Caleel.
Laurie Stewart, executive director of admissions at Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business, says candidates should also use caution when they list their personal Web sites or blogs on their application, because admissions officers will visit them. If what they find are pictures of you doing keg stands with your buddies, that might reflect poorly on your judgment, Stewart says.
Lack of judgment is also a factor in the admissions interview, when Coyle says that asking too many personal questions of an interviewer (for example: "Are you married?") is inappropriate. While prospectives might feel pressured to ask questions of the interview like in a normal conversation, "an interview really is all about the applicant," Coyle adds.
4. Obvious Resume Padding Overinflating titles, responsibilities, or hours put into work or extracurricular activities can get applicants in trouble. Admissions officers read so many resumes that they've got a pretty good handle on, say, what a first-year analyst does, and what their career trajectory looks like. "If someone is a relatively recent college grad, and they're suddenly saying they're at a managerial level, that's a red flag," says Carmen Castro-Rivera, director of Master's admissions at Purdue's Krannert School of Management.
Martinelli says applicants who say they work 80 hours a week and spend 30 to 50 hours on extracurriculars make admissions officers wonder, "Is that actually possible?" Ballenger says she's also suspicious of extracurricular activities that all have a start date of 2006 for a 2006 application, or of a long list of organization memberships without any leadership roles. Flye says it gives her pause when an applicant doesn't mention a seemingly significant activity or leadership role elsewhere in their essays or interview.
5. Title-Shopping Most schools strongly suggest—if not require—that you get a recommendation letter from your current supervisor. And all B-schools prefer that recommendations come from someone who knows you well in a business—not a personal—context.
What's even worse are recommendations from people who barely know you at all. Julie Strong, senior associate director of admissions at MIT-Sloan, says her office once received a letter from a country's prime minister that commented primarily on the prominence of the applicant's family—not about the applicant's specific abilities.
Caleel says Wharton "actively discourages" that kind of title-shopping, and adds that a recommendation from a CEO or a congressman who can't speak in detail about your work won't impress the admissions committee. "Choose your recommender based on how well they know you, not their prestige factor," says Harvard's Britt Dewey. "If all they can say is 'John lived next door to me and cut my grass,' or 'He was my son's best friend in college,' that doesn't help at all," says Rivera.
6. Playing Alpha-Dog Coyle admits, "It's a tricky thing, striking the right balance between being confident and a good self-promoter without being arrogant and over the top." But being too intense—or even worse, condescending or rude—is no way to win points with the admissions committee (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/31/06, "When 'Persistent' Becomes 'Pushy'"). "We're a very team-based learning environment, and we want people who interact well with others," says Caleel. "We don't want someone who's just here for themselves."
Rivera says her office doesn't look favorably on alpha personalities that intimidate and exclude other people. Much of that comes through in the interview portion of the application process, but admissions officers scour essays for clues to your personality as well. For example, using "I" in situations where "we" would be more appropriate is one potential sign that a person overemphasizes personal rather team wins, says Garza.
But of course, there's no magic number of "I's" and "we's." And Koh says the converse is equally problematic. "Overusing 'we' can raise questions like, 'Well what did you do? Are you taking credit for your team's success?'"
Garza also says that how a candidate discusses promotions at work can show a lot about their motivations—overly stressing financial and material gains is a sign that someone might care a little too much about power and wealth. Criticizing or blaming other people for your failures doesn't typically go over well, either. Flye's advice: Keep it positive. "We want confident people who can attack problems and questions, not attack each other."
So before you sign and seal that application, check to see if you've committed any of the above transgressions. Remember, B-schools admit offices have seen lots more applications than you have, and admissions officers have a finely-tuned ear for inauthenticity. The bottom line, B-schools say, is that they want to see the real you—not the person your application says you would like to be.
Miller is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in New York