SCHOOL ADMISSIONS PARLANCE
By Dominic Basulto
Russian applicants to the leading Western business
schools inevitably encounter a breathtaking amount of jargon and a number
of inscrutable words such as leadership, teamwork, and diversity-words
which do not easily lend themselves to analysis. Admissions directors
and marketing materials from the respective B-school programs consistently
tout these virtues, lending them an otherworldly meaning. Indeed, INSEAD
mentions "managerial potential," "international outlook,"
and "ability to contribute to the INSEAD experience," while
Harvard mentions "demonstrated potential for leadership,"
"orientation to purposeful action," and "diversity"
as among the leading factors for successful applicants in their promotional
materials. It is up to the aspiring MBA graduate to decipher such key
notions as leadership, teamwork and diversity and then successfully
leverage them as part of the overall application strategy.
Leadership is probably the easiest of the three terms
to apprehend. After all, it makes sense that the leading business schools
would expect leadership characteristics in the individuals who will
be the future presidents, CEOs, and hot-shot entrepreneurs of the next
decade. More problematic, however, is offering examples of leadership
that will attract the attention of the respective admissions committees
and separate one's candidacy from that of other Russian applicants.
Obviously, the task becomes easier of one is already
the managing director of a department of the head of a division within
a respected company. However, keep in mind that the admissions committee
is not as concerned about job title (or salary) and number of subordinates,
as the underlying ambitions and skill sets of the applicant. In the
minds of the admissions committee, merely possessing a certain role
within a corporation is not a signifier of real leadership ability -
the B-schools would like to see sustained career progression, continual
personal growth, and an overarching vision. From the perspective of
more junior corporate professionals without significant managerial experience,
it is more important to focus on additional responsibilities assumed,
evidence that senior management considers one a future member of management
ranks, and key roles played in milestone deals or projects. Keep in
mind that the typical 26-year-old American applicant to Wharton has
most likely not managed a corporation - or even a department. Instead,
this applicant has demonstrated the ability to play an ever-increasing
role within a firm, such as by participating in strategic planning sessions
or making presentations to upper management.
The most overlooked means to evince the leadership
trait, though, is through non-professional activities. Admissions committees
are particularly favorably disposed to captains of athletic teams, military
officers, organizers of political campaigns, and grass-roots coordinators
of charitable causes. In fact, leadership in these arenas is viewed
as more difficult (and thus, more worthy of consideration) than in the
corporate sphere - the motivation to play a leadership role is more
"pure" in the sense that it is ostensibly not motivated by
greed and personal advancement; additionally the elements of charisma
must be present to persuade others to follow when the twin clubs of
title & rank can not be brandished over subordinates.
It is the rare business school which does not expatiate
at great length on the virtues of teamwork. Merely stating that "I
am a team player" in the application package, though, wins no kudos
from the admissions committee. Being a team player is not something
that can be stated outright - it is something much more subtle. Only
a third-party (i.e. a recommendor) can really evaluate one's potential
as a team player. After reading through the application essays, the
overall impression of the admissions committee should be that of someone
who would fit in well within any team composition.
Within the application package, all distinctions or
achievements should be stated within the broader context of a team.
For instance, a corporate finance professional sounds inordinately self-focused
if only size and numbers of deals or glamorous client names are mentions.
A more effective strategy would be to offer an insight how the corporate
finance team interacts with the research department to add value to
the sales & trading desk. In doing so, one immediately shows an
intuitive sense of how various departments interact together within
the overall umbrella of the corporation while also evidencing a more
sophisticated view of one's work. In the era of the flat (not vertical)
corporation and matrix reporting, it is important to show awareness
of this corporate reality.
Keep in mind that the elite business schools expect
their graduates to spend up to 8 hours per day outside of the classroom
in close cooperation with their classmates. In an MBA program, more
learning occurs out of the classroom than in the classroom. A B-school
such as INSEAD expects that a Russian member of the entering class would
be able to explain, say, a marketing case to a finance professional
or elucidate the finer points of Russian business to a Brazilian or
Japanese student. Grades on case studies and presentations are often
assigned only on the basis of the group - not on individual contribution,
meaning that the slacker can pick up the same marks as the most gung
ho "corporate tool." As well, some professors require the
members of a group to give self-assessment or group assessments of other
case members. In such an environment, the arrogant professional who
does not recognize the value of teamwork will neither thrive nor add
value to an MBA program.
An understanding of what the business schools consider
diversity can be found in two places: in the numerical breakdown of
the class (usually via aesthetically-pleasing pie charts) and in the
photogenic profiles of existing students. Business schools employ a
marketing effort just as formidable as that of any multinational, often
outsourcing design and photography to PR professionals. The students
profiled within any brochure will be the paradigm models form prospective
students. Consider the Yale School of Management, where the profiled
students represent a wide spectrum of careers and backgrounds: the McKinsey
consultant with a background in museum management; a former CNN reporter
in Hong Kong who now works for Goldman Sachs; and the army officer who
ran the Boston Marathon before landing an offer on Wall Street. In the
Harvard Business School admissions brochure, students can be found rowing
on the Charles River and participating in charity fund-raisers as well
as preparing rigorous case studies. It is the same story at the other
leading B-school, so it is key to envision one's own application in
terms of these mini-profiles.
The overriding lesson should be that a diverse student
body does not just encompass nationality, gender, and race. That is
a broad surface representation of diversity which may make easy reading
in the form of charts and graphical breakdowns, but which does not encapsulate
what makes a truly "diverse" applicant. True, business schools
do seek a balanced mix of applicants from Latin America, Europe, Asia,
and the USA, so in that sense, being from Russia does contribute to
class diversity. However, diversity implies the young corporate professional
who plays in the city orchestra at night or the former ballet dancer
who intends to use the MBA to manage a theater dance troupe. Keep in
mind that a top B-school can stuff itself to the gills with narrow-minded
Wall Street types who read stock charts for thrills.
Thus, it is important to understand that notions such
as leadership, teamwork, and diversity are not merely bandied about
by the admissions committee to make the entire application process more
abstruse. Instead, these key words from the admissions lexicon are part
and parcel of what the elite business schools demand from their prospective
applicants, current students, and even alumni. Understanding the "value-laden"
meaning of theses words and then applying this knowledge to the application
package will guarantee a more sympathetic ear by the admissions directors
of the elite Western B-schools.
Dominic Basulto is a 1998 graduate of Yale
School of Management and currently works as a consultant for Pericles
ABLE. He represents Pericles in America and does MBA Advising through
the internet. For more in formation please write to firstname.lastname@example.org
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