Thursday, August 2, 2012

What are They Looking For? MBA Essay vs Recommendation Letter Prompts

A client once asked me what kind of characteristics school X is looking for in an applicant. This isn't necessarily a great approach to take, as instead it is better to ask yourself how you can appeal your own unique points to the school. But nonetheless how to answer the question? There are a few places to consider looking. 

Class Profile:
You could scan the class profile, to see how schools have chosen from certain industries and academic backgrounds in the past. For example, what percentage of their class come from banking, or what percentage find work in consulting? What percentage of their students have business or economics academic backgrounds? <<LINK about Harvard and a possible change>>.  The downfall here is that is that while you can learn about the make-up of the current class, you won't now how the school hopes to change the class profile in the future.  

Essay Questions:
You could also look at the essay questions to see what they value or find important.  The downfall here is that the importance of essays within the overall application are being undermined as they get shorter, a trend occurring at most top schools this year.  This also makes it difficult for applicants to differentiate themselves in the essays.

Recommendation Letter Prompts:
Instead, to me, one interesting way to figure out "what a school is looking for", is to scan their recommendation letter instructions. This is their set of questions for your referees, so it makes sense that what they are asking about would be things that the school values highly or consider important/relevant for applicants. Let's use UCLA Anderson, and a recent posting to their blog introducing both their essay prompts and recommendation letter instructions, as an example.

In a recent post to their blog, the admissions team at UCLA Anderson released both their essay prompts as well as the questions that recommendation letters are meant to answer. UCLA's essays are only slightly shorter than last year's (750 to 700 words each) and so like those of other schools, there isn't a lot of space for you to write a lot, especially about topics like how you have excelled at work.

New Essay Questions:
We require just two essays to showcase your character and goals:
  • What is your proudest achievement outside the workplace, and how has it impacted you? (700 words maximum)
  • What are your short-term and long-term career goals, and how will an MBA from UCLA Anderson specifically help you achieve these goals? (700 words maximum)

As per the essay explanation, two are offered as a way for you to "showcase your character and goals".   But UCLA doesn't give a lot of space here for professional accomplishments or work-related leadership examples. The first essay is designed to focus on non-work contents entirely.  That leaves essay 2, where the writer can include a) a brief professional introduction, b) goals, c) a rationale for those goals (if they aren't entirely obvious), d) an assessment of what they need to achieve these goals, and e) how UCLA is the best place for them to get these things they need.  After completing parts a) through e), there may only be a little room left if the author wishes to include detail of a professional accomplishment, or an example of the kind of impact he/she has had on their organization. That's alright of course because such information may be found in the resume or recommendation letters. But, if a bit of space is left over, and you feel you can include a brief leadership example or detail - obviously you want to be careful about what details to include with the limited space you have.  So, what elements should be highlighted? What characteristics might the school value? For hints - look to UCLA's recommendation letter instructions (from the same blog posting):

New Recommendation Questions:
We revised the questions that recommenders answer to help us identify your leadership and managerial potential:
  • How strong is the candidate’s focus in terms of being results-oriented, strategically-minded, and career-driven?
  • How does the candidate demonstrate leadership, e.g., by creating a vision, motivating others, managing resources, and taking risks?
  • How strong are the candidate’s interpersonal skills as shown by their professionalism, teamwork, attitude, and conflict management?
  • How effective is the candidate in communicating clearly, eloquently, and confidently (in written and oral form)?
  • How does the candidate bring a unique perspective, and contribute to activities outside the workplace?

These questions offer a lot of information as to what UCLA is interested in assessing.  So, if you make space in essay 2 to demonstrate some impact you've had on your current organization (for instance), and feel the experience demonstrates a strength the school is asking about through its reference letter questions - then why not emphasize it? 

Important caveats:
Having emphasized the value in understanding what strengths and characteristics schools are looking for via their recommendation letter instructions, the three following points are things to avoid during the application process.

1. Don't intentionally duplicate content:
Considering recommendation letter prompts does not mean that your essays should duplicate what may be in your recommendation letters.  In fact, that strategy might backfire, as both sets of documents would touch upon the same things, and not allow your application reader to get a fuller view of who you are and what makes you tick.  

2. Don't avoid answering questions:
There is a reason why the essays and reference letters seem to be asking for different things - because they are. So don't avoid answering elements of the questions asked for in the essays, just so you can fit in additional things that you feel might be effective.  Make sure you answer each essay question fully.   

3. Don't just give them what you think they are looking for:
Most importantly, and as noted at the very start of this post, it is better not to focus on what you think the school wants to hear, but instead focus on what unique elements you can offer the school.  Focus on what makes you special, rather than trying to change your profile into something else that you feel will please the school to which you are applying.

The recommendation letter prompts can be telling in terms of skills and values a school is interested in learning more about.  This is worth keeping in mind, although it is certainly necessary to answer the essay questions, and do so fully, while trying to differentiate yourself by emphasizing those skills and experiences which make you unique. 

John Couke