Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Role of Balance in Your MBA Application

Most MBA programs ask a series of essay questions that allow you chance to bring out many sides of yourself: what you do for a career, what you do outside of work, and even your academic background. But how should you approach all of the topics in your MBA application if all you do, during the week and even a lot of the weekend, is work?  There is nothing wrong with showing dedication to your organization. However, if you are ready to make a change in your life, such as applying to business school, you need to realize that the one thing about your current life that will not go with you is that job.  The skills you have gained will - and you can show the benefits of those by describing in your essays and interview how they'll help you to make specific contributions to your classmates. But to help the admissions committee of a particular school get a good sense of your potential level of involvement outside of class, it is useful to present both your work and non-work sides in your application. There are several benefits to doing so.

1) Knowing what you choose to do outside of work helps people understand you better.

In the workplace there may be restrictions on what you can and cannot do with your time, based on your job description or level of responsibility. But in your free time, you have a lot more leverage and ability to choose what you get involved in and how you spend your time.  And understanding these decisions about what you choose to do with your free time will help your application reader better understand who you are and what you value. 

Sharing personal interests helps your reader feel that they know you better as a person and makes them feel a bit closer to you. A cold and impersonal description of a mega-merger in which you had only a minor role is not nearly as effective as a story about your determination to complete a marathon - especially when the reader if deciding whether you are an interesting person worthy of attending their school.

2) Balance in your application can make the admissions officer reassured that you will be able to make the transition to their school.  

If all you have is your job - then what will be left once you stop working?  Show that you will not sink at b-school but instead you'll swim - by describing your personal interests and what you want to get involved in while at the program. A lot of MBA graduates would likely say that they benefitted greatly from the education outside the classroom - events, trips, and other such activities with their peers. In some cases these experiences are academic in nature, such as a case competition.  But in others they are more peer-bonding exercises, where you get to know your classmates (and future global network) better. Don't underestimate the importance of a soccer club or baseball team in forming bonds with your classmates during the MBA.

3) Your work accomplishments may already be covered in your reference letters.

If one (or more) of your referees is a supervisor from your job, he/she will likely use a considerable portion of his/her letter describing the contribution you have made to projects, teams, or the organization itself. This doesn't mean you should ignore discussing your work in your essays - but it does show that certain work-related accomplishments will already be covered.

For all of these reasons, it is useful to ensure that your work takes it proper position in your application as a key part of who you are, not the entire definition. Take care to separate yourself as an individual from the work that you do.  When brainstorming potential topics, note the following two things:

1) Characteristics like leadership extend beyond the job.

Some schools (Harvard in particular) look for evidence of leadership in your application.  And it is worth noting that a true leader will exhibit this characteristic across many facets of their life. Do you know anyone who is bright, successful, trustworthy, approachable, fearless and dedicated while at work, but turns into a completely different person, devoid of all of these traits, once they leave the office?  When you are struggling with how to demonstrate your leadership, don't limit yourself to only work-related stories. Instead, show that the leadership you demonstrate at work is truly useful in understanding who you are, by showing how you exhibit that leadership outside of work too.

2) Many characteristics can be demonstrated equally well through work and non-work stories.

When asked for an example of how you have demonstrated the ability to work well in a team, often either a work-related story (your contribution to a team that made a big accomplishment) or a non-work related story (your role as the starting point guard on a community basketball team that won a big match) can work equally well.  Fo this reason, when brainstorming teamwork accomplishments, don't limit yourself to just the work experiences.  Consider what you do outside of work, and how those experiences may also be relevant. 

For those that truly dedicate the vast majority of their time to their organization, there is still one last idea to consider: informal volunteer work in your company. This may or may not be effective, depending on the individual situation.  However, there are options available to you even within the context of your organization that may help you to show balance, such as:

- attendance in a cross-functional or cross-departmental task force you chose to join to accomplish something
- weekend volunteer work done through your organization
- informal and/or extra-curricular training of subordinates
- organizing or participating in company activities such as community events, family events or other such activities

So, now we can understand the value of balance in an MBA application, and at least for most, get a head start on considering what kinds of topics might be useful. By using a variety of topics that span your work, life outside of work, and academic background, you can paint a picture of yourself that is well-rounded and will show effectively your potential to contribute to an MBA program.

The purpose of this article is not to be a definitive source, but rather to start a conversation.  Comments?

John Couke

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Delicious Bookmarks

So far in the short life of this blog, one of the most popular ways in which my readers have found me is through my collection of bookmarks at  

I have been an avid collector of bookmarks since about 2005, and in particular I use delicious (as well as pinboard more recently) to sort my bookmarks and allow for easy retrieval.  As this collection has grown so has its usefulness. Currently, I have over 14,000 bookmarks (!) to a variety of topics that you may find useful, including resume design and preparation, interview questions and preparation, employment, admissions, LLM programs, MBA programs and even undergraduate programs.  In addition to this, I have school-specific bookmarks for many schools including Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Kellogg and countless others.  

The internet is, as we all know, a great place to research. If you are interested in learning about any of these topics above, or others such as being waitlisted, letters of recommendation, visiting campus, or even determining fit with programs, I'd suggest you start with my delicious bookmarks, scroll through the tags until you find ones interesting to you, and start your search there.

Good luck with your research!

John Couke

Monday, April 16, 2012

Tips on Organizing a Strong Resume

One point worth keeping in mind about your resume is the amount of time the reader will spend on the document - typically 1-3 minutes. Given this, layout and readability are both extremely important. A good resume starts in the presentation: how the document is organized and designed, as well as the content you choose to include, and how that is presented. Here are a few things to consider when judging the effectiveness of your own resume.

1. The document must be easy to look at.  For example, if the font is too small, the margins are tiny, and everything is crammed together, your reader will get a bad first impression.  This is especially important because the person reading your resume will likely only give it a minute or two, in total.  So it is vitally important to avoid having a bad impression.  Here is a small checklist to keep in mind:

a) Use a typical font, such as Times New Roman 10.5 or 11.
b) Use margins of between 10mm to 15mm all the way around, for instance using 10mm for the top and bottom, and then 15mm for the left and right sides. This will ensure your document has some white space in the margins and is centered properly on the page.
c) Ensure the paper setting is correct: for documents going to the US or Canada, use "letter-sized", and for outside the US, use "A4". Here is a page on that explains the difference.  Even though many schools these days have computerized their application reading process, it is still worthwhile to be aware of the difference. 
d) Decide on line settings that will make your bullet points readable, and avoid crunching lines together in order to fit too much onto one page.  If you are using Microsoft Word, under "home" go to "line spacing options". Set it at "exactly" and at a setting between 12pt, 13pt or 14pt.  In addition, after each bullet point have a small margin, in order to ensure each bullet is separated nicely.  Experiment with these settings until you have arrived at the setting that makes your resume look best: not too packed together, and with a small bit of space between each bullet point.

2. Keep it to 1 page (see my previous post on why this is best) by selecting what to focus on rather than including everything you've ever done! When deciding, ask yourself what skills you possess that are most relevant to your future - either skills that demonstrate your ability to succeed at graduate school, or skills that are relevant to your future goals. What skills that you possess will an admissions officer or future employer value? Highlight your relevant skills in the bullet points of your resume. 

3. Avoid too much personal information (marital status, age, number of children, height, weight etc) unless requested. Such information can be distracting because it is not what your reader will be expecting when they review your document - so be sure to manage their expectations effectively.

4. Avoid long lists of adjectives like "dedicated team player" and other such fluff. These are not valuable additions to a resume, and are better included elsewhere. For instance for a job applicant, your personal description of characteristics relevant to the job to which you are applying could be in the cover letter.  And for grad school applicants, such concepts are hopefully to be found in your recommendation letters.

5. Include a short list of personal activities in the additional section. In terms of what to choose, this is the criteria I consider: 

a) The activity should demonstrate something appealing about you.
b) You can show a strong time commitment to the activity.
c) The content should be recent.
d) The content is strategic.  

If the activity fits all three criteria, then certainly include it.  For instance if you have been a starting member of a community basketball team for the past 1.5 years and you play twice a month, this is worthy of inclusion. You can highlight team and/or leadership experience, and also you have shown dedication to the activity.  It is easy to see how an activity that does not meet all three criteria would not be worth including: a 2-hour volunteer experience in 1994 that was never repeated is probably not worth fitting on your page, especially if you have more recent and significant experiences.

In terms of point d), some activities people do regularly are just not worth including in the resume, even if they fit a) b) and c). Many people read hundreds of books, or watch hundreds of movies, for instance.  However interesting such activities are, they should not typically be included in your resume, because they don't say anything interesting about you.

6. Make sure each individual bullet point, no matter what section it is in, is clear, impressive and impactful.

7. Have someone whose opinion you trust read your resume and give you feedback on it. It can be difficult to assess the effectiveness of your own work.

Steps 2, 6, and 7 will likely require assistance, so do consult with a professional to ensure your resume is working as effectively as possible. Finally, be sure to read carefully the instructions provided by the school you are applying to, or the recruiter or company to whom you will send your resume.  There may be additional instructions, including the number of lines to use, or other sections that may be requested such as international experience or situation-specific information.  Show that you may taken the time to understand their specifications and reflect them the version of your resume you send to them.

John Couke

Monday, April 9, 2012

1-year Full-time US-based MBA options

**Note: I have edited this article below to include the Thunderbird 11-month Accelerated MBA.**

While the 2-year full-time MBA remains the standard for a lot of applicants, more and more people are looking for viable 1-year full-time options for their MBA as they place a higher emphasis on the opportunity cost (i.e. foregone salary) of going to b-school. 

Europe has typically been the home of the 1-year MBA, with options such as INSEAD, IMD, Cambridge, Oxford, ESADE, IE, RSM, Cranfield, Warwick, the LBS Sloan Masters in Leadership and Strategy and many others attracting the majority of applications. 

There are some options worth looking into in the USA as well, and they are increasing in popularity. Here is a starting point for those interested in researching 1-year US-based MBA options.  Many of these programs are designed to attract older applicants who have more focused interests and less need for career-changing educational experiences. So, I have divided the list into 1-year programs aimed towards more experienced applicants, and 1-year programs aimed towards applicants of the traditional MBA age.

for more experienced applicants:

working experience: 10-years is required to apply
class size: about 100

(technically an MS in Management rather than an MBA)

working experience: 8 years is required to apply, and the average is 12 years
class size: about 80

working experience: the average is 10 years
class size: about 55-60

for MBA-aged applicants:

One thing that is stressed with most of these 1-year programs below is that you need to have clearly defined academic and/or professional goals. 

1-year students also sometimes miss out on key 2-year student experience, such as the summer internship. For instance, at Kellogg, 1-year students spend their summer on campus

In addition, Goizueta notes here than the ideal candidate for the 1-year MBA has earned an undergraduate degree in business or economics or has strong quantitative background in majors such as engineering or mathematics.

working experience: 4 years (median)
class size: 45 (here is a link to the class profile)

working experience: the current class ranges in age from 23 to 35
class size: 80-90 (they expect to double or triple this number, read more at a Poets&Quants article here)

working experience: an average of 5+ years (compared to an average of 5 years for the 2-year program)
class size: 39

working experience: average of 5 years (the same for the 2-year MBA)
class size: 78

11-Month Accelerated Full-Time Thunderbird MBA

working experience: "To be eligible for the Full-time MBA accelerated program, you must have an undergraduate major or minor in business, have completed courses in accounting, data analysis/statistics, finance and management, or have at least five years work experience including a year or more managing a budget and staff." (refer here).  "Either a degree in business or more than five years of work experience, one in management, is required for entry into the Accelerated program. Consideration on the quant portion of the GRE Revised Test (taken after August 1, 2011) or GMAT will also be weighed heavily in making selections for this program." (refer here)

class size: not given (the MBA GM program overall has 548 students, as per this source)

More reading:

If any readers would like to suggest other programs, put them in the comments!

John Couke

Monday, April 2, 2012

Post-interview Thank You Emails are not for Reliving the Interview

You have just completed your interview.  You did your best, and got across the 3-4 key messages you were hoping to convey. Everything went basically according to plan, but..  as you walk out of the building and begin the process of reflecting on your performance you start to have a lingering concern that maybe you didn't convey clearly the strong fit you feel between yourself and their organization.  

The thought grows on you. Did you say the right things, or enough things? You start to wonder if the interviewer may feel you don't have strong fit with their organization. This causes you to reinvestigate your performance throughout the entire interview - maybe you also didn't demonstrate clearly enough the impact you had made on your current organization, or your passion for an extracurricular activity you are engaged in.

One natural reaction is to race home, turn on your computer, and then attempt to "rectify" all of these problems and concerns with one big email where you apologize deeply for your performance and then proceed to restate everything great about you, and what you "really wanted to say" during the interview.

This is a bad idea.

It is a bad idea because the interview is over, and no one gets second chances. It is a bad idea because the interviewer may wonder why you didn't communicate what you wanted to in the first place. Finally, it is a bad idea because your interpretation of your own performance may in fact be worse than the person who interviewed you! So that email can actually backfire and highlight bigger problems that may actually exist.  

Of course, we have all heard that the thank you email is a good idea, and you should always send a thank you note to the interviewer once the interview is over. But if you cannot relive the interview in that email, then what should you do? 

My advice for the post-interview thank you email? First of all, thank the interviewer for their time. In most cases, their schedule is busier than yours, so it is important to acknowledge your appreciation that they took the time out of their busy schedule to meet with you. Now - that could be enough, but if you are going to email them, it never hurts to add something - something which will allow them to remember you in a favorable way. This is your chance, not to relive the interview by clarifying what you wanted to say, but instead to reinforce one specific point about your candidacy. So, if you felt you did not clearly convey XYZ, then simply convey XYZ in the email. I hope when you consider my candidacy for your program/company, you'll think about how well my previous experience leading ABC would help me to contribute to your …  Be specific and be direct, to ensure that your email is not too long. Don't attempt to apologize for your interview performance, or attempt to "restate" something you couldn't say before.

John Couke