Admissions 101: Focus on Your Decisions, Not the Outcomes

MBA AdmissionsPerhaps the most typical mistake applicants make on their early drafts is polishing their achievements so that the link between their decisions and the successful results fits like a custom made glove. Dan Ariely wrote a great piece in December 2010’s HBS called “Good Decisions. Bad Outcomes.” The article is worth reading but essentially boils down to this: you should be more concerned with explaining your decision process than with the results — because results may have many contributing causes over which you have no control. This applies equally to success and to failure. You may have had a great idea for a viable restaurant concept — and opened your first few outlets on the Louisiana & Mississippi in spring 2010. The BP spill was bad luck — you still might make a good MBA candidate.

The wisdom in Ariely’s argument is that causality is tricky stuff.

Simple tales of clear cut, dramatic “success” have a tendency to resemble blockbuster movies. Narrative momentum gets the better of thoughtful analysis. And this cartoonish heroism tends to converge on a distressingly narrow range of explanations. So ironically, by focusing too much on how you caused success, you run the risk of coming across as less sophisticated. Most situations are complex; we rarely have perfect information with which to make decisions. It’s a limitation of the human condition, and not something any MBA program would claim to address — and this assessment is entirely consistent with the fundamental business proposition of an MBA. Exploring the complexity of ideas and learning how to use different types of evidence is a journey worth taking with at the side of a master, a great professor. Knowledge and wisdom are a powerful combination.

This is why sharing your thought process in your essays is so important — the reader can see through the externality that likely killed that restaurant idea (or, in the case of your job at McKinsey, can see how that firm’s reputation, which preceded your involvement in the amazing engagement, is a major contributing factor). It’s important to remember a few things.

Your reader is older than you — by a few years to a few decades. They are, in fact, also wiser — and know all too well how it’s human nature to round up, to boast. Therefore they have developed uncannily accurate discounting rates for your impressive claims.

In a world where boastful claims converge upon determination winning the day, a quieter, more thoughtful approach is, in fact, a strategic differentiator — and is also likely to have more distinctive circumstances that the reader can remember later.

There are also tensions between situation and professed goals. If you were such a natural magnet for success, the opportunity cost of leaving that context would be substantial — and so why again are you applying? Even if you’re as great at your job as your overly enthusiastic description suggests, you’re likely applying because you’d like a greater claim on the economic value add than you currently possess.

Remember: An essay is a form of broadcast communication. It’s a monologue that an experienced reader can easily decode. You are trying to assert of the authenticity of your desire and interests; a broadcast is not the best format to convince someone of that. An interview is a conversation. And that is a crucial distinction: follow-up questions and body language or tone allow the interviewer to better judge that authenticity (it’s not perfect, of course — but another piece of wisdom is that, very little in human affairs can be planned out perfectly.) So craft an essay that demonstrates convincingly that you’re interesting and sophisticated enough to be brought in for a conversation — and then you’re well on your way. Veritas essay experts can help you on this counterintuitive journey.

Today’s post was written by Darren Kowitt, a Columbia Business School grad who has served as a trusted admissions consultant to countless Veritas Prep clients. Every year Darren helps dozens and dozens of them get into top-10 MBA programs. He also works with applicants specifically on their MBA admissions essays.

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