What Every MBA Applicant Can Learn from Politicians

Today’s post is a guest feature by Darren Kowitt, one of Veritas Prep’s most experienced MBA admissions consultants and essay editors.

New York Times Columnist Frank Bruni wrote in his August 20th 2011 piece “Humble Service with a Side of Swag”a bout the disingenuous arguments that politicians use in public about their ambitions for office. His arrows are spot on about the credibility problems faced by adults when there is a gap between their actions and their utterances. It’s a great read — if perhaps at first glance seemingly partisan. But move beyond that and you’ll observe that he’s criticizing methods & modes of argument. (Side note: This is why the GMAT tested your comprehension and reasoning skills. GMAC responds to the expectations of the schools, and the schools expect you to be able to evaluate what you read.)

He ends the article with a withering conclusion, which I’ve quoted with a modified ending to demonstrate its relevance to the MBA admissions process:

For voters [read: admissions officers], the wise course is to take all the humble-servant patter for the window dressing it may well be, assume egotism and move on to an evaluation of whether an [applicant’s stated motivations are credible and organic to their professional development]…

The MBA admissions case that most resembles the politicians’ logic surfaces most often with Veritas Prep clients from India (or the Indian diaspora), or from China or, for that matter, any prominent developing nation. But it’s not limited merely to such situations. It comes up frequently with applicants who are targeting still-young industries such as green tech and Web 2.0.

What these cases have in common is a future that is brighter than is the present. Furthermore, barring nuclear Armageddon or the collapse of the oceanic food chain as a result of acidification, the case seems undeniably strong. History will move in that general direction. The rub is in precisely how and how fast, for the specifics that will matter as an individual interacts with history are as absent and unclear as the uncertainties and lesser risks to the narrative are present. So there’s a lot of wiggle room for a “just-so” story in which everything goes predictably perfectly. The reasoning is invariably shoddy, cherry picked to maximum self-serving effect. And the stance towards the reader is, frankly, manipulative. Application readers can tell when they’re being manipulated. Present us with believable facts, interpretations and insights. Don’t presume to tell us what to make of them.

In general, the applicant sketches some macro forces such as GDP growth, the rise of an urban middle class, the importance of diversifying energy portfolios beyond fossil fuels, etc. This is all fine enough and not problematic in and of itself, for it demonstrates some awareness both as a professional and as a citizen. But where it goes wrong — and so often it does — is when the applicant turns to the manipulative and highly debatable assertion that this future needs them, and that they are merely heeding the call of duty. It’s about as subtle and annoying as subject of the NYT columnist’s vivisection. To see why, here is Bruni’s “translation” of “duty calls me to undertake this for my country”:

I’m running for president/governor/senator because it’s about time I moved up in the world, and if I win, the perks are out of control. People will pretty much genuflect before me. I can wring my hands about the environment from the back seat of a chauffeured Escalade with continents of legroom. I’ll have a staff big enough for one aide to carry my Purell and another to dispense my Altoids. And there’s huge “Meet the Press” potential. Nothing says power like a Sunday morning round table.

So back to applications, I see this pattern of reasoning in early drafts frequent enough that I term it the “Pull Approach” and not only is it dangerous for its manipulative stance, but it goes further to suggest both a lack of imagination and also some laziness. And you have to believe me when I say the admissions readers are not above rolling their eyes or making fun of certain types of less-than-compelling approaches that applicants use year in and year out. I run the Columbia alumni club in a major city. I meet with admissions officers. After their presentations we go out for drinks. I know.

[Important: I scrupulously avoid discussing Veritas Prep clients with them, which of course would be inappropriate and an abuse of my position. I’ve worked too hard to build the alumni club’s momentum to risk it.]

The Pull Approach is also a perfect example of cart-before-horse circular reasoning. Let’s take the frequent case of India. An MBA is very much about self-interest. There is nothing wrong with this, and I hope to return with a blog posting about ambition, a most tricky topic. Still, it’s simply a little insulting to the reader when you try to disguise your pursuit of self interest (as is your right) with patriotism and nobility of going home to help India advance or to care for and better the lives of India’s underprivileged. Such claims would be much more defensible had the applicant worked within Indian state entities or actually as a staff member at the non-profit that almost invariably will be mentioned somewhere else in the application — leaving aside the suspicious regularity with which the applicants founded their own non-profit, because working for an aligned (or even the same) cause with an organization whose programs have a demonstrated history of impact was just, well, too inconvenient.

It’s a little late now, when applying, to realize the appeal of the sacrifices required by non-private sector employers. The gap is too large and also an historic fact. Furthermore the authenticity — which is exactly what is at stake in the situation — of your patriotic interest in advancing the homeland and/or concern for the underprivileged is difficult to convey to begin with – perhaps even to the point of almost impossible. And even the slightest hint that the applicant is flying a flag of convenience forces the reader to conclude a) distressing cynicism and/or b) is this person mature enough to wrestle with the gray areas of the responsibility and ethics curriculum. Don’t fight these insurmountable odds. It’s better to be an adult, accept the weakness, be grateful you’ve been informed before you hit submit, and move on to figure out Plan B.

Having sketched for you the power of skepticism towards claims in your essay in the specific instance of the “Pull Strategy”, I’d like to contextualize the learnings within a larger and more critical context. The Pull Strategy is one plank in my attempt to convince you that the secret weapon in the Admissions Race is maturity/wisdom. I think that a fairly persuasive argument can be made that maturity/wisdom is more important to being admitted than are analytical skills — a self-reported attribute in any case, and therefore to be taken with a grain of salt. By contrast, faking wisdom or attempting to round up is very difficult. In economics speak it has “high signalling value” and in the best essays, the wisdom is almost a tone or a mode of writing rather than it is domain content.

As if the previous few paragraphs weren’t enough, I mentioned how the “Pull Strategy” also tends to suggest laziness and poverty of imagination. Consider this: Even the long essays within applications are very narrow-band in their capacity to convey you in your fullness as a person. To sacrifice word count for a payload that is predictable (or even cliched) when you could use those words to explain more about the process by which you came to realize for yourself both that and how an MBA would be a critical ingredient in your career is a strategic blunder. You should be able to use many lines of reasoning to suggest that your plan — not your aspirations or their authenticity, which readers can’t evaluate — is sound and more importantly, something that you figured out for yourself. If you can’t talk about your interest in an MBA from multiple angles and therefore resort to the Pull Approach, you have a problem.

Fortunately with a Veritas Prep MBA admissions consultant at your side, not only won’t you make mistakes like this — your strong essays will be strong precisely because you know why you’re undertaking this enterprise!