Karen Marks

  • 5 Keys to a Strong College Application Essay
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    Describing Extracurricular Activities On Your MBA Applications

Describing Extracurricular Activities On Your MBA Applications

Why do business schools ask about your activities, and what do they expect to see? Here is advice about how to describe your extracurricular activities on your MBA applications.

Think Like an Admissions Officer

Admissions officers are trained to look for involved, active students. They admit candidates who are able to excel academically and professionally while also contributing to the community. They do understand that certain professions (like consulting and investment banking) are so demanding that it’s hard to find time to volunteer. However, it’s still possible (and important) to demonstrate that you are well rounded and have interests outside of work.

Highlight Leadership

Business schools like to see evidence of leadership, and of your ability to drive change and make things happen. If you were the organizer, founder or leader of an organization, now or in college, please make sure to underscore the exact nature of your role.

Emphasize Continuity

Have you played the violin since you were 5, competed in triathlons since college or mentored the same little sister for several years? Schools value sustained commitment. On the flip side, it’s pretty transparent when people join organizations right around the time that they start studying for the GMAT. While better than nothing, the admissions committee will understand that you may be participating primarily to bolster your application.

Don’t Exaggerate

If you attended one NY Cares event for 2 hours, it’s not a great idea to put it on your resume. When I was interviewing candidates for Tuck, I always asked about outside activities, and people tend to get flustered if they have overstated their involvement. I also had a colleague who penalized applicants for citing activities like “Blood Donation.” She felt that they were trying to inflate their participation, and [...]

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    Optional MBA Application Essays – What Schools Are Really Asking

Optional MBA Application Essays – What Schools Are Really Asking

Confused about optional essays? If so, you are not alone. Here are some guidelines about how to use the optional MBA application essay.

Be Brief.

You shouldn’t tell an elaborate, personal story, or write creatively. You want to use this space judiciously, and to communicate succinctly. This is also not the right place to recap your entire candidacy, or to append an essay that you wrote for another school.

Be Clear and Direct.

If you need to discuss your undergraduate record, for example, be specific. Reference that F in Calculus in the Fall of 2010, as well as the Berkeley extension course that you took and got an A in last Spring. Don’t say something vague like “You may have some questions about my ability to handle the work.”

Clarify Gaps, Discrepancies and Deviations.

This is your opportunity to explain why there is a six-month gap between jobs, or why you aren’t asking your direct supervisor for a recommendation even though the school asks you to do so. You do not want to ignore these issues; the schools may think that you are being evasive. It is also a good space to acknowledge a very low GPA or GMAT, and to point to other factors that are more indicative of your potential.

Don’t Tell The Committee What To Think.

However, it is not a good strategy to tell the school that they shouldn’t be worried about your grades, test scores or lack of work experience. They will draw their own conclusions about your candidacy, and insisting that they overlook potential flags can make you seem arrogant and lacking in self-awareness.

Don’t Feel Obligated To Use This Space.

Really, please don’t write anything if you don’t need to address confusing timelines, low scores or grades, [...]

What To Tell Your MBA Recommenders

A friend of mine who graduated from Tuck a few years ago is now writing a business school recommendation for one of his associates. He asked me how to really convey his genuine support for the candidate, which is an excellent question. Here are my suggestions, which may help you figure out what to tell your MBA recommenders:

Be Super Enthusiastic.

The strongest recommendations are truly glowing – the differentiator is often whether or not the recommender raves.  You don’t have to say that he is outstanding in all respects, but it’s helpful if you can flag a few areas where he stands out. Take any opportunity to say that he is the best, technically or interpersonally. 

Get Personal.

It’s very beneficial if you can really advocate on a personal level.   To demonstrate that you know him well, talk about his reasons for applying to business school, his goals, and anything that you know about his background that reflects well on his character and potential.

Be Detailed.

Cite specific examples, so that your illustrations resonate with the committee. Your goal is to share additional insight into what makes the applicant special, and relevant anecdotes paint the most vivid and memorable pictures.

Reinforce Strengths and Mitigate Weaknesses.

Also, ask if there are areas that he wants you to reinforce or mitigate.  For instance, if the quant portion of his GMAT is low and you can speak to his analytical ability I would do so.

Be Careful With The Grid.

Most recommendation forms have some narrative prompts and also a grid that asks you to rank the candidate relative to his peers. Tepid rankings can raise a flag for the committee, so please keep this in mind even if you tend to be a critical evaluator.





The Top 5 MBA Essay Mistakes

As an applicant, you know that essays are important. The last thing that you want to do is make an error that creates the wrong impression and damages your candidacy. Having read tens of thousands of business school essays, I have seen some common issues. Here are the top 5 MBA essay mistakes:

Failure to answer the question.

This can happen for a variety of reasons, including submitting a response to another school’s related essay instead of starting over for each prompt. Another frequent cause is answering in generalities, because you feel like you need to obscure the fact that your answer isn’t very strong. (A prime example of this would be failing to state a clear short-term goal because you don’t really know what you want to do when you graduate.)

Choosing the wrong topic.

Before starting to write your essays, you need to think holistically about your candidacy. What are your strengths and weaknesses, and how do you compare within the pool? Are there pivotal stories that are integral to your candidacy, and that the committee needs to hear but won’t learn from your resume and recommendations? Choose your topics strategically, to enhance your strengths, stand out as an individual and mitigate areas of concern.

Telling the committee what you think they want to hear, not your real answer.

Be genuine. When asked about weaknesses, don’t say that you work too hard, if your biggest developmental challenge is your propensity to procrastinate and then make careless errors right before deadlines. Also, if you truly want to switch from engineering to marketing, please don’t say that you want to progress into a supervisory engineering role, just because you think that your goal may seem too ambitious and unrealistic. Schools [...]

Safety Schools

There is a lot of confusion about safety schools. What constitutes a safety school, given your individual candidacy? Should everyone apply to a safety? If so, when and how many? I encourage North Star’s clients to apply to a range of programs, and to follow these guidelines when identifying their target schools:

It’s not a safety if you wouldn’t go there.

Don’t apply to a program just because you think that you can get in. If a school isn’t a good fit, isn’t worth the investment or otherwise doesn’t offer what you are looking for, it’s not worth applying. 

If you are too overqualified, you may not get in.

Schools are concerned about yield, and they do not want to offer seats in the class to people who are unlikely to matriculate. Choose a safety program where your grades, experience and test scores are a bit above the average, but not so far above that the admissions committee denies your application because they assume that you will go to a more selective school.

Apply early, so that you can focus on your top choice schools.

It is a huge relief to know that you can attend a school that you are excited about, even if it’s not your dream program. Applying early in the cycle (and getting in) means that you do not have to send out as many applications, and allows you to concentrate on honing your candidacy for the more aspirational schools on your list.

Options are good.

What if you were offered full tuition at a less selective program, but one that you would still be happy to attend? Even if you decide to enroll elsewhere, it’s always great to have choices.

There is no such thing as a true [...]

Make a Great Impression At MBA Admissions Receptions

As a prospective business school student, you may be curious about the admissions receptions that many schools hold, both domestically and abroad. Here are some tips about how to make a great impression at MBA admissions receptions.

Don’t feel obligated to ask questions.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with listening to the presentation. Please don’t feel like you have to raise your hand just for the sake of speaking.

If you do ask questions, be thoughtful.

The best questions cover information that you can’t just find on the website. Inquiries about the culture, favorite aspects of the school, new programs and how to connect with students and alums can all be appropriate.

Don’t ask for a profile evaluation.

It is rarely (if ever) appropriate to ask an admissions officer to assess your chances of admission. Receptions are an especially poor place to ask for feedback about your individual candidacy, so please refrain.

Don’t ask the admissions officer to sell you on their school.

While hosting receptions around the globe, I was often asked to explain why Tuck was the best MBA program, or why this applicant should choose Tuck over other schools. This is not a good tactic – there is no one “best” MBA program, and while most representatives are very positive about the schools they represent they are not going to denigrate other programs.

Be polite.

Admissions officers notice people, and they remember behavior. It does not look good to arrive late, talking on your cell phone, or to sit in the front row texting and watching you tube videos. The admissions officer hosting the reception may well interview you at a later date, or lead an on campus information session, and you want them to have a positive association with you.

Keep [...]

What College Applicants Should Do This Summer

July is well underway, and it’s time to get serious about your college applications. Here are four things that college applicants should do this summer:

Finalize Your Test Strategy.

At this point, you have likely taken your SAT and/or ACT, as well as your SAT subject tests and any AP exams. If you aren’t happy with your scores, or need to take more subject tests, you still have time to register for the October 11th SAT’s and the September and October ACT’s. If you want to apply early action or early decision, which I highly recommend, plan to study and finish your testing by October.

Visit Schools And Choose Your Early Application Targets.

Before school and fall activities constrict your schedule, take some time to visit schools that are high on your list. There really is no substitute for setting foot on campus, and this is especially important if you are considering committing early to a certain school.

Write Your Common Application Essay.

The prompts are out, and you will need to answer one of five questions, using a maximum of 650 words. I help my clients brainstorm 2 possible responses to each prompt, and then we identify core themes and pick the strongest illustrations in order to answer one of the prompts. It takes time to do this well, and I suggest that you plan to have your essay polished and ready to go by the time you go back to school.

Fill Out The Common Application Itself.

The common application goes live in early August. Take the time now to fill out the application, including demographic information and details about your extracurricular activities and leadership roles. Even if you need to update some of this before you apply, it’s a [...]

Advice About GMAT’s Score Cancellation Option

GMAC recently announced that candidates can now preview their scores and then choose to cancel them before leaving the exam. This is very big news in the MBA application world, and can absolutely help people who are concerned about posting weak scores. However, canceling your score is not always the right decision, and invoking GMAT’s score cancellation option too often or under the wrong circumstances will do damage. Here is advice to help you shape your strategy.

Continue to Prepare Before Taking the Test.

Even though schools won’t see your cancelled scores, they will see that you took the exam. It has never been a good idea to sit for the GMAT just to see how you do, and this is still true. A string of cancelled scores will raise doubts about your aptitude, even though it is not quite as alarming as posting very low numbers.

Go in With a Clear Plan.

Decide before the test what your target scores are, and know what criteria you will use when considering whether or not to keep your score. Are you looking for a certain aggregate score? A particular quant or verbal percentage? You have two minutes to make up your mind in the exam room, so it’s important to think this through beforehand.

Use This New Development to Your Advantage.

Do you suffer from test anxiety? Do you have one pretty high score, some lower ones, and want to try again but are afraid of going down and making the high score seem like an outlier? The ability to take the GMAT without some of the inevitable pressure may well prove advantageous under these circumstances.

One final note: The GMAT is a business, and GMAC is making this change in [...]

Researching Business Schools – How To Find The Right Fit.

Researching business schools sounds straightforward, but it can be hard to know where to start. Just visiting websites and reviewing rankings isn’t enough – how do you know what to look for? Which factors really matter? Here are some suggestions to help you frame your search and find target schools that are a great fit.

First, pick points of comparison.

Create a list of factors that you would like to compare, and compile this information for 10 schools that you want to explore. For instance, I suggest that my clients start by looking at size, location, average GMAT and GPA, curriculum, placement and alumni giving rates.

Next, look more closely at points of differentiation.

For instance, who actually teaches the courses – professors or teaching assistants? Are electives and international experiences readily available, or is it hard to actually take advantage of these opportunities? Does the career office work directly with students, or serve as more of a passive resource? Furthermore, pay attention to details that matter to you personally, like the placement rate and list of firms for students with career goals that are similar to yours.

Third, register for opportunities to visit and interact with the schools.

I firmly believe that visiting a school, meeting students, alumni and administrators, is extremely useful. If it isn’t feasible for you to go on campus, I still encourage you to attend information sessions and events in your area. Furthermore, it is helpful to join the mailing list and read what the school sends out to potential applicants. You will learn about how the school sees itself, as well as staying on top of useful logistical information.

Fourth, reach out to students and alumni.

Many programs facilitate this for you, and you can also [...]

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    How To Interact With Admissions Officers And Alumni At Your Target Schools

How To Interact With Admissions Officers And Alumni At Your Target Schools

Ever wondered what admissions officers are really thinking when you ask them for help learning more about their school? My friend and former colleague Amy Mitson, Senior Associate Director of Admissions at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, has graciously shared her advice about how to investigate the alumni network at your target schools. She also gives invaluable insight about how to interact with admissions officers.

Amy wrote this blog exclusively for North Star readers, and it is the first in a series of insider tips, written for North Star by admissions officers from top MBA programs.

Understanding Alumni Networks – by Amy Mitson, Senior Associate Director of Admissions, Tuck

It might be difficult to think this far into the future, as GMAT prep and essay writing are front and center, but I dare suggest that getting to know the alumni of your future MBA program should also top your MBA application process to-do list.

The alumni network is as unique as each MBA program you are applying to and alumni have paved the way for your future path in an MBA program. Devoting some time and energy to this dimension of your application process will help to inform your perceptions (and essays and future interviews!) about a program.

How do you do this?

First, do some real research on your desired MBA program and take time to reflect on your future choice. Approach these actions with the goal in mind of developing some thoughtful questions about your program of interest. These questions will not only show the admissions team that you are thoughtful; you will also learn something in the process.

You can start your research by looking at school websites or by reading an article written by MBA [...]