Karen Marks

Waiting for admissions decisions?

Waiting for admissions decisions from business school, law school or college? The next few weeks are big, with many schools releasing their early round results. Here are some things to keep in mind.

You probably aren’t going to get in everywhere.

Even the very strongest candidates rarely get into every school. In fact, some slightly less selective schools may wait list or deny particularly strong applicants to protect their yield. I have had clients get into Wharton and Booth but not Yale or Tuck, for instance, and others who were admitted to Stanford and Northwestern but not Duke. What this means for you is that you shouldn’t panic if your first response is a no – you may very well get into your dream school, even if some of your other options don’t materialize.

Don’t compare yourself to other applicants.

This is easier said than done, but please try not to conclude anything from other people’s results. You really don’t know exactly what their applications looked like – were their essays too stilted? Were there typos? Or did their grandmother endow the library? There are so many factors at play, and you really can’t have complete insight into anyone else’s candidacy.

Don’t take the results personally.

Please try not to internalize your results. Whether or not you get into a particular school is not a referendum on your worth, or your potential. Top schools can fill their classes many times over with “perfect” candidates – 4.0’s, 99% percentile test scores, etc. Many extraordinary people, who go on to be extremely happy and successful, don’t get admitted everywhere they apply.

Stay off of the forums!

There is a breathtaking amount of misinformation online, even on allegedly reputable sites. For example, when I was [...]

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    How To Get Into A Top MBA Program With Non-Traditional Experience

How To Get Into A Top MBA Program With Non-Traditional Experience

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be an investment banker or a consultant in order to get into business school. In fact, if leveraged correctly, an unusual professional trajectory can be an asset. Here are tips to help you get into a top MBA program with non-traditional experience.

Have crystal clear goals.

It’s important for all candidates to articulate clear short term and long term goals. However, non-traditional candidates need to be especially explicit. Spell out exactly what you want to do, and explain how you know that you will thrive.

Highlight transferable experience.

Revise your resume so that it demonstrates progression and emphasizes supervisory, strategic and analytical skills, and quantifiable impact. Continue to highlight these qualities and accomplishments throughout your application and in your interviews, placing a special emphasis on skills that you will leverage in your post-MBA career.

Talk about what you will contribute.

One of the reasons that schools love to admit strong non-traditional candidates is because of the unique perspective that they can add to the classroom, and to the community. Paint a vivid picture of how you will get involved, with specific illustrations, and make it clear that you will be an active participant.

Be proud of your background.

There is absolutely no need to be defensive about charting a less traditional educational, personal or professional path. The right school will appreciate your vision, courage, resilience and ability to take risks. Ultimately, your non-traditional background may be the reason that you are admitted to your dream school.

Getting In After an MBA Rejection

Are you recovering from a first round MBA rejection? Wondering what happened, and how to succeed second round? Here are some suggestions that can help you get back on track.

Get objective advice.

It’s easy to second-guess everything in the wake of a rejection. However, please don’t make entrenched assumptions about what went wrong. (“It’s my GMAT!” “I should have articulated a different goal!”) Find someone who isn’t too close to your candidacy (so not your significant other or best friend) to read your application and tell you what impression you created. You might be really surprised to hear how your candidacy comes across on paper. Experienced admissions consultants can also provide great perspective, and many offer application feedback.

Rethink your school list.

Take this opportunity to apply to a wider variety of schools. Put everything back on the table (city schools, rural programs, places that you thought were too much of a reach or only focused on finance, etc.) It’s possible that you will find a new favorite, and in order to succeed you may need to widen your net.

Remember that it’s about more than your numbers.

Just because your GMAT and GPA were at or above the average for your target schools does NOT guarantee you an interview or a seat in the class. Selective schools can fill their classes many times over with people with sky-high numbers. In order to get in you need to shine on a personal level, which means submitting strategic, polished applications.

Don’t panic.

Don’t give up! It’s entirely possible to succeed second round, or as a re-applicant, even if your first attempt didn’t go well. The MBA admissions process is extremely competitive, and very few people get in everywhere they apply. Be confident, take [...]

Want an MBA Scholarship?

Poets & Quants recently interviewed me about how I help my clients win MBA scholarships. (Over the last 18 months, North Star clients have received more than 3.5 million dollars, including many full tuition awards.) I thought that this was an interesting question – how do consultants help people get scholarships? Here are my strategies:

Understand your assets.

Clients are often surprised to learn that factors they considered to be neutral or even detrimental (non-traditional work experience, being the first in their family to attend college, being a woman, hailing from an underrepresented country or industry) are strengths. I help my clients understand how the admissions committee will see them, so that we can emphasize qualities that prompt schools to offer scholarships.

Choose your schools strategically.

Some schools, even top ones, have large endowments and are willing to incentive candidates to attend. They use their scholarship budgets to shape the class in various ways; GMAT & GPA, ethnic, gender and socioeconomic diversity, a range of industries and geography. I help clients understand which schools are most likely to offer them scholarships, based upon their individual characteristics.

Interact appropriately with your target programs.

In some cases, it helps to connect with the right people at your target schools, and to attend key events. I direct my clients to the best opportunities for them to get to know the decision makers, and give them advice about how to respectfully and effectively interact with the community.

Craft an amazing application.

As I have said before, in order to get a scholarship, especially full tuition, you need to submit a sparkling application. You need a well thought out narrative, great essays, a clear understanding of the school and compelling reasons why it’s a great fit. One [...]

Tips for Outstanding Common Application Essays

Applying to college Early Action or Early Decision? Here is advice about how to write outstanding common application essays.

Answer the question up front.

If the reader has to wonder which question you are answering, you aren’t framing your response well enough. In the first paragraph, ideally in the first line, please clarify your topic. Literally say something like “I am most content when volunteering at the local animal shelter, because I feel like I am using my skills and making a difference.”

Don’t think that you need a dramatic example.

Most applicants haven’t rescued a baby from a burning building, founded a non-profit or won an Olympic medal. The strongest essays are honest, reflective, responsive to the prompt and revelatory about what really matters to you. Some of the best essays that I have read are about the little things – tutoring your brother, an after-school job, a favorite book, radio show or hobby.

Don’t recycle an essay that you wrote for something else.

Although this may be tempting, it almost always backfires, leading to a response that isn’t quite on point. Admissions officers are also pretty adept at spotting essays that are recycled, and you don’t want them to penalize you for failing to put in the requisite effort.

Don’t try to sound like an adult.

This advice applies to your entire application process, but is particularly relevant here. As a high school senior, you aren’t supposed to have an adult perspective or voice. It’s extremely important for the schools to hear how you think about the world, in your own words.

MBA Application Mistakes You Don’t Know You’re Making

Although these phrases and strategies may seem like a good idea, they can damage your candidacy. Avoid the following MBA application mistakes.

Top Ranked School

It is never a good idea to say that you want to attend a school because they are highly ranked. The admissions committee selects candidates who are genuinely interested in their specific program, and who can articulate why it is a great fit. A generic desire to go to any top school is not compelling.


Understandably, a big part of business school is making useful connections and building your network. However, it can sound too transactional to be overly direct about this dynamic. You want to convey your interest in having genuine relationships, and also in helping others. Instead of saying that you are going to school to build a network purely for your own benefit, it’s better to say that you look forward to learning from your classmates, and to forming reciprocal bonds.


Part of developing a strong candidacy is understanding what you bring to the class, and how you compare to the pool. In reality, no matter how fabulous your experience, there are probably other candidates with similar credentials. In order to avoid sounding grandiose, please don’t tell the committee that you are the only person they will meet with the same background or skills. It’s good to explain what you will contribute, but please do so with humility.

Ignoring Instructions

You may have heard about applicants who show up and demand to have an interview, even without an invitation. You may be considering submitting an additional recommendation, despite explicit guidelines to the contrary, or writing about a leadership example from your personal life, even though the prompt asks for a professional illustration. [...]

The Truth About Business School Interviews

If you are preparing for your business school interviews, you might wonder what schools are really looking for. Why do they ask certain questions, and are there right and wrong answers? Here is the truth about what your interviewer is evaluating with these common questions.

Walk me through your resume.

Deceptively simple, this is actually a very difficult question. You need to know how much detail to give, how long to take, what points to emphasize, and how to encapsulate your story in a cogent and articulate way. Schools are testing your judgment, your ability to perform in front of a future employer, and your level of preparation. Quick tip: Try not to take more than two and half minutes explaining your resume.

What do you want to do after you graduate?

The best examples are specific (consulting for a firm like McKinsey or BCG) but not too specific (new product innovation for Apple.) You want the schools to understand that you have focus, but you don’t want them to worry that you will fall apart if you don’t get your dream position. The interviewer is also evaluating your understanding of your target field, and whether or not your goals are realistic, given your professional experience and interpersonal skills.

Why are you interested in this school?

This question tests whether or not you have researched the program, whether you really want to attend, and whether or not you are a good cultural, professional and academic fit. Provide details about the curriculum and how it is ideally tailored to help you acquire the skills that you need to excel. Mention course names, professors, immersion learning and international opportunities by name. You should also reference clubs and activities in a way that [...]

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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.