The application round you choose for a business school can have a significant impact on your chances of admittance, so making the right choice is crucial. Especially if you are torn between whether to submit your MBA applications quickly in Round 1 or take extra time to polish and submit them in Round 2.
In this episode of Business Casual, our hosts will put context to why, first, round one is the best time to apply; second, why you have to be distinct in answering questions on your application form; and third, why writing your resume and essay is not a one-size-fits-all.
[00:00:07.330] – John
Well, hello everyone. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants. Welcome to Business Casual, our weekly podcast with my co host, Caroline Diarte Edwards and Maria Wich-Vila. Would you believe we’re only six weeks away from Round One deadline for Harvard Business School and of course right after that, one school after another, like collapsing dominos, has their deadlines. So we want to talk a little bit about where should you be if you intend to apply in those early Round One deadlines. And if you’ve been listening to our podcast in the past, the recent past, you will know that we highly recommend that you apply in Round One, particularly this year, because applications are still kind of flat to declining, at least that’s the expectation. But there’s also an expectation that there will be a recession next year and we know that applications to business schools are counter cyclical and that you can expect applications to soar and that could possibly affect Round Two when it will get much more competitive. So let me ask our two experts, what should you be doing right now? Where should you be in the process? And we think, you know, I want to put a little context around this.
[00:01:27.460] – John
There are people who know from kindergarten that they want to go to Harvard, Stanford, Wharton INSEAD, London. There are people who overestimate their accomplishments and have in many cases unrealistic expectations about where they can go in. And then there are people who actually are so humble that they underestimate their chances and therefore select target schools that are below the level to which they could actually get enrolled. So we want to examine these different personas in the context of that Round One deadline that is approaching fast. Caroline, where should a candidate be if they’re going to apply to Harvard in six weeks?
[00:02:14.040] – Caroline
Well, hopefully they’ve made a lot of progress with various elements of the application. One thing that jumps to mind is recommendations because you can’t control the timeline of exactly when your recommenders are going to submit their letters. So that is something that should be well underway and hopefully you’ve had various conversations with your recommender by this stage and you’ve discussed what they’re going to say and the accomplishments that they will highlight and perhaps they’ve even written their recommendations and submitted them already. That would be wonderful, but it’s not essential at this stage. But that process should be well underway and you should be working with your recommendations closely. Otherwise a lot of candidates who are well prepared have already made progress with their essays. It’s something that you can’t cook up overnight and it takes a lot of reflection and properly several iterations. It’s something that sort of matures over time, the essay. So hopefully you’ve got that well underway and making progress with that part.
[00:03:23.280] – John
So you should have draft at this point, right?
[00:03:25.660] – Caroline
Yes, I think it’s a very good idea to have drafts in progress at this stage. And then something else I would mention that candidates often overlook and leave to the last minute is the application forms, which are less interesting, right, than getting your teeth into a meaty essay, because a lot of it is just filling out data and some short answer questions. So it’s not as fun to work through, but sometimes we will leave that to the last minute and make silly errors. Or a number of schools have almost many essays embedded in those application forms. Short answer questions, free text fields where you do have to think carefully about what you’re going to say and how you’re going to present things. And again, that’s something that you shouldn’t be throwing together at the last minute. So I would certainly encourage candidates to start drafting those application forms now or in the next few weeks.
[00:04:24.560] – John
Yes. Maria, your thoughts?
[00:04:26.900] – Maria
Yeah, I mean, I agree with everything Caroline said, as usual, but I think in particular for HBS, I really want to hit home that point about the admissions form itself, because in that form, you are given little text boxes to write about your accomplishments and your challenges. And I actually advise for HBS and only HBS, that you actually write what you’re going to put in that admissions form first and then work on the essay from there. Because the question says, as we review your application, what more do we need to know about you? And so if you write an essay where you repeat in the essay the same challenge that you talk about in your challenges box. Which is. By the way. Just a rephrasing of something that you copied and pasted from the resume. You’re missing the point of what Harvard is looking for in terms of communication style and in terms of. Okay. How do you know to be as efficient as possible with your wording? And can you put yourself in our shoes and really get to the core of what do we need to know? Because what I love about the open endedness of this question is that, and I think I’ve said this a couple of times before on this podcast, it really does give some people enough rope to hang themselves. Yeah, right. Some people really do think the thing you need to know about me is that I want a spelling beat when I was ten years old, and boy, oh boy, am I special. That just speaks volumes to someone’s lack of awareness. It speaks volumes in a not a positive way. One of my favorite things that I love to make fun of is when people like to start their essays with something about, I was such a curious child. That’s one in particular that is like nails on a chalkboard to me, because nature and evolution designed children to be curious.
[00:06:09.310] – Maria
If children weren’t curious, they would never learn and the species would have gone extinct. So when people are like, oh, the thing you need to know about me, Harvard, is that I was such a curious child. And I’m like, well, good for you. Most children are. That’s how they learn to walk. So that’s one that for me, is like nails on a chalkboard. And so I love that question because I think it really forces you to think, okay, strategically, this is a business school. I’m applying to business school. I’ve already given them this information. So what else do they need to know about me, anyway? For HBS in particular, fill out and think carefully about what you’re going to say in those little boxes first, and then from there, how that influence your essay. You can start drafting the essay first, of course, but then if there’s repetition with what you put in the boxes, then you please do consider removing any sort of very repetitive information.
[00:06:59.630] – John
How dramatic should an essay be? And I ask this because when you look at collections of these sample essays that are on the web here and there, including one that we even sell, some of these essays are very finely crafted, and they are dramatic or melodramatic. And one thinks that you’re really trying hard to write something as truly compelling, and it stands out from the clutter. And so I wonder, do you, in fact, have to write rather dramatically about something that happened in your life to have a compelling essay that puts you over the top?
[00:07:39.730] – Maria
I don’t know that I would use the word dramatic, but I would use the word authentic. And so I think sometimes when people are talking about moments in their lives that were really core moments that shaped them. Or core moments where they were put to the flame. So to speak. Like those moments where they really did have to step up and make a choice to be brave. Or make a choice to be courageous. Or make a choice to think about someone else above themselves or whatever it is they want to focus on in those moments. Those moments are rarely boring in one’s life because they are so formative. And so I would think that when you talk about some of these experiences, I do think that there is some emotion that should come through. At the very least, you should be excited about what you’re writing about, or at least excited to tell maybe if the experience itself was a negative one. At least you’re excited to share it with them so that they can really get to know you. So basically, I think authenticity is important, but I do not advocate being dramatic for drama’s sake.
[00:08:38.580] – Maria
I actually think that sometimes that backfires when somebody tries to make it sound like, oh, my gosh, I’ve overcome the hardest thing in the world. My parents got divorced and the whole world ended. And I’m like, I’m not trying to say that what you went through wasn’t authentic, but at the same time, like, 50% of American marriages end in divorce. And so just have a little bit of sometimes people try to write these sort of mountain out of I don’t mean to say that the divorce thing specifically, but sometimes people want to write these, like, mountain out of molehill drama stories about, oh, look at all the things I’ve had to overcome, and I sort of smack them down a little. I’m like, you don’t really know. Just careful in trying to make yourself sound like a martyr when you’ve actually had a pretty good life. And that’s one of my little personal pet peeves. I think it ticks me off more than it ticks off the admissions committee, frankly. But I think sometimes people think, oh, I have to be dramatic. And so let me write about I was crying in my bedroom when I lost that Pokémon Go competition.
[00:09:44.440] – Maria
And I’m like, I don’t know. It doesn’t really fly for me.
[00:09:49.170] – John
Caroline, I imagine that you read, as the admissions director at INSEAD, quite a few of those essays where people were up late at night crying in their pillow.
[00:10:01.830] – Caroline
Yeah, well, Maria said she’s not sure that it bothers the admissions committee as much as bothers her. I disagree.
[00:10:08.340] – Caroline
I think it bothers the admissions committee absolutely, because you see so many of these essays, and when people are sort of exaggerating the situation, it’s so transparent to a file reader who is experienced in getting a sense for how someone is portraying themselves and reading between the lines. And I think actually humility is extremely important. And so if you over dramatize or exaggerate things, that runs counter to being humble. And I think humidity actually goes a very long way, especially in the applications to the top schools, because it’s not always a quality that they see.
[00:11:00.010] – Caroline
Across. The board and it’s something specifically that they’re looking for and that they admire. So I think it would be dangerous to think that you had to sort of dramatize your story, but telling a story is still important, right. And using your essays to bring your story to life and bring your application to life, that is helpful. Not just using the essays to regurgitate some more facts or you don’t want it to be too dry. You want it to be engaging and to draw the reader in. And one of the purposes of the essays from the candidates perspective is that you want to pique their interest so that they want to learn more about you, and how are they going to learn more about you, what are they going to invite you to interview? So it’s sort of a teaser, the essay, right? And so you do want to sort of stimulate that interest so that they want to learn more. So I think the story element is important. But it’s a delicate balance to strike. Because if you come across as sort of over dramatizing things. Then there will certainly be plenty of eye rolling now.
[00:12:11.140] – John
I imagine that the advice you gave earlier about where one should be in the application journey for Round One probably applies to the more organized person who has probably already reached out and cultivated the recommenders. Has a draft or two of all the essay questions that they’ve worked with and is working on those questions in the application form. What about people who delay and delay and delay? Can you get this done one week before Round One deadline?
[00:12:46.430] – Caroline
Well, it’s quite unusual to do it well one week before the deadline. And for sure, there are great candidates who procrastinate. And one of the things that part of our role as coaches is to help people structure their work and give them some milestones and help them structure that time because there are a lot of things that you have to do, and often candidates underestimate how long it takes. And so that’s something we do with candidates up front. It’s sort of set up the project plan for the weeks or hopefully months ahead. And some people are very good at sticking to that and some people aren’t. I mean, part of it is understandable, right, because MBA candidates by their very nature are often incredibly busy people with very demanding day jobs that will get in the way of the efforts to spend an hour every evening working on their application. It’s not always feasible, so you have to be a bit flexible. But procrastination is dangerous because things can sort of build up. And admissions committees and Fire readers are very attuned to picking up on whether someone has thought about their application carefully and taken it very seriously, or whether there’s a few sloppy details here and there, which suggests that maybe they have thrown it together in a bit more of a last minute fashion and you don’t want them making that judgment about you.
[00:14:16.430] – Caroline
So it’s really a shame. Sometimes it’s frustrating. We work with clients sometimes who struggle to just get the work done, and some people are afraid of writing. Some people find the process of writing essays and so on and telling their story quite intimidating. So, yeah, we have strategies for trying to sort of break it down for them and help them make progress. But we can’t do it for them, right?
[00:14:41.750] – John
Exactly. That would be unethical, obviously. Do it for them. And then there are the people who have these unrealistic expectations. They really believe they can get into some of the more highly selective MBA programs. And then you have the people who are a little more humble about what they think they can accomplish. Maria, how do you sort this out? I think you gave a rough estimate that I found really interesting earlier on in our conversation before we actually started recording. And you estimated that for every person who underestimates him or herself, there are 15 others who overestimate their chances. Is it that bad?
[00:15:28.070] – Maria
I mean, to be clear, I came up with that number off the top of my head. There was no analysis or Monte Carlo simulation involved with the distribution. None of that was happening.
[00:15:39.030] – John
But that’s a very bright head on your shoulders, Maria.
[00:15:44.850] – Maria
My gosh, it really is shocking to me. And I’ve got these little videos in the lab about like one is of my son several years ago, skiing down a mountain, and no one is near him. Like, nothing touches him and he just flops. He just falls for no reason. And then there’s another video I’m going to upload soon of him, like he’s taking a goal kick, a penalty kick, and it just glanced if it would have been literally like half a centimeter, a little bit more to the right, it would have gone in. But since it wasn’t, it bounced straight off and it wasn’t a goal. And I think the reason I like to put these little videos in there is because I do well personally, I try to deliver bad news with humor and tact and warmth. Not that I always succeed, but part of my point is, like, look, even if you’re super close to being a good candidate for some of these schools, you can end up with nothing if you’re too ambitious. And I call the one of, like, I only apply to the top five schools, it’s like you’re shooting yourself in the foot.
[00:16:48.450] – Maria
And one of the things that I try to teach people to do is because I don’t like being the bad guy who’s like, well, you’re not getting in. So I try to tell people to look for what I call resume twins, which are people who, before business school, had identical or similar background to the candidate. And if you find out that, oh, my gosh, every single year, someone who worked in my division, in my company, in my role, every other year someone gets into one of these top schools, that’s a much better indicator. I’m not saying you’re going to get in, but it’s a better indicator. I like to think that sometimes people will then look around and say, oh, actually, I am a quality assurance software tester. I never really let anything like, the one person I met who went into business school was actually leading a team of five people and managing a budget of a million dollars. I like to think that’s what just to sort of help people get a sense, but it happens every time, and I get it right. I think I’ve told this story before. Once I was working with a very nice young person, and I said, well, I was trying to tell them gently that I didn’t think HBS was on the cards for them.
[00:17:58.090] – Maria
And I sort of said, well, what happened in high school? Did you apply to Harvard when you were in high school? And they said, oh, God, no. Only the smart kids applied to Harvard. And because this was such a special person with a lot of maturity. I sort of was like, look, honey, where do you think those people went? They’re still there. They’re still out there, and they’re just applying to business. It’s just eight years later. And so I’m not saying like. Oh. To be clear. I’m not saying if you did not go to Harvard as an undergraduate. You’re not going to Harvard Business School. But it’s just more like this idea of for some reason. I think there’s this weird thing about business school where people more so than other graduate programs. Where candidates might sort of think that there’s a completely clean slate. And it doesn’t matter that I’ve never gotten promoted, and it doesn’t matter that I’ve never volunteered for anything in my life, and it doesn’t matter that I have never been given any responsibility. I have just as good of a shot as everyone else. And the candid, honest truth is that unfortunately, that’s not true.
[00:18:53.890] – John
Yeah. And it does go to things like, do you have a job at a company that’s highly selective? Did you go to an undergraduate graduate institution where the academic standards were high and is highly selective? So admissions folks do like to see people who have passed through find filters. There’s no doubt about it. And in fact, when you do study the undergraduate and business backgrounds of students at Harvard and Stanford and Wharton, you see just that. You see a lot of Ivy League near Ivy, public Ivy, people in the program, and you see very few people from public institutions unless they are a public Ivy, like a Michigan, Berkeley, UCLA, UT, Austin school, like that. So there is all that. Before we went on, Caroline actually mentioned something that is kind of interesting, and it applies to one of the questions that many schools ask in the application form. The question is this, and INSEAD just began asking this what other schools have you applied to? It’s kind of a tricky question, in a way, because you want every school to think they’re your first choice and you really want to attend there. So if you actually put all your cards on the table and turn them over and show someone who you’re playing with what cards you have, is that detrimental to your chances?
[00:20:34.240] – John
Caroline you think not?
[00:20:36.670] – Caroline
No. It’s something that candidates often sweat about, and some schools ask it in the written application, and some schools may ask it at the interview stage. My experience INSEAD, because we used to ask at the interview stage, and from what I’ve heard, from speaking to colleagues who have worked at other top schools, is that they’re really collecting this data for marketing purposes, to understand their peer group, where else candidates are applying, with which schools they have the most overlap in the application pool. And so they’re pulling that data then on an aggregate basis and looking at the trends over time, and they’re not using it as part of the admissions evaluation unless there’s something really odd that popped out. Possibly. I would tell candidates not to sweat about it. You might want to put 20 schools on the list, right? You want to look like you are thoughtful in where you’re applying, but don’t sweat about it. Don’t worry about it. If you’re putting a school on the list that you worry, okay, I’m applying to INSEAD, but should I mention that I’m also applying to Stanford GSB? Is that going to make it look like I’m not focused on international programs?
[00:21:54.220] – Caroline
That maybe I’m torn between the US and applying to a very different school? Like in Seattle on a business school? Don’t overthink it. Just be honest. Put down a few schools if you’re applying to them, and don’t worry too much if you don’t have other schools to talk about either. Sometimes INSEAD actually has quite a few people who only apply to INSEAD because it’s a bit of a different school, right? It’s the one year program. It’s very international. So sometimes candidates are just applying to it because that’s the program. It has the specific characteristics that they want. And there is another school that offers exactly that does have quite a few candidates who only apply to INSEAD. And sometimes candidates worry, oh, do I look stupid to say that I’m only applying to INSEAD and I’m putting all my eggs in one basket, and does this reflect badly on me? Don’t worry about it. Actually, the school is very happy to have candidates who only apply to INSEAD because if they make you an offer, then there’s a pretty good chance that you would accept. Right. So it’s very good for yield. And as I said, in any case, they’re generally looking at that data in aggregates across the pool, rather than pouring over your personal decisions and making judgments about that.
[00:23:19.380] – Caroline
So I would encourage candidates not to stress about it, just answer it honestly and move on to more important questions.
[00:23:26.390] – John
Now, earlier in our conversation, Maria said she almost always agrees with you, Caroline. I think on this point, she may not.
[00:23:36.050] – Maria
Oh, shoot. I shouldn’t have said that on this episode.
[00:23:38.780] – Caroline
[00:23:41.790] – John
So, Maria, you have a slightly different interpretation of what an applicant should do with this question.
[00:23:49.110] – Maria
I do. Look, I am a huge believer of honesty being the best policy, but the only time I get when I think a question is being asked that is perhaps disingenuous, then I’m okay with a slightly disingenuous answer. And by that I mean no, and maybe not maybe disingenuous. That’s too harsh of a word. But for example, let’s take a completely different question, right? The career vision, the very specific career vision. If somebody were to say, I don’t know what I want to do, that’s why I’m going to go to business school, that would be the honest answer. But if they said that they might not fare as well in the applicant pool as if they had some sort of a plan. So that’s what I mean by, like, what I see honesty blatant over the top, honesty being punished. I do tend to get a little bit like, I don’t know about this. And the thing is that with the marketing aspect of it, I just feel that there are a lot of other ways that the data could be collected. For example, a third party could collect that data. There could be sort of a link that goes to a third party that is collecting that data.
[00:24:55.260] – Maria
Or it could be something where we won’t look at your answer until the admissions decision has been sent out. So if the school said, please fill this out in your application form, tell us what other schools you’re applying to, and we promise we’re not even going to open it until we’ve already decided, that way we can promise you that it won’t affect our decision, then I would feel much more comfortable with saying, like, yeah, sure. Tell them that you’re applying to Harvard, Stanford, Booth, MIT, and then put the other 20 schools that you’re applying to. If you are applying to 20 schools, it makes you look nuts. I agree. I would think if I saw someone applying to 20 schools, I would think they’re nuts. But are there people out there who apply to 20 schools? Yes.
[00:25:36.700] – Maria
Should they put in that form that they’re applying to 20 schools? No, because it makes them look crazy. And so I think from that perspective, if there was some way to truly it’s almost like, okay, if you’re really only using it for marketing purposes, why are you asking me to fill it out in my application that is tied to my identity and my name and address and my candidacy? I understand why the schools might want to know, in terms of how they position themselves, if they’re up against a competitor school. And they tend to lose a lot of people in the yield games. They tend to lose people to another school. I can see why that is valuable information to have. I just wish it weren’t done in a way that is so personally identifiable, regardless of even if the I mean, I got to say, like, even if I’m not the one, I’m not the one. I’m like, oh, the marketing team. I don’t care about this part of the form. It’s the marketing teams part of the form. But if somebody were to put 20 schools, I’d be like, yikes, what a weirdo.
[00:26:39.970] – Maria
Seriously. And so I just like so I do actually advise people to be thoughtful about what they put here. I don’t say spend hours and hours agonizing over it, but I wish it were truly anonymous or could be proven to be truly anonymous, in which case I would say, let your freak flag fly. Just let them know the full truth. But I don’t know. It’s in my form with my name on it, so I’m a little skittish.
[00:27:09.210] – John
I love it when you two disagree.
[00:27:11.420] – Caroline
Yeah, it doesn’t happen very often.
[00:27:14.890] – John
Hey, let me put a different spin on this. Let’s say you’re a really good candidate, and you let admissions know that you’re applying to two or three other schools. And certainly anything six and below is perfectly kosher, I would think. And they really want you. They may be more inclined to throw money at you to discount your tuition fee if they know you’re going to apply to the other schools and they think you have a good chance of getting in there as well. Am I wrong on that? In other words, can you actually play this to your advantage?
[00:27:49.550] – Caroline
Well, I don’t think it does you any harm for the school to see you as a candidate where they may be competing with other schools. Right. So in theory, the scholarship decisions should be separate, but in practice, possibly not. The other thing is, sometimes candidates have scholarship offers and so on from other schools, and they can use that for leverage with another school to try and increase their financial aid offer. And that can work as well sometimes. So it’s possible that it may play in your favor.
[00:28:26.930] – John
So, bottom line here, decide whether you should fill it out or not. It’s your own comfort level and what you should actually say when you fill it out. And if you’re applying to a lot of schools, you probably don’t want to fill it out at least as completely as to indicate all the different schools you’re applying to. I would say anything above six, I would be cautious about. Otherwise, you should be cultivating your recommenders and getting ready to make sure that they file their forms in for the round one deadline. You should have a draft at hand that’s fairly complete so that you can work on that draft, show it to other people that you like and trust and get their feedback on it. And you should be paying attention to those questions on the application form, where you can really distinguish yourself and add a lot of value that you might not be able to add in the essay itself or the essays. In the case of schools that require multiple essays, this is a great time, really. And just focus on it, stay with it. Get ready. Don’t apply. Don’t push the button on the day or the hour of the actual deadline.
[00:29:40.190] – John
Try to get in a day early if you can, to avoid any kind of glitch. And good luck to you. Rooting for all of you out there. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants. You’ve been listening to Business Casual with my co host, Maria Wich-Vila and Caroline Diarte Edwards.