Sunday, October 25, 2009

Rephrasing the Question

In recent posts I looked at my essays for reasons why I may have been rejected by three schools but admitted to one. In this post I'll offer some suggestions on how you can avoid making the mistakes I made.

To recap, I think there were two basic problems with some of my essays. First, I did't do enough research into some of the schools I applied to, so I wasn't able to do a good job of tailoring my essays. The lesson learned is straightforward: do your homework and make sure you can articulate your reasons for applying to each school (and the answer shouldn't include the words "ranking" or "reputation"). It's probably worth writing your reasons down on paper.

The second basic problem was I spent too much time explaining my qualifications and background, at the cost of explaining why I felt I needed an MBA, why that school in particular, and (for one school) what my future goals were. See "Essay Statistics" for details.

Losing the Forest for the Trees
How did I manage to overlook these important details? I think I became too focused on the direct essay questions, losing sight of the "questions behind the question" - i.e. the questions that every essay package should address, even if the questions aren't asked explicitly:
  1. What are your qualifications?
  2. Why do you want/need an MBA?
  3. Why do you want to go to this school?
  4. What are your future goals?
All of the applications I've seen ask you to explain your accomplishments and future goals, but they don't all ask you to explain why you need an MBA or why you want an MBA from that school in particular. I think these questions still need to be answered though.

Rephrasing the Question
Thankfully my b-school application days are behind me, but if I had to write application essays again, I'd rephrase the questions to make sure I didn't overlook the basics. This would help me plan how I was going to incorporate answers to the questions above within the context of the essay topic.

For example, here's how I'd rephrase this year's HBS questions (parenthetical numbers refer to questions from my list above):
Original question: What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such? (1)
Rephrased question: What are your three most substantial accomplishments, why do you view them as such, how do they fit in with your future goals, and how have they prepared you for HBS? (1, 2, 3, 4)

Original question: What have you learned from a mistake? (1)
Rephrased question: What have you learned from a mistake and how has it prepared you for business school? (1, 2)

Original question: Tell us about a time when you made a difficult decision. (1)
Rephrased question: Same. (1)

Original question: What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you? (4)
Rephrased question: What is your career vision, why is it meaningful to you, and why do you need an MBA from HBS to achieve it? (2/3, 4)

Topic coverage before rephrasing: 1, 1, 1, 4
Topic coverage after rephrasing: 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 1, 2/3, 4
I don't have any great ideas on how to rephrase the "difficult decision" question - if you think of anything, please post a comment or shoot me an e-mail (anecdotalmba@gmail.com). Clear Admit advises a straightforward reply to this question.

There's Nothing New Here
If you've been studying for the GMAT, the idea of rephrasing questions won't seem new to you. And if you've been thinking about b-school application essays, it will seem obvious that you need to cover the fundamentals when you compose your essays.

To me, the power in rephrasing essay questions - or interview questions, or questions from my boss - is it gives me a chance to think about what a good answer would consist of, then build the goals of my answer back in to the question.

I learned the hard way that it is entirely possible to answer business school essay questions while missing some of the most important points. The essay questions aren't designed to ensure you'll provide a complete essay package - that is left up to the applicant. But by identifying your goals before you start writing, and incorporating them into the questions, there's a better chance that you'll end up with well-rounded essays - avoiding the mistakes I made.

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