Preparing Application Short Answer Questions
With the recent release of the 2014 HBS application, it is clear that shortening the number of essays is a trend that is here to stay for now. With only one essay on the HBS application this year, it is becoming more important than ever to not only communicate effectively and concisely, but also to leverage the balance of the application (and of course the interview) to stand out from the crowd.
One result of the decreasing essay trend is an expansion of in-application short answer questions. Just a few years ago, there were few or none of these questions, but schools have since moved several opportunities to share your story out of the essay section and into the application itself. So just how do you go about preparing to answer these short questions? The preparation is remarkably similar to how you approached the essays in the past.
Sounds simple, but you must always be thinking of how you look compared to someone else with the exact same background, cultural experience and involvement because trust us, they are out there. Everyone thinks of themselves as unique, but when you are placed into a pile with other similar folks, you suddenly are not so unique anymore! The challenge comes when you are limited to just a few sentences (or even characters in some cases) to get your point across. There’s no room for dramatic storytelling or elaborate embellishment, but you still need to explain why something mattered to you or how it has shaped you.
One thing we generally recommend is to use a matrix to ensure you are communicating a balance of core essentials to the admissions committees. If you use this approach, you will be much more organized as you apply and will also be able to quickly ascertain where you may be coming up short. How does it work? We view the four core essentials of a perfect application are: Leadership, Innovation, Maturity, and Teamwork. These are the four critical areas that all business schools desire to see in their applicants.
Make a grid on a piece of paper with these four attributes across the top columns. Now on the left side of the grid, list the areas down the rows that are covered by the short answer questions (by the way, this also works with the long essay topics). For example, if there is a question in your application about your short and long term goals, write “short term goals” and “long term goals” in separate rows. Make sure you skip some rows between each topic to give you space to fill in information about yourself.
Now comes the easy part. Simply revisit your experience in your mind, and jot down what you see as relevant or compelling information about each topic. Don’t worry about whether or not you get everything exactly right, just stream your thoughts. Once you have the rows filled in, go across the grid and check off boxes which you think are adequately demonstrated by that piece of information. For example, if your short term goal is to work in investment banking, and your background is analyst work in an investment bank, you can check off the “maturity” box as well as likely the “teamwork” box, since you probably worked in a team environment and your post MBA goal selection demonstrates a mature plan (because it builds upon something you did in the past). If you feel something is detrimental to a particular area, or does not demonstrate leadership, innovation, teamwork or maturity, give yourself an X in that box.
Of course by the end of the exercise, you will have a scorecard from which you can see where you are strong and where you are weak regarding these four critical areas. If you don’t have any checks in the leadership column, for example, you should dig deeper into your experience to try and draw out examples of such. Feeling like your information communicates immaturity in some way? Try to tighten up your goals and plans or think of a situation you’ve had to handle which required wisdom. Thinking your job was a bit independent of working with others? Draw out examples of how you work in teams in your extracurricular activities.
Once you have your refined grid in hand, you should now be able to selectively draw the key components from your basket of experience to answer your short questions in a way that presents the right amount of balanced evidence. The key word is balance. Business schools like to admit candidates with the “total package,” that is, they possess a broad offering of skills and experience which illustrate all four key attributes of the perfect applicant. It’s not enough to be the best darn leader your company has ever seen. If you can’t work well in teams, schools will pass on you. Are you mature with great strengths in teamwork, but lack the creative spark of innovation? Schools may pass.
Sometimes, this exercise will expose an area where you need to go out and bolster your experience further. That’s why it’s good to do this early in the application process. Ultimately, the information you offer in the short answer questions is just as vital as the info in your essays. Don’t be fooled into thinking these are throwaway questions. The ability to concisely and completely answer a question with a very limited word restriction is an exercise in restraint and economy that demonstrates a very valuable skill in itself to the admissions committees. Don’t blow your chance to impress them!If you have MBA admissions questions, call us at 1-800-925-7737 and speak with a Veritas Prep MBA admissions expert today!
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