Cognitive Bias and Tuck’s 2014 Application Essays

By - May 23, 12:58 PM Comments [0]

By the Amerasia Consulting Group

Tuck released its new essays and they feature no changes to Essay 1, the removal of one word from Essay 2, and the cutting of their old Essay 3 (on setback/failure).  No doubt everyone in this space will be analyzing those changes today (I am too), but my guess is they will come to incorrect conclusions in many cases.  There are a lot of reasons why people make incorrect determinations when analyzing changes, but much of it can be attributed to cognitive bias - everything from recency bias to bounded rationality to confirmation bias.  We tend to read things in one way and our flow of assumptions follows that set path.  I will explain what I mean within the context of each questions - but just be forewarned that this blog post serves two functions: an analysis of Tuck's questions, but also an attempt to figure out why people trip up and make errors in interpretation.

Essay 1 -  Tuck #1 – Why is an MBA a critical next step toward your short- and long-term career goals? Why is Tuck the best MBA program for you and your goals and why are you the best fit for Tuck?

There is no change to this essay this year, but of great interest to me is that a change they made last year seems to have worked well.  Two years ago, Tuck wrote "Why is Tuck the best MBA program for you and what will you uniquely contribute to the community."  The phrasing of fit as "contribution" was likely doing one of two things to the answers: it was either making it too obvious (steering people towards the idea of "contribution" aka "making an impact") or it was pushing the answers too far out (the use of the word "unique" to describe contributions may have pushed candidates towards exotic or bizarre contributions, rather than solid ideas like leadership, engagement, creativity, etc.).  I am not going to presume to know for sure, but either way, they felt they had to tease out that response in a different way - thus the change to "why are you the best fit for Tuck."  It's still very strong language ("the best fit" rather than just "a great fit"), but it seems to solve for either of the issues above - it is both less leading in terms of how to think about fit (doesn't automatically tell a candidate to focus on contribution and impact) and also in terms of how exotic the content needs to be.

Now, that said, I think it's still extremely helpful to keep the old content in mind.  We'll talk more about this in Essay 2, but just because a school removes language or changes language from a previous year, that does NOT mean they are rejecting the old language.  I see admissions consultants make this argument all the time and I just cringe.  It's such a reductive way to examine change.  It is just as likely that a school felt the language was too good as it is that they felt it was bad - meaning that the language in question created an obvious response path and therefore needed to be cut or changed.  Looking to old/removed language is often the key to understanding the new.  Therefore, to reject it as "bad" just because the school changed it is, well, insane.  So for Tuck 1, don't hesitate for a minute to think about "why am I the best fit for Tuck" through the lens of "what contribution can I make?"  It's a more concrete way to think about "fitting at a school" anyway and we know - through the most rudimentary essay archeology imaginable - that Tuck thinks about fit in these terms.  There is no reason to reject that framework just because the essay language changed.

Essay #2 - Discuss your most meaningful leadership experience and what role you played. What did you learn about your own individual strengths and weaknesses through this experience?

For this one, we have the removed word collaborative (from "collaborative leadership").   This means ... what?  "Tuck doesn't want collaborative leadership stories" - I promise you will read that exact statement in an "expert" blog post.  Maybe you will read it in a bunch of them.  It's total nonsense.  Here are the reasons why:

  • They aren't saying "please tell leadership stories that do not involve collaboration" - unless they explicitly say it, the mere absence of a word does not give that instruction.
  • Tuck is one of the most collaborative, friendly, and connected environments you will ever find - particularly among MBA programs.  And they are suddenly anti-collaboration?
  • Finally, what is more likely: that Tuck suddenly changed what it cares about in a way that is 180 degrees ... or that including the word "collaborative" made last year's question too obvious?  It's almost certainly the latter.

The takeaway here is that if you are going to try to decipher anything from the removal of the word "collaboration" it is that you should be pursuing that type of story all the more - not avoiding it.  Removing that word may have meant nothing at all, but if it meant anything, it is far more likely to indicate that they were giving away the store last year (making it too easy for people to synch up with what Tuck cares about, rather than arriving there through true introspection), rather than "they don't want those stories."

This is why I am harping on cognitive bias and the danger in reductive takeaways when dealing with small language tweaks.  I am advising my clients this year - just as last year - to tell an authentic leadership story that is about making an impact, and, if possible, to have it take place in a team setting.  Because that's the kind of school Tuck is and quite frankly what I think makes for the best leaders in 2014, regardless of what word is or is not in the question this year.

Essay #3 - Removed. 

They eliminated the "failure/setback" essay this year and - in another display of cognitive bias - most people are claiming that it's the latest in a trend of schools trying to make it "easier" to apply.  I could not disagree more.

As one of my clients from this past year emailed me today about the Tuck essay reduction: "though we both know, less real estate to tell your story actually makes it harder."  He's 100% right.  It is my belief that schools aren't trying to make it "easier" to apply - they are making it harder.  Harder for dolts to seem deep, harder for charlatan consultants to truly coach their clients, and just harder to be effective.  If this is true and they are effective in their goals, this is a good thing, because it means more deserving people will be getting in.   I personally liked the failure/setback essay and felt it was a strong test of personal maturity and self-awareness (two things lacking in many of today's applicants), so I am not sure I agree with Tuck's decision to remove it, but I don't for a second think it was done to reward lazy applicants or to make it "easier" to apply.

If you are looking for help on Tuck's application or any other school - or if you just want someone experienced and smart to help you avoid your own cognitive biases - shoot us an email at  We're not the typical consulting firm and we're happy to show you why on a free consult call. 

Amerasia Consulting Group

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