By Adam Hoff, Amerasia Consulting Group
These days, in addition to helping our clients get ready for interviews we also meet a lot of new folks who didn't use admissions consulting services to apply - but now are wondering if perhaps they should have. Most often, they are asking for "ding analysis," which is basically "please tell me if I did something wrong and whether I can fix it for next time." We are happy to oblige, of course, and so we see a lot (we mean A LOT) of rejected applications, to a lot of schools. In giving feedback time and again, we naturally are starting to see some of the same issues cropping up. The good news is that these issues are in keeping with the feedback we give from the outset of an engagement, but the bad news is that obviously some people aren't getting that advice. (Note: I understand how pedantic and self-serving this all sounds, but it's simply true. Our clients avoid the "triangle" of ding reasons by virtue of working with us, and, therefore, they are getting droves of interview invites and admit letters to top schools. Yes, it's self-serving, but that doesn't make it false. Not sure what else to say.) Anyway, let's dive into the three reasons - or the "Triangle" - of typical ding issues that we see.
(Note: We ran a version of this back in the spring and it seems well worth running it again now that it's "ding season.")
Other than "bad luck" or "well, this school is one of the hardest in the world to get into" or "you never should have applied to this school," these are the three most common reasons that people get dinged. Put differently, they are the three reasons you could have avoided:
1. Failure to have properly articulated goals.
It's amazing to me how often I open up a set of essays and start looking for goals ... and find that I have to keep looking ... and looking ... and looking. Applicants love to bury their goals in broad proclamations, quotes, misdirection, sentimental nonsense, and all other manner of articulation that has the net effect of making it extremely hard to figure out what they want to do. I believe that part of the problem is that people misunderstand the purpose of career goals and how to properly think about both the short-term and long-term elements.
- The short-term goals should be A) achievable, B) a good fit based on your transferable skills (which MUST be articulated in your essays), C) clearly stated, and D) achievable. Did I list "achievable" twice? You bet I did. This is because schools want to admit applicants that they can place into jobs. Period. You have exceptions like HBS, GSB, and MIT - all schools that don't really care much about ST goals. However, for the most part, schools want to know they can help you gain employment - for your sake and theirs (employment reports are a big part of rankings). I can't tell you how many people I have spoken to on consult calls or essays I have read where a strange ST goal is in place, with the explanation, "I wanted to differentiate myself a bit." I also hear applicants (sometimes smugly) tell me that schools "don't want to see yet another person who wants to do consulting." Um, yes, actually they do. Because they can get students jobs in consulting! Don't put that you want a short-term job working for Prada or doing freshwater turbine investing - those aren't jobs they can help you get. Be smart about this.
- The long-term goals are for sharing who you are. This is where you can differentiate and showcase passion and tell them where you come from and all that good stuff. You SHOULD have fun with this and be creative and reach for the stars. So what if every other applicant and their brother is saying they want to start their own business; if starting your own business is the best way to share your dream and articulate what makes you tick, share that goal. So, so, soooooo many people invert the ST and LT goals - they go exotic with the ST and staid with the LT. This is the opposite of what you should do, it's probably the opposite of the truth, and it's usually fatal.
Of course, this doesn't even include the people who straight up forget to include their goals in a goals essay. And yes, this happens all the time. I just assume if you are reading this blog post, you won't make that mistake.
(Last thing: vague statements of what you want to do with your life - like "impact the world" or "make a difference" - are not goals. Just so we're clear on that.)
2. Failure to be an individual.
Many dinged elite applicants that I see suffer from the same problem, which is that they never showcased what makes them a cool, unique person. I'm not talking about having a "brand" or billing yourself as the "such and such candidate" - readers are not idiots, so they aren't going to be swept off their feet for something that rudimentary. I'm talking about setting aside your desire to sound smart or to cover every last detail or to (the worst) "write what they want to hear," and instead being a real person with real interests and a real personality. So many dinged applications are dry, rigid, and only technically sound - there is a skeleton but no heartbeat. (Note: the cousin of this failure is less common, but also a problem, which is the "I am going to try to sound interesting" applicant - where they use weird phrasing or lofty prose to create "interesting" material. Please understand that the material is anything but interesting. It's excruciating. You can have clean paragraphs, topic sentences, and easy-to-follow prose and still be interesting - it's what you say, not the flourish with which you say it.)
3. Failure to understand and connect with the DNA of the individual school.
And now we get to the big one. A certain specialty of ours has become working with elite candidates who "somehow" got dinged at every single school the year before. This is a group of Type A people who have worked hard and strived to make it this far and so they typically do okay on the first two bullets (although not always and almost never to perfection - there's a reason we have a firm that grows every single year; this stuff is not easy). It's the third bullet that kills them. I will ask a 3.7, 720 PE guy to send me his four dinged files and I'll open them up to find that Wharton and Kellogg have the same leadership stories inside and that HBS and GSB feature the exact same tone and approach. Dings, for sure - or at least at two of the four. (If it's not clear why that's the case, I would say again, that's why we have a business.) I see people who *should* get into Booth, for instance, but they didn't share their capacity for risk. That tells Booth, "I'm probably going somewhere else" at worst and "I don't understand your culture and therefore am giving you no idea whether I am a fit there or not" at best. I see people who do not showcase readiness at INSEAD, who put risky career goals in a Columbia essay, who fail to touch on the four principles at Haas, who don't write about global focus at Wharton, who ignore the "think, feel, say, do" element with MIT, and on and on and on. And these are just the easy parts. A good application - a set of essays that will transform a reader from a mere gatekeeper into your advocate - knows the DNA of the school in question, taps into it, and then uses it to say "I am one of you!" to the reader. A failure to do this invites massive risk, even for the best candidates, as you go into admissions committee "naked," which is to say, without someone fighting for you. At that point, anything can happen - bad demographics, a test score 10 points too low, a C in a class, a low quant split, bad luck, you name it. And even though it seems cruel and unfair, the same candidate can experience bad luck 3, 4, or 5 times in the same round.
Time after time, I review a file and explain "this is what is wrong with the goals," "you could have been more interesting and personal throughout," and - most of all - "you just didn't tap into the DNA of these schools." It almost never fails. This is why I've taken to calling it the Ding Triangle. Almost every ding features each of these three sides to it, forming together to generate that result. I'm happy to say that all three can be address and improved upon in almost every case and that we've had great success in doing so. Therefore, if you have been dinged, don't give up hope, but instead, be honest with yourself - or, better yet, find someone who can give you an honest appraisal in these areas. Then, get back after it.
If you are a dinged applicant, we are happy to see where you went wrong and to help you improve. Reapplicants have been a true specialty given the sheer number we work with every year - and the success that they have had. If you are starting fresh, be sure to engage someone who knows what they are doing so you can avoid a Ding Triangle of your own. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.