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Oldie but Goodie: Tales of an Application Reader

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Oldie but Goodie: Tales of an Application Reader [#permalink]

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This is really old so most of you have probably seen this-- but for people working on their R2/R3 apps, this article from Manhattan GMAT was really helpful for me. An insider look at how some apps get read. Hope you guys find this as helpful as I did! :)

Tales of an Application Reader

An Inside Perspective on the Application Process by Manhattan GMAT Instructor Keith Blume

Preparing for the Marathon

If you are reading this, then there is a high probability that you are thinking about applying to business school. Not too long ago many Manhattan GMAT instructors were going through a similar exercise, evaluating the B-school admissions process and then eventually preparing for the GMAT and working on the applications for B-School. While a student and as an alumnus, I was an application reader and applicant interviewer for the University Of Chicago Graduate School Of Business. In this month's five part GMATTERS strategy series I will talk about the GMAT, the application, my background, candidate interviews, my work for the Chicago GSB and my general sense of what a business school looks for in a candidate. This week’s installment will focus on the GMAT and the AWA essays.

The GMAT receives a lot of attention because it is a clear data point to which schools (and applicants) can refer. This emphasis is driven in large part by the companies that create the B-School rankings and use the GMAT as one of their data points. Rankings are big business and regardless of what you may hear, schools do care where they are listed.

However, the GMAT is only part of the story. The business school application process is a marathon. The fact that you are receiving GMATTERS implies that you are taking GMAT preparation seriously, and that is a good start. But it is only that – a start. If the B-School application process is a marathon, the GMAT is the training leading up to the marathon. It gets you ready for the big race.

The Importance of the Test

I have mixed feeling about the level of importance of the GMAT. While it may measure how well a person was able to prepare for a challenging test, I am not sure how much it tells me about the person. The GMAT is important in that it can provide a good measure of a person’s ability to manage a process. The test is long, and it is very hard to fool. It is structured in such a way that one must prepare for the test if one wishes to do well. It is not a test of intelligence. It is a test of preparedness. The material itself is not that difficult, but coupled with a time constraint and an unfamiliar format (e.g., data sufficiency), it can be a trap for ill- or un-prepared test takers.

The Score

One of the most common questions that we hear at Manhattan GMAT is, “If I score X will the school accept me?” The answer is no. The score by itself doesn’t mean anything. A bad score can hurt you, but, unfortunately, a good score by no means guarantees an acceptance letter. Most schools and rankings publish a range of GMAT scores of accepted applicants from the 20th to the 80th percentile. Your target school’s window provides a good idea of where you want to be on the GMAT. The average GMAT score for top business schools has been rising rapidly the past few years. Applicants are spending more time preparing for the GMAT, and the results show it. Fortunately, you are a Manhattan GMAT student making that extra effort as well.

The AWA Essays

Before the GMAT test begins, there are two essays called the AWA – Analytical Writing Assessment. Students often have many questions about these essays. I used the essay score as a tool. The AWA essay responses were never included in any applications I read. I looked at the AWA scores and compared them to the essays I read in the application. If an applicant scored a low score on the AWA such as a 3 (out of a possible 6), and yet the individual's application essays were brilliant, I would make a note of this discrepancy. As a student or graduate reader, I never made an assumption as to whether there was anything dishonest about an application. I didn’t feel I had the skill to make that call. My goal was to identify a possible discrepancy and call it to the attention of the admissions staff and let them make the decision on how to proceed.

Retaking the GMAT

We all have bad days. I never had a problem with a student who retook the GMAT if he or she did poorly. As application readers, our instructions were very clear; take the highest score and ignore the others. I have heard that some schools do average the GMAT scores (UCLA is the only one that was ever specifically mentioned to me). It seems counter-intuitive to average GMAT scores when an individual's highest GMAT score is beneficial to the ranking of that B-school. Interestingly, if I saw that a student retook the GMAT after scoring a 700 or better, I read the rest of the application with a more critical eye. The application needed to be air tight and if it was not strong everywhere else, this implied to me that the applicant did not know how to prioritize. My suggestion, unless specifically instructed to retake the test, is that if you score a 700 or better, spend the time that you would have used prepping for another test session to tighten up the essays or donate some time to a local charity (more on this later).

Hitting “The Wall”

Without exception, every student I spoke with who got accepted to B-School said the applications were the hardest part of the process. Most GMAT students I speak with go after the GMAT first and then tackle the applications. This is fine, but as mentioned earlier, once you have aced the GMAT, your work has just begun. Over the course of preparing your application(s) you will find out how badly you want to go to business school. Applications typically are broken into several parts: academics, essays, résumé/work experience, candidate interview, recommendations, and personal background. Your academic, professional and, in many cases, personal history are all a part of the application. It takes a lot of work to tell your life story.


The two major elements of the academics portion of the application are the undergraduate transcript and the GMAT. How reviewers weight college performance vs. the GMAT performance certainly varies. My background influenced my weighting. I earned a Bachelors of Science in Electrical Engineering from Texas A&M (considered a good solid school by most business schools). My GPA was a 3.0 and my last year’s GPA was higher than my average GPA (a 3.0 in a hard undergrad major is OK, but not stellar by any means, especially when compared to other B-school applicants). I spent a lot of time preparing for the GMAT and I scored a 760. The bottom line about my academic history is that I did not work as hard as I could have in undergrad, and my GPA reflects that.

As a result of my own academic experience, I was more forgiving of an average (relative) GMAT score if there was a strong performance in undergrad. I always felt that you could tell a lot about a candidate by his or her college transcript. What was the trend of the GPA? Was it strong at the beginning but tapered off at the end? What types of classes were taken in the final year? I reviewed a few applications that had a strong GPA and overall were pretty good, but when I looked more closely at the transcripts the tale was slightly different. The classes selected in the last year were not related to the major and the performance was average at best. The students took the last year off. By itself this isn’t a deal breaker but remember that at the elite business schools, the competition is brutal and this fade at the finish may be all that separates an acceptance phone call from a rejection letter.

In the interest of full disclosure about the GMAT score, although I was never able to get explicit confirmation, I am pretty sure that my GMAT performance played a major role in my receiving a scholarship. The scholarship was an academic scholarship so I can’t believe it was awarded due to my undergrad GPA. At a minimum, I am certain that my GMAT score answered any concern that my undergraduate GPA may have introduced.

The academic history is just that, history. The 21 year-old who went right into undergrad and worked hard for 3 years may have felt she earned the senior year “break”. How the application reader feels about that argument depends on personal experience. The bottom line is that the academic record cannot be changed, so if there is something less than stellar in the transcript, the GMAT provides an opportunity to allay any concerns or fears. Just remember that a high GMAT score alone isn’t going to get you into B-School.


The essays are what take up the bulk of the applicant’s (and the application reader’s) time. There are two levels of analysis I used when evaluating essays. The first level is the macro level or big picture: what is the story? The second level is the micro level or individual structure of the essays. For this I used three C’s to evaluate the essays: correctness, clarity and creativity.

A big challenge with essays is coherence. This is where communicating your story is very important. Tie together your undergraduate degree, work experience, personal passion, a particular business school’s strengths and your future vision. This is as difficult as it sounds, but if you can identify a common goal and theme among your work, personal history and your career aspirations, this helps the admissions committee understand who you are and where you are going. Many applicants have interesting backgrounds but a common mistake I saw was that there would be too much focus on one part of their background. This often happened when an applicant’s professional experience was related to material taught in B-school: “I am a financial analyst and I do great research so I would be a good fit for the school.” On the other extreme, the application touches upon so many things that it reads like a stream of consciousness work where the writer was hoping to find something that would stick with the reader. This approach makes it very difficult to follow the application. Remember, the reader is going through several applications so make connections and themes clear.

Poorly structured essays also make it difficult to read through an application. Typos and bad grammar imply a sloppy and careless effort. An occasional mistake happens, but when two or more clear errors are made, they tend to get noticed. Have other people read your essays, but make sure it remains your work. Small changes made by others are fine. Working on suggestions made by other people is fine. Other people writing your essays is not fine. Don’t fall into this trap. Remember that if you struggle with written English, it will be reflected in your AWA scores. If there is a substantial difference in performance between the AWA and the application essays, there is a good chance it will be noticed.

The Water Break

Essays continued: Cutting and Pasting (Also known as saying Kellogg when I meant Chicago)

Many of the essays among the applications for different business schools are similar but rarely are they the same. It is always nice when you can use the same essay for multiple schools, but be careful. Essays will often include references to the school’s name. If you are using an essay that was written for Kellogg and you are reusing it in a Chicago application use the “replace” feature in your word processing software. Also make sure that the essay actually answers the question. There were a few essays I read where it was apparent that the writer had not done any work to adapt the essay to the question on our application. There are certainly similarities across some of the application questions, but there are often key words or phrases that a particular school will use. When they are read by someone from another school unfamiliar with the jargon it is apparent that the essay was used elsewhere with little effort to clean it up for the application at hand.


It is shocking how much résumés change during the first year of B-School. When I started B-School I thought my résumé was very good. I was wrong. Regardless of how you feel about your résumé, make sure it is up to date and thorough. When possible, quantify what you did. If you can attach dollar figures to work you did, do so. Clearly identifying the level and context of your contributions is helpful to the reader. If you managed a marketing budget, were you managing a $50,000 budget, or a $50 million budget? If there are gaps in the résumé, address them in the essays. If you left your job and went on a pilgrimage for a year, write about it. Don’t make the reader ask why there is an employment gap and don’t assume he will overlook it. People still remember the bubble burst, so it is not a disqualifier to have been unemployed for awhile. It can easily be a disqualifier if you don’t acknowledge it. If you got laid off, talk about what you did to get better, what you learned from it.

The Interview (The Water Break)

The candidate interview is not as common now as it was a few years ago. At least for the GSB, interviews now tend to be given to candidates who are borderline admits. An interview is another opportunity to sell yourself, so if you have the opportunity to do an interview, take advantage of it. Prepare for a business school interview the same way you would prepare for a job interview. Be ready to talk about your background. Sometimes you will hear people refer to “an elevator pitch”. This is a very brief (30-60 second) personal pitch about why you are right for a particular position or opportunity. While you do not need to be that brief, be aware that most interviews are structured to take somewhere between 20-45 minutes. Also be aware that most interviewers are taking time out of their work and personal schedules. One of my first B-school interviews was for Kellogg, and I was looking forward to a long discussion so that the interviewer would get to know me really well. She had to cut off my answer to the first question to move me along to the next question. After that, I adjusted my answers to be much briefer. I was able to adapt to the situation, but I may have given a poor first impression.

Know about the school. You can bet that one of the early to middle interview questions will be “Why do you want to go to this particular school?” There are a lot of really good business schools, and they often have a specialty or niche for which they are known (for example Kellogg’s is marketing, Chicago’s is finance and economics). These are cursory observations. Go a little further to show you are really interested in that school. Read about some class descriptions in a particular area of interest. Send a student or a professor an e-mail with a brief question or two. Speak to alumni at your workplace. This effort also provides material for the application essays.

Know why you want an MBA. This is another question you will get. Often it is coupled with the “Why a particular school” question. Your answer should be part of the “story” that is the theme of your application. If you can clearly and concisely articulate why you are interested in an MBA and in a particular school, this conveys planning and preparation. “I want to make more money”, “I want to be in management” or “I heard it is a good school” are not good answers to these questions. Nothing disappointed me more when I was conducting interviews than when an applicant couldn’t tell me the answers to these basic questions: “Why do you want an MBA?” and “Why do you want to go to my school?”

The Weather on Race Day

Interestingly enough my Chicago GSB interview was with a Harvard Business School professor who was a GSB alum. He mentioned that he was an HBS professor before we met and wanted to know if I was comfortable with that. I did not apply to HBS so I did not feel there was any conflict of interest. I did not waffle on my interest in the GSB or try to hedge the interview. Be focused on your goal. Also keep in mind the school for which you are interviewing. It happens often enough that in a Chicago GSB interview a candidate will explain why they would be a good fit at Wharton. Not the end of the world, but it will certainly test how a candidate responds to an embarrassing moment.

Another common question that interviewers will be evaluating is “Would I want to work with this person?” While it is hard to hide one’s true personality, at a minimum, be aware of your interviewer. If you are interviewing an alum who has been out of school for several years, you are talking to a potential/probable boss. If you are interviewing with a current student then you are talking to a potential peer. If you are interviewing with a member of the admissions staff, you are talking to someone who sees lots of students come and go and has heard everything.

A note about admissions committee interviews – the business school admissions community is tight. They attend several conferences together, travel together and the staff members often transfer from one school to another. The schools are not silos so don’t assume that personnel are unfamiliar with one another.

Regardless of who you are talking to, definitely stay away from conveying a sense of entitlement. There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance. As an MBA candidate you are competing with intelligent, hard working, fascinating people from around the world. Coming across as only interested in yourself and what the school can do for you is a recipe for rejection. Business school is a great opportunity to build an outstanding network and develop lifelong friends. Prepare yourself to be a contributing member of a team and convey that attitude. (Think back to the famous JFK line, “Ask not what your business school can do for you, but what you can do for your business school.”)

Interviews can also be used to check on a discrepancy between the essays and the AWA. If a person is a very strong writer, generally she is a good verbal communicator as well. The ability levels may not be exact, but they are usually close. I conducted a few phone interviews where I could hear paper rustling and realized the person was reading from a prepared answer. There is nothing wrong with preparation but hearing paper rustling in an interview does raise a red flag. What I would do in this case is ask a question that was not directly related to work or school. Something as simple as “What do you do for fun?” If the interviewee could not answer a question like that articulately, how could he be expected to participate in graduate level classes taught in English?

Recommendations (The Weather On Race Day…you can’t control it)

One of the most complicated parts of the business school application process is handling the recommendations. It is complicated because this is the part of the application for which you have the least control. In addition, many people are applying to business school without the full knowledge of their employer. This alone wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that it is often requested that one of the recommendations come from an immediate supervisor. Although it may be challenging and a little risky, you are better off if you can give your reviewers a few months to do your recommendations. This gives them enough time to do a good job and it also shows them that you are considerate of their time. I would also recommend that if the school takes two recommendation letters, ask three people to write letters. Chances are that one of them won’t get around to it in time for you to make that first round deadline. Also, request a recommendation from someone who knows you and can talk about your performance. If you work for a division of GE in Fort Wayne, Indiana, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to ask Jack Welch, the CEO of GE who works in Connecticut, to write a recommendation if he has no idea who you are.

I have read several recommendation letters, and I was shown one written on my behalf by a former boss. When you look at a recommendation form you will see that you are ranked in several categories relative to your peers in terms of percentile. If you are rated in the top 0.5% across the board, the recommendation letter better back it up. When someone gets a review like that it is hard to give it much weight unless there is a really strong and well documented supporting letter. The recommendation form that a former supervisor showed me had one of my categories rated in the top 50%, two others in the top 25% and others that were higher (top 50% and top 25% are quite low compared to a typical recommendation). But with his recommendation form he wrote a very frank letter that talked about my strengths and areas for improvement. In hindsight, having read many recommendation letters, I believe that his honest and sincere feedback was better received and carried more weight than a recommendation with much higher rankings that appeared to be a rubber stamp of approval.

Stop and Smell the Roses

Last week we finished our Water Break and talked about The Weather On Race Day as we completed our discussion of the business school interview and took care of the recommendation letters. This week, as we complete our marathon journey, we Stop And Smell The Roses (public service and extracurricular activities), Acknowledge Our Fellow Runners (diversity) and finally reach The Finish Line.

Public Service and Extracurricular Activities (Stop And Smell The Roses)

As the b-school applicant pool continues to stay very strong, it gets harder and harder to identify points of distinction among candidates. As a result, this category seems to get more attention now than in years past. As a former member of the U.S. military, I felt that military service was a type of public service. Not everyone may agree with what you as an applicant feel is public service, so in a case like mine it would be important to explain why I feel that military service is a form of public service.

If this is an area where your application is lacking, make an effort to address it. Many applicants focus so extensively on their academics and career efforts (and to be sure these are important) that they treat this part of the application as an afterthought. This is an opportunity to set yourself apart from other applicants and also provide some insight into your personal interests. Don’t just mention your passions. Identify what you do with your passions. It is perfectly fine to mention that you like playing soccer and reading history novels, but it is more effective if you can say that you coach a youth soccer team or read to children at a local library on weekends.

Diversity (Acknowledge Your Fellow Runners)

When people hear the word diversity it is often associated with ethnicity or color. It actually means variety. To say that schools do not pay attention to race, sex or nationality is naïve, but these are not the only contributors to a diverse student population. The business world has fewer and fewer boundaries, and certainly schools recognize the importance of a geographically and culturally diverse class. But there are many other ways to achieve diversity.

My heritage is pretty basic but my background includes an enlistment in the Marine Corps at age 17, service in US embassies overseas, and earning an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering after my military service. While there are numerous military personnel in grad school, not many are former enlisted. My time overseas provided some unique experiences and viewpoints that I could incorporate into my application. I believe that relaying some of the more interesting elements of my background gave the readers something to remember from my application.

One of the application mistakes I often saw was that people with undergraduate business degrees or business oriented work experience naturally assumed that their background made them a good fit for business school. If anything, the opposite is true. If you already have a strong business background, why pursue an MBA? There are plenty of good answers to this question, but don’t assume the reader is going to connect the dots. This is also true for job interviews (and I have certainly made this mistake a number of times). From our own viewpoint we often have a clear idea of how we fit into a particular position, opportunity, business school or job. Unfortunately, the audience doesn’t have the same viewpoint we do. It is imperative as a B-school applicant that you make the connection for the readers. Don’t assume they will draw the same assumptions you have. Make it clear why you are a good fit, and how you can contribute to the school and to the experiences of other students.

The Finish Line

As you prepare for the GMAT and work on your applications remember that setbacks will occur. Most MBA’s I know were turned down by one, if not several, schools. I felt that my Kellogg application was actually my strongest but I wasn’t accepted there. As unsatisfactory as it may sound, getting into a top tier business school is a difficult process that requires some luck. Do everything you can to cover all parts of the process so that when the opportunity presents itself, you will be ready.

We at Manhattan GMAT will do our best to prepare you for the test, but as I mentioned, it is only the beginning. The B-school application process is long and tiring, but for those who work hard and persevere, the reward is worth the effort.

Source: ... -blume.cfm

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Re: Oldie but Goodie: Tales of an Application Reader [#permalink]

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New post 30 Sep 2014, 16:54
Hello from the GMAT Club MBAbot!

Thanks to another GMAT Club member, I have just discovered this valuable topic, yet it had no discussion for over a year. I am now bumping it up - doing my job. I think you may find it valuable (esp those replies with Kudos).

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Re: Oldie but Goodie: Tales of an Application Reader [#permalink]

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New post 13 Oct 2016, 08:21
Hello from the GMAT Club MBAbot!

Thanks to another GMAT Club member, I have just discovered this valuable topic, yet it had no discussion for over a year. I am now bumping it up - doing my job. I think you may find it valuable (esp those replies with Kudos).

Want to see all other topics I dig out? Follow me (click follow button on profile). You will receive a summary of all topics I bump in your profile area as well as via email.

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Re: Oldie but Goodie: Tales of an Application Reader   [#permalink] 13 Oct 2016, 08:21
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