Tag Archives: Application Advice

Columbia Business School: 2013-14 Deadlines and Essay Analyses


Early Decision (August 2014 entry): October 2, 2013

Regular Decision (August 2014 entry): April 9, 2014

January 2014 entry: October 2, 2013

Important: Columbia admissions is on a rolling basis (first-come, first-serve), so you should apply well before the posted deadlines.

Columbia Business School offers a few different application options.

If you know for certain that Columbia is your top choice, you should definitely consider applying through their Early Decision program. The deadline is earlier (October 2 this year) and you need to make a commitment to attend if admitted. The advantage is that you can submit your application for consideration well before the rush of other applications comes in. If you’re a strong candidate and Columbia is your first choice, you will likely have your strongest chance of getting accepted in this round. It is beneficial for a school to know with some certainty that the applicant they admit will actually come.

If you’re flexible as to when you can start your MBA and you’re looking for a shorter program, you might want to consider applying for their January 2014 entering class. The January program is 16 months and can work well for you if you are looking to return to work soon and don’t need that summer internship. The deadline is also October 2.

Otherwise, there is regular admissions for entry in August 2014. I imagine that this is the most competitive round in terms of volume of applications.

Rolling admissions means that Columbia accepts applicants on a first-come, first-serve basis. If they like you, they will extend an interview invitation to you. They will then make a final decision shortly after your interview is done without waiting for and comparing you against other applicants. So, unlike most other schools that do not operate on a rolling basis, it is better to apply earlier rather than later to Columbia (do not wait until the deadline!). They won’t start reviewing applications until early January for regular admissions, but you can submit yours even before then to get yourself in the pipeline. We have had strong clients who received feedback from the admissions office that they wished they could admit them, but unfortunately there was no space left (they had submitted applications after the winter).

Below are the essay questions for the 2013-14 application and my comments and advice:

(1.) What is your immediate post-MBA professional goal? Required by all applicants.

This is not technically an essay but appears in the essay portion of the on-line application. You are asked to write in one succinct sentence your post-MBA career goal. Be specific and clear here as to what you plan to be doing after graduation (e.g., “I will be returning to my company to lead the marketing department in our new office in Delhi.”).

2. Given your individual background, why are you pursuing a Columbia MBA at this time? (500 words) 

I would interpret this as the usual goals essay that is asked by most business schools. They want to know how your background has led you to apply to Columbia’s MBA program at this time. You’ll need to discuss your background (be careful not to simply repeat your resume but instead focus on the most salient points as related to your goals (talk about key points in your career development and the main experiences and issues that have led you to your goals)), your short- and long-term goals (you can go into a little more detail in this essay), and why you want an MBA now and why at Columbia in particular.

3. Columbia Business School is located in the heart of the world’s business capital – Manhattan. How do you anticipate that New York City will impact your experience at Columbia? (250 words)

Please view the videos below [available in the essay section of the on-line application]:

New York City – limitless possibilities

New York City – fast paced and adaptable

Yes! You have to watch these two videos first. However, they’re both very short (the longer one is just a little over 2 minutes). The first video provides an introduction to the atmosphere and culture of New York to those who aren’t familiar with the city, while the second talks more about the access that Columbia students have to businesses and leaders because they are studying in New York.

Looking at your own situation, why do you want to be in New York and how do you wish to benefit from the location? You’ll need to think about and write this essay from the view of your goals. Specifically, how can studying in New York help you grow in the ways that you hope? Definitely talk about the professional aspects of what you hope to achieve, but you can also talk about personal aspects. For example, maybe in addition to studying finance and doing an internship in Manhattan and listening to speakers, you also have an interest in volunteering in the ethnic communities, and you would like to explore this while you are in New York. Or perhaps you are from a remote part of the world, and it will be the first time to be in a city like New York. Think of the different ways you believe that studying in New York will help develop both your goals and your growth as a person.

4. What will the people in your Cluster be pleasantly surprised to learn about you? (250 words)

The Cluster will be the group of 65-70 students to which you’ll be assigned once you start at Columbia. You’ll be taking most of your first year core courses with these students as well as socializing with them outside of class.

In this essay, you are asked to reveal something interesting about yourself. Since these Cluster mates will be your friends, you are invited to write something personal here. The purpose of this essay is to offer a glimpse of you that is not apparent in the other parts of your application, which will focus entirely on your professional side. Is there anything interesting or unexpected or unusual or funny that you’d like for your future classmates to know about you? This is an open ended essay and there is no set rule as to how to write it, but if applicable, talk about (as a conclusion) how you can also somehow contribute to your classmates with this particular attribute (e.g., If you choose to discuss your hobbies in singing or acting you can also mention how you would like to contribute your talents to their MBA Follies, the students’ annual comedy show.)

5. Is there any further information that you wish to provide the Admissions Committee? Please use this space to provide an explanation of any areas of concern in your academic record or your personal history. (Maximum 500 words)

Use this optional essay to shed light on any aspect of your background that you are concerned might impact the way the admissions committee views your application. Examples include less than average test scores or GPA, employment gaps, and inability to secure a recommendation letter from a current supervisor. If in doubt, it is better to explain it, since the admissions committee will see the problem whether or not you actually talk about it. Without an explanation on your part, they will not give you the benefit of the doubt but, rather, assume the worst.

When addressing concerns, be sure to never offer excuses. Put yourself in the shoes of the admissions committee and try and anticipate how you can help them, by providing the information that they need. For example, if your TOEFL score is low, then you’ll need to provide them not reasons why your score is low but a description of the ways that you use English effectively. After all, the admissions committee is trying to gather evidence that you will not struggle in the curriculum.

For reapplicants:

How have you enhanced your candidacy since your previous application? Please detail your progress since you last applied and reiterate how you plan to achieve your immediate and long term post-MBA professional goals. (Maximum 500 words).

If you applied in the past but were not admitted, discuss here the different ways in which you have improved your candidacy since that application. Consider any weaknesses that you had, and talk about how you have worked on improving them. For example, if you had applied with average test scores, hopefully you can now show them higher test scores; if you had insufficient international experience then but have since gotten involved in some international projects, talk about that. The admissions committee wants to see an improved applicant.

Finally, update and reconfirm your career goals.

What does it take to get into a top school?

Just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you will change the world.

I read this once in the comment section of a Stanford student blog and it really struck me. It’s good food for thought for any of us going through life, and it’s definitely something we need to think about when applying to graduate school.

How many times have you heard of applicants with straight A’s and/or stellar test scores getting turned down in the college or graduate school admissions process? How many times have you heard from admissions representatives that the GMAT or GRE is only “one of many criteria” that they look at? Harvard College has often said that they can fill their incoming freshman class with valedictorians (each high school’s #1 academically ranked student) alone, and yet they don’t. I believe it is this kind of talk that makes the selection process so baffling and even frustrating for many applicants.

While there are definitely many factors – often subjective – that contribute to each admission decision, overall the idea is not so mysterious at all. Admissions committees, especially at the top schools, want people who are going to contribute, who are going to make a difference, and who are going to make an impact. You can be the most brilliant person in your class or in your company and score off the charts on the GMAT or GRE, but if you have never really shown a pattern of adding value to the environment around you, then your intelligence doesn’t mean a whole lot to the universities you’re targeting.

What does it mean to add value or contribute or make an impact? Often times it means showing commitment, thinking beyond yourself, and taking initiative. It is going above and beyond and doing more than you need to do.

Very early in my career I had gone to my boss at Harvard to ask why I was only given the standard 3% salary raise; surely I had done an excellent job that year. What does it take to get more than that? He told me that 3% is for people who are doing an excellent job. It is for people who do what they are supposed to do and who do it well. The higher raises are for those who go above and beyond, who accomplish more than is expected of them.

Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, MIT, and so on reserve their seats for those candidates who go above and beyond.

At work, this means taking some kind of leadership, even if it is not an official position. Maybe you’re the youngest on your team, but instead of just following the orders you’ve been given, you’ve taken one step further to identify a problem or a solution that even your seniors hadn’t seen. Maybe you’ve spoken up to management about some practices that you disagree with, when all your other peers would prefer not to take that risk.

In your personal life it may mean making the time and effort to do something more than sleeping in late on weekends. It could mean taking part in a community activity (e.g., doing volunteer work or, better yet, taking a leadership role in the volunteer work) or in your own professional, intellectual, or personal development (e.g., taking a class or training for a marathon). This is not required and I have seen great applicants get admitted without a lot of non-work activity. However, your activities outside of your career will be another window into your values, curiosity, perseverance and sense of commitment, and this can add significant value to the admissions committees’ ability to understand you.

Is all of this required to get admitted to your dream school? If you do all of those things – make impact at work, volunteer on weekends – does it mean you will be guaranteed admission at a top school? No. Because admission is relative, and you will be assessed in comparison to other applicants. However, the more evidence you can provide that you are not only intelligent but also someone who has made a difference, the likelier it is that you can rise above the majority of people who simply do an “excellent job.” During these spring and summer months as you focus on reaching your target scores on the GMAT, GRE and/or TOEFL, be sure to also take time to identify all the ways in which you have made contributions in your career, education, community, and personal life. The combination – a strong academic profile and a solid record of making impact – will help you to build a competitive application to the top schools.


Cecilia Wu Tanaka is co-founder of Reve Counseling and a veteran graduate admissions counselor with 19 years in the field. Prior to starting Reve 8 years ago she headed up a $1.25 million counseling department at the largest test prep company in Asia. In her previous life, she sat on various admissions committees at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, conducted interviews for the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and directed the interview program at Harvard Medical School.

2013-14 Graduate Applicants: What to Do this Spring and Summer

This post is for those of you who are planning on applying to masters level programs for 2014.

While the majority of deadlines are in the fall and winter, preparation for graduate school admission actually takes place almost a full year (if not more) in advance. Below is a checklist of what you will need to start thinking about and planning this spring and summer:

Study for and take your GMAT/GRE/TOEFL

I probably don’t need to tell you that your first major hurdle will be the GMAT/GRE/TOEFL. If you haven’t already begun studying, you should do so immediately. We have had clients who scored impressively well on their first try, but that is usually the exception. The majority of our clients spend a good 6-8 months preparing for the exams, with some needing more than a year.

The scores are not everything, but they are important. At reputable schools, there are always more qualified candidates than there are seats available. You don’t want to give the admissions committee a reason to choose another applicant over you. When there are 8 or 12 candidates competing for each seat, you’ll want to be in the strongest position possible. And while many graduate programs will provide a range of admissible scores, remember that those who score on the very low end are typically exceptional candidates with extenuating circumstances.

And if you have already taken the GMAT, GRE, and/or TOEFL in the past, check the dates to make sure the scores haven’t expired. GMAT and GRE scores need to be no older than 5 years and the TOEFL no older than 2. I have had clients who found out one or two months before their school deadlines that their scores just missed the cut-off by a week or so, and they had to scramble to retake them. So be sure to check now.

Improve your academic record 

Find out what your undergraduate GPA (grade point average) is, or what your average grade or rank was. Unfortunately, the undergraduate academic record is one part of the application that matters but that cannot be changed. While the admissions committee may be sympathetic to the fact that your 2.8 GPA was due to the 70 hours a week you had spent on the varsity football team, another applicant who presents a straight-A transcript and a pattern of intellectual motivation will have an advantage academically over you.

Or, let’s say, you were a straight A student but you’d majored in literature or history, and you avoided anything related to math. If you are applying for an MBA or a masters in public policy, for example, you will need to convince the admissions committee that you are both comfortable with and adept at analytical work.

To help remedy either of the above situations, enroll in some classes this spring and/or summer if you possibly can. Take classes at a local university. If you are deficient in quantitative skills and your target programs require strong quantitative ability, take (for example) an accounting, calculus, finance or statistics class. If your undergraduate GPA is low, take a class (or more) – conducted in English – and try and earn an A. Give the admissions committee evidence that you have the intellectual prowess necessary to do well in a demanding graduate program in English.

Continue to build your leadership

Top graduate programs across the board are looking for future leaders, whether they’re in business, law, international affairs, education or the arts. In your work do your best to seek out opportunities where you can take initiative or problem solve. If you have an official leadership position, great; if not, you can still find ways to go the extra mile in what you do. We had a client not long ago who was working in a rather low level position. However, because of her passion for the field, she continually did more than she needed to do, both on the job and off. At night and on weekends she attended seminars and took classes. At work she learned as much as she could and eventually initiated a proposal which was accepted. Her company will start up a new division based on her idea and they sent her to graduate school to develop expertise to run the new division.

Research schools

You absolutely need to do more than just read the internet. Join information sessions, network, and visit schools if possible.

Of course, you can begin with the internet. Find out when schools will be visiting your city or offering information sessions. Check out The MBA Tour, which organizes multi-school information events in cities around the world. Sign up and attend different sessions even if you are not 100% sure you want to apply. The purpose is to learn more about schools and to have more options. You may find that 7 months later you do want to apply to Cornell after all but there are no more information sessions to attend.

Connect with current students and alumni of schools you are interested in. If you don’t know anyone, ask friends and colleagues and friends of friends for contacts. You can also check the school websites to connect with students through blogs or clubs. Talk to them. Short of visiting the school, this is the best way to get some close understanding of what it feels like to attend.

If you have the resources, it is always a great idea to visit the school. Nothing can substitute the experience of attending a class, having lunch in the dining halls with current students, or attending a party on campus. When scheduling your visit, however, be careful to check the school calendar first; schools tend to enter exam mode in May and will be very quiet over the summer. At some programs, applicants are not allowed to visit classes during the first couple of weeks that school begins in the fall.

The more research you conduct, the better you will be able to make the right choices for your future. You will also be able to express your interest in the school more convincingly in your essays and interviews.

Look for money

Graduate programs can cost up to $100,000. If you are not receiving sponsorship by your company, it may be worth your time to do some research about scholarship opportunities. The Fulbright Foreign Student Program (for international applicants) and The Rotary Foundation (see District Grants and Global Grants) are two of the most prestigious organizations supporting potential graduate students and they are accepting applications now.

Check also on the websites of your target schools. Many schools offer scholarships; you may need to submit additional essays at the time of application or simply check “Yes” in the box where they ask if you would like to be considered for scholarship money.

This article here lists a few resources as well.

Finally, check with foundations in your own country as well as your country of residence. In Japan where most of our clients are, there is the new scholarship program started up by one of our former clients at the Kamiyama Foundation, and the College Women’s Association of Japan (CWAJ), from which another former client had benefited with a $2,000 monthly stipend throughout her MBA studies. The Kamiyama scholarship does not require Japanese nationality status – only a commitment to eventually contribute to Japan – so even if you’re an expatriate, it may be worth it to look into scholarship opportunities in your country of residence.

Think deeply about your goals

I’m often surprised at how many people decide on applying for a graduate degree without having first considered what they would like to do once they graduate.

Spend these spring and summer months solidifying your short-term career goal. This may be less difficult if you are company-sponsored and returning to your employer. If you plan to leave, though, think about what you will do after your degree. In what kind of industry do you wish to be? What kind of responsibilities do you hope to have? What kinds of contributions do you wish to make? What kind of position might allow you to do these things? What gaps or needs in society will you be fulfilling? Why is this goal important to you? Do you have some transferable skills for this new position? How easy or difficult will it be to get this kind of position, given your background and the job market? If you are unclear about any aspect of your future target career, do some networking now to learn more about it. Schedule information sessions with individuals doing the kind of work that you would like to be doing. Learn from them. The more focused and realistic you sound, the stronger your applications will be.

Secure your recommenders

You will need 2-3 letters of recommendation for graduate school. If you are applying to the Stanford Graduate School of Business, you will also need a recommendation from a peer (someone who’s worked side by side with you – not a superior and not a subordinate). While they won’t need to submit the recommendations now, consider the best mix of recommenders for your applications and ask if they will support you in your graduate applications. As a courtesy to them get their support early and talk to them about your plans, and let them know of the deadlines so they can plan ahead.


The list is long, but if you start now, you can tackle your applications later this summer/fall with the peace of mind that these other tasks are either behind you or under control.


Cecilia Wu Tanaka is co-founder of Reve Counseling and a veteran graduate admissions counselor with 19 years in the field. Prior to starting Reve 8 years ago she headed up a $1.25 million counseling department at the largest test prep company in Asia. In her previous life, she sat on various admissions committees at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, conducted interviews for the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and directed the interview program at Harvard Medical School.

Common Interview Mistakes

Interviews are often the final hurdle to cross before the application process is completed. Contrary to what many people think, interviews are typically not “make or break” events – that is, the final outcome of your candidacy does not rest entirely on your performance during the interview. Most nice and interesting applicants will simply be confirming the admissions committee’s initial impressions of their paper applications. The applicants who stand out will be those who do particularly well or particularly poorly (i.e., who present some issue of concern such as insufficient English or communication skill, an unpleasant personality, or lack of interest in the school).

Below are some common mistakes that I have found in my past experience interviewing international candidates for the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and in our collective experience training applicants for their interviews:

1. Sounding memorized and rehearsed

It is very obvious when an applicant has overly rehearsed his answers. Usually, the responses sound like the recitation of an essay: the English is smooth, the language is formal, and the answer is long.

Why this is bad: It gives the impression that you are unable to think and speak spontaneously. As the interviewer will be judging communication skills, the ability to speak naturally will be important. Also, having prepared answers will prevent you from being flexible enough to respond to questions that are phrased slightly differently from the ones you had memorized (e.g., An applicant memorizes a response for “What are your short- and long-term goals?” but instead gets asked “What do you see yourself doing 10 years from now?”).

What to do: Instead of reading and memorizing your essays in preparation for your interviews, jot down notes or short phrases (as in a short outline). Use the notes as triggers and practice thinking and speaking spontaneously.

2. Not being convincing enough about your interest in the school

Among applicants who speak English fluently, this is often the biggest mistake they make.

How does one show insufficient interest in a school? This can include providing generic reasons for wanting to attend (e.g., “Your school is strong in general management and has a diverse student body.”), showing lack of effort in researching about the school, and being unable to name any students or alumni that they have spoken to. Of course, you do not need to volunteer information about how you researched the school or which students or alumni you spoke to. However, if you are asked these questions, you should be able to answer them in some detail.

Why this is bad: No school wants to admit an applicant who doesn’t want to attend. It makes their yield (the number of applicants who accept their admission offers) look bad and it simply feels offensive to the interviewer.

What to do: Do plenty of research on the school. When you know about the program and why it fits you, your explanation of why you want to attend should flow out naturally. And what if you are applying to your safety school? Even if it is a school that is at the bottom of your list, it should still be a school where you think you’d be happy if you had to attend. If it becomes difficult to find reasons for wanting to attend that school, then that is a sign that you should not apply.

3. Not smiling, not sounding natural

This applies to those individuals who may have a more “serious” personality or who come from cultures where emotional restraint is valued.

In America in particular, outgoing personalities and warmth are valued, particularly in extroverted environments like business school. And how that is conveyed is, first and foremost, through smiling. Secondly, one conveys that through natural conversation. What I sometimes see in mock interviews are Asian applicants who do not smile, do not engage in small talk, and only recite answers as if they are giving mini-speeches.

Why this is bad: You may inadvertently give an impression that you are cold, unfriendly and overly formal.

What to do: Simply smile when you greet the interviewer. This shows the interviewer that you are happy to meet her and to conduct this interview. Engage in a little bit of small talk if there is time (follow your interviewer’s lead). Small talk is designed to put both interviewer and interviewee at ease before the meeting starts. Close your interview with a gracious thank you and handshake. In between, try to sound and appear professionally relaxed. You can smile or laugh when appropriate, you can move your hands or legs when appropriate, and you can engage in back-and-forth conversation when appropriate. You still have to be professional, but my point is you do not need to be stiff and overly formal.

Just bear in mind that at the interview stage, the interviewer will be looking to see if you are the kind of person that classmates and faculty would enjoy spending time with. They will have your paper application to learn about your achievements and leadership potential. In the interview, they are mainly interested in seeing if you have good communication skills and are a likable person.

Not too late to apply to MBA programs: spring and summer deadlines

Perhaps you only recently decided to apply to business school, or perhaps you were frantically working on your test scores over the last few months. Or, maybe you did apply, but were unsuccessful. Well, it’s not too late to still apply if you have hopes of attending business school this fall. Most U.S. business schools still have one deadline remaining, and many MBA programs in Europe have deadlines throughout the spring and even summer.

Applying in the 3rd or final round

American business schools will finalize their fall entering classes after this final spring round of deadlines. You’ll need to check the individual deadlines of your desired schools, but these final rounds usually take place between March and April (e.g., Duke is March 21 while UCLA is April 17).

What does it mean to apply in this last round? Well, you will be running a risk. By this time the majority of the class has been filled, and admissions offices have, in their own “admissions speak,” described this round as the one in which they will look heavily at class composition and diversity. What this translates into: “We will use Round 3 to fill in gaps in profile. Already too many men? We’ll need to select some women. Only this many students from the non-profit sector? We’ll need to take more.” So if you have the profile of a “typical” MBA applicant (e.g., male,  mid-20s, banker or consultant), the odds are likely against you. But you never know. Some schools – especially those outside of the top 10 – may find many open seats after their admitted candidates have chosen to go elsewhere, thereby leaving more spaces for R3 applicants.

When should you apply if a school has monthly deadlines?

These European MBA programs have the following deadlines (I did not include London Business School and INSEAD as they both have just one deadline remaining, like the U.S. schools):

Oxford:  Open field between March 23 – June 28

Cambridge:  March 8, April 26

Manchester:  April, 1, May 1, June 3, July 8

HEC:  April 1, May 1, June 1, July 1

IMD:  April 1, June 1, August 1, September 1

IESE:  April 8, May 27

IE:  rolling, no deadline, though the program starts in either April or November (you have a choice of 2 intakes)

As always, you should submit your application when it is strongest. Ideally this is also not in the final deadline round/stage. You’ll want to apply when there are still plenty of seats remaining, and so you can be eligible for scholarships and have enough time to get your visa processed. If you can plan ahead for this to happen, you will be able to maximize your chances of admission. If you really can’t, then it’s better to wait until you can put together a solid application, even if it means waiting until the end. A poor application will be viewed negatively whether you submit it early or late.

From the Harvard Business School Admissions Director’s Blog

– Cecilia Wu Tanaka

With this post I am going to become one of those people who “dissects” and analyzes everything that HBS Admissions Director Dee Leopold says, but I’m also an applicant advisor and applicant advocate who’s spent some time on the other side of the admissions table at Harvard. If I can help shed some light on this nerve-wracking process for you, I will definitely try.

In particular, when I saw this director’s update this week on the HBS website, a number of things jumped out at me. So let me do a little bit of interpretation and translation here for you (black text is from the director’s blog, orange is mine):

  • Try to resist the urge to make "standing out" your primary goal in the admissions process. If you have made traditional choices all along (college, extra-curriculars, major field of study, jobs), own it. You’ll look silly if you try to portray yourself as a rogue daredevil. There are plenty of people at HBS who come from traditional backgrounds.

Be yourself. This is what she is saying. It seems simple, but you’d be amazed at how many applicants do try to sound a bit “fancier” in the application process. Imagine a guy trying to impress a date, or someone feeling self-conscious at a cocktail party…it’s human nature to try and sort of shape oneself into a slightly better image of what and who s/he really is in situations where selection and evaluation take place. Dee is asking you to be yourself, nothing more and nothing less, because if you try to sound more than you really are, they will be able to see right through you, because they’ve got a lot of experience reading people. But the good news? It’s okay to be yourself. You have nothing to lose by just being you.

  • Do your homework about the case method. It’s our signature pedagogy and it is nothing like traditional academia. Watch Inside the Case Method (link below) on our website and ask yourself if you find this method of learning intriguing and exciting. If it’s not for you, choose another school now vs. later.

Are you sure you want to go to HBS? Do you really know what you are getting yourself into? The case method is unique and not for everyone. Will you appreciate it? Will you be able to not only function but thrive in it? In your application and interview the admissions committee will be evaluating your fit for this particular method. They are looking for people who are proactive, who can take charge of their own learning and contribute actively to that of their classmates, because the case method is not about sitting back in a classroom and absorbing lectures. If the case method does not work for you, this will come out in your application, and the result won’t be good. They want to save you potential heartache. So make sure you’re the right fit before you apply.

  • When choosing recommenders, determine whether or not they can answer the question we pose: what piece of constructive advice have you given to the candidate? If they can’t answer, they probably don’t know you well enough to write a helpful recommendation.

The admissions committee doesn’t want recommenders with fancy titles or HBS pedigrees writing for you, if they are not even close to you. They are looking for people – regardless of status – who really know you well and who can give them information that will actually help them in their attempt to understand you better. The CEO of Famous Company who writes a couple of lines about what a nice person you are does not help your case in any way. If the admissions committee reads this kind of letter, they will throw their hands up in disgust and curse, because they are looking for detailed information and they are not getting it. So help the admissions committee help you and choose your recommenders carefully.

  • Realize that we’re serious when we say that our challenge is "selection" vs. "evaluation." Our promise to our faculty and to every student is to deliver the most diverse class – on multiple dimensions – as we possibly can. I’ve never heard an HBS student say: "I wish there were more students just like me in my section." Selection can look mysterious to the outside world because not all of the elements of diversity can be captured in metrics. Some, like leadership style, are subtle and communicated more obliquely.

I love this one…because this ultimately sums up the application process. The admissions committee is selecting a class, NOT evaluating it. What it means: if you are denied admission, it does NOT mean you are not capable, it does NOT mean you are not a good fit. They are checking you out, but they are not making decisions based on who is good, who is not. Because applicants to HBS tend to be self-selecting, and there are way more outstanding candidates than there are seats.

But what they are doing is trying to figure out WHICH of those great candidates they should take. How about a recent, happy-go-lucky grad from New York, a more cerebral older former attorney from Prague, a scrappy mid-20s female entrepreneur from rural China? They’re imagining future section mates and what students would make for an interesting and vibrant mix.

Bottom line: There is a huge element of chance in this selection process. Once you’ve met a certain academic and professional standard, your fate is out of your hands.

  • Stay curious. It’s so easy to stay "heads down" during the application process and become so introspective that you lose sight of the larger world. Keep reading. Keep listening. We’re looking for people who can dig into a case about a company they have never heard of, in an industry they don’t think they care about – and be 100% engaged.

Stay interesting and know what’s going on in the world. Be prepared to talk about current events, a business leader who’s impacted you, a good book you have read. Who knows? We may invite you for an interview, and that will be your final chance to show us why we should select you.

Cecilia Wu Tanaka is co-founder of Reve Counseling and a veteran graduate admissions counselor. Prior to starting Reve 7 years ago she headed up a $1.25 million counseling department at the largest test prep company in Asia. In her previous life, she sat on various admissions committees at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, conducted interviews for the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and directed the interview program at Harvard Medical School.

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