I’ve wanted to write to you for some time. You seem to think that I should be happy to admit you with all your weaknesses and faults or maybe that I wouldn’t notice how little effort you put into your application. I do want to admit you, but not with your weakness and faults and not if you can’t put a little more effort into the application. The things I have to say here may help us understand each other better so you are a better applicant and I feel better about admitting you. This is what I want all of your applications look like – it is how to get admitted.
Please put out a little effort and avoid mistakes to ensure that I will admit you if there is space. You see the fact is most programs have lots of space and want increased enrollments. The question we ask most of the time is “can this applicant succeed and is it a good fit”. This is a very different question than a small number of programs ask “who are the most competitive 10% in the applicant pool?” Those programs have to look for reasons not to admit a student and screening is based on finding weaknesses. Anyway, I digress. The purpose of my letter to you is to tell you plainly what I want to see in your future applications.
I look at your grades, GMAT or GRE, TOEFL and a little bit from the references to decide if you have the academic ability to succeed in my program. When there is a weakness somewhere (e.g. a weak year of undergraduate study, a low GMAT) I look at how low it is and then start looking for an offsetting strength elsewhere in the application or an explanation of that weakness and assurance that it won’t happen again. I want to get myself and the other admissions committee members to the point where we are comfortable expecting you to succeed. Put another way, I don’t want to admit you if there are several signs you may not be able to handle the academic coursework. If I were to admit a student that was problematic in class and failed right away, I would probably have to dig up your application file and explain to the Dean or an unhappy faculty group why I admitted you in the first place. In situations like this, hindsight is perfect and it is easy for others to see the warning signs in an application as cause for denial. I’m tasked with growing the incoming class though, so I’ve got enrollment growth on the mind and am willing to take all reasonable risks to admit students that may indeed struggle (but not those that have no chance of success).
The reference forms don’t focus exclusively on academic ability so frequently there is no specific discussion of academic ability. If you had a weakness elsewhere in the application, please ask your reference providers to specifically comment about your academics. It seems like this should be an obvious strategy for you to increase your chance of admission.
There is one other thing about academics that really needs to be said. If your GMAT, GRE, or TOEFL scores are lousy – retake the exam! There are several months between the start of most applications and the end of admissions for an incoming class. I love to see a motivated student address these issues proactively and let my staff know rather than waiting until the application is in committee and we have to decide what to do with an applicant with a great GPA, but low test scores. It is a real downer to see applicants with obvious potential, but who seemed to lack motivation to fix the low test scores. It makes the committee debate the admission decision. What we really want is to see strong applications that are easy admit decisions so we can feel good about the incoming class and end our four hour committee meeting early.
Here’s the deal: you can put anything at all on your resume and it doesn’t have a page limit. Put anything on the resume that looks like experience in a professional setting. Full time, part time, volunteer – I want to see it all. Put in your student organization activities and be sure you were the president or VP of something so I can consider it “leadership” experience and an indication of your future potential. Once you are here the career center will help you get your resume in the right format for jobs, but honestly for admission – I don’t care what format it is in. If it is sloppy and has typos or spelling errors I care, but not if it is a CV or a Resume that rolls into two pages. Put down anything that shows you in a professional situation – with teamwork or leadership especially. About those typos: if you didn’t care enough or aren’t professional enough to get this perfect, I don’t want to admit you – your work is sloppy.
I wish all applicants had several years of post undergraduate work experience before applying to my professional school, but that isn’t the case. Most of your counterparts are just like you: an upcoming graduate or recent graduate with (maybe) a year of experience. The simple fact is once people get into the workforce, they are less likely to leave and come back for a masters degree. There are many more of you just graduating and having trouble finding work. Incidentally, this means you can distinguish yourself with even a modest amount of experience.
We always talk about the quality and the quantity of experience as a relationship. It is true that both matter, but the reasons vary. If you are applying to my MBA program I really care about the amount more than the type. I have to publish data for the MBA ranking publishers and they don’t care about the quality of experience – it is a subjective measure. They measure the quantity of experience and so I have an incentive to prefer higher quantity of experience to higher quality. Now that may mean the faculty get a little disappointed when they get an MBA student that was a barista for two years after college instead of a Fortune 500 financial analyst. I won’t be happy about it, but the barista gets admitted when I have to hit an enrollment target and I get to count the full two years of experience.
If you are applying to my other programs (the ones that do not have rankings based partially on quantity of work experience), then I’m still going to admit you and am glad to see you are a “more mature student” now. Believe it or not, that is an asset in the class. In this case your work experience is ideally related to the subject matter and I’m looking more at the quality or relevance of experience. The incentives here are more about quality than quantity.
Show my school some affection
I have wanted to tell you this for a long time – my school wants to be loved. The better you show me your love for the school, the more I want to admit you.
Don’t write a generic boring essay about your life, past experiences, and everything that is already on your resume. I don’t want to see what piece of equipment you used in the lab and don’t care what your technical knowledge is unless it is important for my program and you show me why. While I’m at it, if you are thinking about submitting the same essay to a bunch of schools – stop right there. That is a big mistake and it is unprofessional. Schools are not homogenous and your future will be very different based on what school you choose. It is naive to think a one size fits all essay will actually do the trick for several schools. Block off extra time and make each one unique – no excuses.
Write an essay that describes a future life that closely relates to what my school does best – and connect the dots for me explicitly. Take me and my admissions committee colleagues by the hand and show us that future in specific language. Then work from where you are today and step through your time in our program to show how you achieve that vision you already articulated. Step by step in your essay, show how MY PROGRAM will benefit you. Mention my school’s name at least two times: once in the opening where you show my that this program is the top choice for you, and once toward the last 25% of the essay where you remind me that there simply is no other choice for you. Now in the middle, here is what I want to see in the essay: some detail about my program that is NOT taken from the admissions website. Go beyond the cursory review of our marketing materials and tell me something that proves you have done some real due diligence. If my program is really proud of our team based practicum or project, don’t just say that “your team project will help me develop leadership and teamwork skills.” Go way beyond that. I really like it when you mention a specific professor’s name and something about their current research interests that will benefit you if you are admitted to the program. I also like applicants that write about the conversations they have had with 3-4 alumni of the program and specific insights that lead you to know this is the only program for you.
I like to see your commitment to the school, but I hate it when your application to my school is an obvious backup. When my staff interviews you and can tell you have no commitment, I don’t want to offer you admission. If I admit you and you are obviously going somewhere else, it drags down something called the “yield rate” and I hate that. My admissions colleagues and I would love to enroll everyone or nearly everyone that we admit, but the truth is we don’t get anywhere near 100% yield. If you can’t convince the admissions committee that you are genuinely interested in my school and that we have a good shot at seeing you enroll if admitted, then we prefer not to admit. I don’t care if you have a 770 GMAT, 3.85 GPA from an honors program at a tough university, plus four years of perfectly related work experience. If you show in the application process that our school is a backup, then you can go somewhere else and we will help you with that decision by not admitting you. I don’t want to be a backup and nobody else does either.
I’m sorry I didn’t have enough time to write you a shorter letter. I have wanted to tell you these things for some time now. Please don’t let them get in the way of our possible continued relationship. It’s just that I’m in the business of recruiting future alumni so I have to be sure you can do the work and that you have a passion for my university. I need to see that you know enough about my school to make this commitment, after all you will be an alum for life.
I’m sorry if I’ve been a little curt with you, but as an Admissions Director for a school I don’t often get to speak freely to candidates. A lot of political correctness and statistical gamesmanship color my language. It’s just the world Admissions Directors live in. I hope you can understand.
The Admissions Director
PS: if this manifesto opens a new (candid) way of communicating with each other, let me know. I’d love to respond to your comments.