Columbia 2010 J-term Essay Analysis

Columbia's 2010 J-term essays were released recently and, as Columbia has done in the past, they used the same questions from the previous year's regular term MBA application. Questions #2 and #3 look unusual at first glance, but they are actually variations on fairly standard MBA essay questions. Essay 1 What are your short-term and long-term post-MBA goals? How will Columbia Business School help you achieve these goals? (Recommended 750 word limit)

There is so much to say about building a strong goals essay, but the following are the main points I would keep in mind:

1) MBA admissions committees (adcoms) are like venture capitalists – they want to “invest” in the best people with the best ideas. Your goals essay then is your “personal business plan,” expressing your short- and long-term career ambitions and why they matter to you professionally and personally. The most compelling goals express a business (non-profit, educational, etc.) opportunity that you will be uniquely qualified to pursue immediately after graduating.

2) Your goals need to be realistic (i.e., possible given your previous academic/personal/professional experience plus an MBA) and ambitious (e.g., a significant jump in your current organization, changing your career, starting your own organization). If not, adcoms may question your need (Not want, need. Big difference.) for an MBA, and they will read the rest of your essays skeptically. The goals essay is probably the most important you will write during the application process.

3) Your short-term goals should be highly detailed. As a business plan, you need to convince adcoms (admissions committees) that you have done your research, talked to experts, and that your possibilities for success are high, if you can attend their MBA program. Tell the adcom specifically what you want to accomplish and the steps you will take to do it. Provide target figures if possible. Your long-term goals still need details, but these are more of a chance to show the breadth and depth of your "vision" and to tie up all the information that has come before. One of the biggest weakness I see in goals essays is a lack of detail, resulting in unconvincing or uninspiring goals, and a weak connection with "Why Columbia?" (see #5 below)

4) In this essay, Columbia doesn't ask for a career summary or analysis like many other programs do. However, that does not mean you can't include a brief summary, especially if it includes accomplishments, experiences, or core skills that relate to your future goals. Don't assume the adcom will make that connection for you, even if you send them your resume.

5) When answering the second half of the question, "Why Columbia?", think in terms of both logic and emotion. If your goals are detailed properly, it should be a simple exercise to connect the dots between what Columbia offers and what you need to learn. That's the logic. Emotion is much more difficult because it is based on personal experience with the school - a visit or campus tour, having friends/colleagues/supervisors who are alumni, meeting adcom reps at MBA information sessions, participating in school-hosted chats, exchanging e-mails with school bloggers, etc. A strong emotional connection can be a powerful way of demonstrating your interest in a school since it requires much more time and effort than simply scanning Columbia's website for classes you want to take or guest speakers you'd like to meet. Making this effort is especially important with Columbia, which seems to have a complex about its status as a back-up school for many applicants.

Essay 2 (Required) Master Classes are the epitome of bridging the gap between theory and practice at Columbia Business School. View link below. Please provide an example from your own life in which practical experience taught you more than theory alone. (Recommended 500 word limit) View with Real Player:

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Last year Columbia asked a different but related question requiring applicants to expound on the value they would receive from an MBA education. They seem to be tackling this more obliquely with this question about theory vs. practice. (One of the criticisms against MBA programs is that they only teach theory. Columbia's Master Classes are a direct response to that criticism.)

This question asks you to walk a thin line. You have to describe an experience (in reality, an accomplishment) before which you had certain expectations, thoughts or beliefs. Then you have to describe how reality got in the way, usually due to human factors, which forced you to adapt, expand, or apply the theory in a different way than expected in order to succeed. (In this way, this essay is quite similar to a typical leadership essay.) You cannot discount the value of theory completely, of course, since theory is a cornerstone of any MBA curriculum. By the end of the essay, you should have shown how both theory and practice played crucial roles in your success.

Essay 3 (Required): Please provide an example of a team failure of which you’ve been a part. If given a second chance, what would you do differently? (Recommended 500 word limit)

This is a fairly typical failure essay with the exception of the mandatory team context. There are a few ways to approach it. One is to choose an experience in which you played a direct role in the failure, perhaps as a leader or one of the leaders of the team. In this case, the team's failure should be a direct result of your actions or inactions. (e.g., if you were the leader but you tried to do everything by yourself thereby missing a deadline and alienating your teammates.) The other approach is to put yourself in the role of observer, watching the failure happen as a member of the team. I think the former can provide a more powerful essay, since directly causing a team failure would almost certainly provide stronger lessons, relative to a passive failure shared by all. I recommend choosing an experience that happened earlier in your career so you can show not only what you would do differently, but what you did do differently. In some cases, the lessons you learned in Essay 3 might have paved the way for your success in Essay 2. Not always though. Don't force the connection if it isn't there.

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

If you have any weaknesses in your application (e.g., low test scores or GPA, no letter of recommendation from a current supervisor, gap in your work history, etc.) this is your chance to explain them, show how your other strengths compensate for them, or explain the steps you are taking to mitigate them. Remember that making excuses without showing pro-active measures looks bad. No weaknesses? Great. Then one option would be to explain your personal history or some aspect of your personal background to balance the overall essay set.