Sunday, April 24, 2011

Stanford Essay 1

The thing about Stanford's first essay is that, to me, it was the easiest to answer at first pass, but incredibly difficult to write.  When I first read the prompt I knew that there was only one thing I could write about if I was going to answer the question honestly.  However, as I mentioned in my post on essays in general, having an answer doesn't mean you're done. You still have to figure out the best way to convey your story while remaining true to yourself.

So what did I write about?  My dad and how he's made me who I am.  There's no one I'm closer with or care more about in the world.  See what I mean when I say I knew what my topic had to be?  But what was I going to say about him?  This is an essay that's supposed to offer insight into who I am and want to be, so how is writing about someone else going to help?

After thinking about it for a long time and working on various other essays, I came up with a plan - I would write about some of the morals and values he's instilled in me and use stories to show how he taught them to me as well as how I continue to live by them.  I thought back to the big moments in my life and saw how he had played a role, whether it be offering advice at the time or relying on something he had told me years before.  Not only did this let me talk about my dad and shed some light on our relationship, it also allowed me to explain the things I care about and try to show what I would bring to Stanford. 

Once I had a plan, writing was still pretty difficult.  It's hard to write about such a personal topic, but the groundwork of formulating my ideas and crafting an outline made it go much faster.  After months of revising my thoughts, the actual essay only took a couple of hours to write.  I think this had to do with the fact that I was confident about my subject matter.  I didn't know whether Stanford would appreciate what I was saying, but I truly felt that I was explaining what was most important to me and why.

One thing you have to keep in mind is that this essay is supposed to be deeply personal.  Derrick Bolton said in an interview that, when he was writing his essay, if he had realized at 2am that he left it on the printer at work he would immediately drive back to fetch it.  This should be the sort of essay that makes you uncomfortable to write because it's such an intense process.  The only person who saw my essay, outside of Stanford's admissions team, is my dad.  I almost considered not showing it to him, but I wanted him to know how I felt.  He and I definitely got choked up when we talked about it after he read it.

When I received my welcome package, Derrick's note on my acceptance letter directly referenced my essay.  It felt great seeing that they understood what I was trying to say and that they appreciated the person I am thanks to my dad.

For another perspective, please check out the excellent blog Palo Alto for a While.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Essays

Outside of prep for the GMAT, essays took far and away the longest amount of time.  From late October until I submitted my various applications in early to mid January, every free minute was consumed with writing my essays.  While I don't have the horror stories of rewriting the same essay ten times, I did spend a lot of time staring at my laptop trying to figure out what I wanted to say.  It's a difficult process that makes you think a lot about who you are and who you want to be.

One thing that helped me immensely was outlining my essays.  For every essay prompt, save the optional essays I chose not to write, I listed bullet points covering all the things I wanted to say.  They weren't incredibly detailed, but enough that I wouldn't forget an important thought when I actually went to write the essay.  I think this really helped me because, not only did it make writing easier when the time came, but I was able to let things float around in my brain and think about the right way to say something.  Over time new thoughts would occur to me or I would figure out just the right phrasing to use.  I don't think this would have been possible if I hadn't had the main points already listed out - I would have spent too much energy just trying to remember them.

As I mentioned in my Resources post, there are a ton of websites and books that offer guidance on how to approach the essays.  I think the best single thing I found was Beat the GMAT's essay breakdowns.  These hour long videos had admissions consultants come in and talk about the essays and things to keep in mind while writing.  They were pretty awesome and I even watched my favorites a few times.  I also reviewed the tips that the various admission consultant blogs posted.  Most have entries for each school as well as posts about some of the more general topics.

While there are plenty of resources that tell you what to think about or write, in the end the essay is your work and you should write what you want to.  Derrick Bolton, director of admissions for Stanford, wrote a blog post that I think applies to every application.  You shouldn't write what you think admissions wants to hear, but rather what you want to say.  That being said, there are probably better ways than others to say what you want and so you really do need to spend lots of time thinking, writing, revising, and editing.

Some general thoughts to finish - make sure you review and edit your essays.  I know I was still finding typos right before I submitted.  Also have people close to you (coworkers, friends, parents) read your essays to make sure it really sounds like you.  Some of my first drafts came across as forced and robotic because I was nervous to let my voice come across in something so important as an admissions essay.  However, if I hadn't revised them to sound like the person that I am, I don't think things would have turned out as well as they did.  Finally, if your application has optional questions, don't focus only on the ones that you like when you first read them.  I know when I was reading through the prompts the first time, I would come across a question that I thought I had no answer for and would ignore it.  However, after working on another application or just sitting back for a while, I would realize that I had a great idea for it.  In the end I think that some essay prompts that I hated at first pass ended up being some of my strongest after I wrote them with a new perspective.

Resources

Looking through my bookmarks, I noticed that there were a few websites that I heavily relied upon during my applications.  Each website offered different features and, when combined, they really helped me through all the stages of my app.

First, I'd like to start with Beat the GMAT.  As I mentioned in my post on the GMAT, this website offered a lot of help as I prepared for the GMAT.  Not only did it help me figure out a way to study, the forum members were always really encouraging and helpful.  The GMAT debriefs let you see what did and didn't work for people so you could incorporate their ideas into your own prep.  On top of that, the website has an amazing assortment of articles and constantly publishes new ones covering a variety of topics.  Finally, the most useful asset I had while writing my essays were their hour long essay breakdowns.  These were incredibly helpful and I found the Stanford episode particularly insightful.

Next, in a similar vein, is GMAT Club.  The same general idea, but what I liked about this site was that its particularly active "Calling All 2013 [Insert School Here] Applicants" forums.  These were a great place for you to meet online with your fellow applicants and discuss essays, interviews, and anything else related to many of the top schools.  The best thing is that everyone is there to help each other.  When I received my Stanford interview invite, I sent messages to some members who had already gone through the process.  Nearly everyone replied and offered me tips on what sort of questions they had been asked and how to best prepare for it.  I know it really helped my during my interview.  One warning, if you're the compulsive type the forums can easily suck you in.  I know I spent WAY too much time on them...

A newish entry to the MBA website game is Poets & Quants. Started by a former editor of BusinessWeek, the site produces a ton of great original content.  The site focuses on the schools themselves and provides insider information as well as well researched articles on many programs.  There are comparisons, interviews, blog entries, and more.  It was a great way to learn about schools before visiting. 

There's also the collection of various admission consultant websites.  The ones I frequented included ClearAdmit, mbaMission, and Stacy Blackman.  Each offers paid consulting services and, while I didn't use them, the content they publish on their blogs can be very useful.  The one thing I did pay for was a copy of ClearAdmit's School and Interview guides.  A friend had bought them and, after I browsed his, I decided to drop the $45 for each pair.  The interview guides are really useful by offering suggestions on how to approach standard questions as well as listing many other less frequently used ones.  The school guides have a lot of detail about the curriculum, campus, student body, and more.  While much of this can be found on the schools' websites, it's nice to have it all in one neat little package.

I also purchased a number of books, but found most of the websites so useful that I didn't use them as much as I thought I would.  The one that I DID use at least a bit was Richard Montauk's How to Get Into the Top MBA Programs.  This seems to be generally considered the application bible and I found the approaches it suggested, as well as the sample essays, to be pretty useful.

Monday, April 18, 2011

GMAT

The GMAT is a beast.  I don't think there's really anyway around that.  I remember not studying at all for the SAT and coming out decently well, but that was because I could work quickly on the problems I knew and then go back and spend extra time on the ones that I struggled with.  The GMAT, with its adaptive nature, is completely different.  You have to pace yourself much differently and be confident before you click submit. 

I started studying for the GMAT about a year ago, and by studying I mean I did a set of practice problems and then didn't touch the book again for a month.  I crave structure and just staring at multiple books with no plan made it impossible for me to get going.  As the summer wore on and I kept losing out on time, I wondered what it was going to take for me to get focused and hit the books.

Luckily for me, right about that time, the awesome website www.beatthegmat.com created a 60-day study guide.  Each day you receive an email with a list of readings and problems to do.  It was perfect.  And while I ended up turning it into a 90ish-day guide, the focus and direction that it provided for me really helped me plan out what I needed to do.  I made sure to do every problem it listed, even the optional ones, and would immediately review any I missed, guessed on, or spent too much time on.

However, it's not perfect and I made a few modifications that I think really helped me.  The main one was that I added in a lot more extra practice tests.  I don't remember exactly how many it suggested (I feel like it was four or five) but I did at least fifteen.  I found that I'd easily spend too much time on a hard math problem and really needed the extra practice pacing myself.  Also, I'm still terrible at DS questions.  I don't think I'll ever figure out a good way to approach them, but luckily I never have to take the GMAT again! 

For verbal, I never had any problem with time but I really focused on learning how to handle the CR problems. I read a decent amount so I was doing fine on RC and SC, but I had a lot of trouble at first figuring out how to plug the holes in arguments or finding basic assumptions.

A few notes on general studying - when I first started, I was way too concerned with pacing.  I tried to finish every quant problem in under ninety seconds and reviewed them as well as any I got wrong or guessed on.  However, I think that this made me lose focus on learning the material as well as I should have.  If I at focused first on mastery then pacing, it might have been a smoother process. 

As far as the essays go, I spent about an hour the night before the test and looked over some sample outlines I found online.  I think the general 5-paragraph essay with a couple of points supporting your argument as well as a review of the points made in the prompt should be just fine.

At the end of the day, the GMAT isn't fun but if you truly commit yourself and spend at least a bit of time every day I think that a solid score is achievable for everyone.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

It's official!

Only a few hours ago I paid my deposit and officially became a member of the Stanford GSB MBA Class of 2013!  It's been a long and crazy process, but I can't have imagined a better result. From studying endlessly for the GMAT to staying up all night reviewing and revising my essays and scouring the web for potential interview questions, nothing has taken more of my focus for the past nine months.  I was lucky enough to be admitted to several schools and, while I'm going to focus on the GSB, I'll also talk about about them and what drew me to each one.

A bit of background about myself - I'm a 26 year old male currently living in Cambridge, MA.  I grew up in the southwest and went to school in southern California where I majored in math at a small liberal arts/engineering school.  For the past (almost) four years I've been working as a consultant providing litigation and regulatory filing support.  I also had my first exposure to the energy industry which has influenced my decision to pursue a career working in renewable energy venture capital. I'm also really looking forward to heading back west and getting a bit more sun.

After getting the call from Derrick Bolton, my life has been a blur.  The local admits, which number around 25 across rounds one and two, have already gotten together four times and I'm planning our fifth for tomorrow night. The first three were just various members meeting at bars and restaurants and getting to know each other, but the most recent, on Monday, was an official GSB event.  Hosted by a famous alum, forty people shared wine and hors d'oeuvres.  There was a really interesting mix of alumni across various industries and class years as well as Derrick and another admissions officer.  The alumni were great to talk to and openly admitted their jealousy of us just getting ready to head to campus. 

One thing that surprised me tonight was how hard it was to actually accept the offer.  From the moment I got the phone call I knew I would be on campus in the fall, but the actual act of signing myself up for a massive amount of debt as well as having the next two years set in stone seemed pretty daunting.  Maybe I'm just weird, but it was a pretty intense moment.

The goal of this blog, that I'm promising myself I'll keep up with even while I'm in school, is not only to help keep my friends and family informed of what I'm up to, but also to provide prospective students with some insight into the GSB.  Over the next few months I plan on talking a bit about the process I went through to apply and what I'm doing to prepare for the fall.  Once I get to campus I'll include some posts on classes, activities, and a day/week in the life (I always loved those).

In the words of Leeroy Jenkins, let's do this.