These days, many disappointed applicants are asking for a “ding analysis,” which is basically “please tell me if I did something wrong and whether I can fix it for next time.” We see a lot (we mean A LOT) of rejected applications, to a lot of schools. In giving feedback time and again, we naturally are starting to see some of the same issues cropping up.
The good news is that these issues are in keeping with the feedback we give from the outset of an engagement, but the bad news is that obviously some people aren’t getting that advice. Other than “bad luck” or “well, this school is one of the hardest in the world to get into” or “you never should have applied to this school,” these are the three most common reasons that people get dinged. Put differently, they are the three reasons you could have avoided:
1. Failure to have properly articulated goals. It’s amazing to me how often I open up a set of essays and start looking for goals … and find that I have to keep looking … and looking … and looking. Applicants love to bury their goals in broad proclamations, quotes, misdirection, sentimental nonsense, and all other manner of articulation that has the net effect of making it extremely hard to figure out what they want to do. I believe that part of the problem is that people misunderstand the purpose of career goals and how to properly think about both the short-term and long-term elements.
The short-term goals should be A) achievable, B) a good fit based on your transferable skills (which MUST be articulated in your essays), C) clearly stated, and D) achievable. Did I list “achievable” twice? You bet I did. This is because schools want to admit applicants that they can place into jobs. Period.
You have exceptions like HBS, GSB, and MIT – all schools that don’t really care much about ST goals. However, for the most part, schools want to know they can help you gain employment – for your sake and theirs (employment reports are a big part of rankings). I can’t tell you how many people I have spoken to on consult calls or essays I have read where a strange ST goal is in place, with the explanation, “I wanted to differentiate myself a bit.” I also hear applicants (sometimes smugly) tell me that schools “don’t want to see yet another person who wants to do consulting.” Um, yes, actually they do. Because they can get students jobs in consulting! Don’t put that you want a short-term job working for Prada or doing freshwater turbine investing – those aren’t jobs they can help you get. Be smart about this.
The long-term goals are for sharing who you are. This is where you can differentiate and showcase passion and tell them where you come from and all that good stuff. You SHOULD have fun with this and be creative and reach for the stars. So what if every other applicant and their brother is saying they want to start their own business; if starting your own business is the best way to share your dream and articulate what makes you tick, share that goal. So, so, soooooo many people invert the ST and LT goals – they go exotic with the ST and staid with the LT. This is the opposite of what you should do, it’s probably the opposite of the truth, and it’s usually fatal.
Of course, this doesn’t even include the people who straight up forget to include their goals in a goals essay. And yes, this happens all the time. I just assume if you are reading this blog post, you won’t make that mistake.
(Last thing: vague statements of what you want to do with your life – like “impact the world” or “make a difference” – are not goals. Just so we’re clear on that.)
2. Failure to be an individual. Many dinged elite applicants that I see suffer from the same problem, which is that they never showcased what makes them a cool, unique person. I’m not talking about having a “brand” or billing yourself as the “such and such candidate” – readers are not idiots, so they aren’t going to be swept off their feet for something that rudimentary.
I’m talking about setting aside your desire to sound smart or to cover every last detail or to (the worst) “write what they want to hear,” and instead being a real person with real interests and a real personality. So many dinged applications are dry, rigid, and only technically sound – there is a skeleton but no heartbeat. (Note: the cousin of this failure is less common, but also a problem, which is the “I am going to try to sound interesting” applicant – where they use weird phrasing or lofty prose to create “interesting” material. Please understand that the material is anything but interesting. It’s excruciating. You can have clean paragraphs, topic sentences, and easy-to-follow prose and still be interesting – it’s what you say, not the flourish with which you say it.)