On February 13th, 2020, I woke up impossibly early and took an Amtrak train from Washington, D.C. to Connecticut. My stomach was churning as we approached New Haven; I was so frazzled that I left my jacket on the train. As I walked out of the station, my nerves started to take over. What the hell was I thinking? Did I really think I had a chance at being admitted to the Yale School of Management? Who messed up and sent me an interview invite?
Just one month later, the world would look very different. March 13th was my last day working in person at the Council on Foreign Relations before we went remote indefinitely due to COVID. It was also the day I got the call from admissions at SOM that would change my life. Back in February, I was blissfully unaware of the seriousness of COVID, and had no idea whether I’d get into any MBA program at all, much less my top choice.
BONDING OVER PIZZA
Yale SOM is an incredibly intimidating institution, and I grew increasingly nervous as my Uber took me closer to campus. Almost immediately after setting foot in Evans Hall, my fears started to ease. I lost track of how many people I met who mentioned they had never planned on going to business school (me neither!), and how many had worried that they wouldn’t make the cut academically (me too!).
The night before my interview, a number of prospective and current students met up at a local bar and pizzeria (core to the culture of New Haven) and spent hours talking about SOM, the MBA experience, and life in general. One student who I’d spent an hour or so speaking with said, “I know you’re nervous, because I was in your shoes last year, but you’re going to have a remarkable career no matter how tomorrow’s interview goes.” Then he joked that he was being a hypocrite because he was stressed about the ongoing recruiting process. It was so refreshing to speak with someone who wasn’t trying to sell their MBA program to me, but earnestly putting my mind at ease. I also appreciated his humility in admitting that the nerves don’t end even after you start an MBA at a great school.
I’m often asked to describe the culture at SOM, which is no small feat given the breadth of the class. In general, though, my classmates at SOM are down-to-earth, collaborative, humble, and thoughtful. As I meet more classmates, I’m struck by how impressive and varied their backgrounds are. One of my closest friends, Matt Archuleta, was featured in the New York Times recently for his service in Afghanistan. However, I almost always forget what a rock star he is because we spend most of our time talking about private equity recruiting or his adorable two-year-old.
WRITING ABOUT MY WEAKNESS
While it’s true that SOM students are down-to-earth, SOM explicitly looks for students who are deeply driven and able to demonstrate their passion through actions. In its application, SOM asks candidates to describe the biggest commitment they have ever made. For many other applicants—and certainly for me—the prompt doesn’t call to mind just one experience, and so it can feel intimidating. My longest tenure at a job before SOM was three years; I hadn’t even stayed in college for the standard four years because I graduated early to save money. I proudly call myself a dabbler when it comes to hobbies, and it felt as though I hadn’t done anything impressive enough to say I had made a large commitment. SOM was the first school I knew I would definitely apply. Because it took me so long to get my application ready, I had more than two years to turn over the commitment question in my mind.
I ended up writing about the area of my application that I felt was my biggest weakness: quantitative preparation. I wrote that despite not being born with a natural aptitude for math. Still, I took hard math electives in college (even when I didn’t excel at them), took jobs that were outside my comfort zone and that relied heavily on quantitative reasoning, and threw myself into GMAT preparation once I decided an MBA was right for me. Looking back, it was a huge risk to focus my essay on an area of weakness—one I had been urged to downplay. In the end, this strategy helped to set me apart.
I would encourage prospective SOM students who are stuck on how to approach the essay prompt to focus on something that feels authentic. I couldn’t have written a strong essay about a commitment that didn’t feel big to me — and nothing suggested by anyone else felt like something that really mattered to me. I know that as you’re working on application essays, the work can feel grueling. But by doing real, honest reflection during the essay-writing process, you’ll find that it will help you focus on your most deeply-held values during the program itself. The process even helped me refine my post-MBA goals. If I were writing the same essay now, I would undoubtedly say that deciding to come to SOM is the biggest commitment I’ve ever made. I’m so glad I did.
Claire Masters is a second-year student at the Yale School of Management from Nyack, New York. Prior to SOM, she worked at Moody’s and the Council on Foreign Relations, and she interned with Hillhouse Capital. At SOM, she is involved in racial equity efforts, investment management, and admissions.