Thursday, June 13, 2013

That time I decided to go to grad school: Essays edition

A bit ago, I posted about my decision to apply to business school. As I explained in that post, my first hurdle to focus on a planfor studying for the GMAT.

However, because of the structure of the application process for the particular program I was applying to, I actually had some time when it came to the GMAT. From the date I decided to apply, I had exactly 4 weeks to turn around essays, application, recommendations, interview and resume.

Queue panic.

I'm fortunate to work at a company that promotes and supports applying to and attending business school. Many of my coworkers are graduates of full-time programs, so I had excellent support from friends (who happen to be colleagues). They were willing to read, re-read, and then re-read my essays again. They offered advice on how to find recommenders, what I should get to thank everyone who helped me (although no gift could ever convey how grateful I am to them), and were amazing sounding boards. If you don't have support internally, get your friends on board to help. Find someone you know who has gone through the process. Google! There is tons of information out there on applying to any graduate program, complete with essay advice on specific schools and specific essays.

Essays: It's been a while since I've experienced a more humbling process than answering very personal questions and getting feedback on my writing. It was also eye-opening. I knew my application had to weave a story about who I am, what is important to me, and what I want to become through business school. Questions about why I want to pursue an MBA, what my long-term goals were, what I'm passionate, and my most significant professional accomplishment. These are not easy questions to answer. Some of them I honestly hadn't even thought about. But, in hindsight, I'm so glad I put time and effort into answering each of these questions carefully. MBA or not, it gave me focus for the near-term, the long-term, and reminded me of my accomplishments and the goals and dreams I looked forward to achieving.

Everybody's advice is a little different, but this is what ultimately worked for me.

1. The very first thing you do should is just write. Write an answer to each question. Don't limit your words, don't think about a story, just write. The editing is truly easy if you have all those words to work with.
2. Walk away! I wrote all my first drafts in a weekend, and then walked away for 2-3 days. I came back and completely re-wrote 2 eassys because I thought about a different experience I wanted to share. If you can, give yourself even more time! I cut it really close, but others I know had months to write, proofread, and submit their essays.
3. Get feedback on the subject matter in your original essays. Like I said, the editing is the easy part, but if your essays don't flow and don't complement each other, editing them is a waste of time! I sent my first drafts to 3 friends and even though I didn't want to hear it, they all provided really helpful feedback and tips.

My 'story' focused on my leadership experience and my goals to move up within my company. Others I know have shared about a passion and how that applies to their desired future, and where an MBA fits into that path. Each story is different. I will tell you - what I started with and the end result were 2 entirely different sets of essays. Because I was getting feedback from so many different sources, what I heard was bound to conflict. Use your best judgement, and remember that the people you asked to help are trying to do just that!

Recommendations: This is what made me most nervous. I have amazing support at work, and I know that I am very capable in my job. But telling someone that you are trying to do something, but it may not work out, is scary. Especially telling someone who you know already thinks you are great. I asked my boss and another superior to write my recommendations, as advised to me by many of my peers (and required by Emory). My fear was not telling them I wanted to go back to school, it was the fear of not getting in and having to tell people I wasn't good enough, wasn't smart enough, couldn't cut it. I was afraid that they'd then see me differently, not think I was as capable at my job, and everything I worked so hard to build would come crumbling around me. Anxiety is a crippling disease, folks.

Well, shockingly enough, the 2 people I asked to write recommendations were thrilled to do it, and incredibly supportive of my decision. However, what I didn't realize was that asking them to write a recommendation wasn't enough. Apparently I had to provide them with material with which to base their recommendation as it related to the 'story' I was telling with my essays. So, I scrambled to answer the questions the recommenders were supposed to answer how I wanted them to answer and shot off those emails at 6pm on a Friday night, the whole time feeling SO awkward. "Katie should have ___." "The people Katie works with admire and trust her decision-making skills." Those are exact excerpts, and imagine writing a page-long email like that.

My advice on recommendations and recommenders is as follows:

1. Ask people to write recommendations who knows you well personally and professionally.
2. Ask people who are going to write really positive things about you (duh?)
3. Give the individuals that you ask as much advance notice as possible.
4. Think about how you want to portray yourself with these recommendations - one should be from a manager, one from someone quite senior, and if you are required to submit a third, think about asking someone in the community, a former professor, or someone who can comment on your skills and capabilities outside the workplace. After all, there is more to you than what you do to get paid!

And, if you are applying to more than 1 school, only ask them to write 1 recommendation, maaaaaybe two if you are desperate.

So aside from the interivew (which I don't feel comfortable writing about - every school is different, and quite frankly I don't remember much of mine because I was a rambling, nervous wreck!), that was the whole process. GMAT, recommendations, essays, SUBMIT and hope like hell that the hours and hours you slaved away on the application on top of the years you've spent excelling in the business world were worth it.

These have actually turned out to be really fun blog entries to write. I love sharing my unsolicited two cents with the world, and I hope someone, somewhere finds this helpful.

As promised, over the next few weeks I'll share my thoughts on how I decided which schools to apply to, and why I decided to go back to school in the first place. The answers are different for everyone, so I look forward to hearing your thoughts as well!

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1 comment:

  1. These are so helpful, Katie! Grant is getting ready to go through the application/essay/GMAT process, and I've directed him here because you give such great advice. Keep 'em coming!