Just after New York University (NYU) Stern School of Business posted its essay questions for the 2015-16 admissions cycle this morning, Assistant Dean of MBA Admissions Isser Gallogly got on the phone with Clear Admit to share some advice on what the school is looking for in prospective applicants’ responses.
Stern didn’t change much this year in terms of its essay prompts. The first, identical to last year, invites applicants to outline their professional aspirations, including why they are pursuing an MBA now, what they have done to determine that Stern is the best fit for them and what they see themselves doing professionally when they graduate.
In answering this question, Gallogly urges applicants to demonstrate a clear, well-researched career plan as well as first-hand knowledge of the Stern MBA. “Business school isn’t a place to figure out what you want to do,” he says. “We all know it may change, but you need to come in with a plan,” he underscores. He and his team are looking to learn from this essay whether applicants have researched the industries they are targeting or conducted informational interviews to learn as much as they can. “We are looking for people who are directed and focused,” Gallogly says. “They need to do their homework before they apply—it’s in their own best interests.”
Likewise, applicants need to do their homework on what differentiates the Stern MBA program from others, Gallogly advises. Business school is a huge, irreversible investment—$133,000 for Stern tuition and registration fees alone, to be precise. “You only go once, and you want to get it right,” he says, noting that the choice you make extends well beyond the two years you’ll spend there. “This is going to be your network for the rest of your life.”
“At a top-tier school, it’s not about avoiding going wrong—because you are not going to go wrong. It’s about how right can you go,” he says. You want to choose the place where you will thrive. To get a feel for whether Stern is that place, Gallogly advises applicants to not only completely devour the school website, but also take advantage of the vast array of multimedia and social media resources, online chats and recruiting events around the world.
Best yet, come to New York. “Spend the time, spend the money, go visit the schools,” he says. To not do so in his mind is like buying a car without taking it for a test drive. Not only that, visiting a school provides a great opportunity to make your case about your admission directly to the Admissions Committee in person, he continues. “Why wouldn’t you take that opportunity?”
If you advance to the interview round in the Stern application process, you should definitely plan to come to campus, he adds. Though the school does conduct limited offsite interviews in London, China and India, Gallogly vastly prefers meeting candidates in New York. “It is in candidates’ best interests to come and make sure Stern is where they want to be,” he says.
For its second essay—instead of giving applicants a choice between two prompts—Stern this year served up just one:
“Please describe yourself to your MBA classmates. You may use almost any method to convey your message (e.g. words, illustrations). Feel free to be creative.”
The Admissions Committee chose to move away from the second option, which last year asked applicants’ to describe two different paths they could envision their career taking, because they found they got better insight from the Personal Expression option. Feedback also suggested that applicants enjoyed responding to the Personal Expression prompt more. “They feel it gives them the opportunity to convey who they are to the Admissions Committee in a more creative format,” Gallogly says.
While Stern doesn’t track what percentage of applicants opt to submit written essays as compared to other forms of communication, it receives a wide range of submissions, Gallogly reports. “Essays are totally fine,” he stresses, noting that they receive plenty of those that are wonderful. But they also get videos, collages, recipe books, board games or cereal boxes that applicants have personalized, buildings, sculptures…the list goes on.
The fine print for the prompt does list some limitations, namely no food or articles of clothing that have been worn. “Back in the day, there was a classic story of someone who really enjoyed making sushi,” Gallogly recalls. “By the time it showed up to us—let’s just say it really wasn’t putting their best foot forward.” Over the years, Stern has also needed to implement restrictions on size, he says, noting that there was a trend for a while where applicants seemed to be sending in the biggest thing they could think of. “It was just a matter of time before a Volkswagon showed up,” he jokes.
Stern has featured this prompt for several years now because of the valuable insight it gives into emotional quotient (EQ). “Columbia and Harvard are now starting to follow suit in terms of this essay,” Gallogly notes, referring to the “introduce yourself” essay those schools have both introduced in recent years. “We have had this a lot longer than they have, but I am glad that other schools are starting to pay attention to how important EQ is,” he says.
Personal Is Good—Too Personal, Not So Much
We asked Gallogly if there are common pitfalls applicants should try to avoid when sitting down to respond to Stern’s prompts. “Sometimes people take it into a space that is a little too casual,” he says. While you are encouraged to share personal information, especially in response to the second prompt, make sure it is appropriate for a business setting, he advises. One litmus test is to consider whether what you are writing about is something you would feel comfortable sharing with your boss. If not, probably best to choose another topic. “There are some conversations that should not be had on a cell phone on a crosstown bus,” he says. And yet, it happens with every application cycle, he adds. Don’t be that applicant.
As in past years, Stern again this year offers applicants the opportunity to submit a third optional essay, where they can explain current or past gaps in employment, plans to retake the GMAT, GRE and/or TOEFL or other relevant information that may not be captured elsewhere in their application. Notably, Stern also requires applicants who are unable to submit a recommendation from their current supervisor to use Essay 3 to explain why.
So, there you have it. Our thanks to Gallogly for taking time to weigh in.