Becoming a Clear Admit: New Book Demystifies MBA Admissions for Applicants Targeting Top Schools
Don’t miss this week’s launch of a new book for applicants targeting top business schools. Becoming a Clear Admit: The Definitive Guide to MBA Admissions, written by our own Alex Brown, is a must-read for both traditional and “non-traditional” applicants to leading MBA programs. Brown brings nearly 24 years of experience in the MBA admissions industry as a consultant, admissions officer, and teacher, including 7 years as senior associate director of admissions at the Wharton School. With Becoming a Clear Admit, he has crafted a concise, insightful guide that provides fascinating background and an in-depth overview of why the MBA admissions process is the way it is.
Beyond explaining the “whys” of the admissions process, Brown also dives deep into the “how-tos,” offering practical, actionable advice for applicants on how to make the most of the MBA experience, create the strongest possible application and demonstrate to the admissions committee why you belong in a given MBA class.
The book is currently available for sale in the Clear Admit shop, and you can take advantage of the “Look Inside” feature to get a feel for what you’ll get. We also sat down with Brown to ask about his motivations and process in writing the book, which you’ll learn in the interview that follows. Enjoy!
Author Q&A: Alex Brown on Becoming a Clear Admit
Clear Admit: Why did you undertake this project?
Alex Brown: I am passionate about the MBA degree and the opportunities it provides. I have seen it firsthand during my tenure at Wharton and wanted to share my passion through this book.
It includes a detailed section on “Why an MBA,” which I think sets it apart from many of the other MBA admissions books. Also, when I address the five attributes that are important to highlight as part of the application process—especially as I discuss “Values”—I make the case for the importance of the MBA in helping shape the future of business. I do believe this, and I am glad to see business schools increasingly recognize “Values” as a significant, non-negotiable attribute in candidates they admit.
CA: What about your background made you the right person to undertake this project?
AB: I always enjoyed teaching (I taught marketing courses for more than 20 years at the University of Delaware), so part of me wanted to provide a product that teaches those entering the MBA admissions process how admissions works and why it works like that.
Obviously, I have a lot of experience in the MBA admissions industry, so the book is also an opportunity for me to share how the process works based on what I’ve learned firsthand. Sharing that knowledge in an understandable fashion in order to help educate is a good thing.
CA: You introduce a unique tiered ranking system. How did you establish this? Why do you think it is important?
AB: I’ll answer those questions in the reverse. I think it is important because there is so much energy spent arguing which school is better than another, when in reality—and I mean reality—many schools are too similar in overall quality. It becomes a ridiculous debate.
Take for example, Chicago Booth, Northwestern Kellogg and MIT Sloan. They are all great programs. For one candidate, Booth might be the best option, but for another candidate it could just as easily be Sloan. What becomes more important in this case is cultural fit and career goals, not ranking. These schools are what I have labeled tier 2 schools. There are differences in overall quality when comparing schools from one tier to another, but when comparing schools within a tier, like tier 2, they are too similar in terms of quality to differentiate by ranking.
Establishing the tiers was based on knowledge gained from many years of observing how candidates make choices. I do anticipate developing a more formalized system to establish the tiers, which I outline in the appendix.
Some admissions professionals, students and candidates will argue over the tiers that I have created, which is fair enough. It is also the reason why I use the labels 1 and 1A, and 3 and 3A. But the rationale for tiers is very solid. Of course, a tiered system does not favor the media that produce rankings, which prefer an ordinal ranking that allows for the more sensationalistic coverage that often accompanies such a list.
CA: You are an adcom insider. How does this show through in the book? What advantages can you offer applicants as a result of your experience?
AB: I think my experiences as an adcom really allow me to explain things well. My goal with the book is to tell it like it is, although I know one or two aspects of the book may prove a little controversial with some adcom insiders. Basically, reading this book and digesting its content provides a pretty good 360-degree view of the admissions process directly from someone who has lived it for several years. My hope is that the insight is worth the three to four hours required to read the book thoroughly; it is short and concise. Honestly, when I first started working as an adcom at Wharton, I wish there was a book like this I could have read quickly to get up to speed.
CA: You introduce a unique personal inventory exercise in the book. Can you explain how you developed it and why it’s important?
AB: I think rather than starting the application process by reviewing a set of school essays and figuring out how to best answer each essay, candidates should take a step back. They should examine their attributes, experiences, profile and plan—really lay everything bare. Then is the time to look at what each school is asking.
The exercise in the book is designed to help applicants do that. It will help ensure that a candidate provides a truly holistic view of who he or she is, while also answering all the questions appropriately. It’s not unlike exercises some admissions consultants go through with their clients.
The exercise was developed as a result of taking a step-wise walk through the book itself. There is nothing unique in the exercise that is not addressed earlier in the book.
CA: You spend a lot of time explaining WHY adcoms ask the questions they do. What prompted this? Why is it important for applicants to understand?
AB: I think it is important to understand why you are doing what you are doing, whether it is understanding the questions asked when applying to business school, or generally in life. By understanding the whys of the process, you will approach the process from a more strategic perspective.
CA: You suggest that there are five main attributes that are important to highlight as part of the MBA admissions process—intellectual capacity, effectiveness, ambition, passion and values. How did you arrive at these?
AB: Writing this part of the book was the most interesting for me. Having spent years evaluating candidates, and then advising applicants, I really wanted to examine what it is that is important, and how these attributes can be categorized. I also explored some leaders I admire, looking at their attributes.
Intellectual capacity was quite obvious, especially since this is admissions for a master’s program. Measuring intellectual capacity is well understood in admissions with the evaluation of degree courses and test scores. Effectiveness became a “catch all” for all other aspects that really determines someone’s potential for success, which include particular traits like compassion and work ethic, an individual’s emotional intelligence and prior experiences that illustrate leadership and teamwork.
I also thought it was important to identify attributes that can amplify a candidate’s potential, and “passion” and “ambition” both do so in slightly different ways. In short, it is important for candidates to show both passion for things that they have done and plan to do, as well as ambition to succeed in a big way. If you attend a top MBA program, the adcom wants you to make a significant impact in the future.
Finally, I had most fun discussing “values.” When I was an adcom, we would regularly ask questions about ethics, but I rarely examined why this was important. I just assumed we wanted good and decent people in our program. Of course, while that is very important, what is more important is how MBAs can truly impact the future of business—and the world. We need MBAs to have a good moral compass in order to conduct business in a manner that improves the world—not just in a way that benefits the MBAs themselves. I highlight a number of recent cases, from Volkswagen to FIFA, where self-interest trumped societal interest, which is obviously not a good thing.
CA: Who won’t be served by your book? As in, if you’re looking for x, y or z, this isn’t the right choice for you.
AB: Honestly, I think the book is useful for anyone who is applying to top MBA programs. If I thought there was a weakness in that regard, I would fix it. I have also relied on a number of knowledgeable people to give thorough feedback, some of which was pretty critical.
That being said, this is not a book that offers short cuts to writing winning essays. It goes much deeper than that and, I hope, teaches readers how best to present themselves so that their applications are a true representation of who they are as applicants. I also hope it inspires a few additional applicants to apply!