Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Princess and the Pea: My visit to the castle

Schools are looking for the best people for their pearly white towers.  They want someone special to live in their castles, places already rich with tales of great political battles, of grand slayings of fiduciary dragons, and of noble ventures in banking.  They're looking for delightful, charming, and beautiful princesses. Fortunately for us though, we earn keys to the castle if we prove we're truly princess material. If we can prove that we princesses are worthy of the title of MBA Queen, we'll grab ourselves a prince!

The musical's premise is that a royal family was looking for a genuine princess to marry their son.  The test: put a pea under a mattress, and see how she slept. Only a true princess would be so delicate as to be disturbed by this pea.  Well, it turned out the ladies-in-waiting were rooting for her (they couldn't be wed until she was!), so they stuffed a bunch of weapons and armor under the mattress. Not even an ogre could've slept through the night with all the crap under there.  Needless to say, she woke up complaining of a stiff back, and the King and Queen proclaimed her a genuine princess. 

I like to think of the adcomm as our tale's ladies-in-waiting.  They want us to succeed.  They want us to prove we've got the chops. In fact, they'll help us get there if we pay close attention.

A few weeks ago, I attended an MBA admissions event in downtown San Francisco.  The room's audience looked a lot like I expected: tons of 24 year old white guys, 2 old white guys, a bunch of indian and east asian dudes, and a decent number of confidently dressed women.  I felt nervous and slightly out of place, so I found the only black person in the room and introduced myself to her.  She didn't seem to feel like an outsider at the gates of the castle, and that helped.

The admissions reps were from Harvard, Stanford, Northwestern, MIT, and UPenn.  I enjoyed their presentations so much because they were such real people. I can't say enough how completely genuine they were.  They obviously had great rapport among themselves and didn't see each other as competition.  They were describing their schools with the idea that theirs might be the best choice for each of us, but that it should be a choice based on the school being the right fit.  

Aside from their candor, I could also see how frustrating their jobs must be when they got asked obsequious, irritating, or just plain stupid questions (i.e. those found on their website). 

In the end though, I was able to glean some good bits of advice. The tidbits were a bit repetitive, but it's obvious that no matter how many times they say them, they don't sink in.  The highlights:

  • Read and answer the question. It sounds like half the people who apply answer the question they wish they were asked. Oops, well make sure your essay wasn't plopped from another school, and if it was, make sure it makes sense and answers the question!
  • Use the right school's name in an application. Duh, but what an easy way to show you were rushing and didn't care. Proof 20 times!
  • Be yourself.  This advice was a bit more abstract apparently for the audience as evidenced by this question: "What part of ourselves should we highlight to gain admission?"  I almost snorted I was laughing so hard.  It's not a stupid question by any means, and I actually think he's asking them to shut up with the values and talk about what interests them.  I laughed out of awkwardness: it betrayed so much anxiety and I related.  If I'm myself and I get rejected, then that means you truly despise ME. 
  • Be memorable (e.g. be unique).  I like this advice because in some ways it's at odds with being yourself.  People may be pretty similar, but at the same time, we all possess some unique quality or at least constellation of qualities. 
  • Be nice. I smiled really broadly when the rep from Stanford said this. I think this was a euphemism for "don't be a douchebag, don't be an arrogant prick, and don't bitch about other people."  Normally this kind of nebulous advice irks me.  However, a neighboring prospective student asked this question: "How do we show we're nice in the application?"  To which she responded, "If you have to ask then you're probably not nice."  Once again, he wasn't completely wrong to ask; I mean, how is niceness demonstrated in writing? It's easy to spot when something's NOT nice, but nice is such a vague and unassuming quality! At the least though, I appreciated how straightforward she was.  Which leads to the next bit:
  • Be honest.  I guess when niceness fails, at least honesty will do! As my father always said, if you tell the truth you never have to remember what you said.  Truer words were never spoken!
The ladies-in-waiting may have limited keys, but they want lots of princesses to join them nonetheless.  The castle is so dull without us!

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