Friday, November 26, 2010

Application Time

If you’re a prospective student out there, you know by now that the LGO application deadline is less than a month away (12/15/10). While I am sure there are a few overachievers out there who have already submitted their application, there are likely many more who are still plodding their way through it. If you’re anything like I was, you’re telling yourself that three weeks is an eternity, that you’ve written 500 words in a few hours on numerous occasions in your life, and that you can probably put things off a little longer. So, to all those procrastinators and perfectionists who plan on waiting until the last minute to submit their applications, this post is for you.

Throughout the remainder of this post, I will give you three things that I think would have helped me at this point last year: (1) Useful references, online and in print, (2) My own advice, having gone through this already, and (3) Advice from my classmates. I hope you find it helpful, and I encourage you to email me (garvinc@mit.edu) if you have any additional questions. Thanks, and enjoy!

Application References and Guides:

When applying to schools, I stubbornly told myself that I didn’t need help from anyone or anything else. After all, if I was admitted anywhere, I wanted it to be because I had earned it on my own. I soon realized that one way to earn admission was to demonstrate a willingness to accept help and advice from all the resources I had available to me. This, of course, is an important skill in all aspects of life, but one that I was only able to come to terms with after struggling with the application on my own.

Why do this? Because admissions officers look for particular qualities and attributes in candidates, and knowing what these things are will allow you to better present yourself in an essay. Think about it – you only have a few hundred words to get your point across while also showing yourself in a positive light, so your strategy to accomplish this better mesh with the school’s ideals and mission.

There are a bunch of useful guides out there, many of which I am unqualified to write about. So, what follows are the top two sources I found particularly helpful, along with a list of other sites that might be of use as you work your way through the applications and beyond.

  1. How to Get Into the Top MBA Programs - by Richard Montauk. I felt silly even buying this book. It seemed like one of those books you purchase if you are desperate and actually have no chance of getting into a top school. Even the checkout clerk at Barnes & Noble gave me a look like, "This guy with a toothpaste stain on his sweatshirt thinks he's going to a top MBA school? Yeah, right." After getting through that awkward moment, I discovered the book to be full of insight, including quotes from admissions directors of many excellent schools. It was by far the most useful resource I had at my disposal, and I highly recommend it to anyone applying to this program or others. You just might want to buy it online.
  2. The Adam Markus Blog - Ok, this site is not the best organized or the most visually appealing (hey, it's a blog), and I might have been the only LGO applicant to use it, but I still insist that you check it out. Aside from the MBA book described above, it was the best resource I had when applying to schools. This guy basically breaks down and analyzes every application essay question for every major MBA program. For someone who is struggling to focus his or her thoughts in an essay, this guy's advice can be a lifesaver.
Other helpful sites:
  • ClearAdmit.com - great site with lots of insight into MBA applications. Do not be tricked, as I was, into thinking this site is just for MIT applicants (the website is "Clear Admit" not "Clearad MIT" -- very confusing!). Thankfully, the MIT admissions folks did not get wind of my confusion, as it probably would have been grounds for immediate cancellation of my acceptance.
  • Businessweek.com - includes sample essays and helpful forums for learning from other applicants
  • Accepted.com - has a bunch of application tips and forums
  • StaceyBlackman.com - I didn't use this one last year, but it looks informative and has advice targeted directly at MIT Sloan applicants
  • GMATclub.com - another site I didn't use, but I know that many of my classmates frequented the forums here

My advice for applicants:


I am not an admissions expert, nor do I claim to know more about this stuff than my classmates or even than anyone reading this. However, I did go through this process last year, and as a result I have a bunch of thoughts that might be of value to someone struggling through this year's application. So, in no particular order, here is my advice to applicants:
  • Be yourself and be honest. The essays are difficult enough, there is no need to make them ever harder by presenting an exaggerated version of yourself. Besides, don't you want to be admitted to school based on whom you actually are, not on your ability to lie about yourself? If you're honest and you don't get in, then the school probably would not have been a good fit for you anyway.
  • Send complementary, but consistent, messages. Use the application to tell a consistent and compelling story about yourself, but do it in a way that you are not repeating yourself throughout the various essays, the cover letter, and resume. Think of each part of the application like a piece of a puzzle -- on their own they might be interesting to look at, but they only form a complete picture when you put them together.
  • It's okay to admit to being a career changer. There seems to be a common perception that business schools do not like to admit career changers because they are less likely to find a job after graduating. As a career switcher myself, I worried about how to handle this in my application. However, it all came back to being honest. I was going back to school because I wanted to change careers; not describing this accurately in my application would have undermined my whole rationale for making this decision. It is important, though, to make sure you show that you have clearly thought out your process for making the career switch (why you prefer a new career over your old one, why and how MIT will help you make this change, etc.). Also, remember that at least half of the students in any business school, whether they admit it or not, are there because they want to change careers. Business schools know this, and so they really don't have a problem with admitting new students who declare this up front.
  • If you have a non-traditional background (non-engineering degree, unusual work history, raised by wolves), do not hide it -- celebrate it! For example, I have undergrad and grad degrees in geology and have never worked as an engineer. This might raise a red flag to the LGO admissions staff, who need to make sure that the students they admit are capable of handling the MIT engineering curriculum and will make strong job candidates upon graduation. So, in order to get them to swap the red flag for a green one, I highlighted the depth and breadth of science and math I took in school, mentioned the research theses I wrote, and spun my non-engineering career into an asset by using it to prove that I am capable of adapting quickly to demanding and unfamiliar assignments. I don't actually know if I was admitted because of any of these tactics or if I simply charmed the socks off my interviewer, but presenting a positive story about my potential downside probably didn't hurt me.
  • When you think you are finished, you're not. After plowing through the brutal application, I know it's tempting just to submit it to get it out of your life forever, but I highly recommend not following this approach. Instead, take a break for as long as you can (a week would be good). During this time, send your essays to someone else who knows you to have them proofread, both for grammar and for content (who better to call you out on your dishonesty than a good friend or family member). Then, after a week off, go through and check for errors yourself. First, make sure there are absolutely no spelling errors, no double words, no questionable grammar. Then, pretend you are on the admissions staff, and assess your essays from that perspective. Did you answer the question that was asked? Did you present yourself in a positive and accurate light? Would your essay stand out from other applicants'?

Finally, a few parting thoughts from my LGO classmates:

"The only thing I ever tell prospectives is to just be honest. The most important thing is having a clear motivation for wanting to do this program. This is good for 2 reasons:

1) It makes for a better application that is more likely to be accepted, and

2) It helps the student know him/herself why they want to do this, and that, in fact, they DO want to do it. This program is not for the faint of heart.

The point of going back to school is to fill out certain areas of experience or expertise that one does not already have, to change careers, etc. The more focus one has in what they want to get out of the program, and what they want to do afterward, the more useful and rewarding LGO and Sloan will be."

Some simple but important advice:
"Save your money! And get all the sleep now that you think you might need in the next two years."


Especially for international applicants (and maybe more relevant once accepted, but still useful to keep in mind):

"Maybe this was not important for anybody but me, but trust me, it was the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN MY CASE

Nobody told me I could get a loan from MIT Federal Credit Union without an American co-signer. Months of anguish and uncertainty could have been avoided with that single sentence.

Trust me, as an international, that simple fact almost stopped me from coming here… I decided to take the risk and then I was here… maybe that is something that people would think about post-admission, but in my case I thought about it since the very beginning. Some people aren’t as crazy as I am, and would not be willing to take those risks, potentially losing really good people.

Other than that, I put 5 letters of recommendation (2 in the hard copy file I sent here, as opposed to just the three that were submitted electronically). I am not sure, but I think it was a strong point in my application, since those two letters were from UK and France… and conveyed the idea that I was able to adapt to a new country/language."

And one final piece of advice...

“There are plenty of ways to show the admissions committee that you are qualified to attend their institution. These include the GMAT, previous academic and professional experiences, and essays. It might be tempting to think about your profile as an applicant and think that there isn’t too much more to do as an applicant. Instead, I would advise that you put aside all the aspects that are already more or less set and focus on those that can highlight facets of yourself that may not be easily noticeable to someone reviewing your package. In other words, what makes you different from any other person who went to a certain school and worked in a particular industry, with a similar GPA/GMAT? Find the most compelling aspect of your personal story and tie it into the bigger picture of why you want to attend LGO at this time. With that in mind, I also suggest constant introspection during this process. Any question that you can ask yourself that begins with “Why . . .” will likely be productive. Many people are not used to this and it will be mentally exhausting to the point where you can’t wait to click submit. The self-reflection won’t stop once school begins but in the end, the LGO program and the fellow students you will get to know are well worth the effort.”

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Summer Retrospective Part II: The Classes

It's been months since the summer session ended, but I promised a second post about the LGO summer experience, and this is it. I'll follow up this post with something more relevant, probably related to the application process, so stay tuned...
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How can you tell you're talking to an extroverted engineer?

He's looking at your shoes instead of his own.

You can get a lot of information about business schools from the internet, but one thing that can remain a mystery until you're actually at school is the classroom experience. Personally, I had heard many phrases about business school classes thrown around, such "case method," "participation points," "classroom discussion," "cold call," "Socratic method," and various other things that would make any antisocial introvert (like me) visibly shake. I had managed to avoid classes with these descriptors my entire life, despite attending a liberal arts college, and now I'd have no choice but to face them head-on.

Before I scare anyone off, let me assure you that MIT Sloan actually uses a hybrid approach for its classroom structure. Some sessions are solely lecture-based, while others are completely centered around a case discussion, and then balance consists of a lecture / audience participation mix. I believe this balanced system has prevented the ulcer that's likely forming due to fear of cold calls from getting too large. Also, as I'll describe in a later post about the Fall semester, our Engineering classes are mostly in the classic lecture format.

With that, I'll now break down the summer courses from my perspective. (Limor has also summarized the nuts and bolts of the summer classes in an earlier post: http://limorzehavi.blogspot.com/)

Operations Management
A generally great class. I thought the professor ran an extremely efficient classroom, meaning that we covered a lot of material during each class but not in an overwhelming way. He also ran case discussions in a non-threatening way. Even I felt comfortable volunteering to speak during all the discussions, and that's saying something.
Highlight: Factory simulation exercises (group competitions to run the most profitable factory given simulated supply and demand).

Systems Optimization
For me, this was the most challenging class, both in and out of the classroom. The professor, who was younger than me(!) and intimidatingly smart (he created the highest-scoring computer simulated Tetris program in the world), liked to flex his brain during class. He occasionally shot down stupid questions and engaged in intellectual battles with anyone who dared challenge him (naturally, he always won). Sometimes, when he asked a question that no one could answer, he would allow us to chat about it for five minutes with the people around us. During these discussions, my neighbor would usually say something like, "I'm going to business school so I don't have to be the one to solve these types of problems." With that said, the material was actually really interesting to me. We were learning how to create and solve useful optimization problems, and then we got to apply them to a real-world scenario of our choosing during our term project. [My team designed a program to help my wife assign students to rooms for the 5th-grade camping trip at her elementary school, which had been a pain for her to do manually because of the many constraints and requests by students and parents.]
Highlight: The team project presentations, which were all impressive and in some cases hilarious.

Probability and Statistics
This was far and away the most boring class of the summer. Sadly, I like this stuff, so I didn't mind sitting through the lectures, but many of my classmates did not feel the same way. The most useful part of the course for me was the section on Design of Experiments, something I had never fully understood before. We applied this material to a paper helicopter design and then had a class-wide drop-off from the third-floor landing in the building stairwell. Teams were ranked based on drop time and distance from a target, and the team with the best total ranking won. My team placed third and had a fantastic time building and testing our designs. In fact, this project probably helped my team form a stronger bond than almost any other activity during the summer.
Highlight: The helicopter drop-off. (See video below for a grainy look at one of our unsuccessful drops.)


High Velocity Organizations
An interesting class about the common characteristics (from an operations perspective) of some of the most successful companies in the world. We spent a lot of time talking about Toyota, a favorite topic of the professor. Our major assignments for the semester included interviewing a "front-line worker" (someone who creates the actual good or provides the service at a company) and a project in which we analyzed a business process from our past experience using the tools we learned in class.
Lowlight: Coming up blank during my first career cold call. So embarrassing.

Leadership
This a "bookend" class for the LGO program, as we get to experience it during the first summer and final spring. During the summer, we were exposed to different ways of thinking about leadership and various leadership styles. The point, to me at least, was to think about our own leadership styles, what we do well and what we don't, and develop a plan for our time in school so that we re-enter the workplace as prepared for leadership roles as we can be. The LGO program puts major emphasis on leadership, and this class was the first of many to get us to think introspectively about it.
Highlight: End-of-summer team interpretive artwork and presentations.

In summary, it was a great summer of bonding with new classmates and adjusting to the MIT environment in a comfortable atmosphere.

Next post: The LGO application -- words of wisdom from current students. video

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Summer Retrospective Part I: The Summer Team

As promised, the following is the first in a series of posts about my first LGO summer. Before going any further, I want to point out that a few of my classmates -- Annie, Limor, and Paul -- have already done a nice job summarizing their summers, so please check those out before reading on.

This first look back on my summer will focus on the summer team experience. At MIT, as in many MBA programs, group work is not only encouraged but is often required. To avoid those uncomfortable moments that accompany student-selected groups (you know, when the people sitting around you all buddy-up with the classmates on their other side, leaving you in a group by yourself -- does this happen to anyone else?), MIT assigns the teams for us. As I mentioned in my previous post, the team assignments are made in such a way as to maximize diversity, the theory being that we will learn more from our classmates as a result. However, in "diversifying" these teams, the school has available a limited amount of information about us (from our application materials, I assume), meaning that a team could consist of six people from different countries (something they would know from our applications) who are all allergic to peanuts (something probably not on an application, though I guess it could have been brought up in the Sloan cover letter: "My experience with peanut allergies has made me an ideal candidate for your school..."). More realistically, there could be unforeseen personality clashes among the group members. This has the potential to result in tension among group members, which could obviously adversely affect a student's experience in the program. These things are inevitable, and they happen every year. On that note, let me talk more specifically about my team.

Before meeting my new LGO teammates, I was a bit nervous about my future group experience for a few reasons:
  1. I tend to be quiet in group settings. This is exacerbated when I am in a group with at least one dominant (loud, bossy, overbearing, opinionated) member or when uncomfortable (due to unfriendly, disrespectful, tactless people).
  2. I am extremely non-confrontational, so tensions within my group, especially when they are at the surface, would be a nightmare.
  3. I am afraid of looking or sounding stupid (however, this was unavoidable, since I was starting a program in which most of the material would be completely new to me)
With these fears in mind, I was assigned to Team 8, a name that we nerdily changed to Team Infinity (as in an '8' on its side -- get it?). We were certainly a diverse group -- of the six members, there were five guys, two international students, five engineers (I was the sole non-engineer), one sponsored student, one married student (me), one person born during the Carter administration (me -- by 15 days), and, fortunately, six likable, polite, understanding, motivated people. Thanks to these characteristics, we got along extremely well (maybe we were all hiding our true feelings inside), and, likely as a result, performed quite well on our assignments. Interestingly, one of the things that initially seemed like it could be a hindrance to our team's success -- the fact that we had two non-native English speakers -- turned out to be one of the things that brought us closer together. For instance, we all learned the material better by helping interpret some of the difficult English terms for our international teammates, and we bonded and laughed over all of our cultural idiosyncrasies and misunderstood phrases. It was an eye-opening experience for me, as I hope it was for the rest of my team. We have had it repeated to us innumerable times already, and I am beginning to think there's some truth to the business school promise that we will learn at least as much from our classmates as we will from our professors.

Next time: I will write about the classes and teaching methods we were exposed to over the summer.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Just a face in the crowd

Since I have already failed to keep my promise of two posts per month, I will try to make up for it with a bunch of posts over the next couple of days. I'll start with a post about recent events and follow that up with a few that summarize my experiences over the summer. So, here we go...

Today, we finished up a four-day MIT Sloan orientation, during which we met the non-LGO portion of the MBA class of 2012. It was a bit reminiscent of moving up from kindergarten to first grade in that we were separated from most our LGO (kindergarten) class and dispersed among a new and unfamiliar group of people (first grade). As we did back then, we stuck close to those we knew and carefully examined those we didn't to make sure they were all right but all the while sought comfort in those familiar faces around the classroom, at lunch time, and on the ride home from school. Going into the week, I was excited to meet the rest of the class, but also very curious about how the LGO students would (or wouldn't) fit in among the larger group.

Before going into detail about this week's events, I want to quickly summarize what happens to us this fall. Sloan divides first-year students into six "oceans" or cohorts (I am in Ocean A, also known as "Atlantic," which, as a lifelong East Coaster, makes me feel right at home). The 48 LGO students are evenly distributed among the oceans; our ocean assignment is based partly on avoiding conflicts with our Fall semester engineering courses. We end up taking all of the core MBA courses with our ocean.

Within the ocean, we are divided into teams of 6-7 people, which are intentionally made to be as diverse as possible. For instance, my team has two international students, one American minority student, backgrounds ranging from finance, to consulting, to real estate investment, to engineering, four of us are married, two are female, etc...you get the point. As part of ensuring diversity within each group, no two LGO students are on the same team.

The agenda this week was quite scattered. We spent time getting to know our new teammates, particularly on Tuesday when we went to a place called the Warren Center and engaged in a day of team-building activities. We were introduced (or re-introduced, in the case of the LGOs) to the Case Method of teaching. (This was a burdensome introduction, as it required reading 60+ pages of dense material in preparation for the discussion). The reward of the case discussions was a pair of plenary sessions in which we got to ask questions directly to the case protagonists. It was absolutely incredible to see the cases come to life during these sessions and really made me appreciate being at a school that could provide these experiences. More details on this in a bit...

We spent a lot of time talking to our new Ocean-mates and classmates in forced (through games) and unforced ways. (I am getting good at small talk, though I'd still rather scratch my eyes out of my head than do it.) We also got exposed to the type of help we'll be getting from the Career Development Office during our time at MIT Sloan through a presentation and with a session devoted to teaching us how to better tell "our story."

Two short lists follow, summarizing my thoughts at the end of the week.

Orientation Week highlights:
  1. Plenary sessions with case protagonists. The first was with Victor Reinoso (MBA '97) and Michelle Rhee, Deputy Mayor of Education and School Chancellor, respectively, in Washington, D.C. They were extremely impressive speakers, and their dedication to implementing unpopular but necessary changes in the D.C. school amazed me. The second session was with the ex-CEO of Veridian Corp., a former defense company. He spoke about running a company in which a values-driven mission was given priority over financial metrics.
  2. Getting to know my new team. So far, so good. My team seems like a great group with lots of different experiences from which we can draw during our work together this semester. Most importantly (to me, that is), there aren't any overly strong or confrontational personalities in the group, something I feared encountering in the MBA crowd.
  3. The general Class of 2012 personality. I had made all sorts of assumptions about typical MBA students. Aggressive, obnoxious, demanding, arrogant, ostentatious -- just a few words that came to mind. Apparently, I was wrong, at least within the class of 2012. I was happily surprised with the modesty, sincerity, honesty, and self-deprecation I observed among of the vast majority of the students I met.
List of Uncertainties going forward:
  1. How the LGOs will fit in among the Sloan population. There seemed to be a mixture of approaches taken by the LGO students this week. A few threw themselves into the Orientation experience as if they were new students themselves. A larger number (myself included) gently and cautiously stepped into the experience, attending all sessions, trying to meet new people, but also seeking out fellow LGOs for company during awkward mingling sessions. There were also quite a few LGOs who put minimal effort into meeting others and skipped many of the orientation sessions. As relaxing as it would've been to be in this last group, I want to really take advantage of the limited time I have here in school, and that means meeting as many people as I can, learning from them about different industries, functions, cultures, geographic regions, etc. I will gladly subject myself to as many awkward conversations as it takes to get out of this experience everything I want to get out of it.
  2. What the Sloan population expects of us. Over the summer, I felt I learned a great deal about working in a team of peers. With a new team this fall, I would like to use my summer experience to help navigate some of the difficulties we will inevitably face. However, I want to avoid coming across as the know-it-all LGO guy. I also realize that allowing the team to figure things out for itself could have more long-term benefits for each of the team members. Some of my LGO classmates have expressed similar concerns about their roles in their new teams. I am quite curious to see how things play out.
  3. My comfort level in the Sloan classroom. Despite getting experience with the case method this summer, I was back to being my mute self in the two discussions this week. It turns out that the MBA class is filled with eloquent, knowledgeable speakers who thrive on extemporaneously voicing their opinions in front of complete strangers. This intimidates me. I hope that as I get to know more of my classmates, I will also get more comfortable speaking/mumbling in front of them.
That's enough for now. Stay tuned for upcoming posts on my first LGO summer.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Hello There Ladies and Gentlemen

My name is Chris Garvin, and this is my first attempt at a blog. Why start now? One simple reason: when I was deliberating over which MBA program to attend, the LGO blogs provided me with honest, detailed information, straight from the students, about the program (something I did not get from other schools), which really helped solidify this program as my top choice, and now I'd like to return the favor to future applicants.

We learned a lot early this summer about setting goals at the start of a project, so here are mine for this blog:
  1. Write at least a couple of times a month about the program
  2. Be interesting, honest, and informative (I'd like to give more in-depth information than someone would be able to simply find on the LGO site)
  3. Remember to write about the stuff I cared about when I was looking at schools
Those should be easy enough to meet, I hope.

Before wrapping up this first post, I should probably set the stage for the rest of the posts by giving some background about myself. Here's everything you need to know:
Name: Chris Garvin
Hometown: New Paltz, NY
College: Williams College (MA), B.A. Geosciences
Grad school: Cornell University, M.S. Geological Sciences
First car: 1993 Toyota Celica
Favorite shape: Trapezoid
Interests/Hobbies: Running, cycling, swimming, baseball
LGO Engineering Track: Engineering Systems Division - Energy & Environmental Sustainability Track
Previous work experience: Biotechnology Process Scientist for four years
Biggest surprise of my life: Actually finding someone to marry me
Favorite scent: Three-way tie: freshly cut grass on a baseball field, honeysuckle in late spring, newly fallen leaves in the fall.
Why I am back in school:
Have always been interested in coaching/teaching and decided I want to do that in the corporate world as a manager/leader.
Why MIT & LGO: Want to make the jump into clean energy/clean technology/sustainability/all other applicable buzzwords, and MIT and LGO seemed to provide the perfect combination of engineering and management education to get me there (things like the world-renowned MIT Energy Intiative didn't hurt either).

Well, I look forward to making many more posts in the future, and hopefully those will have some actual information about my experiences in the program (which has been fabulous thus far). Until then...