Next up in our series of featured MBA bloggers is Sassafras, an MBA applicant with a passion for non-profits and improving education in the U.S. Sassafras blogs anonymously at MBA: My Break Away? Please enjoy reading Sassafras’s insightful views on the application process!
Accepted: First, can you tell us a little about yourself – where are you from, where did you go to school, when did you graduate, and what prior degrees do you hold?
Sassafras: I grew up in a small town in western New York and left at the age of 18 to attend Wesleyan University. I graduated in 2005 with a B.A. in College of Letters, an interdisciplinary major incorporating philosophy, literature, history, and foreign language. It’s a European-focused great books curriculum, which emphasizes critical thinking and writing skills and which no one understands without my explanation.
After graduating, I lived and worked in Buenos Aires, Argentina for a year before settling down in San Francisco, my home away from home for the past 6 years. I am an avid soccer player and traveler and I have been fortunate to combine these passions as President of a gay men’s soccer non-profit that competes in tournaments around the world, including Mexico, New York City, and Germany. When not kicking around a soccer ball, I am a Program Director at an education non-profit that provides learning opportunities and safe spaces for low-income youth ages 0-18 and their families.
Accepted: Which schools do you plan on applying to?
Sassafras: It was really important to me to choose schools that are a good fit for me, so to land on my final list I’ve sought out programs that have a strong focus on social sector issues and non-profit management. Most of all though, I was looking for schools that are intensely collaborative and friendly. I love busy, happy, interesting students!
I’ve also been honest with myself about the importance of reputation and have gauged how important prestige is in my decision. It matters to me that my degree means something to me (fit), and it also matters that it means something to future employers (reputation). Furthermore, I want to attend a school that has the highest quality students, and I see attending a top 20 school as an easy way to ensure that my classmates will be smart, interesting, and influential movers and shakers. Foolishly or not, financial aid hasn’t factored in. I love loans apparently…
All this is a preamble to my shortlist in alphabetical order: Berkeley, Northwestern, Stanford, and Yale. I’ll be applying Round 1 and am hoping that I’ll have good news so I won’t have to apply during Round 2. I’ve prepped my recommenders for this “winter break situation” and my round 2 list tentatively includes Dartmouth, NYU, and Michigan (Ross). Fortunately two are in my back yard, so visiting has been somewhat easy.
Accepted: What would you say is your greatest profile strength? Weakness?
Sassafras: I am incredibly proud of my career accomplishments, not only because I feel like I’ve grown so much professionally, but also because of the impact I’ve had on youth throughout the US. I have held roles in local and national non-profits, which have given me a really broad and deep perspective concerning educational inequality in the United States. My career has followed a really clear trajectory and I’ve been promoted into management roles over time. It doesn’t hurt that I’m in a field that is less common among MBA candidates and that I’ve worked at small organizations. I am hoping the “start-up feel” of a small non-profit helps me stand out as someone who takes initiative and cares about making the world a better place. The lack of resources at many non-profits certainly does encourage creative thinking!
While overall I feel pretty good about my candidacy, I am concerned about my undergraduate background. Wes is a well-ranked liberal arts college, but there was definitely a greater presence of “poets” than “quants”. Although I took multivariable calculus in college, I haven’t taken a math class in over 10 years. My quant skills will be somewhat demonstrated by my GMAT score, but my analytical side will be something I need to feature through examples of critical analysis and problem-solving. My major, as I mentioned before is pretty unusual, which might be a head-scratcher for the adcoms. My other concern is my writing style. I am a storyteller. I love weaving extended metaphors, providing lots of context, and entertaining my readers. While in some ways my style will stand out and be a positive attribute, this will only be the case if I can trim and focus my story. Business writing is much more direct and so I’m looking for ways to boil down my stories into their main points and themes, all the while trying to maintain some level of creativity and engagement. While at first, I considered word limits pesky, I’ve found they are a good container for someone like me!
Accepted: According to your introductory post, you have some pet peeves regarding current blogs and forums. What are some of them? How is your blog different?
Sassafras: I find the forums to be overwhelmingly anxiety-ridden. In particular, there is this idea that admissions is a “black box.” But when you talk to the admissions committee reps, they are very clear, in my opinion, about what they are looking for. They discuss their values, their questions are pretty straightforward, and they are so open to applicant questions. If a school values innovators, then first ask yourself, “Am I an innovator?” and THEN, if you are, “What examples can I draw from to show this side of myself?” The trick is to emphasize the parts of yourself that the school values, not to reinvent yourself for the school.
The idea that schools are keeping secrets from us is preposterous. For example, Dee Leopold (Director of Admission at HBS) just the other day told the group of us that she was happy to share example questions from interviews and that unlike what forums may believe, this information isn’t a closely guarded secret. I also think about comments I’ve heard about Berkeley’s song essay question, and it seems lots of candidates keep wanting to know, “What are they really asking?” It’s simple: help them get to know you in a new way. People think there’s some hidden agenda and there’s not. It’s a transparent agenda, requesting that we paint a fuller picture of who we are as candidates.
The other thing that’s obsessed over is guessing why certain candidates were selected. No one knows why someone got in except the adcom, and we analytical types want to quantify and unravel something that is a very human process, and it’s designed to create an interesting and dynamic class. We shouldn’t be misled by current students’ guesses as to why they were admitted. Even they won’t know which details worked in their favor. In fact, they might have gotten in despite the thing they believe was the key to their acceptance. We need to worry about our own triumphs, not others’. Be honest, and be yourself.
I mention this issue on my blog in my post on applicants’ obsession with numbers. If you believe the forums, 50% of students have a 700+ on the GMAT and you can’t get in anywhere good unless you have 700+ score get in. While you shouldn’t brush aside the GMAT, at the end of the day, your uniqueness is going to set us apart, not your GMAT score or GPA. It’s important to be realistic with yourself and apply to schools that reflect your numbers and interests, but your application shines when it’s greater than the sum of its parts and shows a whole person.
The other side of my frustration was that content on blogs and forums felt totally inapplicable to me. As a non-profit candidate, I didn’t see myself in their posts and I wondered if I was crazy for considering business school. and My goal in writing my blog is to fill a hole that I have seen. Non-traditional candidates actually make up a large number of applicants, and there are fewer resources and stories out there about who we are and why an MBA is important in our fields as well. We are crazy for considering business school because we’re isolated, but what a great crazy it is! Business school AND our careers will be better off, of that I’m convinced.
Finally, my blog is supposed to be humorous and lighthearted. Business school applicants seem way too serious and anxious, so if I can help create a little fun in this whole process, I will be a happy blogger!
Accepted: In that same post you talk about the “oddities” in your application. Can you share a few of them with us?
Sassafras: I already explained my major a bit, but a point I left out was one of the oddities. I didn’t receive grades for any class in my major. This means I have about 20 “CR” (credit) marks on my transcript where normal people would have A’s, B’s and C’s. So although my major was quite rigorous and intense, none of my accomplishments are represented through grades; instead, we received written evaluations from each and every professor and a final assessment of our overall work, which counts towards receiving University Honors (or not). Most of my friends from this group go into academia or law, so business schools are going to have some trouble reading between the lines. I am planning on explaining my situation in the optional essays.
Another thing about me is my complete and utter cluelessness about business school before this whole process. So many business school students I’ve met had their hearts set on getting an MBA since HS. Others have parents who went to b-school, and the rest seem to work in traditional fields like banking, marketing, and finance and are surrounded by MBAs. This world is totally foreign to me, and that makes me feel like an oddball. I thought Kellogg was a cereal company and Marshall was an old-fashioned police officer!
Accepted: Last, but certainly not least, why do you want an MBA? What are some of your goals and how will an MBA help you achieve them?
Sassafras: Simply put, I want to see young people in the United States thrive and grow up to be successful, in whatever ways they define success for themselves. I see a major lack of collaboration and cooperation among schools, government, non-profits, and foundations (or any kind of private sector supporting arm), and I think that disjointedness is holding back the field. My goal is to support schools through networked resources that provide holistic services for the entire family. We can’t address educational inequality without simultaneously tackling issues of poverty, illiteracy, hunger, and homelessness. There’s some really cool work being done around this at the federal level, and I am expecting b-school to help me build on my leadership skills and management knowledge to further this movement.
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