My old roommate called me the other day. He wanted to share his latest running accomplishment: 4 miles in one hour and ten minutes, an average of roughly 17 minutes per mile. Psshhh! I let him know that I could totally beat that. I can easily clock an 18+ minute mile pace. Ahh, the race to the bottom is cutthroat.
However, our conversation soon shifted to our own respective races to the top. He's looking to find the sports apparel product manager job that has eluded him for so long, and I am seeking entrance into a top-tier b-school. "You know I applied to Columbia when I was applying to b-school," he told me. My ears perked up at this piece of previously unknown information because Columbia is so on my list. "Yeah, that application was harder than I thought. I figured I could get it done in a couple of hours but it took me more like 4 or 5 to complete it." Needless to say, he's not a Columbia alum.
The idea that anyone can complete an application to any graduate program in a matter of hours is mind boggling. More than just filling in your name, address, birthdate, and employer, applications require detailed job descriptions, lists of activities, honors, awards, and more. Most importantly, applications call for ESSAYS. True, I used to write 5 page papers in a matter of hours when I was in high school and undergrad. However, flipping through a textbook and summarizing the author's main point while adding in my personal commentary is a far cry from what graduate applications require. Although it should be easy to throw together 1000-1500 words on the subject I know best (i.e. me), it's NOT. Business schools in particular seem to like to ask questions about me that I don't readily have the answers to. For weeks, I've been thinking of answers to questions about my greatest passion, what matters most to me and why, and my greatest accomplishment and have yet to come up with very much. How in the world anyone could answer these questions in a few hours is beyond me.
Trust me when I say that I know myself very well. I know what I like to eat. I know where I like to go. I know what I don't like to do in my spare time. I know what makes me smile and what makes me want to punch someone in the throat. But when I look at recently released essay questions for my target schools I just don't have the answers. The issue isn't lack of experience. Nine years across 5 different jobs has given me tons of that. The problem is I just can't seem to remember much of it. Situations that used to follow me to sleep at night have silently slipped away from my memories. Triumphs that I touted on past performance appraisals now just read as words on a page rather than a lived through experience. I can see the what, but struggle to recall the how and why. As one job gives way to another, the people, issues, and solutions that were so important twelve months ago become irrelevant. I know that they are there, they just don't occupy my present thoughts. If I wasn't applying to business school I'd probably never even care to remember them.
Ultimately, the essays are supposed to get to the heart of what drives a person. How often does anyone really think about this? Unless we are faced with a situation that challenges our values we simply mindlessly navigate our lives according to them. While I know that I'm doing more than just existing in my life, I haven't really pieced together everything that has brought me to this point. It goes beyond the job skills I've picked up along the way and how I want to leverage them. The decision to pursue a graduate degree, specifically an MBA, was shaped by events that I didn't even know would lead me here at the time. A lot of these experiences have been shoved to the back of my mind, especially those that are related to my current career. If it didn't happen within the last year, I more than likely don't remember it.
Maybe that's why I feel the need to make this career change. Ask me about the charity date auction I organized for my sorority's chapter while I was an undergraduate and I can tell you everything from how I came up with the idea to how I found participants to how I secured sponsors. Ask me how I exceeded my volume target two years ago and I'd be hard pressed to provide any details off the top of my head. The work I do here just isn't memorable for me. It doesn't stay with me over the years as something that I look back on with a great sense of pride or accomplishment. Maybe that's why it's difficult for me to conjure up meaningful examples from my work history. The material is there, but it just doesn't mean all that much to me personally.
Current applicants, students, and admissions consultants all say that b-school essays require a great deal of introspection. I've learned that it takes more than a few hours to even fill in a simple outline of strengths, weaknesses, values, and goals with the examples from life to substantiate them. When faced with a blank Word document I grasp for something tangible. My past experiences tend to come to mind when I'm not trying to remember them. The friendship bracelet business that I started the summer before 3rd grade enters my thoughts when I'm out for a run. I remember raiding the fabric store for black, red, hot pink, and green string against the backdrop of my labored breaths. At these times I start to piece together the moments, people, and experiences that have shaped me and just pray that they stick around long enough for me to get back to my computer and record them for future use.