There I days I don't miss being an admissions officer. Last week I attended an MBA admissions panel. I used to do those roadshows, where five admissions officers sit on a stage talking to an audience of hundreds about the admissions process in vague generalities and answer audience questions with vague generalities. Admissions officers are very limited in the candor they can express in public, but there were some nuggets that were dead on, so I'll condense them here and paraphrase a little bit:
1. If your college grades weren't so hot, be upfront about that and explain why. Show that you are in a better position now to do the work. How do you prove that? By taking classes and guiding your recommenders to cite examples from your job that could allay fears about your ability to hack it in a competitive academic environment. Admissions officers care about your undergraduate performance not because they want to obsess needlessly over who you were five or eight or ten years ago, but because they don't want to set you up for failure. They'll also scrutinize your transcript for evidence of both quantitative and verbal skills, so if your background appears to be lacking in one or the other, go make up that deficit either in the classroom or on the job or on your GMAT.
2. Recommendations from people who've seen your day-to-day performance on the job are the best predictor of future performance. Ideally they'll talk about what kind of impact you've had on the organization and on the people with whom you work. Admissions officers know that you likely have not been managing other people yet at this stage in your careers, so you need to think about what impact you've had, and how you achieved those results without direct authority over people (meaning, you managed from the side and managed from below).
Guiding your recommenders is fine: take them out for coffee (the best five bucks you'll spend) and give them examples that you think highlight and demonstrate that impact. Admissions officers insist that you can't and shouldn't write those recommendations yourself, but honestly, they are delusional if they think that even a majority of the recommendations they receive were written by the recommenders rather than the applicants. If admissions officers enforced the rule, they'd have to cut their applicant pool in half. The fact is, most recommenders will not take the time to write the letters themselves and delegate that task to the applicants to varying degrees. Still, it's in your best interest to find recommenders who are willing to write the letters themselves. Those letters are almost always stronger, in my experience, than when you try to speak for your recommenders.
3. Admissions officers are not impressed by long lists of activities. They'd rather you whittle that list down to the activities that really matter to you. Schools are building communities, and they seek people who are engaged with the world around them. They want to see demonstrated, continued involvement, so banging some nails for Habitat once a year isn't going to cut it. Activities are also often a great way to demonstrate your leadership experiences and lessons in your essays.
There were a few statements that made me scribble furiously in disagreement:
1. "Try not to worry about your essays." Huh? That makes no sense. The essays are the most labor-intensive part of the application. I would hope applicants worry about them, if that means taking them seriously and expending a lot of effort on them. It's insulting to require all those essays and then tell applicants not to worry about them.
2. In your essays, "be yourself." "Differentiate yourself." How is that helpful advice? It's not. At all.
3. "Embrace the opportunity to interview." "Be yourself in the interview." Except that some people really stink at interviews. Not everyone is good at interviewing. It's a learned and learnable skill, but it takes practice and plenty of feedback.
4. It's not enough that admissions officers from top business schools butcher English grammar; apparently they have to butcher Latin grammar as well. My ears bled a little bit when one of them referred to her school's "curriculi."
One other observation: I spotted a large number of women dressed inappropriately for a professional event. Simple rules to remember: no miniskirts, and no high-heeled slides (which, aside from looking unprofessional, also sound unprofessional: slap, slap, slap. Not good.)
A last note: this particular admissions event was co-hosted by the University of Pennsylvania Alumni Club of Boston and Kaplan. The venue was papered in slick Kaplan brochures and folders and fliers. Do not choose Kaplan just because of their huge advertising budgets. There are much better GMAT options out there.