Skipping the Question

I've written before that in your application essays, you must answer the question they're asking you, not the one you wish they had asked. Here's a related problem I often see: Rather than ignoring the question entirely, you might answer only part of the question and ignore the harder (and more interesting) bits.

Here are two examples, one from the MBA world, and one from the law school world:

  • "What matters most to you, and why?" (Stanford GSB)
  • "Say more about your interest in the University of Michigan Law School. What do you believe Michigan has to offer to you and you to Michigan?" (Michigan Law School)

Both of those questions have a long shelf life. They've been on their respective applications for many years, and will probably be there for years to come, because they are great questions that really put an applicant to the test and reveal a lot (whether positive or negative).

Notice how each of those questions has two parts. Every year I see applicants belaboring the first half of each and completely ignoring the second half. Or they devote just one sentence (often something abstract and clichéd) to the second half. Besides demonstrating a failure to follow the instructions, they also risk losing out on a valuable opportunity.

In the case of the Stanford GSB question, many applicants devote 90% (or even all) of their answer to the "what matters most to you" question and neglect the "and why" part, which is actually just as important to answer and should take up a good half of the word count. The "and why" question is a test of self-reflection, and if you skip this part, you've really missed the larger purpose of the essay.

If your first reaction to the "and why" part is "I'm stumped," that's OK, because it's a hard question. But rather than ignoring it, you either need to engage in the hard task of introspection so that you can articulate a good answer, or you need to recognize that if you can't actually answer the "and why" part, then you need to find a better answer to the first half (what's most important to you). It won't help you to focus on something that's important to you if you can't explain why that is.

Here's why it's a big problem if you don't answer the "and why" question: What does it say about you as a future member of the GSB community if you skip the hard part of the question? Will you also be opting out of the hardest challenges you'll face as a business school student? I doubt the GSB is going to want to give a scarce spot (a 7% acceptance rate for the class of 2013, the lowest of any top business school in the world) to someone who displays that approach. They want people who are going to stretch themselves, not those who seek the path of least resistance. Plus, they are on record as searching for people who know themselves, and that's what you're signaling by answering the "and why" question intelligently. So if you're aspiring to Stanford, you need to embrace the difficulty of the question — the whole question, not just the first half. In fact, you should answer an implicit "and why" in any application essay to a top school. (This is closely related to the "so what" test I apply to essays.)

Similarly, with the Michigan Law School question, applicants often focus most or all of their word count on the "what do you believe Michigan has to offer you." They pull all sorts of interesting courses and professors' names and clinics off the website and express how excited they are about those people and opportunities, but then they neglect to answer the "and you to Michigan?" part of the question. That second part is a test of advocacy and fit. You are, after all, looking to join a profession of advocates, and your ability to understand and articulate who you are, and what you will add to the incoming class, and how you will be a good match for Michigan Law School's community, requires you to advocate for yourself and your fit.

For this challenge, the most common push-back I hear is: "But I'm not comfortable advocating for myself." My reply: The person reading your file is going to have to advocate for your admission, because at a top school, there are lots of interesting applicants to choose from, and by virtue of simple math they have to turn away plenty of qualified applicants. Why should the admissions officer reading your file care more about advocating for you than you yourself do? Answer: She shouldn't, and she won't. So make your best case. And more importantly (and longer term): why should a client pay you for your advocacy skills if you can't even advocate for yourself? In a larger and more indirect sense, then, this is also a test of self-reflection: are you the kind of person who has the basic advocacy skills to be a good lawyer? See how many challenges are packed into that question, and how much opportunity it gives you to impress them as an applicant?

The difficulty of these questions should be a good thing for introspective and self-aware applicants. Less challenging ones aren't as likely to let you shine.

Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. You can find more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, downloadable as an e-book. Join the conversation here in the blog comments and on Twitter and Facebook, or email us a new question for the blog.