Sep 2016 - May 2018
It was a spontaneous business trip last summer that initially got the wheels rolling. I was in London for a week and was asked to give an unplanned presentation for my client at their office just outside Oxford. Afterwards, I had some time to walk through town. As I passed by grand stone facades and giant archways and peered through ancient wooden doors leading to immaculately manicured college quads, I couldn’t help wonder what life must be like as a student in such a magnificent environment. My step-father had often told fabulous tales of his time as an art student at Ruskin College in the early sixties, stories of debutantes and royalty rubbing shoulders at regattas, grand student debates and the professors who taught Classical methods for proportions in artwork, such as the Golden Section, which he used as the foundation for his own teaching for over thirty-five years. I had all but given up on the thought of going back to school in my forties, twice the age of the bearded hipsters that cruise campuses today, but that stroll through Oxford triggered long dormant ambitions.
That is not to imply my application was spontaneous. When I returned home I began researching Saïd Business School, comparing it with some of the other well-known schools in Europe, such as Insead and LBS. What I discovered was that every school had similarities in the courses they offered, but often varied widely in the structure or focus of their program. Poets&Quants was an excellent website to gather information, but I also spent much time browsing the schools’ own websites to draw comparisons. Process of elimination did most of the work for me. I was certainly too old for American MBA schools, whose deans seemed to imply anyone over forty should be put out to pasture. There were differences in cost to consider, but my primary concern was the reputation of the school and its program. In this regard Saïd Business School seemed to be steadily gaining in esteem, but to be honest, I think I was already infected with the Oxford bug after my initial visit. In the end I decided to apply to just to Oxford and to focus all my efforts on submitting the best possible application I could muster.
Around the middle of March, I submitted my CV online for review and was surprised when I received a reply from a recruitment manager just two days later, who suggested to set up a time for a phone call the following week. What impressed me most about our conversation was that I was not given a big sales push or pressured in any way. Instead, the focus was more on getting to know me to determine whether my goals meshed with the opportunities available at Oxford. I was asked questions about my past and what led me to consider applying to Oxford, as well as how I envision my future with an MBA. Though the conversation was more casual than an interview, at times I felt nervous and scattered. I quickly realized that I would need to articulate my goals more concisely if I wanted to be considered for Oxford. Nonetheless, after a lengthy conversation which alleviated many of my concerns, I was encouraged to apply.
By far, I spent the most time of my application on two short essays of 500 words, one outlining my career objectives and the other an interesting twist of the all too familiar strengths-and-weaknesses question as told through the eyes of my colleagues. I actually wrote to a few people asking for adjectives they thought described me. The process was enlightening and I eventually wove some of the comments into my essay. I probably wrote 1000 or more words for each and then slashed weaker portions, rewriting and chiseling away to reach the magical 500. With time running out, I was forced to crank out my final essay, 2000 words describing my resolution of a problem at work, in just two days. At the time, I thought it was quite a boring read, but weeks later I discovered my interviewer had found it the highlight of my application. Nonetheless, I would recommend allowing plenty of time for the essays, just to walk away for a few days and clear the mind, just waiting for sand to settle until you can see the bottom of the pond again. I also found it very helpful to read aloud to friends and watch their reactions. A wrinkled nose quickly identified the awkward passages.
The rest of my application went rather quickly. I had contacted two people for references well in advance of my deadline and had an existing CV which needed just minor adjustments for submission. In my case, I was a little worried about some of my old undergraduate grades so I wrote an accompanying letter, not to make excuses, but to describe the circumstances and challenges I faced at the time. I wanted to humanize what I felt were cold statistics that did not tell the whole story of my education. If you have degrees that need translation, make sure you get them certified properly. I ended up paying twice. I submitted my application in April at roughly the halfway point for the 2016 Fall Term applications and to my amazement I was invited for a personal interview just four days later. I tried to remain calm and not to get too excited – after all it was not an acceptance – but I could feel a smile building from within.
I must admit, I didn’t prepare excessively for the interview. I had put so much work into my essays, that most of my talking points were still fresh in my mind. I tried practicing with a friend, but it just made me nervous and distressed. As I mentioned, once I got to Oxford my interviewer had questions lined up about my long essay which really helped get the ball rolling. I spent a few minutes discussing my past, why I decided to apply to Oxford and what I wanted to achieve. I was asked to talk about my greatest strength and had a moment of panic when my interviewer basically said, “Yeah, yeah, but can you tell me something else?” A flushing feeling came over my face and my ears started to glow, but I doubled-down and stood by my original answer, offering further explanation. Afterwards we moved on to politics, of all things. As an American, I got the inevitable question about Donald Trump which I pivoted into a discussion on the implications of the approaching Brexit vote. It wasn’t until the very end of our session that I discovered my interviewer had somehow thought I was once a concert pianist. Bewildered at first, I soon realized he had misread one of my essays. There was an awkward moment of explanation; yes, I play piano, but no, I’m not on tour currently. Shortly thereafter we shook hands and I found myself walking to the train station wondering what my chances for acceptance to Saïd Business School might have been as a concert pianist.
I flew back home neither overly confident nor thoroughly distressed, but mostly relieved, knowing I had tried my best. About a day later I wrote a short thank-you note to my interviewer summarizing the points we covered and expressing my enjoyment of our discussion. I got a very positive reply the next day which was encouraging. It might be a bit old-school, but the follow-up note is a good opportunity to thank the interviewer while slipping in a few points you might have missed during the interview. Who knows, maybe that note made the difference. In any case, my interview was on a Monday and my acceptance note came Thursday morning. It took a few days to sink in; I was on my way to Oxford.
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