MBA Applications: Use Design Thinking to Find Insight

by on October 5th, 2012

We all assume we know ourselves well. We think we know about our strengths, weaknesses, achievements, passions, and goals. We think that since we are the protagonists in our lives, the various threads, lessons and insights should be clear. We assume a lot…Then we start to write a b-school admissions essay. What happened to all that insight?

Right now many readers are either busy writing their applications for first round deadlines or are finishing up the GMAT and shooting for the second round. Either way you are smack up against the challenge of finding insight and inspiration. The only difference is whether you are confronting it now or you have no idea what’s about to hit you (but will be bludgeoned soon nonetheless). There are a multitude of ways to find inspiration and insight. Here’s one that has its origins in design thinking.

Design always comes back to sticky notes in one way or another. These little guys are one of the best inventions ever made. Even as a tech-lover, I have to admit that nothing has come even close to physical sticky notes. So gather a bunch of them along with a Sharpie marker and some of those little dot stickers.

Bring all of this to a big blank wall in your house. Start by writing one fact about yourself on each sticky note and sticking it on the wall in any random spot. Keep it simple; don’t write an explanation or an essay.  Just write the one fact (it’s very important that it’s just one per note). What do you write? It could be an accomplishment, trait, strength, weakness, passion, goal, aspiration, experience, etc. The point is to keep writing until every important detail you can think of about yourself and your life is up on that wall. If you want, you can have a friend or family member look at it and add anything that’s missing. You could even involve them in the process from the beginning if you feel that they would have fun and contribute things that you might miss.

Once everything is up on the wall, start grouping items that seem related in some way. This process is called Affinity Diagramming. The idea is to be creative and keep moving things around until it just feels right. This is best done with more than one person in the mix. If there are two or three of you involved, be chaotic, with everyone moving things (and re-moving them) at the same time. In about 5 minutes or so, you will arrive at state of equilibrium.

After you reach that state equilibrium, think of a creative name for each grouping that captures its spirit or character. If you haven’t been working with anyone else, this is a good time to bring someone in. Stand back and look at what you’ve created. Write down any insights that pop out. At this point, you and your team will be able to makes some connections and draw some insight that you hadn’t seen before. Give everyone three dot stickers, each sicker is a vote. Have each person fix the stickers to the insights or individual notes that they find the most compelling. You will have the final say, but it is always interesting to see what other people think is important.

The last step is to map these insights to the various application components and develop a plan for how you can convey the richness, personality, and learning that is your life to the admissions officers at each of your business schools.

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