45 things you need to know before you apply to business school
Succeeding in MBA applications isn’t what you think it is. And you’re probably doing it wrong.
This article was 10 years in the making.
Based on my years of experience helping bright, talented people on the MBA application journey, I’ve got some good news for you: You’re doing your MBA application wrong. And you’re making it a lot harder and more painful than it has to be.
1. I assure you, you are good enough to get into business school.
Apparently at least half of us suffer from Impostor Syndrome. But even if you aren’t one of the impostor half, you’ve got to admit: you don’t like being judged— as you inevitably are when you submit to interviews, networking, and business school applications.
To cope with the anxiety evaluation causes, rather than a compelling story that resonates with anyone, we are taught to present an overwrought, over-rehearsed “brand” or “pitch” that is entirely devoid of humanity. It doesn’t persuade, influence, or inspire, and it actually increases the distance between you and your audience, rather than drawing them to you.
2. If you are applying to business school, now would be a good time to change your communication strategy.
Though this post — like all my articles — contains practical tactics, what I am aiming for here is a fundamental change in your mindset about communicating yourself. I’d like to persuade you that to show true MBA program fit, the best strategy is to be your honest and authentic self. Plus do a little research. That’s it.
But since so many people get this so wrong, in the first half of this article, I lay out all the reasons you should stop trying to tailor your communication to what you think the admissions committee wants to hear. Once we’ve disabused ourselves of some of the popular but horribly wrong notions about MBA program fit, in the second half, I explain what fit actually means to the admissions committee and outline the steps you can take to communicate your fit systematically and authentically.
My hope is that you will stop taking fit to mean that YOU have contort yourself to fit what you presume to be THEIR mold (they don’t have one as you will soon see) and instead begin to understand that fit really works more the other way. Your job is to figure out how each school fits YOU and then show that.
3. You’re asking the wrong question
In addition to collaborating with clients on their applications, I give free advice in 30-minute increments about 6 times a week. I’ve done more than a thousand of these calls over the years. And the number one question I get is some version of this:
“What do I need to tell SCHOOL X so they’ll let me in?”
People, this is completely backwards.
And it leads you to do stupid stuff like say…
- “My goal is to start my own company right after Stanford,” even though you’ve never started a business, never had operational experience, and don’t currently have any ideas, because you’ve heard that entrepreneurship in en vogue at Stanford.
- Or “I’m all about education, Yale.” Even though you’ve worked in finance for 5 years.
- Or “Oops, better not apply to Booth, that’s for quant jocks and I haven’t taken math since 11th grade!”
- Or the subtler, but equally problematic “My most important leadership experience was this tiny thing I did in college where I led a team.” Even though it was a long time ago and wasn’t all that important to you, because you’ve heard Kellogg is all about teamwork and so far in your career you’ve only been an individual contributor.
If you are really passionate about education even though you’ve been in finance, that’s fine. The MBA is definitely for career switchers. But then there’d better be some evidence for that passion in your extracurricular choices.
If you have no interest in the quantitative curriculum at Booth, fine (but read more about it first. Booth has a lot more going on that just numbers — and in their own right, numbers might just be the very best thing your MBA will teach you anyway!)
If that college team experience was truly meaningful, fine (it would need to have been a formative learning experience or one where your impact was palpable.)
All of these examples COULD be very compelling stories for your business school essays. But only if they are authentically yours.
4. If you’re pandering, the admissions committee will see right through it.
Think about it. These are professionals. Most of them have MBAs themselves. They are passionate about their schools. And all they do, day in and day out during admissions season, is read essays.
You can tell when someone is telling you something just because it’s what they think you want to hear. (Like, “Oh yeah, you look GREAT in that two-sizes too small bathing suit.”). Don’t you think they can too? Give them some credit. They are good at what they do.
But even if you think YOU can construct a foolproof ruse that they will take hook, line, and sinker, you’re making a mistake if you do it. Pandering has the very unfortunate side effect of making your application boring.
There is a reason Harvard says “don’t overthink it,” and Stanford says: “Resist the urge to “package” yourself into what you think Stanford wants to see. Doing so will only prevent us from understanding who you really are and what you hope to accomplish. The most impressive essays are the most authentic.”
The schools are actually trying to help you here, because…
5. When you “package” yourself, overthink your “brand,” or try to micromanage the big picture of your application, you end up leaving the reader completely unmoved.
Think about the difference between a mass produced Hershey’s chocolate bar and a hand-crafted, fair trade, artisanal chocolate bar, with unique ingredients. Like one of these, for example. Wouldn’t you pick the artisanal one from the pile every time? Especially if it was your job to eat 10,000 candy bars. Wouldn’t you thank your lucky stars that finally one came across your desk that didn’t taste flat and waxy just like all the others?
6. The admissions committee is human too, and they will predictably reject something that feels banal and leaves them untouched.
But beyond the practical reasons that pandering, stretching the truth, or overpackaging yourself will create a sucky MBA app, it means that you are effectively making your own choices based on the opinions of others.
Is that really how you want to live your life?
I didn’t think so.
It’s not what MBA programs want for you either.
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What do YOU really want?
Think about this in light of the HBS question:
As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA Program?
- They have your resume. Which had better be awesome. If it’s not, download the MBA Resume Protocol and get after it. This is serious. Most schools will assess the majority of your professional progress and potential via the resume.
- They have your recommendations. This is also serious. What others say about you will always echo louder and longer than what you say about yourself.
- They have some other stuff you will write, listing out awards and jobs and odds and ends. This may be a lot or a little, but it is basically an extension of and complement to your resume.
Given that they already have all that information, the key words here are You and Want. What do YOU WANT them to know?
7. They want you to show them something different, something important to you, something that lets them know more about who you are as a person and a multidimensional human being.
Take a look at Harvard’s stated evaluation criteria:
- Analytical aptitude and appetite
- Engaged community citizenship
- Habit of leadership
Whatever the other schools say about their evaluation criteria, it boils down to some version of these qualities. Take Haas’s 4 Defining Principles:
- Question the Status Quo
- Student Always
- Confidence without Attitude
- Beyond Yourself
Different words, same ideas.
Want to check out more? Here are 10.
*If a school in the top 15 is missing from the above, it’s because after 5 minutes of searching. I couldn’t find their stated principles and evaluation criteria. Doesn’t mean they don’t exist, it just means they are not putting this information out there for you to find. Draw your own conclusions about what that means about the school’s values and culture.
If you look at what schools say about their own values and what they look for in students, you will quickly understand this:
8. Business schools want principled leaders. People who think for themselves. People who intend to have a positive impact and have a thoughtful plan to achieve that.
High on NO MBA Program’s List?
- Spin doctor
- Truth bender
- Butt kisser
And yet if your question is “What do I need to tell Harvard to show I am a Harvard kind of guy/gal?” that is pretty much where you’re coming from.
9. There is No “Right Story” for School X
Contorting yourself to fit the judgments you PRESUME others have is no way to live. Hopefully you agree with that.
“Yeah, but, Angela, I HAVE to get into business school and this is the best way!”
If this thought is echoing in your noggin, and you don’t want to take my word for all this, just go to the source, and check out school class profile and placement data. You will see that there can’t possibly be a “right story” for any given school. MBA program fit is not about your career background, your GMAT, or your grades.
- Harvard Class Profile
- Harvard Placement Report
- Stanford Class Profile
- Stanford Placement Report
- Kellogg Class Profile
- Kellogg Placement Report
- Booth Class Profile
- Booth Placement Report
If you click some of these links, you will easily reassure yourself that yes, indeed, there is room for you in the next MBA class of your dream school. You –with whatever education, career background, and genuine passions you have.
This data is all publicly available. Look closer. You will see some surprising things.
For example, the school among these four with the highest percentage placement in finance is not Booth, or even Harvard. It’s Stanford with 41%.
Despite the supposed importance of STEM majors and coding experience in Silicon Valley, in fact the near majority of Stanford’s class (48%) are humanities majors.
And although Kellogg is known for marketing, they place 53% of their graduates in consulting and finance vs only 20% in Marketing.
The stereotypes don’t stand up to scrutiny.
Because MBA program fit isn’t about your choice of career post-MBA either.
10. Schools are assembling a portfolio of students
It’s easy to push beyond the stereotypes when you understand why applying to bschool is different from applying to a job. To fill a single job, a firm is going to look for the single BEST candidate. But an MBA class has anywhere from 200–900 spots. There is no objective measure for what makes the “Best” MBA student. If there were, then only people with 760 GMATs would get in. And that fo sho ain’t the case.
Instead, they are seeking a well-rounded portfolio of students — one that includes a diversity of backgrounds, experiences, goals, and perspectives. One word you will find high on EVERY MBA program’s webpage is “diversity.”
11. Diversity is a double edged sword.
It means that your background will be considered. But it also means that not every great applicant with your background will be accepted. Otherwise the class would be 100% ________________ (insert your background here). The class has to be a mix.
12. This is a big part of the reason why you need reach, match, and safety schools in your application set.
No matter how amazing you are, the likelihood that any one specific school will accept you is low because it also depends on how many strong applicants like you apply and how many spots they are able to allocate to your diversity profile. So don’t put all your eggs in only one or two baskets.
But once you have settled on your mix of schools, understand that there simply is no “Harvard type,” or “Booth type.” And the representatives of these schools will be the first to tell you that.
13. Beware of the claims of admissions consultants
As a final little rant on this subject, it sort of shocks me every year that admissions consultants who work for other firms command a client base on claims of elite, insider knowledge about what works for a given school.
This is folly.
Because MBA program fit is not about insider secrets about the school. (And if you want all those insider secrets for free, just go here.) See? If the secrets are publicly available to everyone for free, how could they possibly be the basis of competitive advantage? Seriously, please think about this.
I served on the Dean’s Student Admissions Committee in my time at Booth. I was an app reader. But that experience gave me no skills that I use in my job today. For a few years post bschool, as an alum, I thought I knew exactly what it took to get in since — well, *I* was successful so what I did must work for everyone!
LOL. I now know I did absolutely EVERYTHING in my MBA applications wrong. I didn’t even follow the specific advice I am going to give you below. It was a miracle I was admitted. So on a related note…
14. Think carefully before you take your alumni friends’ advice without a huge grain of salt.
If I am good at my job as an admissions consultant, it is because– as one client recently claimed — of “how adept Angela is at finding the awesomeness that lies in everyone.” The MBA application and even MBA program fit are not really about the school in the end. They’re about YOU.
A better question to ask
So let’s get rid of this question:
“What do I need to tell SCHOOL X so they’ll let me in?”
I hope doing so will immunize you against the shoddy claims of those who would have you believe that they have some secret to getting in that you don’t. YOU alone hold the secret to your own admission.
But now that that’s out of the way, we can get to a question that actually IS relevant to your bschool application and that is:
“How do I show SCHOOL X that they are a fit for me?”
See what we did there? We turned the tables. It’s your one precious life. Let’s consider, evaluate, and then demonstrate that this school is right for YOU.
But first: what does “fit” mean?
The word “fit” is probably the one that causes the most heartburn for MBA applicants because when schools say “showing fit with our program is important,” they often mistake it to mean “showing you are good enough.”
The good news is, from the admissions committee perspective,
15. MBA program fit comes down to a very specific and precise set of things.
Here are the questions the admissions committee is ACTUALLY asking when they are assessing your “fit”:
- Are you going to business school for the right reasons?
- Have you done your research?
- Will you leave the place better than you found it?
- Is this school your top choice?
That’s it. Plain and simple.
Notice how commonsensical these questions are. They are questions you need to ask YOURSELF first before you can even decide to apply to school in the first place.
Whereas storytelling is an art form, exhibiting MBA program fit is more like a science.
And it’s important to note that “fit” is really not the same thing as “qualified to attend our program.” That is a separate calculation.
16. Each school WILL evaluate your GMAT score, your GPA, your resume (AKA your accomplishments and career progress) and those will determine whether you are qualified to attend the school.
To understand how competitive you are from the standpoint of these stats, be sure to look at school acceptance rates, and the average class stats vis-à-vis the class profile links above and the rankings:
(sidebar — does it also strike YOU as odd that there are 6 different MBA school rankings? Do we really need that many? Try to keep in mind that the purpose of rankings is to sell subscriptions to the publisher’s service, not to actually help you get into bschool. So take them with a huge mound of salt.)
Your stats do matter, but fit is an entirely different calculation. A candidate who is barely qualified can still get in if fit with the school is strong. I could share dozens of case studies from my own client roster to prove this. People who were 10 years older than average. People with weak GMATs or GPAs. People with no community service or short careers to date.
17. You don’t have to be the best candidate to be qualified for admission.
By some calculations 70% of applicants qualify.
18. Fit, therefore, will play a huge role in determining whether you are actually admitted from the huge qualified pool.
And — as it with that bathing suit — MBA program fit is mutual. You fit the program and it fits you. You’d never buy a bathing suit that doesn’t fit you, so why buy a $200,000 MBA that doesn’t?
19. Not everyone belongs at every school.
Although any MBA education is going to propel your career forward, school cultures and the campus experience vary so widely that you are unlikely to be truly happy at more than a few programs.
Every year exceptionally qualified candidates get rejected because they don’t show MBA program fit. So let’s look at how you can actually demonstrate fit with your target schools and in the process ensure you are applying to the right schools for you.
20. Fit is mainly assessed in two places: the essays and the interviews.
Your resume just shows your professional progression and potential. You should be submitting the same awesome resume to every school because — as I already addressed ad nauseam — there is no preferable career background for any school, and your background is what it is.
21. You need an AWESOME RESUME and I have made that REALLY easy for you.
I recommend you join my email list and grab my free resume template.
It will make you shine like a unicorn in a sea of boring black and white text. Like this:
Likewise, your recommenders are not really qualified to comment on your fit with the school unless they themselves are alums of that program. And even then, alumni hold little sway over the admissions committee.
22. Your recommender’s job is first and foremost to comment on your awesomeness and your growth mindset.
Importantly, prioritize recommenders who know you well, not those who know the school well. Even Harvard makes this point in their recommendations section.
Now let’s tackle each of the four MBA program fit components one at a time.
How to show you are going to business school for the right reasons
Don’t let the word “right” seduce you into the “am I good enough?” conundrum.
23. There is really only ONE reason people go to business school: because they want more.
In fact, while we’re on the subject — this is the only reason people do anything. Because they want more… more money, more stuff, more freedom, more happiness, more love, more sex, more joy, more power, more whatever. We all want stuff. That’s part of what defines us.
If you are considering business school, it is because you want more from your career. You want to do more of the stuff you love and less of the stuff you find boring. You want to have more impact at a higher level. You want more authority, expertise, and regard. You want your career to matter more — to you and to the world. (This by the way is why my work focuses on MBAs. Because I LOVE people who want that stuff.)
If this is the only reason people go to business school, then how could you fail to show that you are going to business school for the right reasons?
24. Where people go wrong is in having the wrong expectations for what an MBA program can provide.
Yes, any MBA will help you get more from your career, but no MBA is a magic wand. It is not a substitute for hard work, self-awareness, questioning, networking, relationship building, appetite for learning, willingness to fail, or an understanding of how the world really works.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
Venture Capital is a tiny competitive niche industry. Very few people get the chance to work in Venture Capital and those who do check many boxes. They have a demonstrated track record of entrepreneurial thinking and acting, they have elite relationship building and management skills, they have a highly advanced financial analysis skillset, and they ALREADY have at least the start of a network in the field.
If someone like me — an English teacher with a little HR exposure and a professional network based entirely in South Korea at the time I applied to bschool — claimed I wanted an MBA so I could get my first post-MBA job in Venture Capital in Silicon Valley, that would be magic wand thinking.
25. The MBA cannot grant any possible career wish.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have absolutely anything you want in your career. It just means that no degree is going to magically make it happen for you.
If the school admitted me believing it could magically make me a Venture Capitalist, I would have ended up a very unsatisfied customer indeed. Nobody wants that, and that’s why your application needs to reflect an accurate understanding of what the MBA offers vis-à-vis what you need to fulfill your goals.
The bottom line here is:
26. You need credible goals that are achievable with your specific background with a little bit of an MBA goose.
If you are at a loss as to where to start to demonstrate this, watch this YouTube video of a webinar in which I explain…
How to Make a Career Game Plan that Shows MBA Program Fit
Here are the cliff notes from the webinar. AKA…
How to show you have the right expectations for the MBA and for School X
27. You need an inspiring Long Term Vision and a credible Mid Term Strategy to get what you want
(aka a plan for your immediate post-MBA job and internship). Understand what it actually takes to get one of those jobs. Make sure your post-MBA goal makes sense given where you are coming from. Plain and simple, if what you REALLY want isn’t achievable immediately post MBA, make it your second step or longer term goal. Entrepreneurship falls into this category for 95% or more of applicants.
28. Understand what the school actually facilitates in terms of recruitment.
Want to work in Silicon Valley? Stanford and Haas can help you out a lot. Columbia and Tuck will struggle more since they are geographically so much farther away. How will you compensate for that with your own efforts?
29. Create a tactical plan to get to where you want to go.
Do you want to work in an e-learning company after school? It’s pretty unlikely that your target firms will send representatives to campus to meet you. How will you build your own network in that industry, leveraging your and school resources to create such opportunities? And then, of course, what skills, learnings, and experiences do you need from the school to prepare yourself for your target roles?
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How to show you have done your research
Well, if you are doing what I suggested above, then you are already halfway down the path of doing and demonstrating your research. You would have to have done some research to understand what recruitment opportunities the school facilitates. But that isn’t enough.
Your tactical plan should include details about specifically how you will cultivate the skills, learnings, and experiences you need to achieve your goals. Many schools have what we call a “Personal Statement.” Here are some from this year:
- Michigan Ross: Please share your short-term and long-term career goals. What skills/strengths do you have that will be relevant to your career goals? How will Ross prepare you for your goals?
- Stanford: Why Stanford?
- Columbia: Through your resume and recommendations, we have a clear sense of your professional path to date. What are your career goals over the next 3–5 years and what, in your imagination, would be your long-term dream job?
- Kellogg: Pursuing an MBA is a catalyst for personal and professional growth. How have you grown in the past? How do you intend to grow at Kellogg?
I could go on, but you can see:
30. Most schools are asking you to show them your tactical plan of action as it pertains specifically to their school.
This means that when you write an essay like this, you should be referencing specific classes, clubs, professors, co-curricular opportunities, cultural features, even buildings, student names, and campus rituals or traditions that you will engage in AND specifically how those will enrich you and further prepare you for success.
Just for a quick example of what I mean. This is a crappy example of showing you’ve done your research:
“Columbia is the best school for me because there is no better place for me to study than in New York, the world capital of finance.”
Yawn. This is generic and tenuous. I could take out Columbia and put in NYU and it would still make sense.
Something more like this on the other hand…
“The “Health Care Investment and Dealmaking” course would expose me to the subtler nuances of healthcare finance transactions and “Advanced Corporate Finance” will deepen my analytical skillset so that when I return to Healthcare Private Equity, I will be prepared to lead teams and deals.”
…demonstrates a much deeper level of research. The word Columbia doesn’t even appear here. These are specific courses and the candidate is showing that she knows not just their names, but also the specific benefits she will derive from them. This is tactics in action. It makes MBA program fit with Columbia clear.
You want more? Get after it. That’s on you. Start that process before you apply.
Here’s the research you probably want to do:
31. Start by downloading one of mbaMission’s awesome Insider’s Guides.
Up to 100+ pages of meticulously researched detail about top programs, these books will save you hours and hours of time you would otherwise spend rounding up all these facts yourself. But this is just a starting point.
32. Read student blogs, school websites, and club pages.
Consider sending an email to the chairs of clubs that relate directly to your goals and having an informational interview.
33. Attend events in your area sponsored by schools and/or forums attended by adcom members.
Ask intelligent questions (which you should be able to do once you’ve followed step one and done a bit of research.)
34. Reach out to alumni in your area.
Schools can help facilitate these connections, or even better, utilize your LinkedIn network to get introduced to alumni that are one or two degrees away from you.
35. Finally, visit campus. Do it.
There are certain schools for which failure to visit campus before applying will result in out-of-hand rejection. Wonder which ones? Sign up for an mbaMission consultation and discuss it with one of my colleagues. While you are on campus, speak to current students and really feel what it’s like to be there. Include the aspects of the experience that most inspire you in the essay.
For more models and great detailed instructions for writing your personal statement, check out mbaMission’s free guide.
How to show you will you leave the place better than you found it
36. If you have an understanding of what the school offers and have done your research, you should be overflowing with ideas for how you will contribute to the school.
As you read about clubs and classes and other cool stuff that happens on campus, you will naturally see a role for yourself. You will, that is, if you are the kind of person who likes to contribute.
Hopefully you have at least a small altruism coefficient, and you derive satisfaction from being of service and making yourself useful to others. If you do, then all you need to do is show the school the specific ways you hope to add value on campus and beyond. You’ve already done the research, just include some of this in your essay. Pick stuff that allows you to express your natural gifts, talents, and hobbies preferably through existing campus activities and organizations.
37. Remember, it’s not about the right contributions, it’s about yours.
Here’s a personal anecdote: My major contributions on campus in my day were all through humor and entertainment. I like to laugh and I try not to take stuff too seriously, and I contributed to my class by creating more opportunities for us all to do those things. I wrote, produced, and directed my cohort’s official film for the Golden Gargoyles Contest. Ours was the only film that year to include every single member of our cohort. I produced several short films for campus clubs as part of a commercial contest, and brought together classmates from my year and the second years in the Follies show, managing logistics, writing and directing skits, and taking a cameo role myself. There were other clubs I participated in and other activities I led, but these were the most meaningful to me. Choose yours and show them in your essays.
Because MBA program fit is about YOU and how you will express your unique gifts at the school.
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How to show that the school is your first choice
This last one is tricky, and it is basically the sum of the prior three. You are asking a school to invest in you — they have, let’s say, 575 seats in their program, and you are asking them to give you one.
38. Schools have legitimate concerns about yield due to the pressure of rankings
In other words, the higher the percentage of admitted students who matriculate, the better it is for their ranking. Harvard is king here, then Stanford. The rest trail by a wide margin. So they want some assurance that their choice to invest in you (give you one of their coveted seats) is a good one.
39. The best way to show them that the investment in you is safe is to invest in them first.
So if you fulfill the other three criteria, you are most of the way there.
Important sidebar here: Don’t lie. Please don’t write “Wharton/Harvard/Columbia/Booth is my first choice school because blablablabla.” It will seem disingenuous even if it’s true because schools know that you are almost certainly applying to multiple schools. Talk is cheap anyway. Remember, MBA program fit is not about pandering.
Notably, this is part of why Harvard doesn’t have a formal personal statement. They know they are your first choice, so they don’t even bother asking. They will, on the other hand, note if you have visited campus, visited their website, and engaged with their media. Are you aware of how much information about your web activity is being recorded at all times? The technology to track your behavior on websites isn’t even that new, and you bet schools are tracking your activities on their site!
So get over there.
40. Visit your favorite schools’ sites on a regular basis, click around, read stuff.
It’s part of research, but it’s also part of your investment in the program.
More ways to invest and SHOW that a school is your top choice:
41. Go to local events in your area hosted by target schools.
42. Go to the Forte Forum, QS MBA World Tour, and/or the MBA tour in your area and rub elbows with adcom members. Again, ask good questions and make sure your attendance is registered (i.e. sign the sign in sheet).
43. Go to campus. Even if you do it in the summer when students are away, make sure your presence is registered.
44. If the school includes a “Creative Essay” option— you know the videos, PowerPoints or other multimedia — do it.
It shows your commitment and investment. Use one of these 10 cool tools to create it.
OK. Lesson done. Let’s wrap this up
If you can effectively address all four of the adcom’s questions about MBA program fit:
- Are you going to business school for the right reasons?
- Have you done your research?
- Will you leave the place better than you found it?
- Are they your first choice?
Then you will be doing the absolute best you can do to create your best application and prepare yourself for your MBA. Hopefully you noticed that in the process of completing these steps, you will also be selling yourself on your target schools AND advancing your career in the direction you want the MBA to take you in the first place.
That’s a habit of leadership!! — taking positive steps to achieve your goals without waiting for someone else’s permission.
Now go get ’em, tiger!!
Oh wait, before you go. Here’s the last thing you should do:
45. Join my email list. I promise you’ll be happier at work you did!
Originally published at careerprotocol.com on July 23, 2016 and updated for this year for Medium July 4, 2017.
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