A Q&A with the Director of Seth Godin’s altMBA — Here’s How You Can Craft a Winning Application

(MARCH 2016 EDIT: the application has been simplified. After running several sessions, we’ve streamlined our application to get at the nuggets of what we need to know from you. Feel free to check out this article for context, but note that the new application takes 20 min and has three questions. Thanks.)

The altMBA is an intensive, 4-week online program designed to help leaders become change agents for the future.

Designed by best-selling author and entrepreneur Seth Godin, the program accepts no more than 100 students at a time. This is a project-based program where students collaborate and ship their work online. What makes the workshop-like learning model successful is not the content, but rather the community of innovators, marketers, entrepreneurs, and people who want to change the world.

The culture of altMBA is simple: students are safe, heard, coached, and treated with respect. We push one another to do our best work, to explore our edges of what’s possible, and above all, to learn to trust the process. The feedback that we encourage and provide is what pushes students to stretch their limits and ultimately to change their minds about themselves and their work.

So if you’re interested in this program, I want to help. I know all too well the feeling of being surrounded by people who are passionate, smart, and want to make a difference; it is intoxicating. It pushes you to do better work and to become a better person. You need this more than you think.

The application is a key part. To know how to write a winning application, I interviewed Wes Kao, Director of the altMBA. She leads all things related to altMBA, including admissions. She’s also pored through hundreds of incoming applications and has gotten to know many of the students in each class.

Here are her generous insights into how you can best answer the questions in the application. To begin, we’ll skip the background questions and focus on the 7 toughest questions.

1. What are the most pressing challenges facing your organization or yourself? (200 recommended word limit)

“We added word limits because we want candidates to answer thoughtfully, without overthinking. This question is about (a) recognizing areas of opportunity within your current situation and (b) showing that you’re thinking critically about where your industry or organization is headed. The scenario can be anything from a team challenge, an organizational challenge, or a personal challenge.”

2. Which goals are you hoping the altMBA will help you achieve? (250 word limit suggested)

“We’re looking to see if the program would be a good fit for a candidate, and if the candidate understands what the altMBA is about. When you come in with a good idea of what you want to get out of the altMBA, you’re much more likely to achieve it.”

3. A key part of the altMBA is group work. Tell us about situations where you’ve contributed more than people expected.

“The altMBA involves a lot of group work. We are an entirely project-based program, so you will be doing three different projects every week. We switch up the small groups that you work with every week, so you’re really getting to know and work with a lot of different people. In this question, we’re asking about a time when you did group work, whether it was for work, your local non-profit, or your university.

This question is to get a sense of how you’ve collaborated with others to get something done. Do you make promises to your team and keep them? The idea of working together, encouraging one another, and leveraging different skill sets within a team is important to the altMBA.”

I also asked Wes, Sometimes people aren’t fortunate enough to work in a group that is in sync. Misunderstandings and group dynamics can hinder collaboration. Could a student describe a situation where group work wasn’t working well, but they tried to make it work. Would that still be considered a good response?

“Absolutely. In real life — and in any organization where there is more than one person — a lot of times there will be conflict. Being able to handle that conflict and having good judgment in those situations is huge. If you want to share an example of a team that was a little bit more on the dysfunctional side, that’s totally fine. We want to know, what was your role in the team and how did you try to make the situation better?”

4. Tell us one assertion about the world that you believe is true, that other people might disagree with. If this belief shapes how you live, tell us how. (100 word limit suggested)

“I love this question. It gives a peek into how you think, what you believe to be true, and what your take on the world is. This question, out of all the other ones, lets us know a candidate a little bit better beyond their achievements and work. It’s a look into your philosophy on life, which can be so different for everyone. There’s really no wrong answer here as long as you’re being true to yourself.

This question is a useful exercise regardless of this application, to think about some assertions that you believe to be true that the world might disagree with. It’s usually ideas that you feel strongly about that make you and your perspective unique. Take this in whichever direction that you want. It can be something small, it can be big, it can be funny, it can be serious. Whatever comes to mind, feel free to put that down if it shapes how you think and live.”

I then asked Wes, “There’s a decent chance that candidates who read the About Page of altMBA might already be familiar with Seth’s work. They probably share similar beliefs and worldviews. The answer doesn’t have to be focused on art or creativity or entrepreneurship, right? It can just be a very honest truth about how they assess something or see the world?

Wes said:

“That’s exactly right. There’s definitely no need to pander to what you think we want to hear. We’re looking for a diverse range of perspectives, backgrounds, working styles, functions, and philosophies, so it really does pay to say what you believe. We assume that if you’re applying to be a part of altMBA, you share some similarities with us in terms of wanting to change the world, and believing that you have the potential to become even more impactful. We assume that we have a shared belief in that purpose.”

5. Tell us about a project that you led. Explain what you specifically did, what the results were, and what you learned.

“A project can be something that you’re doing for work, or on the side in your free time. If the project is for work, it could be something like leading a packaging relaunch for a product in your department, or doing a deep-dive analysis to optimize profitability. It could be launching a new website for your non-profit. Those are just a few examples.

The side project can be something like building a website for a certain cause that you believe in, or writing a blog about personal development and leadership. It can be hosting a live event to get people together because you’re an impresario who connects people. It could be organizing your colleagues or friends to get together to do something meaningful.”

I followed up and asked Wes, “Does the person have to lead the project, or could they have just been a part of it?

“Whether or not a person led the project or was a part of it, isn’t the point. We mainly want to see your role in that project. What did you do? What actions did you take? What did you push for?

A good answer to this one is not necessarily whether you were officially the leader or not. It’s more about your role and what actions you took to push that project forward. If you’ve taken the initiative to lead, share an example here.

Or, maybe you were part of a bigger effort. Maybe someone came to you and said, “Hey, I think this packaging could be improved.” And you were the designer who said, “You know what, you’re right. I’m going to mock up five different versions of this and present it.” There are a lot of different parts you could have played within a project to show initiative.”

6. Tell us about a risk you took. What happened and what did you learn? (I asked if this was specifically work related or could it be personal?)

“This one could also be broadly interpreted. What we want to know is that you’re thinking about what you perceived to be a risk, how you approached that, and how you assessed the situation. How did you decide what to do and how did you think about the result afterwards? Whether this is a personal thing or a work thing really is up to you.

The altMBA is about leading. It’s about taking emotional risks, doing emotional labor. “Risk” not in that your life is at stake because the lion in the Savannah is about to eat you. I mean “risk” as in, This feels scary because people could say that I’m wrong. They could question me or disagree — that kind of risk. When we ask for an example of a risk that you’ve taken, we’re trying to see if you try to push yourself and your organization to think bigger.”

7. Last question: Tell us a blog you love, a book that changed you, a record you could listen to regularly.

“We included this question because we want to get to know you as a person outside of work. The choices of what you spend your time on, and what you choose to consume, give us a glimpse into what you find fascinating and meaningful and what brings joy into your world.”

8. Bonus question: I asked, “As the director of altMBA, you have pored through hundreds of applications and read all kinds of responses. Have you noticed any patterns in great applications? What are they?”

“Really great applications are the ones where people have a strong perspective. You have a fire in your belly, you see things you want to change, you have ideas of how to change it. You have examples and a track history of going about trying to make that change. The strong perspective part is important because it really speaks to a purpose behind why you do what you do.

Another is honesty. The best applications are very honest. We want to see that you are self-aware, that you’ve reflected on who you are, where you are in life, what you care about, what you believe.

We’re really looking for that honesty and authenticity from each person, because we’re building and curating a class of students. It’s not just one individual here, one individual there. It’s, Who do we want to bring together? What is each person contributing, and how can we create an environment where everyone can learn from one another? You know, a lot of times we hear from students and alumni who say, “Oh, my God. I feel like everyone around me is smarter than I am.”

That’s what we’re trying to create in terms of an environment where there is that sense of forward motion, because everyone has a certain vibrancy about them.”

Thank you Wes Kao for sharing this generous insight. For more information about the program, check out our student page to see what alumni are saying about the altMBA.

Content strategist, community builder, photographer, and writer. Co-founder of The Observers. Formerly: CreativeMornings & altMBA.

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