The first time I went to an open house in search of a school for my own child in Washington, DC, years ago, I spent a lot of time staring at classroom bulletin boards. I hoped the children’s drawings, the construction-paper borders, and the rules posted by the teacher would reveal the classroom’s secrets.
Was this a place where learning happened? Was this a place where children felt safe? Inspired? Curious?
It never worked. The bulletin boards did not speak to me. Now I know I was looking in the wrong direction.
Since then, having spent years studying schools around the world, I judge them differently. It’s not easy, of course. Every child is different. An outstanding school for one child might be hell on earth for another.
Still, when it comes to finding a school that is both rigorous and alive, full of spirit and learning, there are a few reliable tricks. Based on what I have seen from visiting schools on four continents, listening to kids, teachers, and parents and studying the research of other, smarter people than myself, here are a few tips from my own evolving guide to spotting a world-class education.
Watch the students
If you are trying to understand a school, you can ignore most of the information you are given. Open houses? Pretty much useless. Average class size? Not as important as most people think. Some studies have shown that smaller class sizes benefit children in elementary school, but other studies have found no clear relationship. In fact, some of the highest-performing countries (Japan, say, or Korea) typically have larger classes than the United States; and some consistently unimpressive education systems have among the smallest class sizes (Greece, for example, or Italy). Assuming class sizes are within a range from roughly 15 to 35 students, the research suggests that other factors, including the quality of the teaching, matter more than size.
Test data? More helpful, but very hard to decipher in most places. How good is the test? How much value is the school adding beyond what kids are already learning at home?
Instead, the best way to gauge the quality of a school is to spend time — even just 20 minutes — visiting classrooms while school is in session.
When you get there, though, it’s important to know where to look. Turn away from the bulletin boards and watch the students instead. Watch for signs that all the kids are paying attention, interested in what they are doing, and working hard.
Don’t check for signs of order; sometimes learning happens in a lecture hall, but more often it happens in noisy places where the kids are working in groups without much input from the teacher. Some of the worst classrooms are quiet, tidy places that look, to adults, reassuringly calm.
Remember that rigorous learning actually looks rigorous. If the kids are whizzing through a worksheet, that’s not learning. That’s filling out a form. Kids should be uncomfortable sometimes; that’s okay. They should not be frustrated or despairing; instead, they should be getting help when they need it, often from each other. They should not spend long, empty stretches of time transitioning from one class to another or waiting for the next activity. There should be a sense of urgency that you can feel.
Talk to the students
People, including reporters, rarely ask students for their insight. Young kids are thought to be too small to understand; older kids are presumed to be too jaded. Neither is true, in my experience. As long as you ask intelligent questions, students are the most candid and helpful sources in any school.
Don’t ask, “Do you like this teacher?” or “Do you like your school?” What if a tall, smiling stranger came to your office and asked, “Do you like your boss?” You’d wonder if he was a consultant brought in to fire you. Kids have the same reaction. And in any case, liking a teacher is not the same as learning from a teacher. Instead, ask questions that are specific, respectful, and meaningful.
The first thing I usually ask is straightforward: What are you doing right now? Why?
You’d be amazed how many kids can answer the first question but not the second. The second question is imperative, however. To buy into school, kids need to be reminded of the purpose all day, every day.
Ignore shiny objects
Little data exists to compare investments in technology across
countries, unfortunately. But the anecdotal evidence suggests that Americans waste an extraordinary amount of tax money on high-tech toys for teachers and students, most of which have no proven learning value.
When I surveyed 200 exchange students who had spent time in high schools in the U.S. and abroad, seven out of 10 agreed that U.S. schools had more technology. Not one American student surveyed said there was significantly less technology in U.S. schools.
The smartest countries prioritize teacher pay and equity (channeling more resources to the neediest students). When looking for a world-class education, remember that people always matter more than props.
Ask the principal the hard questions
When searching for a school, keep in mind that the leader matters more than any other factor. Yes, the teachers are critically important, too, but you can’t pick your child’s teacher in our system. So, you have to rely on the principal to do that for you.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions like, How do you choose your teachers? and Do you watch them teach before you hire them?
Finland, Korea, and all the education superpowers select their teachers relatively efficiently, by requiring students accepted to teacher colleges to be in the top third of their graduating high school classes. This selectivity is not enough by itself, but it ensures a level of prestige and education that makes great things possible.
Since most countries, including the U.S., do not take this logical step, the principal is even more important. That leader acts as the filter instead of the education college or the teacher certification system, which is not robust in most places. Nothing matters more than the decisions the principal makes about whom to hire, how to train, and whom to let go.
Finally, don’t forget to ask how the principal makes teachers better once they are hired. The more specifics you hear in response to this question, the better. Most teachers operate without meaningful feedback, in isolation. That is indefensible today.
Whatever you do, avoid the parent traps that exist all over the world. Don’t assume that just because a school has natural light and beautiful buildings, it is a good school. Don’t think that paying a lot of money for a school will guarantee good teaching; worldwide, kids who attend private schools tend to do about as well on international tests as public school students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds.
And finally, remember the advice given to marathon runners the world over: Drink water. Don’t forget to breathe. And don’t give up.
This essay is excerpted from Amanda Ripley’s book, The Smartest Kids in the World — and How They Got That Way, published in August 2013 by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission. Copyright © 2013 by Amanda Ripley.
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Sample Business School Essays
Since many business school admissions officers encourage applicants to “write less, say more,” it is important to communicate your background and career ambitions in a concise and clear way. The essay gives admissions officers an opportunity to learn who you are, where you're going, what you have done and why their school is right for you. Use this small space to give the admissions officers a deeper sense of who you are by answering the prompt with brevity.
This section contains three sample business school essays:
- Business School Essay One - The Business of Recovery
- Business School Essay Two - Leadership in Action
- Business School Essay Three - Repair and Restore
The Business of Recovery — Sample Essay One
Prompt: What are your career goals? What skills do you expect to gain from studying at ABC Business School and how will they contribute to your professional career? (500 words).
Watching my brother transform from a man who had lost his ability to walk to a man who can play basketball with my father kindled my fascination of the physical therapy world. The Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates the field of physical therapy to grow faster than average in the upcoming years. I hope to join this field during an exciting time of growth, furthering the rehabilitation of those who have been injured.
Following graduation from ABC Business School, I intend to serve a marketing team in a local physical therapy company, such as Ridgeview Physical Therapy. My short-term goal is to lead a team, furthering success in the Ridgeview area. Due to the popular physical therapy company thirty miles from Ridgeview, much of the local population is unaware of the quality services Ridgeview Physical Therapy has to offer. I hope to increase visits by 40 percent in the first 5 years of my employment. My long-term goal includes extending the company’s reach into surrounding cities, and eventually beyond national barriers, becoming a global marketing manager.
I expect to gain skills and experiences from ABC Business School that will propel my short and long-term goals. I hope to develop an experiential and diverse learning experience and have the opportunity to interact with different groups of people to learn from their business insights and endeavours. From ABC Business School, I seek the tools and resources needed to further engage in my marketing knowledge, perform professional strategic analyses, and re-evaluate my past work experiences. I look forward to taking courses from Professor Jim. W. Reid, who has published the research of the success of Matthews and Marketing in his book, “Matthews Commerce,” which has helped me continue my career this far. I also look forward to taking the unique classes taught by Professor Rachel E. Davis, introducing me to the physical therapy world and enriching my business skills in that area.
When my brother’s car accident in 2011 caused immobility in his left leg, he never thought he would be able to play his favorite sport again. David Andrews, a 1994 graduate from ABC Business School, ensured that that would not come to pass. I spoke with Andrews about his journey, and he told me that it was through the opportunities and education he received from the professors and students at ABC Business School that helped him open his own practice. I hope to follow in Andrews’s footsteps. With the passion I have for the success of Ridgeview Physical Therapy, and the determination I learned from watching my brother, all I need to complete my goals is the knowledge available to me through an MBA at ABC Business School. I look forward to completing my career aspirations using the tools received from ABC Business School to contribute to my professional career.
The world of physical therapy is growing, and with my skills in marketing, I hope to grow the local Ridgeview services across the globe.
In this essay, the applicant is assigned to answer the prompt in approximately 500 words. The admissions officer expects a clear and concise essay that does not veer off the question and exemplifies quality writing, grammar, and punctuation. In questions similar to these, the admissions officers are looking for:
- Student’s understanding and knowledge in answering questions: The writer explains his short and long-term career goals, referencing the future of the career (Bureau of Labor Statistics) and quantifying his goals (Increase by 40 percent within the first 5 years).
- A deeper look into who the applicant is: Writer shares personal information that also relates to answering the question (brother in physical therapy). Make sure that any personal information you share does not veer off of the question that needs to be answered.
- Proper research on the school to adequately answer the second question: Student mentions names of professors who have demonstrated help in the past (professor’s business research book) giving credibility to the student that he believes they will be able to help him in the future. Avoid flattery and only speak of the school in a way that shows proper research and answers the question presented.
Leadership in Action — Sample Essay Two
Prompt: Present evidence of your leadership capacity and/or potential. (Approx. 550 words)
Nancy, the CEO of Jasmine Publishing House, bought me a coffee and told me I should invest in warm gloves as we sat down at a corner diner for what would be a game-changing business meeting. As the leading publishing house in Europe, Nancy informed me that JPH was interested in closing a multi-million dollar deal with our fashion magazine, Zoelle, provided we changed the magazine's appearance to attract a broader European audience.
As production manager, my job was to lead and supervise a staff of 30 to match Nancy's vision, working closely with the design team, photographers, production staff and marketing team. After three weeks of heavy brainstorming, we developed a fresh appearance for the magazine.
I invited Nancy to a meeting with me and three of our executive producers. I shared with her the strategy we had created in order to solve our appearance problem, as well as estimated costs and complications. Nancy agreed that the direction our magazine was going fit well with her vision and audience, and that JPH would be happy to work with us within the next week.
Although the team was excited to accept the offer, I was concerned that we were not prepared to complete the project so quickly. Though the executive producers did not understand, as our production team was to begin work on the next issue the following day, I explained that there may include deep financial consequences if we rush into the process. I wanted to ensure that JPH received a consistent layout from Zoelle magazine. Nancy agreed to wait until the upcoming issue was complete before beginning work on the new look.
We began work the following Tuesday, after the latest issue was produced. I collaborated with an eight member marketing team to develop new branding for our magazine and mediated this branding with the design team, ensuring that it was able to blend well with their ideas and insights based on the first meeting with Nancy. I led the operation of the first issue to be published via JPH, supervising 30 employees.
After the issue was published, our sales increased by 42 percent in the first week. After leading the Zoelle team to a business deal close and a fresh start, I learned that with the proper leadership, a staff of varied talents, insights and opinions can work closely together to produce a magazine that continues to increase its sells each issue. My initiative helped provide Zoelle with its largest new contract that year, a $2 million deal. Customers from Europe and the United States commented with positive remarks on the new look, showing interest in the replacement of the former look, which had been being published for seven years.
After this leadership experience, I was able to see my potential as a leader. I can communicate effectively with all members of a group and help connect them with one another to make a larger picture. I protect my business discernment even against an upset crowd, and am able to properly persuade others to understand other perspectives. Through learning more about leadership every day with my work in Zoelle, I hope to continue to strengthen these abilities and witness the success they can bring to media production.
In this essay, the applicant was asked to detail her leadership abilities through the application of a relevant example. She was asked to do this in approximately 550 words, using concise language and proper grammar and punctuation. In questions similar to these, the admissions officers are looking for:
- Applicant's ability to share leadership qualities with a relevant example: This writer shared leadership qualities of communication (brainstorming with different staffs and helping them connect their ideas together), listening (brainstorming and understanding staff concerns), delegating (ensuring each team did what was supposed to be done), and managing (managed and supervised a staff of 30) through the use of an example from her work with Zoelle Magazine.
- Proof of a potential growth in these leadership skills: The writer hopes to “continue to strengthen” her leadership skills. She provides examples of how she learned from previous leadership roles.
- How these skills will help further your career: The writer used an example from her current career and concluded her essay with a look into the potential of leadership in her field.
Repair and Restore — Sample Essay Three
Prompt: Describe a challenging situation you have faced in the past. How did you overcome the challenge? (450 Words)
I looked across my celebratory cheesecake and beamed up at my new coworkers. I couldn't believe I had finally landed my dream job. All of the senior editors were having lunch in the cafe across the street from the bakery where the finance team and marketing team shared dessert. I had been hired as a budget analyst at my favorite magazine. My job was to work alongside the business manager to help create a more healthy marriage between the finance and marketing departments, thus improving our sales and workplace environment. On my way home, I reflected on my relief in finally having an exciting and secure career.
Just three months later, we met at the same bakery where I had celebrated my new job. Every department from our small, close-knit staff was present. As the publication manager began to tell us the news, I remember how our faces fell. Our publication company was going out of business, and every publication was to be shut down. She explained that they had tried to find another publishing company without success.
Not only did I feel as though I failed the company, I also knew that I, as well as the other 17 employees, was out of a job. We went back to our offices and packed up our things. Writers and designers were frantically calling around, asking for open positions. An employee from the finance department began tweaking his resume, and the marketing department apologized to the publication manager and editor-in-chief, who responded graciously.
I had to leave my apartment not long after losing my job. I stayed with a friend on the north side of town as I tried to find a job in a shrinking economic suburb. It took six months to find a position, and though I had to move and leave behind my dream, I found a new way to work toward my new dream.
From this experience, I learned the importance of adaptability. Only through my ability to embrace the change happening around me was I able to find a new job and start a new life with new visions and goals. Applying for my MBA would have sounded bizarre to the disheartened, homeless idealist who lost her dream. But now, after finding in me the strength to persevere, I am able to take what I learned from my previous job and pair it with what I learn from the university. This knowledge will help me ensure that the future companies I work with will not have to endure a similar fallout.
However, if there comes a time when I am again involved in a lost company, I know how to repair. I know how to restore.
In this essay, the applicant was asked to recall a challenging situation to which the writer overcame the boundaries. The writer was asked to do this in approximately 450 words, using concise language and proper grammar and punctuation. In questions similar to these, the admissions officers are looking for:
- Applicant's ability to identify a challenging moment in her life: This writer uses a relevant example of a challenging situation, describing the challenge of losing a job, losing housing, and having to move to a different city.
- Examples of how the applicant overcame these challenges: The writer cites her “adaptability” as the reason why she was able to overcome this challenge. Instead of giving up, the applicant tells of applying for other jobs, even ones that were out of her comfort zone and in another city.
- Brief insights to what the applicant learned from the challenge: This writer learned how to maintain strength, perseverance and adaptability in challenging situations. The applicant tells of continuing the learning process in her MBA program and allowing it to help future companies.
Here are our top five tips for writing a business school admissions essay:
- State specific reasons as to why you are a good “fit” for the school, rather than simply stating “I am the ideal candidate for your program.” Why are you the ideal candidate?
- Use real life examples in your essay. This will help to bring your essay to life.
- If you’ve taken an unorthodox path to business school, don’t be afraid to play that up. Business schools appreciate those who are unafraid to take risks.
- Thoroughly research your target schools in order to have a clear idea of how to appeal to each of them. Every school is looking for something different in their students.
- Avoid flattery. A good school knows that it’s good, and telling them so just wastes valuable space in your essay. Use that space to talk yourself up, instead.