Tips for Writing Winning MBA Admissions Essays
Posted by Chioma Isiadinso
Numerous books have been written on the subject of writing winning MBA admissions essays. An Internet search brings up a bewildering array of blogs, articles, consultancies, and essay-writing guides.
With such a breadth of information available, it’s enough to make your head spin. So let’s keep it simple. These are the universal ‘must haves’ for your essays, as well as the ‘avoid at all costs’ tips.
What role does the essay play?
Before the tips, it’s important to understand why the essays are such a critical piece of the admission application.
One of the roles of the admission board is to ensure that accepted applicants bring further glory to their specific MBA programs by going on to fulfill far-reaching career goals once they graduate.
While many applicants possess similar undergraduate GPAs and GMAT scores, as well as qualified career backgrounds, only a fortunate few are accepted by top schools.
This is because the application essays help the admission board dig beyond the quantitative data and gain an understanding about the person who is applying: the essays allow the board to determine if this person is someone who will shed positive light on the program following graduation.
That is why the MBA admissions essays are important. Very important!
Essay Interview Mindset
As you start to tackle the essays, it is helpful to view each as a unique sort of interview.
Unlike a face-to-face interview, which requires quick thinking and can easily let you down due to nerves or other variables, essay ‘interviews’ afford valuable time in which to strategize the way you present yourself to each admissions committee.
The essays are your opportunity to share who you are with the board without the pressure of time or the pressure of spontaneity.
Top Seven Essay Writing Tips
Now, let’s now deal with how it is possible to maximize your chances of gaining favor over the thousands of applicants per program, per year.
1. Reflection. This is vital. Do not begin writing your essays without taking time (well in advance of admissions deadlines) to think about why you are motivated to complete an MBA program and what you hope to achieve during your time in the program.
Also, consider the implications of what such a commitment will cost you in terms of finances, career interruption and your personal life.
Such realistic reflection – coupled with the determination to proceed – will only strengthen the overall tone and thrust of your essays. Passion is important. So is candor.
Taking the time for personal reflection will reveal your courage and individuality, presenting you as a person with clearly defined goals and a personal or career-related background which lays a clear foundation for future goals.
Admission committees are also naturally interested in why you feel their program is the best ‘fit’ for you. You must present a powerful tailor-made case to each program you apply for.
Do not attempt to present a uniform case if applying to a number of programs. It will be noticed as programs do range significantly in terms of branding and focus.
2. Strengths and Weaknesses. Schools may ask you about your strengths and weaknesses.
Even if they don’t ask you for this information directly, it may be implied as they evaluate how self-aware you are.
Ensure that your self-assessment lines up with that of past employers or others who may be questioned about your background. Carefully analyze your selected weaknesses.
Committees are impressed by mature self-awareness. Describe how you have learned from past mistakes and continue to correct ongoing problems.
Reveal a readiness to be corrected by oneself and by others.
3. Leadership Potential. You will definitely be judged according to how the admission board views your leadership potential.
This can include career-related experience as well as ‘unofficial’ leadership experience in which you collaborated effectively with a team.
Select one or several leadership situations that are most relevant to your application.
Choosing good examples requires good judgment and you may even want to consider running various options past people you trust as you analyze each situation.
Were objectives clearly established and determined? Did you communicate well and motivate your team? How did the project evolve and what was its final outcome? It is vital to discuss both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ outcomes.
4. Write clearly and concisely. Do not pad. Respect the word limit and all specified form and formatting rules.
5. On Creativity. While there is certainly room for creative flair, this is not a writing competition.
That is, tell your well-selected and relevant stories in your natural voice. Evoke vivid images without being flowery. Don’t use unnecessarily formal vocabulary as this can appear pompous.
On the other hand, absolutely do not write in a casual tone or use slang – except in context. If necessary, enlist the help of a good writer who understands the nature of such applications and who will edit accordingly.
6. Walk Away. Having done all of the above, let each essay sit for a while. Come back refreshed and take another look at it.
Ensure your essay powerfully highlights your personal branding and is slanted in such a way as to attract the specified admission board.
7. Reflection . . . is key. Take your time. Be yourself. Reveal ‘heart’. Select content carefully. Position yourself strategically. Write simply but evocatively.
Conducting a Career Self-Assessment – for New MBA Admits (Part 1 of 3)
MBAs are often told that a new job search should begin with a process of introspection known as “self-assessment,” yet that advice is not always accompanied by a prescriptive guide for what that process should entail … the words themselves are deemed sufficiently self-explanatory.
At the same time, a good career self-assessment is not rocket science. It involves focusing on three time periods – past, present, and future – and it can benefit from use of a small handful of exercises and instruments, the most prevalent (and useful) of which are the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), whose intellectual antecedent is the philosophy of Carl Jung, and the CareerLeader assessment, developed by Drs. Tim Butler and Jim Waldroop at Harvard Business School.
For a rising MBA, the need to conduct a critical self-assessment is acute because the cost of having to reverse course or of simply “getting it wrong” – for example, by chasing after “your roommate’s dream job” rather than your own, or by discovering that your dream career path lies in private wealth management one week after deadlines for private wealth management internships have passed – is high.
For those who naturally resist the notion that a personality test or any form of psychological or career-oriented instrument can accurately capture and reduce the uniqueness and extraordinary breadth of the human condition to a few letters or symbols, my suggestion is to evaluate these tools not on the basis of whether they can be elevated to the level of immutable laws of physics, but simply on the basis of their usefulness in helping one to be more effective and to reach better decisions.
Examining the Past
With regard to past experience, the simplest way to begin to categorize and make sense of one’s true abilities and preferences is to conduct what I call a “highs” and “lows” exercise. For each chunk of bullet text in your current résumé – whether a particular job, a specific assignment or project, an educational, sports, or other experience – write down the absolute best part of that experience, the “high,” and the absolute worst one as well, the “low” (identify both a positive and a negative experience for each chunk of time and effort).
At what point were your experiences akin to pure pleasure? Describe days in which you felt completely immersed in work, derived pride in your effort, approached challenges and hurdles as though they were fun puzzles to solve, enjoyed the company of your work peers or schoolmates, and looked forward to the next day ( … what specifically made that experience seem that way)? Conversely, what experiences made you feel miserable? Describe the days in which you felt the opposite of all the above, those experiences from which you couldn’t wait to be reprieved. Do this for each significant period (1-2 years) of school and work experience.
A “highs” and “lows” exercise can be useful when facilitated by an experienced career coach (who can recognize patterns across many professionals and MBAs in similar situations), and especially so if the exercise is combined with an MBTI and CareerLeader assessment – the former can help you understand ways in which you prefer to organize information, make decisions, and interact in team work settings, while the latter can help prescribe MBA-relevant career path options (helping you decide, for example, whether working as a venture capitalist or becoming an entrepreneur might make the most sense for you).
Ideally, to bring your self-assessment up to date, you should integrate all three of the above – the facilitated (or self-conducted) “highs” and “lows” exercise, plus the two professionally-delivered instruments (MBTI and CareerLeader are available as part of a number or pre-MBA programs and during many business schools’ orientation programs). The end result is a strong awareness of the contexts in which your talents, interests, and abilities have been most successfully applied in the past … and a guide to where they are most likely to help you flourish in the future.
Tune in next week for the continuation of how to conduct an MBA career self-assessment in the context of the Present (the duration of your business school degree) as well as the Future (the next 3-5, and then 10 or more, years beyond graduation). The goal is to arrive on “day 1” of business school with a critical sense of where you’ve been and with both a highly self-aware and marketplace-relevant strategy for how to succeed in business school and project yourself into the next phase of your life and career.
Ivan Kerbel – bio:
Ivan Kerbel is the CEO of Practice LLC, an educational services firm that conducts an intensive, annual pre-orientation program for newly-admitted MBAs, The Practice MBA Summer Forum.
Ivan served previously as Director of the Career Development Office at The Yale School of Management and as a Sr. Associate Director at Wharton’s MBA Career Management office. He is a Wharton MBA alumnus and a former management consultant at Katzenbach Partners, a New York City strategy consulting boutique. Ivan can be reached via LinkedIn.
Posted in: MBA Career Strategy