Death, Taxes, and MBA Admissions Essays
Writing MBA admissions essays seems like a giant, time sucking, stress inducing experience that admissions committees created to amuse themselves by inducing your suffering (the word is ‘schadenfreude’ if you want to sound smart). However, the reality is that they use the essays to separate the men and women from the boys and girls.
First, the ability to communicate clearly comprises a key component of management skill and success. Second, strong essay content evinces deep self knowledge and introspection, another highly correlated indicator of management success. Third, the admissions committees are not prescient— they don’t know what you don’t show them, so they need to read essays about you.
Ok, so now that we have dispelled the myth of masochistic admissions committee members torturing you with written assignments, let’s talk about how to answer the questions effectively.
Step 1: Identify Needs
Business schools aren't looking for students, they are looking for alumni, remember that! Your job is to understand each school’s specific need. Isolate as precisely as possible the qualities sought by each school. All of the schools mention the same qualities, but you must explain and verbalize what each school means and what they seek (isolate the nuances). You can only accomplish such clarity by thoroughly researching the schools’ websites, asking alumni and current students, visiting the schools, and speaking to admissions people.
Concretize the qualities that the schools purport to seek. If a school mentions leadership ability, you must strive to define specifically why and how you exhibit those qualities. Then you must pinpoint experiences, behaviors, stories etc that exhibit those qualities. Applicants who do not gain precise clarity as to the qualities a certain schools seeks will have very little chance of gaining admission to that program. For example, both Harvard and Kellogg seek leadership; however, Harvard seeks individual leadership while Kellogg seeks group leadership.
Furthermore, while all of the schools seek a similar set of qualities, they rank those qualities in differing relative orders. Therefore, you must understand which qualities each school prioritizes. You must also never confuse diversity with different qualities. While all of the programs emphasize diversity of profile, most of them also seek similarity of qualities.
Step 2: Meet Needs by Using Past Experience
For each school, define the precise meaning of each of the desired qualities and their order of importance. By carefully defining the general terms each school mentions, you can very specifically match them to stories of your past experiences. Carefully select from your past experiences those stories which best illustrate the qualities that the school seeks. You must ensure that the experiences you chose to illustrate demonstrate clearly each school’s desired qualities. Devote time to thinking of past experiences and do not confine the search to work situations alone— in fact, extracurricular, athletic, or community activities often provide the best stories.
Step 3: Answer Convincingly by Choosing the Most Relevant Experiences and Presenting them with Maximum Impact
Make sure to choose the most relevant experience for each of the desired qualities. Make a list of past experiences then match the strongest and most revealing ones to the qualities desired by the school. Put yourself in the reader’s position and ask whether by reading a specific incident or story the reader would strongly believe that you possess the requisite quality or qualities.
To restate: define and list very precisely the aspects that make the quality, then choose an experience that matches and highlights each of the precise defining qualities that you listed. If part of the definition of leadership, for example, entails developing a vision, communicating that vision and convincing others to follow it, do not choose an experience that highlights how you defined a vision and executed it yourself.
Once you choose the experiences/stories that match the precisely defined qualities, you should employ as convincing a writing style as possible. Such a style includes: drama, profit, demonstration, and results.
Drama: In order to create drama, choose situations with high stakes, conflict, and difficulty.
Profit: Explain exactly how you handled the situation.
Demonstration: Explain the step by step process that you employed to achieve your profit. These steps are verbs!
Results: Relate the results—if possible, quantify the gains. In discussing results, do not forget the human side.
Step 4: Reply in a Distinctive and Personal Way (Be Engaging)
Strive to differentiate yourself from other applicants. Ways to do so include: relate out of the ordinary experiences (run of the mill experiences do not get noticed); use a sincere and personal style that shows vulnerability and openness (most applicants just sound the same— they use a strong, cold business appeal, missing the chance to gain reader empathy and humanity); link to the overall marketing position of your application (this is called positioning— link everything in your application to three or four themes, giving readers an organization by which to view your application).
Step 5: Organize the Application to Meet the Needs of the School
Positioning entails linking everything in your applications (everything in your essays, your resume, your recommendation, and your interview) around three or four strong themes. But positioning must match each individual school’s needs. Your application, and as such, your positioning, should correspond precisely to the order of importance emphasized by each school.