MBA Application Essays: How to understand them, write them, and rock them

To apply to business school is to spend a considerable amount of time writing application essays. A typical b-school application to a top program will have at least three essays—some even have four, five, or six. They can range from 250 words to 750 words (or more) each. They are the most daunting part of the process for many applicants, and they embody a huge chunk of what admissions officers consider when making decisions.

So, how should you think about these essays? How should you write them? What do you need to do to make sure they’re exceptional?

Avoid “packaging” yourself

Don’t try to turn yourself into what you think admissions officers want to hear. So often, business school applicants struggle to become the perfect “finance” candidate, or the quintessential “entrepreneurial” applicant, when their strengths don’t lie there at all. Rather than focusing on what you think schools want to hear—or trying to fit into a mold for what you think a school’s strongest program is—focus on what your actual strengths are, and what you bring to the program. By focusing on your own personal attributes, your essays will sound authentic and genuine, and will exude enthusiasm for your future academic and professional endeavors.

Engage in “structured reflection”

Before writing, sit down and brainstorm on the exact topic the school has asked you to write about. By engaging in this “structured reflection” (where you think about specific themes and questions), you will be able to better come up with anecdotes and personal tidbits that truly speak to the topic schools are eager to hear about.

Be realistic

It’s fine to have lofty aspirations, but make sure your feet are rooted firmly on the ground. Business schools know how tough the business world is—and they get worried when they start reading essays from someone who appears to have no grasp on this important point. If you want to reach for the stars, make sure you have a concrete plan in place—and can communicate it clearly.

Be thorough

Don’t just skim the surface of the questions schools are asking. Delve deep into the topic, provide insight, give examples that are specific to the theme. Don’t leave admissions officers wondering where the rest of your essay went.

Avoid generalizations

You may think saying things like “A good manager has the power to change the course of a company” sounds deep and insightful, but to a trained reader it simply sounds like you have nothing of substance to say. Instead of general musings, focus on your own experiences.

Use anecdotes and personal stories

Infusing your personality, background and experiences in your essays will make them come to life—and, more importantly, will make admissions offices care about you. Take the time to brainstorm, and spend just as much time selecting the stories you will tell as you will writing the essays themselves.

Consider cause and effect

Don’t simply talk about what happened—also talk about the circumstances that led there. Don’t leave the reader guessing; give them the full story!

Don’t dwell on the past

However, don’t spend all your time talking about the circumstances. Discuss them to give background, but then focus on what happened and how this affects your plans for the future. Admissions officers want to know about what made you who you are, but they are more interested in where you’re going (and how they can help you get there).

Think of them as your “interview on paper”

Your essays are the first glimpse into your personality that schools will get. When writing them, ask yourself: If this is all a school had to get to know me by (which, for all intents and purposes, is exactly the case), what would I want to say?

Watch the technicalities: Length, formatting, spelling, grammar, and punctuation

It goes without saying: Stick to the length and formatting specified by schools. This tells schools that you respect them enough to follow their wishes. In addition, don’t just rely on your word processor spell-checker to catch errors—have multiple readers go over your material, and have them help you find mistakes in spelling, grammar, and punctuation. The fewer errors you have, the more professional you will seem.

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