Section 7: Essays (page 1)

from How to get into a Top-15 MBA Program by Tim Darling

So, your future hinges on a few pages of your writing. Assuming that you meet (or exceed) the basic requirements for admission for the schools you're applying to, then your essays and résumé are the most important part of your application. In fact, since you have little control over your GPA, work experience, and GMAT -- and since the MBA admissions committees really only use GPAs and GMATs as a first glance -- you should consider essays and your résumé to be the core of your application. Your essays will win or lose you admission, regardless of anything else in your application.

After all, President George W. Bush earned a C-average at Yale and still got into Harvard Business School. So clearly they will overlook grades if the other parts of your application is strong. (Or if your father is a Senator..)

Overview of the essays

Essentially I would suggest you spend a couple months just writing for an hour a night. Don't write to answer essay questions; just write about what you've done, how you did, interesting moments in your life, and interesting things about you. As you're writing, read some of the notes I have here. Most of the information here is to help you start writing and thinking about these things. The rest (especially on the following page) is on how to focus, amend, update, and revise your writing to make it stronger in the eyes of the admissions committee.

My personal thought is, if you sit down and try to type a response to the question: "Tell us about a time when your thinking was different from others," then your essay will be horrible. The real secret is to have hundreds of snippets of your life already assembled. You can read over each one and think if it can be molded into answering the question. You'll get surprising and refreshing responses that way. It's probably also more fun: would you rather write about yourself for a while or answer a tough academic essay like the ones mentioned? On the other hand, you will probably end up with 3 times as much writing as you'll ever use in the essays. But this is why your essays will be 3 times better.

What every school is really asking

First, answer the question they asked. If the question is a multiple part question, have sections in your essay that explicitly respond to each part. Beyond that, however, this is what the admissions committee is looking to get from your essay set, phrased as questions since you might as well consider these as you consider the actual questions they ask:

STEP 1: Make a list of your interesting stories

The real key to writing winning essays is simple. Don't sum up the boring details on your résumé - instead elaborate on them by providing the real and interesting stories behind them. The first thing to do is to brainstorm in general about the interesting things you can say about yourself. Forget the essays and essay questions. It may take a few weeks to get a good list - you'll be surprised how many exciting things you've done that it takes a while for you to remember. Think about work-related experiences, hobbies, famous people you've met, the interesting things about your hometown or your family. The ultimate goal is to make every one of your essays personal. In some cases, you'll be able to sum up these stories in one sentence and drop a few of them around your essay set to make it stand out from others' essays.

Stories are 'slices of life'- colorful anecdotes. They should encompass the events of a minute or an hour. They should not encompass the events of months or years. You should talk about how you progressed over the years in some cases, but focus on the details of a few defining moments.

Harvard has asked the question: 'Define Success'. This is a great opportunity to start by describing a vivid story from your life - anything at all - add flavors - and eventually come back to a one sentence summation that success is an enduring contribution to a community (or something, use your own definition). A bad essay would define 'success' in boring academic terms. Don't '
take a boring photo' when you can take one full of ice cream colors.

What's the difference between this list and the second list below? In this list, you want to think of specific instances or facts: moments in time. In the second list we'll create, you can say 'Hobby: Rowing'. In this list, mention the time that your boat capsized in a big race. In other words: list the stories of your life and forget the big picture -- don't try to think of things that will impress -- just write down what you'd tell a friend who you haven't seen in a year. Those types of things.

(If it helps, you can think about stories that have caused you trouble. These will be helpful in some essays, but certainly don't limit yourself to thinking about stories that will answer essay questions. This list is not necessarily for that: it's to help you bring out color in your writing in unexpected ways.) This list won't be easy to put together; it'll take a lot of thought and time. Here's an approximation of some of my list:

  • Stories about things I've done
    • Took photos for Sister Hazel at the 9:30 Club in August, 2003
    • I was accosted by two angry men while traveling in Morocco in June, 2002! I had to pay them $50 for a walking tour of the city to keep them and their friends from causing trouble.
    • My truck got a flat tire miles from anywhere on the Pan-American highway in Chile, November, 2003.
    • I can probably tell some stories about starting my tie business
  • Things about where I live, etc
    • I live a mile away from F. Scott Fitzgerald's grave

Some of these are the stories you may want to tell in essays. Note - don't force irrelevant stories into your essays just because they would be fun to tell! The key is to tell relevant stories which are both fun and prove that you have unique experiences that have provided good foundation for an MBA education. Overall, the key to writing good essays is to tell stories, not facts. This exercise is just to get you started thinking in that mentality.

STEP 2: Make a list of 'Selling Points' about yourself. Make sure your résumé and essays cover all of these points, regardless of what the essays explicitly ask for!

The list should look like the one below. Here you should forget about what's 'interesting' and instead focus on what will impress the committee. Highlight the 1-2 key points you want to emphasize. As a general rule, your 'key' points should show leadership but also show that you helped many people and made a meaningful change. Make sure you pick your key points well - they should be ones that show leadership and uniqueness. They should be ones that you can build off of in your essays and can explain colorfully from a couple different angles (in other words, if you refer to building a new dolphin tank in three essays for the same school, you should talk about different aspects of it as it relates to each specific essay question -- ethical questions that arose, the teamwork element, etc).

  • Teamwork and Leadership in Work Experiences)
    • Oversaw the building of a new $5,000,000 tank and brought together all of the Sea World staff in my effort  - KEY Point!
    • Trained 2 dolphins
    • Taught a junior trainer how to feed the dolphins   - KEY Point!

  • Extra-curricular and Service   NOTE: Chose your extra-curricular and Service activities to complement your work experiences. (*)
    • Play the harp in a local folk quartet. We play 2 times a month at coffee houses.
    • Since 2002, have played in a kickball team once a week.
    • Volunteer at the local 'Save the Whales' community office.
    • Run a soup kitchen one Saturday a month.

  • (International)
    • Anything you did in the above 3 categories (even if it's not directly listed already) that involves other countries. You need to show that you have a 'world-view'.

(*) If you are an engineer, counter the stereotype that you are not very social by highlighting extra-curricular/service activities that involve teamwork and other people. Likewise, if you are a venture capitalist, complement that with an example of caring volunteer work. If you can't think of anything, start volunteering now.

Some thoughts on explaining your work experience

If your work experience is non-standard, then your essays should focus on selling your career choices and your success. If you have international experience and a strong career at a top firm like Morgan Stanley, then you need not sell your career choice. If, however, you're like me, then you will have to. I worked for six years at the University of Maryland, College Park -- the school I graduated from as an undergraduate. Therefore I had to sell the admissions committee that I didn't stick around just because it was the easiest course to take. I had to sell why I chose to work there; I had to sell my success there. Note that this can be good: you have the advantage of not being like most of their applicants.

Be honest about what you have not done. No experience working in the private sector? Start off by saying so. Then go on to say how the experiences that you have had instead are unique.

Note that when writing about your work experience, it is probably best to sell the consequences of your actions and projects rather than the complete details of them; this applies to both your résumé and essays. The reason for this is simple. The admissions committee can't read about what you've done and determine its value. Especially if you're in the technology sector: they will think, "Is connecting 100 clients to a central server daemon difficult? How does it compare to this other applicant's achievements?" Instead, say that you did something and it earned millions of dollars (only if that's the truth, of course..). Then the admissions committee will think: "Oh, someone paid $5,000,000 for the work that this applicant did. OK, now I know that it was difficult and worthwhile." Further, the committee member now knows that you can sell your ideas and projects to other people which is just as important to them. On the other hand, be careful not to rest on large dollar values alone: they make a great foundation, but then you have to expand upon them to show how you made a positive impact on other people's lives at the same time.

The main thing that the admissions committee is looking for is: leadership.

MBA programs exist for the sole purpose of creating future leaders. They do not create astronomers, artists, or engineers. You can be the most brilliant engineer in the world and not have a chance to be accepted by a Top 10 MBA program simply because you don't pass the 'leadership test'. Read every paragraph and entry on your essays and résumé to make sure it shouts, 'I'M A LEADER!', 'I'M AN INNOVATOR!' from every conceivable angle.

There are varying degrees of leadership which the committee will look for. Usually, the further down this list you fall, the better your leadership rating will be and the better your chances of being accepted. If your essays and résumé fit into the first two or three categories, you will not be accepted by any MBA program, least of all by one in the Top 10.




  • Essays display no interest in or experience in being a leader.
  • Essays display an interest in, and a determination to be, a leader.
    • Applicant has little or no leadership experience.
    • Applicant has some leadership experiences either at work or at an outside extra-curricular activity (*).
    • Applicant has leadership experiences both at work and at outside extra-curricular activities (*).
      • Details and facts of experience and consequences are missing or unclear.
      • Applicant clearly articulates, citing facts and specifics, how each of their many leadership roles have made a difference to their community (**). At least 3 distinct leadership roles are preferable.
        • Applicant can cite specifics about how the people they led later went on to show leadership qualities.

To get into a Top-15 business school, all of your essays, résumé, and recommendations have to clearly be in the bottom two categories.

The 2nd main thing that the committee is looking for is: clear goals for the future and a good reason why you want an MBA from their school.

The committee will assume, unless you convince them otherwise, that your only reason to want to earn an MBA is to get an instant salary raise which you could not achieve otherwise. If they believe this is your reason for applying, you will be rejected.

Read Bouknight and Shrum's 'Your MBA Game Plan' for details about what each school offers. You'll be in the top 50% of all essay writers if you use the specifics in their book as reasons why you want to go to their program. Make sure your references are relevant though: "I want to use the Entrepreneur Incubator program" is nowhere near as good as "I want to incubate my new business selling nylon socks in your Entrepreneur Incubator program."

The committee will assume, unless you convince them otherwise, that if you are accepted by them, there's a chance that you won't go to their school- maybe you'll go to another school or not go at all. If they think this, you will be rejected. The 'yield' rates for each school are very high. In other words, they only accept people who they know will attend if they are accepted. You have to convince them that you are in this group of applicants.

Most important here is that you don't want your goals to be the same as everyone else's. Start your own company and say you want to use the school's programs to incubate it. I can't think of a better or more unique reason. Of course, to have a unique reason for attending, you may have to think up something new...

The 3rd main thing that the committee is looking for is: A consistent story that ties together all of your experiences and goals.

Some MBA admission books call this a 'theme'. So you have 5 key points that you want to make to every school you apply to. Say it's a work experience where you showed leadership, an extra-curricular, a volunteer, a traveling experience, and some facts about your undergraduate career. Now if you throw them all into an essay in a 'list' fashion, they won't be very impressive. Instead, you have to create a thread that links all of them. It can be a simple transition: "My traveling experiences made me realize how important learning new languages can be, so that's why I started volunteering teaching Spanish to inner-city youth..." Or it can be a more over-arching theme such as painting all 5 experiences as different angles on the same idea: helping others, entrepreneurial ventures, etc.

Pay attention to this. It's a simple idea that will make all of the difference. The best essays probably have a mix of local transitions and an over-arching theme. And the theme should propel you into your career goals and why you want to study/contribute to the given school that you're applying to.

The 4th thing that the committee is looking for is: energy.

Successful people are not neccessarily the smartest people or the best people persons even though those traits are helpful. They're simply the people who do the most, work the hardest, and seem to have an unlimited supply of energy. They're people who can sleep 5-6 hours a night, travel 4 days a week, get up at 5:30AM, work 14-16 hour days, stay energized through 3 hour meetings; they're the first to arrive and the last to leave. As
Albert E. N. Gray wrote:

-- from The Common Denominator of Success --

The common denominator of success --- the secret of success of every man who has ever been successful --- lies in the fact that he formed the habit of doing things that failures don't like to do.

Taken one step further, all of the things I listed above are things probably no one likes to do. What does that mean for you in your essays? Simply naturally convey unlimited energy and have a wealth of stories to tell that show you're someone who is always active and always doing something exciting.

The 5th and final things that the committee is looking for are: humility, friends/connections, focus, and diversity.

Humility - Let me put it this way: you're not going to "impress" the admissions committee - they're probably MBAs themselves and they see 1000s of applications of amazing people who have accomplished 1000s of interesting things and you're just another one. They don't want to hear you brag on and on about how you were elected class president and were elected treasurer of the polo club and how you've traveled so much. Instead they will be touched by how your essays aren't boastful - how you're a nice, real, and fun person. They want to read about how you'll fit in there. Who would you admit (knowing that your students will be stuck with them in a study group at 3AM on a Tuesday night): a hot-shot full-of-himself rich-banker or an energetic yoga instructor?

Don't try to over-impress. A Michigan student told me about his friends who didn't get in: they wrote about their billion-dollar contracts and funds that they were managing and he knew that they were rejected because they'd already (supposedly) done so much that the committee didn't see why they needed an MBA. Instead, talk about the impacts that you've had on specific people and organizations. Don't be pretentious!

After my interviews and campus visits, I finally understood something that I had no concept of before, despite all of the MBA admissions books that I'd read. That was that the admissions committee is a few regular people who are so bored with the usual stories that they've heard millions of times. They have full control over the incoming class and they are not going to fill it with simply the smartest and most accomplished people. Instead, they will fill it with whoever strikes their attention as different, unique, colorful, and everything that everyone else they see is not. Don't mistake me- you have to be smart and accomplished, but only to a point. After that, be an oddball. If you don't believe me, sit in on an MBA class for a top-15 school. I did. I talked to who I was sitting next to. One ran a coffee store, another a firehouse. One ran an online auction site. Another was a lacrosse coach.

Friends/connections - Most successful people in business and politics are great people-persons. There are a lot of great engineers and scientists who are not good around other people, don't appreciate the importance of having connections and a network, and, if they came to business school, wouldn't change. If the school is looking for people who will have lots of connections in the future as a barometer of success for them (and their fellow students), they'll be looking for signs of that in their applicants. Don't drop big names, but read your essays and ask: do they make me look like a loner who's solving problems in my computer in my office, or do they paint a picture of someone who mixes with lots of different people in many different circumstances? If you're introverted and you can claim this, even better: perhaps it's a "weakness" you overcame. Keith Ferrazzi's book Never Eat Alone is a great resource for appreciating the importance of this and getting some tips on how be a better networker.

Focus and diversity - In my first 2 MBA interviews, everyone I met commented on my tie immediately and when I explained that I owned a tie company, my interviewers were really excited and wanted to hear all about it. Then, when I talked about my engineering projects that I'd been working on for the past 5 years - what I thought was the 'core' of my application, - their attention waned, as if they'd heard that story 1000 times before (they had). Then I talked about how I was an editor of a journal in college and had traveled a lot in the last few years and they practically fell asleep. Then I talked about my rock band which I'd been in for the past 3 years (something I wasn't sure if I needed or should include in my essays) and they became excited about me again.

What did I take away from this? I went back to my essays and threw a few things out that weren't part of my major 3-4 focus points (they were still listed in my application and résumé anyway) and I highlighted the couple things that made me different from everyone else: neckties and my rock band. They don't want to hear about someone who's good at everything. They want to get a picture of you in a couple unique areas.

So cross out those small boastful items from your essays. Talk about yourself as a unique and real person. Another student I met at Michigan gave me this advice. He said, "Write a key paragraph in one of your essays with these exact words: 'How will I will bring diversity to Ross? I...' Italicize the first sentence. Knock them over the head with why you are different." Montauk in his book How to Get Into the Top MBA Programs talks about a 'positioning statement' that should sum up your 2-3 key points. I think this is your best presentation for a position statement. In other words, don't just tell them who you are in 2-3 sentences, as Montauk suggests: tell them who you are and how you are different from their other applicants. These don't have to be outrageously different things. Even the effort to try to explicitly position yourself as unique and diverse will go a long way.

Why are they reading my essays?

Believe it or not, the committee looks forward to reading the essays on some level - at least early in the admissions cycle. It's fun to look into the lives of hundreds of interesting people. So make sure your essays are just that: a quick, bright, easy to read insight into your life. They do not enjoy reading wordy, academic, preachy, lifeless essays though. Take the reader with you.

Don't confuse me with those people!

Maybe you're an engineer and you have a few engineer friends who sit in front of their computers all day, writing code or designing something in AutoCad. Maybe they're really good at what they do and really smart, but (at least by now) you know they would not get into an MBA program. They're not exciting enough: not well-rounded, not multi-dimensional, not go-getters, not people persons, not unique, too focused on the small picture and the immediate task at hand. They're too focused on the world as it currently applies to them and there are thousands of others just like them and there's no big difference between them. Read your essays. If someone didn't know you, would they confuse you for one of these boring people after reviewing your application? Figure out what you're saying in your essays and résumé that any of these thousands of people could say and remove it, change it, or focus on a different angle of it.

Where they would say "wrote 90,000 lines of Java code and built a custom XML+XSLT transformer module", you say "brought together hundreds of diverse customers with a unique engineering solution." Think about your actions and achievements from the point of view of your boss and your boss's boss. How would they describe you and what you have done? They don't care about the technical details: they appreciate you for the big-picture impact that you have on their organization.

End with a sentence that will knock their socks off

On the following page, I reference the opening sentence of George Orwell's "England Your England". His closing sentence is a strong example too - as he refers to the perseverance of the British people in the war, and among other forces over time, to maintain their national identity - a place where "The beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener":

"The Stock Exchange will be pulled down, the horse plough will give way to the tractor, the country houses will be turned into children's holiday camps, the Eton and Harrow match will be forgotten, but England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same."

I was pretty happy with this opening sentence to a paragraph which (in one form or another), I ended all of my essays with:

-- Final thoughts --

I live across the street from F. Scott Fitzgerald's grave. The resigned last words of The Great Gatsby, "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past," are etched into his headstone. The quote refers to Gatsby's dreams that he could never realize, yet always appeared to him to be just within his arms' reach. Regrettably, Gatsby did not have 150 close friends and colleagues faring those currents with him. I would like to add my strengths, support, generosity, and goodwill to your group of students, not just in the classroom, but on a personal level for many years to come.

Section 8: Essays (page 2)

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All text and pictures copyright © 2005-2006 Tim Darling.