Section 8: Essays (page 2)

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

How to write your essays

There are a couple of 'questions' that you should answer in your essays, even if the schools do not explicitly ask for it. You'll have to find a way to bring them into the framework of another question if that's the case. The biggest of these is probably "How have you impacted a particular organization?"

There is a secret to describing your key accomplishments. First (and perhaps most important), is to set the scene to make your actions sound as big as possible and to create drama. Do this in the first paragraph. This will also serve to spark the reader's interest: "It was 2002 and the dot-com crash had left thousands unemployed; no one was investing in technological startups anymore..." Then tell what you did and how you did it: I formed a startup and convinced investors to join me. I organized many people from different cultures. Then discuss the end result: We made millions of dollars. And finally, spend a couple sentences talking about what you learned and how you grew. Don't assume that your achievements alone will impress the readers: explain how they affected and transformed you personally. One sentence at the end explaining how this experience helped you learn to organize a large and diverse team (for example) is a good way to wrap up the story on a personal note.

Here a few other suggestions, based on the question type.
50+ ways to write good essays
  1. "More than anything else, you need a clear, specific, and noble career goal" - See the 'Introduction and When to Apply' page on this site for more information. To reiterate a key point from there: "The admissions committee members see each applicant as who they will be in 10 or 20 years. They don't see them as much as who they are now or who they were 5 years ago. In other words, use your previous experiences and accomplishments not to paint a picture of the past, but to support your clear and specific trajectory into the future. That's how you will be accepted."
  2. Overall, do your essays display management potential? Go out of your way to make each section of each résumé shout 'I'm a leader!' - even if you didn't manage large teams, talk about the ideas that were yours, how you influenced others, and how in the future, you'll be a natural manager.
  3. Tell stories. Don't just say all the great things you did; don't just try to impress. Be real and stir emotions. Be personal in every essay. Don't be boring and academic (remember the Harvard 'define success' essay we talked about earlier). Stories should be about minutes or hours, not months or years. Discuss things you did wrong and what you learned. You will not be the most impressive candidate they see this year. But your essays can be the most compelling.
  4. Over the course of all of your essays to a school, you have to have one key, unique, and special story to tell. Your essays taken together should read like one coherent picture. This doesn't have to be an Olympic-sized feat, just something that helped people and had a meaningful impact on an organization. Figure out what this unique story is for you and wind the other stories and answers to your essays around it! If you are an engineer, then counter the stereotype of engineers by making your unique overall story being how you care about others. Be a real person; your résumé and some of your essay paragraphs can sum up what you did. Make the overall theme of your essays a personal story.
  5. Choose your stories wisely. Most important is that your essays explain why you are unique; what you can bring to an MBA program. Stories from your previous work experience are most valuable although you should include- in the course of all of your essays to a particular school - a story or 2 from your extra-curricular/hobby/service experiences to add some depth and flavor.
  6. Don't just tell stories. Tell how the stories shaped you; how they affected you; what you learned; how they changed your outlook. For instance, explain how the events described made you start thinking about something you'd never thought about before. Explain how the events made you consider going back to school to study entrepreneurship, etc.
  7. Know who you are, what your strengths are, and be honest about it (wording taken from a previous page)
  8. Your essays should sound like you. As Keith Ferrazzi says "don't be afraid to be vulnerable" - a personal story is more memorable than a boring cathartic safe story.
  9. Bring your friends, co-workers, contacts, even family into your stories; show you are someone who people can connect with without bragging about the number of people you know or dropping big names.
  10. Your essays should demonstrate that you have successfully worked with difficult people in the past and have taken criticism from your boss and handled it maturely and constructively. (At the most basic level, that you're a 'team player').
  11. Were your born in a different country? Traveled in any? Studied in any? Lived in any?
  12. Be fun! Do not be boring and academic. Use an exclamation point once or twice! Write with gusto and enthusiasm.
  13. Have someone else read all of your essays for each school, though they should read all of the essays for any given school as if they were one unit.
  14. Backup your work regularly to a CD. Imagine you've been working on your essays from March and it's now October. You're just about to finally apply to 5 schools with 100s of hours of worked already put into perfecting your essays... and your hard drive crashes.
  15. Answer the question. It's a good idea to divert a little bit off of the question for a paragraph or 2 to differentiate yourself from the other applicants. Maybe open with something completely unique but make sure you tie it back into the question very quickly.
  16. Find a faculty member in the program and say in your essay that you're excited about learning from them. Choose someone who is currently teaching classes relevant to your area of interest (i.e. entrepreneurship or finance) - not someone who is retired, only doing research, or who hasn't taught a class in the last 5 years. Read one of their papers from their personal website and mention how you have used their ideas already (if you can - don't stretch this obviously).
  17. Be honest.
  18. Read the different sections of your essays. Are there any parts where you say 'I' a lot? Can you rephrase them to sound more like team experiences? Keep the details where you took key leadership roles, but otherwise, sound like you are a constant team player.
  19. Don't bore your reader with unnecessary details. Don't list people's names when you can just refer to them by title or as a group.
  20. Use details that take the reader to the time and place you're describing. A few key details in some places can make your writing come alive and makes the reader believe that this is a real story that they won't see from 100 other applicants.
  21. Use a custom font or 2. See the 'Résumé' section above for details. Obviously use the same font in your résumé as in your essays regardless of whether you use your own personal font, or the free fonts everyone has: Times New Roman, Tahoma, etc.
  22. Put the page number and your name at the top of each page. In Microsoft Word, go to 'View' -> 'Page Header/Footer'.
  23. Don't have 1 specific example that you want to use in a given paragraph or question? Try a rapid-fire list. For example, maybe you don't have one compelling story from your travels, but can sum up 6 of them in a sentence each with a common theme.
  24. Everyone says to show professional growth in your résumé and essays. How do you do this? One way is to explicitly mention how many promotions and merit-based raises you have earned. Maybe even name all job titles and the years in a line in your résumé: Analyst (1999-2001) -> Senior Analyst (2001-2004) -> Executive Officer (2004-). Some suggest that you should break your résumé's employment sections up into different entries for each new title even if you stayed in the same company doing mostly the same thing. Use your discretion here: it may confuse and clutter things too much to use this as an absolute rule - it's just one option. Be sure to mention how, over time, you have taken on more responsibility and bigger projects in both your résumé and essays.
  25. Try uploading your essay on the school's online application and then view it in the 'Print/Preview' option. See if the school adds any headers or footers to each page. ApplyYourself (used by Stanford, CMU, and others in 2005) adds your name and a code for example in 'Arial' font. Build your page headers so that they tie together nicely with the automatically-added ones (for example, put 'Page 1/5' in the right place in the page header so that it appears just below your name on the Print/Preview version of your application).
  26. Try repeating the questions at the top of the first page of each essay. Try putting the questions in the school's colors. When you upload your file, see if the school automatically adds a header or footer to each page. Fit your format to look the best given those additions. (Stanford adds a header, for instance. Adding a line to the top of your pages so that it separates their header from your writing looks nice).
  27. Consider using (centered / italicized) 'headlines' in large essays. Write 500 words, skip a couple lines for a short header which may reference another part of the question, and continue. This helps your essays look organized and keeps the reader focused. For any essay over 2 pages, split it up into about 3 parts.
  28. Do use italics occasionally to really make your essay come off the page. Do not overuse it though.
  29. Spell the name of the school correctly. If you're applying to Oxford's Business program, spell it correctly: Saïd. If you're in Microsoft Word, go to 'Insert -> Symbol'.
  30. Similarly, if you spell the word 'résumé' anywhere, try to get the accent on it too. Same for fiancé (if you're marrying a man) and fiancée (if you're marrying a woman). And clichés...
  31. Speaking of fiancé(e)s, if you're married or in a relationship, why not casually mention it? It's an example of a team you're a part of and it helps to show that you're someone other people want to be around. Of course, it's probably best not to make your fiancé(e) too big a part of your essays - if there's a way to quickly mention them, that's OK, otherwise maybe it's best not to.
  32. Try not to bring your family into your essays in the usual clichéd ways, for example, if you have a 'Who is the person you admire most?' essay question to answer.
  33. Do a search for these words/phrases and try to remove them as much as possible: rather, quite, somewhat, probably, possibly; which is, that is, who is; can, could, would, might, may; not; I believe. (See other bullets especially in the 'How to write better essays' section below for more information on why they are bad when overused and how to replace them).
  34. Use correct grammar and write dazzling, vigorous sentences. Buy a copy of Strunk and White's 'The Elements of Style' (its $8). See my notes in the related section below.
  35. Make sure you answer the question in the best way possible. See 2 books: Bouknight and Shrum's 'Your MBA Game Plan' and Montauk's 'How to Get Into the Top MBA Programs' for information about what the question is really asking and how to best answer it. Montauk's book has lots of example essays.
  36. Stick to the word limits. It's probably OK to go over by a few though.
  37. Double-space all essays! Especially if they ask for double-spaced essays; Not 1.5-space, double-space. UCLA and Stanford asks for this; others may too. It makes your essays easier on the eyes for someone who is reading hundreds of them.
  38. Put your name on each essay page and number each page.
  39. Make sure you re-emphasize the 1 or 2 key points about yourself. In other words: you train dolphins at Sea World and that's your key selling point. You should mention it in one essay no matter what they ask. Maybe mention it in 2 or 3 if you can. That way, after reading the essays, the committee will have a well-framed picture of you. A week later, you'll want them to think, "did we remember to admit that dolphin trainer?".
  40. Use a good thesaurus but don't overuse it. Your words should be direct, not flowery. But they should not be boring. thesaurus.reference.com is much better than the thesaurus that comes with Microsoft Word.
  41. Make sure over the span of all of the essays for a given school that you include a mention of all of your selling points - not just your top 2-3, but all of them. Use the list created above of your selling points. In other words, mention your top 2-3 in all essays. Mention the rest in at least 1 of them.
  42. If the question asks for information about your family, then spend a paragraph or 2 talking about their stories and then focus back on yourself. Otherwise, tell your own stories only-- not someone else's!
  43. Make your essay unique and interesting. Most applicants will write about how their achievements in high school and college sports gave them confidence. Many will write about the death of a pet or backpacking around Europe or tell some boring story about their youth. Make sure you don't. (Note- it's OK to mention your travels in Europe, but don't spend too long on it and don't try to draw a grand moral from it about how the world is a diverse place. As mentioned already, it's even better if you can pick a specific story from your travels and simply write a good story about it as part of your essay.)
  44. Do not mention anything you did in high school (unless you were a Junior Olympic champion, in which case, spend at most a paragraph on it). That was over 10 years ago -- have you really not done anything worthwhile in the last 10 years?
  45. Maybe use a couple of quotes throughout your essay sets and elaborate on their relevance to you?
  46. Make sure you mention as many specifics about their school as possible as reasons why you want to attend. Make the specifics relevant to your own application: you work well in teams and you have mentioned examples of this in your essays. Then tie it together by saying: "Thus the teamwork-based case-studies system of your school would be a perfect match for me." See Bouknight and Shrum's 'Your MBA Game Plan' for help.
  47. YES, the admissions committee readers know what the essay questions are for the other top schools. So don't transparently reuse one answer for another school asking for something slightly different.
  48. Don't use one really good essay that you wrote for one school in another school's 'optional' essay section.
  49. For the Optional Essay: remember "STEP 1: Make a list of your interesting stories" on the previous page? Why not fit a good, telling story in here? There's no limitations, you don't have to bring it around to explicitly 'sell' yourself; just show an insight into your life that you could not do otherwise. From Brandon Royal's 88 Great MBA Application Tips and Strategies to Get You Into a Top Business School: "Do not let something that you feel passionate about get reduced to just a single sentence or a one-line entry hidden away in your essay.. [talk about it in the optional essay section]"
  50. Check if they school you're applying to has any books or magazines and read them. Most are available online so you don't even need to pay for a subscription. Reference something you recently read something in their journal in your essays. At the very least, they're interesting publications which will give you a good idea of what the schools are like. Not sure what the 'case-study' method of Harvard is like? Then you haven't read an issue of the magazine they publish..
  51. Don't just name-drop the school's journal or newspaper, tie an article from it into your essay. Make sure the connection is fluid and relevant though. Also, if you have experience writing articles or serving on a publishing/newspaper staff, say how "in the same spirit" that you'd like to get involved with the school's student-run paper. The committee wants people who will get involved.
  52. Find out what other clubs are available and say how you'd like to join or contribute to them. Find out about the interesting less obvious things about each school and mention them. Mention one or two things about the school and tie it into the rest of your essay; don't make it look like you're just listing what the school offers. For instance:
  53. Get their attention. Make sure you start off with a sentence in each essay that you know the admissions committee reader will re-read three times just because they've never seen anything like it before. Something like: If you add a unique twist to your essay, make sure it's relevant and make sure you bring it back into answering the question quickly. If you can't do this, then ignore this rule. On the other hand, don't try to be too cute - your writing should appear as a fluid and honest story, not a collection of clever 'angles'.
  54. Spend hours, days, weeks, and months on your essays. Write them and then come back and trim the fat. Re-arrange words so that they flow perfectly. Read them out loud to help with this. Spend as much time on any given sentence as you would usually spend on an entire paragraph. Make each sentence ring. Make your essays works of art.

How to write better essays

Some hints from Bruce Ross-Larson's '
Stunning Sentences' (or at least my interpretation of some of what he suggests):
Similarly, some hints from Strunk and White's 'The Elements of Style':

What do the admissions committee say about the essays?

Stanford's Director of MBA Admissions Marie Mookini in 1996 (from an issue of the Stanford Business School Magazine - link):

Q. Why do you put so much stock in the applicant's essays?

We get a good idea of an applicant's intellectual strengths from college transcripts and GMAT scores. We learn a lot about a candidate's professional accomplishments from the résumé. But it is through the essays that we learn more about the people behind the grades, scores, and job titles. Because we do not offer interviews, the essays serve as the applicants' opportunity to tell us who they are. The who is as important as the what in creating a community of people who will be living with and learning from one another for the next 18 months.

Q. So what impresses you in an essay? And what doesn't?

There are essays that mechanically answer the questions, and then there are essays that truly make the candidate come alive.

The advice I always give applicants is borrowed from a former colleague of mine: "Tell a story, and tell a story that only you can tell." Most applicants are good at describing the people with whom they grew up, the college they attended, the activities in which they participated, and their current job. But "telling a story only you can tell" means going beyond describing the people and places in your life, and instead focusing on how these people, places, and events have shaped you and your perspective.

A great essay answers the question we ask. For example, our second essay asks a three-part question. We ask applicants to describe their career paths, help us understand why an MBA makes sense for them at this point, and describe specifically why the GSB is a good fit for them. The most common mistake made with this question is that applicants do not answer all three parts of the question, or they do so in a superficial way that suggests that their essay is a one-size-fits-all that was used for all their business school applications. Not understanding the value of the MBA experience and not being able to articulate how specific elements of the GSB experience dovetail nicely with their personal and professional needs make a candidate less attractive to us.

A great essay is told in a sincere, straightforward fashion. Unfortunately, there are far too many business school guidebooks that encourage applicants to find a "hook" or use a certain "angle" for their essays. We have grown weary of the essays that are interviews with the candidate as CEO in the year 2020, just as we have grown impatient with essays that are singularly focused on the one skill or quality the applicant thinks we want to hear about. The most successful essays are the stories that are told in an honest and natural way. They reflect a healthy amount of self-reflection and provide a convincing career focus and direction.

Section 9: Final Thoughts

Your Comments

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