Tackling application essays for business school is a daunting prospect. They are a critical part of your sales pitch to a target school. Your application may well be read by a bleary-eyed administrator who has already waded through hundreds of files that day – with only yours keeping him from turning in for the night. So how do you grab his attention? We have seen many candidates do this spectacularly well. Many more have done it unforgettably badly. Our first tip is that being original is good but being weird will definitely not score you any points. The applicant who chose to describe his murky sex life in his opening essay did catch the eye, and raise a few laughs, but he went straight onto the “wall of shame” that most admissions offices have. You do not want to end up on it.
Before you put pen to paper, reflect on the big picture. As we said in our previous article, you need to take some time to think deeply about some fundamental questions. What are your professional strengths and weaknesses? (Not: what would you like them to be?) Where do you see yourself heading after graduation? And where do you want to be in five years and in ten years? Having clear plans will help you put together a compelling picture of where you have come from, where you are heading, and why an MBA is a critical for getting you there.
Authenticity is essential. If you pretend to be something you are not, experienced admissions officers will sense it and trust you less. Candidates who present an image of what they think the business school is looking for fail miserably because they come across as phony. Business schools want to understand what is special about you. Don’t fake it.
There are six themes that recur in the essay questions that business schools ask. Let’s address each.
1. Why get an MBA at this moment in your career?
Think about this question from the business school’s perspective. It wants students who will get the maximum value out of its programme by achieving great things in the future. Stanford GSB’s motto is: “Change lives. Change organisations. Change the world.” That is a pretty ambitious statement that tells you a lot about the candidates it is looking for. So in this type of essay you need to make a strong case that the MBA is essential for you to achieve your dreams. You need to show that there is a logical flow to your plan: that the MBA will somehow enhance your CV and enable you to take a next step. This is important. We have rejected candidates who, we thought, could achieve their goals without an MBA.
2. Why this MBA in particular?
Unbelievable as it may seem, at INSEAD we received essays about why the candidate is passionate about London Business School, and vice versa. That is a quick way to land your application on the reject pile. Do not cut and paste your essays between applications (especially if you don’t know how to use the “find” and “replace” functions). Again, think about it from the school’s perspective. It wants to recruit candidates who love the school, who really understand what makes it special and can explain why it is a great fit for them. You cannot write this essay well if you do not know the school intimately. Too many candidates write vague generalities because they only have a superficial knowledge of the institution. So do your homework: research on the internet, talk to alumni, and, if at all possible, visit the campus. Nothing will give you a stronger a sense of what the school is about. Simply listing courses that look interesting to you will not do the job.
3. What will you add to our student and alumni community?
The school wants engaged students who have lively debates both inside and outside the classroom; who contribute to community life; and who will become active alumni in the future. The alumni network is, according to some schools, their greatest asset. So will you add value to it? Many schools use students and alumni in the admissions process: as file readers, interviewers and even as members of the admissions committee. When they look at your application, they will be thinking: would I want this person as a member of my team? Do I want this person in my alumni network? You need to demonstrate that you have interesting experiences to share, a perspective that could enlighten classmates, and the confidence to share what you have to offer. This is a great opportunity to show how you have contributed to other communities—at your previous school, for example. If you have taken the lead and achieved something worthwhile, so much the better.
4. What is your career vision?
Admissions directors are well aware that there is often little correlation between what applicants say they are going to do after business school and what they end up doing. The MBA should be a transformative experience; it will open your mind to new possibilities. Some say, therefore, that this type of question has no value. But, if you were an admissions director, would you rather admit Candidate A, who has a vision of expanding a consumer products firm in emerging markets, or Candidate B, who says any leadership opportunity would be of interest? Candidate A may well end up becoming an investment banker, but he is more likely to sell himself to recruiters and build a brilliant career. Candidate B-types, however strong their track record, often struggle to develop a job search strategy. So even if your vision is likely to change, the fact that you can articulate a logical and inspiring vision is your favour.
5. Cultural fit: your values and those of the school
We have seen students on our programmes who did not flourish because of a cultural mismatch with the school. Each institution has a distinct identity—hence the importance of visiting it beforehand to soak up the atmosphere. Some schools have a more competitive spirit; others are collaborative communities. Some have a lot of foreign students and few cultural norms—you will not fit in at all of them. So in this essay you need to demonstrate that you have taken the pulse of the school, and that this is an environment in which you will thrive. You also need to show that you understand what the school cares about, and that this is aligned with your own values and plans.
6. Your strengths and weaknesses, accomplishments and failures
When asked to describe your strengths or accomplishments, emphasise your best attributes and relate them to what makes you an ideal MBA candidate, thereby circling back to your sales pitch. Pick an accomplishment that shows you have skills that will be useful in your dream career. And don’t stop at describing the accomplishment itself; try to weave into the story the challenges that you faced and obstacles you overcame. Strengths should also be illustrated with examples that compliment your accomplishments—ideally from the last year or two.
Regarding weaknesses, please do not make the person reading your file snort in disdain by saying that you are, unfortunately, a perfectionist. Or that you drive yourself too hard. These are transparent attempts to avoid the question by highlighting qualities that you think make you look good. Instead, pick something more original and honest and, where you can, show that you are working to overcome it. Likewise for failures. Be honest and straightforward, but don’t dwell on the negative. What is interesting to the school is what you have learned from the experience and whether you are someone who can bounce back from failure—can you swallow some humble pie and emerge from the experience a wiser human being?
Taken together, the essay package should give the reader a sense of you as a rounded person; not just what you do for a living, or what you do for fun. They should make the admissions officers want to learn more about you and invite you for an interview. Prove to them that you are self-aware, honest and have a great sense of what a stint at business school will mean for both you and the community of which you will become a part.