When applying to Harvard Business School, the admissions team asks for your CV and two letters of recommendation. You also have to provide academic transcripts and a GMAT/GRE score, and complete their online application form with details of your background and achievements. Finally, the only essay questions reads as follows: ‘What more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA Program?’
Where do you begin?! What should you focus on? And how much should you write, keeping in mind this single essay has no word limit but you know they won’t be pleased with a multi-page epic? Your challenge is to say more with less.
Harvard is not the only school calling for fewer and shorter essays from MBA applicants. This year we’ve seen a continuing trend of reductions in word limits and essay questions across multiple schools, creating limited space for you to communicate your strengths, potential, and values to adcoms. MIT no longer requires an essay: applicants are just asked to submit a cover letter, and can choose to provide a response to an optional, open topic essay. INSEAD has eliminated their cultural diversity essay in favor of their new video component.
Not all schools have adopted the ‘less in more’ trend. Wharton, for example, actually added an essay question to their application this year. But, such moves are rare. Columbia Business School now offers more flexibility; instead of fixing lower word limits, they now indicate minimum and maximums (100 – 750, 100 – 500 and 100 – 250 for the three essays). This subtler approach allows some scope for the more verbose among us, but also reminds us that powerful points can, and often should, be made more succinctly.
Here are three tips for handling the constrained space in MBA applications:
1. Begin with strategy — From Porter’s five forces, to Kim & Mauborgne’s blue oceans, in business school you’ll learn all about strategic models that help businesses analyze opportunities and plan their best course of action. Your MBA application is the same. Start with a basic, and brutally honest, evaluation of your strengths and weaknesses, collecting feedback from friends and colleagues if you can. Reduce the list down to the most significant 2 – 3 key strengths, experiences and / or attributes to highlight in each school application, and 1 – 2 weaknesses the admissions committee might identify and how you can proactively address them.
2. Build a story – Once you’ve established what you want them to know, you must next identify how you want to say it. Keep in mind that showing is always more powerful than telling. You can tell the admissions committee that you are very academic, but showing it through a high GMAT and GPA carries a great deal more weight. You’ll need to think of examples that show the unique strengths and attributes you identified in your first steps, and also the results of those strengths and attributes. Next, carefully review all parts of the application for each school to which you are applying, and map out which elements best fit where. Remember that your essays are only one part of your overall application; they work in tandem with your CV, transcripts, test scores, and recommendations. Make sure you connect all the dots, so that once you see the whole picture of your application, it conveys the complete story you want to communicate.
3. Edit – I have a writing program on my computer called Day One. Each day it either suggests a topic to write about (What is your earliest memory? Where did you first live independently?) or it provides an encouraging line or two to prod me towards writing. A few months ago, the line that popped up said, “Quality can be distilled later by editing”. I took a photo of it that has been the background image on my computer ever since. If you’re a perfectionist (and, let’s face it, most of us b-school types are), this can be particularly tricky. Just start by getting some words down. Don’t be intimated by the topic, discouraged by the quality of your first draft, or restricted by the word limits. Exhaust the subject. Then get out your red pens. Read, edit, repeat. As many times as you need to. There is a reason that the phrase “to write is to edit” has become a truism for writers. Like a painter who pencil sketches on paper before putting color to canvas, writing is just the preparation. The real work, and the art, is in editing.
By Cassandra Pittman. Cassandra is an Expert Coach at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and an Executive-in-Residence at London Business School. She holds an MBA from Columbia Business School, and has worked in Admissions at both INSEAD and London Business School. Fortuna is composed of former directors and associate directors of admissions at many of the world’s best business schools.