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The ‘Overcoming Adversity’ Essay: How Much is Too Much Information in Your MBA Application?

Your MBA application essays — and, increasingly, video submissions — are a wide-open opportunity to tell admissions committees who you are in a memorable way.

As former admissions professionals, Fortuna coaches know that admissions committees are looking for authentic details that go beyond your resume and test scores. They truly want to know the real you and what you will bring to an admitted class. We routinely advise candidates to dig deep and share honest, authentic stories that have shaped your unique character and goals. 

We also know that for some candidates, those formative experiences have been painful or traumatizing. Understandably, some candidates don’t want to dwell on their painful pasts too much and worry about defining themselves too much in terms of adversity they have faced. They often ask how much they should reveal, wondering how much is too much information. 


Identity as Adversity

Sharing stories of how you have struggled to overcome disadvantages signals your ambition, grit, and perseverance. These can be memorable narratives that set you apart from the crowd. But there is a case to make that you shouldn’t have to spill your trauma to get in. 

This has been a concern raised in the wake of the June 2023 Supreme Court decision banning the use of race in college admissions. The decision came with a caveat that places added emphasis on admissions essays. While a checkbox indicating race is no longer permissible, the Court made it clear applicants can share details of how their identity shaped their experience in personal stories. 

“Nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, adding that applicants can share their stories of “challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned.”

Aya M. Waller-Bey, a former admissions professional turned sociologist, worries that the ruling will intensify the pressure for students of color and those from marginalized groups to write about their adversity and struggles in their applications. “In my research, … Black people, in particular, feel that the only narrative they should share about their identities and backgrounds is a story about trauma. I find that harmful because it diminishes the positive experiences of our young people,” Waller-Bey wrote in the Atlantic


Reframing the Narrative

For clients who are unsure or uncomfortable sharing adverse experiences, I find that it can be helpful for applicants to reframe the concept of “trauma” and to instead think of what they are planning to write about cinematically. I keep going back to the idea of cinema with clients and explaining to them that a powerful image or moment, if narrated well, can help the admissions committee get inside their head, walk a mile in their shoes, and not only better understand them, but also remember them. 

In ultra-competitive admissions, memorability is the coin of the realm. When you consider that reviewers are reading 10 to 20 candidates’ essays per day, everything can start to blur together; anything that makes you stand out in a positive way for your strength of character or unusual experiences is a win. 


The Broad Borders of “Appropriate”

Separate from the question of what might be too traumatizing to share, I often find that there is a pretty broad disconnect between what applicants feel is “appropriate” to talk about, and what in reality actually is totally fair game to discuss. Their sense of appropriateness tends to be tied to what they would put in an email to their boss. An MBA application is a very different context, where your past experiences are relevant and of interest. As I work with clients  on their essays, I find myself doing a lot of permission-granting to encourage them to get personal.

For instance, I told a recent client, “You know, it’s actually totally fine to write about your cousin pulling a tooth with a door handle in Estonia because he was too poor for a dentist. That isn’t overdramatic. It isn’t a cliche. It’s real. It gives us a context you have come out of.”

A lot of candidates don’t see their own lived experiences, especially the vulnerable moments of those experiences (whether traumatic or otherwise), as something they are comfortable writing about, in part, because they haven’t ever attempted to write about those moments in any meaningful way before. I’ll often tell them, “I want you to try to write about X, because I think what you say will surprise you.” Nine times out of ten, those are the most impactful essays. 

The art of what I do as a coach lies in getting my clients to at least start to realize that they can talk about pretty much anything that is cinematic, persuasive, and singular to their lived experience. Sometimes I ask them to set a scene and tell the story of a time in their life where they were at their most vulnerable — after getting fired from a job or losing a loved one, for example. Then I ask them to reflect on how that moment changed them. The more they write, the better the essay gets. These tend to be the essays that grab attention and truly stick in readers’ minds.


Looking Across the Table: Imagining Your Audience

When you are striving to convey the essence of the “real you” in just a few hundred words, it can be difficult to get out of your own head as an applicant and imagine the audience you are writing for. Candidates often imagine application readers are incredibly judgmental or unforgiving. There is also something about writing down our goals, experiences, and dreams that opens them to judgment and makes us feel more vulnerable.

Even so, in the Fortuna team’s experience, admissions file readers bring a lot of empathy to the evaluation process. Whether they work at the top-ranked school in the world or the 50th, or somewhere in between, they too have likely struggled with life issues and professional dilemmas and come out the other side of them changed people. “Candidates shouldn’t fear being vulnerable in their essays,” Caroline Diarte Edwards,Fortuna cofounder and former director of admissions at INSEAD, emphasized in a recent conversation we had about this topic. “Schools are not just interested in your professional, academic, or personal accomplishments, but in learning about what has shaped the person you have become. They are truly interested in a holistic view of your story.”

With this in mind, when you’re imagining the person reading your essay, remember that they don’t expect perfection and instead bring high levels of empathy and curiosity to the story you share. Critically, they value vulnerability and welcome you discussing instances when you failed, faced a significant challenge, or reoriented your life.


Addressing the Obvious

Sometimes, applicants are aware that their identity raises some issues they feel they must address in their MBA application, even if they have other things they would rather focus on. For instance, my Fortuna colleagues report that some of our Israeli clients are wondering whether they should address the attack on their citizens and the ensuing war in the Gaza Strip in their essays. One client reported that the conflict is the first thing anyone outside Israel asks him about, so he felt he could not ignore it entirely. On the other hand, he did not want the situation to dominate his story. 

I don’t think anyone should ever be obliged to talk about something unrelated to their application,” says Heidi Hillis, a Fortuna senior expert coach and Stanford GSB alumna. “I’d advise a client that if it comes up naturally in a way that connects to what he wants to say, of course he can discuss it, but only if he feels he has something to say related to the rest of his application.” 

In the case of this highly polarized geopolitical conflict, business schools and their larger universities are attuned to the difficulties of the issue, according to Fortuna cofounder and director Judith Silverman Hodara. Universities are dealing with fallout from protests and their response to the conflict, and getting pushback if they are not sensitive to the situation. Admissions committees will be understanding if applicants leave the issue off the table.

“When deciding what and how much to share, context is important. I will never push a candidate to write about something they do not feel comfortable writing about, says Karen Hamou, a Columbia MBA with extensive admissions experience. “And if they do feel inclined to delve into difficult territory, it doesn’t need to be their entire story. An optional essay could give more context to accomplishments or help address the weaknesses in their profile — for example, a dip in GPA due to specific obstacles experienced at the time.”


Fortuna consultants have helped many candidates who have faced tremendous struggles to figure out how to convey their story. That’s one of several reasons why coaches can be so helpful. As former admissions insiders, we know that many applicants have experienced setbacks, from layoffs to failed startups or periods when their academic or professional performance suffered due to personal challenges ranging from illness, depression, substance abuse, traumatic bereavements, homelessness, and more. 

If you have faced such struggles, you’re not alone; it’s also possible that those struggles may be a significant part of why you want to earn an MBA. Among many other things, going to business school is a journey of personal development and an opportunity to pivot in a new direction. If challenging events have had an impact on your academic or professional track record, then we do advise explaining the situation. Sometimes candidates hope that the admissions file reader won’t notice the year at college when their grades nosedived, or the extended gap between jobs. Sweeping it under the carpet is never a good strategy. And again, it’s important to understand that the AdCom is empathetic and won’t judge you negatively for having had difficult periods in your life; instead they will appreciate you being honest enough to share the context. 

If you would like some guidance on whether or how to share your adverse experiences in your application, please book a free consultation to learn how Fortuna coaches can help you.

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