Take a few buzzwords like "synergy," "global village," "e-commerce,"
"empower," "diversity." Season with acronyms B2B, B2C, IPO,
M&A, VC. Stir in generous platitudes about "forces that
molded you into the person you are today" and "the top-notch
faculty, diverse student body, and outstanding alumni network"
at the schools to which you are applying. Cook on your hard
drive while seeking feedback from a bevy of your fifty closest
colleagues, friends, and relatives. And voila! You have
an MBA application essay.
No, you may have a recipe for rejection.
All too often MBA applicants grope for a recipe for success,
a one-size-fits-all approach to writing the essays. Push
the right buttons, stir in the correct ingredients, and
you'll have it made. Right? Wrong! That recipe doesn't exist.
You aren't making pancakes here; you're trying to portray
yourself as a multi-faceted, one-of-a kind gem. How do you
do that? Use the tools below to focus on your uniqueness,
accomplishments, and strengths as you refine your essays.
1) To thine own self be true.
Sincere self-reflection forms the basis for insightful essays.
Go beyond the stereotypes of a marketer, an immigrant, an
IT professional, a member of a particular ethnic group.
Go deep into yourself so that you will answer distinctively
Examine all areas of your background to determine which
unusual qualities and experiences you can contribute to
your class. When have you overcome obstacles? Where did
you excel? What is important to you - besides obtaining
an MBA? Why? Where have you served someone or some cause
other than yourself? Why? What distinguishes you from the
stereotypical candidates from your field? And of course,
when have you motivated and led others? Why did you choose
this particular venue for leadership?
The answers to these questions form the raw material of
your essays. You will mine them again and again as you go
through the application process. If you go through this
stage with sincerity and integrity, you will find the gold
vein. Fool's gold is for those who lazily fool themselves.
2) Do your homework.
You have to know what you want to do with the degree and
why you are applying to the particular programs you have
chosen. An incredible amount of information about the schools
and their programs is available. Use it first to determine
which schools you should apply to. Then use it to target
your essays for each particular school.
3) Look at the application as a whole and use the essays
to bring out information not found elsewhere.
In the essays, don't merely repeat the superficial information
contained in your resume or provided in those little boxes
elsewhere in the application. Highlight your multi-faceted
personality, diverse interests, and accomplishments.
Strategize. While you certainly want to write about significant
professional achievement, shouldn't the adcoms also know
you are a disciplined athlete who has competed on a master's
swim team for years? Perhaps you founded a bereavement support
group in your native land where such groups are unheard
of, or took up violin after you began earning a living,
thus fulfilling a childhood dream, and are today part of
a local orchestra. Or maybe you rejected a promotion to
care for an ailing parent.
In any case, determine which achievements best answer each
individual question and in combination with the other essays
and the rest of your application, present the most complete
and powerful portrait of you.
4) Develop a theme for each essay.
In one-sentence, a theme should summarize your essay and
answer the question. This theme--the point you are trying
to convey--may or may not appear verbatim in the essay,
but it should guide you in writing and ensure that you stay
on topic. Throw out anything that doesn't support your theme.
It is particularly important to clearly state your theme
if you are writing about more than one event or aspect of
your life. Stating a lucid theme immediately following the
lead (see #6 below) can provide the reader with a roadmap
to your essay and contribute to the essay's cohesiveness.
5) Use concrete examples to prove your point.
Oh the generalities! The consultant-speak! The wasted forests!
MBA application essays prove that consultants, especially
those from top firms, use more resources saying absolutely
nothing than any other species (except politicians and lawyers).
But you don't want to waste the adcom's time; you want
to inform, convince, and captivate. Use specifics, vivid
images, and details to convey your points. Don't merely
discuss a belief or value; illustrate it. For example if
you want to write about your mother's influence, start with
details that allow the reader to see, hear, or touch your
differences and similarities. You could start, "Although
Mom and I are very different people, I consider her the
most profound influence on my values and the person I have
become. I constantly try to emulate her." OK. Yawn. Or you
could start, "I love jogging, tennis, skiing; she considers
walking to the car to be exercise. My alarm clock rings
at 6:30 AM on Sunday; her day begins at noon. I need a certain
amount of time pressure to produce my best; she hates a
last-minute rush. Yet, despite these irritating differences,
Mom has set an example of determination, professional excellence,
and service to the community that I am constantly trying
Note the amount of information conveyed in a short period
of time. Note also the interest created by not identifying
the mysterious "she" immediately. Finally and most importantly,
pay attention to the use of detail. It creates interest
and forms an intrinsic part of a distinctive essay.
Specifics are also important in discussing professional
achievement. Numbers are particularly revealing (and take
up little space). Did you lead "a team," or did you lead
"a thirty-person team"? Did the division you manage increase
sales and efficiency in your company, or did your division
win an award for top sales with average annual increases
of X% per year since you became the manager? Did you negotiate
the purchase of a large piece of commercial real estate,
or did you negotiate the purchase of a $250 million trophy
Specifics and details distinguish you, add interest to
your essay, and speak volumes about you.
6) Start your essay with an attention-grabbing lead
that immediately illustrates your main point.
The opening of your essay will determine whether it is read
out of obligation or interest. You need to start with a
lead, something that grabs the reader's attention. Journalists
constantly capture our attention with anecdotes, quotes,
interesting statistics, and gripping descriptions of a scene
or event. Use the same techniques.
You have big dreams for yourself. You can start your "goals"
essay with a short anecdote revealing one of those dreams.
Or perhaps you are particularly proud of a special professional
moment. Start your essay with that moment and then write
about its influence and significance.
7) Include description and analysis in your essay.
While I have emphasized the importance of detail and specifics,
the essays also must provide insight into you. Balance description
with analysis. Facts without analysis can easily turn into
a resume in prose or a boring, superficial autobiography.
Combine a few critical events with insightful analysis and
you will really polish the gem.
8) Don't whine.
Everyone has blemishes. Don't whine or cry about them. Doing
so merely magnifies them. If you feel you must address some
poor grades or a less-than-desirable GMAT, then take responsibility;
if relevant, explain the circumstances that contributed
to the weakness, and move on. If you can portray the difficulty
as a growth experience, you could turn a liability into
Don't leave me hanging with no sense of completion or unity.
Bring your essay full circle by referring back to your lead
and highlighting the main point(s) you would like the reader
10) Write it right.
To make this baby really shine, ensure it is correctly written.
The essays must follow the rules of grammar, punctuation,
and style. Here are a few tips:
1. Use transitions between paragraphs.
2. Avoid the passive voice, overuse of the to be verb, redundancy,
and awkwardly constructed, convoluted sentences. (Who, me?)
3. Correct unreferenced pronouns, dangling modifiers, misplaced
apostrophes, and missing articles.
Read the essays out loud to yourself (or into a tape recorder)
to catch errors that your eye misses. And while I do not
recommend seeking feedback from your fifty closest friends,
I do recommend showing the essays to a few people, preferably
two to five. Ask those who write well to comment on the
writing and ask those who know you well to comment on whether
it reflects you.
No, you won't find a good recipe for a winning personal
statement. Writing compelling essays requires self-reflection,
research, and much hard work. But using these tools to produce
and refine a revealing, multi-faceted portrait of you will
also create a unique gem of an essay.
Abraham is president of Accepted.com, an online resource
for B-school applicants. Accepted.com provides tips and
advice on writing MBA application essays, an MBA interview
feedback database, admissions chats, and top-notch professional