Topmba.com recently asked for my brief and succinct summary input for an upcoming story on MBA application essays and letters of recommendation. If nothing else it was a challenge in writing tightly. And as it turned out, it provides a summary of some key deliverables and concerns, so I thought I’d share the experience here:
What should/shouldn’t MBA applicants include in their admissions essays?
Applicants should include points that carry admissions value. What is value? Any attributes or experiences that are relevant to peer education and not common in the applicant pool; anything that will get you noticed or make you stand out as a worthwhile addition to the classroom, on campus, and one day in the alumni network. What not to include? Don’t praise the school (they know they’re good); don’t repeat items on your resume; don’t denigrate anyone or any organization; don’t whine about life’s obstacles or blame others. Finally, don’t state the obvious — if you are talking about water you needn’t add that it is also wet.
Who should/shouldn’t they ask for letters of recommendation?
Reco’s are Adcoms only reliable way of finding out what you are like in a professional environment. Therefore, do not ask one of an old professor, your yoga instructor, your priest and so on. You need a reco from your current work supervisor (if not, explain why not) and other reco’s should come from other current or past professional supervisors who know you well. Don’t go for someone with a great title, who hardly knows you. Whoever you get — make him or her give examples and specific instances to back up their claims about you. Brief them on your application content so their communication is consonant with your own. Ask them to to address and reassure Adcom on any weaknesses apparent in your resume, if applicable.
What are the biggest mistakes that many applicants make in their essays?
One common mistake is to try be like a “business school applicant.” There is no one such thing; you will just sound generic and boring. Be yourself, and you will sound genuine and alive and interesting-to-meet. Don’t forget to give specific examples which create interest for the reader. Further, it’s pointless to claim an experience or attribute without giving some proof (a specific example or event or data or awards that demonstrates the attribute is real.) Also, don’t imagine that your reader is a financial or technical person. Adcoms members have a real mix of backgrounds, but at heart they are human resources professionals, and MBA admissions is an HR function.
What are optional essays? Should applicants bother writing them, as they are optional?
Optional essays are used to mitigate a weakness or explain something that may be confusing about your background or career path. They are not a way to get more text in. It is a statement of strength as an applicant not to have to use the optional essay. Only use it if you have something specific to address, and when you’ve addressed it, stop writing — there is no requirement to go to full essay length.