Everybody knows “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” And therefore that you need to mix non-workplace stories and situations into your MBA admissions essays.
I find I still have to nudge on this. Truth is, after 10 years in MBA admissions, I can read applicants’ minds somewhat, and I see the thought bubble above a client’s head that says: “C’mon Avi, this lifestyle story is a ‘soft’ story, while this work story clearly demonstrates my business leadership potential…”
You do need workplace stories, of course. But you need life stories in equal measure, and not just to demonstrate work-life balance. There are further reasons, which are:
1. Your work is not that interesting
What?!! Not interesting? I break it to you, if you didn’t know already, that your own work is more interesting to you than it is to other people. That’s why you do it and they don’t. There may be some exceptions, like if you worked on the international Space Station, but most people most of the time dread having their back to the wall while someone bends their ear about this or that installation where they were able to integrate the database mobility platform of… er…. you’d suddenly feel the urge to refresh your drink, if you know what I mean. Myself, I find picking the lock of elite MBA Admissions gates endlessly fascinating, but if I talk about it socially, people’s eyes glaze over.
2. Your work is relatively junior
Sorry, another home truth here. As an MBA applicant, chances are you are in your mid-late 20s, and so your work is, by definition, quite junior. You are not yet at the top of your game, nor at the top of your industry — where you would have the kind of experiences that would allow you to tell truly interesting work stories, like the time you were in the BP Boardroom when the Chairman of the Federal Reserve called… But, for now your work is pretty standard stuff, or at least it could be bigger and better. That’s why you’re applying for an MBA, no?
3. Your work will change.
By definition, if you are about to embark on an MBA, your professional life will change dramatically. Whatever you’re doing now, you won’t be doing it after graduation. So, whatever your workplace story, you are focusing the admissions reader on your past, while she is in fact looking to your professional future and trying to make a judgment about your ability to progress there.
For these reasons, while workplace essays *are* important, they are inherently limited in terms of their real purpose (to get Adcom to pick you.) The admissions committee is somewhat interested, but is going to gloss over the micro-technical or organizational details in the search for what they really want to know, which is, what is this applicant’s prospects for significant successes at a higher level?
They know, even if you don’t yet, that your current job spec will disappear and be replaced. So they focus on what is relatively fixed by your mid-20s: your character, personality, ambition, drive, and management style.
Turn it around and look at if from the reader’s point of view, as you should always do. What does Adcom at an elite b-school really want to know? (Yes, they say they want to “get to know you,” and they do. But in a way, this is the usual cr*p they alway say.) What they really, really want to know is whether you are going to be a future star, that is rapidly move onward and upward to one day do great things in your industry. Convince them of that (within your applicant sub-group) and you’re in.
The standard workplace conundrum that you solved and learned from is going to take you some way down that road. To go the rest of the way, you need to charm them with your formative life stories.