Category Archives: MBA Essays

First Round MBA Essays: Why Have Applicants Turned Into Monks and Saints?

Here’s one from the files, which I wrote a few years back at exactly this point in the admissions season, in responses to Round 1 essays I was seeing then. Given the essays I’m seeing now, I’m reminded of it:

You are not applying to join a holy order. You are not applying to Amnesty International. You are not applying to save the rainforests or unmelt the ice caps or feed the starving or create Middle-East peace.

You are applying to business school.

At business school, yes there will be electives around well-meaning things, but by far the main agenda of an MBA is to present you with and test you on classic curriculum stuff to do with finance and operations and marketing and strategy. They will not teach you to weave sisal or wash Zika babies.

Now of course you are a good human being. And you should certainly communicate to Adcom (with evidence) that you are a good human being, which includes being concerned about major domestic or world problems. And not just concerned: wanting to play your part in fixing them too. You definitely need to apply with a meaningful purpose to your future career, and it’s fine to want to improve social welfare at home or abroad.

But you are applying to business school.

So keep it credible. The pertinent question for MBA admissions is: how will you make a business or take a business in the direction of broader community benefit? How and why do you need business and management and leadership skills to make the difference you plan to make?

Here’s a clue to hitting the right note: one person or a group of well-meaning people can make a little difference somewhere. But a business, or a large organization, professionally managed, properly financed and running at optimum efficiency can make a whopping difference. That’s where you want to go.

If you do this, your MBA application will retain its credibility. If you say you want to run an education business in Ho Chi Minh City, Adcom will believe you. If you say you want to teach long-division to Vietnamese orphans, they won’t.

 

Brevity is the Soul of Wit, War, and MBA Admissions Essays

Here’s a bit of fun with a serious twist. You may have seen this document below as it does the rounds on the Internet.

I believe it is genuine, and in it the then British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill was telling his 1940 War Cabinet the equivalent of “hello, did you know there’s a war on? Let’s not confuse ourselves and waste our time on excessive verbiage and writing flourishes. If you’ve got something to say, just say it.”

brevity

MBA admissions is not a war zone. But admissions committees are busy, particularly around their application deadlines. So do them and therefore yourself a favor by keeping your writing tight and to-the-point.

This does not mean you should adopt a clipped tone and write like morse code. You get to brevity without losing content or style by carefully selecting your examples,  using plain words, avoiding all verbal windups and empty phrases, and deleting repetition.

For a full discussion of practical writing strategies to deliver content in the briefest possible way, with examples, please see Section 4: Writing Tools and Methods, in my book MBA Admissions Strategy: From Profile Building to Essay Writing (McGraw Hill).

MBA Essay Length: We Can’t Go Over It. We Can’t Go Under It. Or Can We?

“How strictly do I have to stick to the essay word limit? How much can I go over? Does it matter if I’m under?” are questions I get a lot. Here’s an piece from the files:

To answer this, it is essential, as always, to think about any process or task in admissions from the MBA admissions committee’s point of view. Put yourself in their shoes. Why do they ask for it? What are they trying to achieve? How does it help them?

So, what is Adcom trying to do with word limits? First, if there were no limits applicants would ask incessantly: “Please Miss, how long must it be?” Second, some applicants would write the great American novel, which would waste their time and Adcom’s. Third, limits provide a way of getting essays from different applicants to be more directly comparable, in being the same length.

But there is play in the system. The purpose of the essays is to get to know the applicant via their writing, and everyone knows that writing is a creative process and certainly nobody expects you to hit the word count on the nail. This is not engineering or accounting. (Believe it or not, some clients fuss the word count until they have the exact round number asked for, taking refuge in a detail that will provide them absolutely no refuge.) Anyway, application forms often talk about a word “guide” rather than word “limit.” So you can clearly go a bit over, but by how much?

My advice to clients is not to go more than +5% in any essay. This kind of margin is a natural “rounding error” in finishing up what you have to say and will not hurt you if your reader is a reasonable person, which we assume she is. More than this will start to look like you are taking advantage and-or asking for an advantage that your competitors are not getting.

However if you write a number of essays that are noticeably short it is fine to have one or two that are commensurately longer, so that the whole comes out more or less right. In fact, Stanford GSB has historically explicitly encourageed this giving guidance both per essay and for the essay set as a whole, inviting you to strategically trade off length between essays as you see fit. How well you do this is, by the way, is a test of your communications judgment.

Having said all this, be aware that it is possible that the computer system will act as a policeman, stopping you from going over the limit, or cutting your text in mid-stream. I believe this this less prevalent now than it was in the early days of essay uploading.

Can you go under the limit? Similarly, I advise clients not to go less than -5% on any essay. In one sense, like all professional communicators, I believe strongly in “say what you have to say; say it once, strongly and clearly and then stop talking.” This is the royal road to more powerful communications. Certainly there’s no merit in padding, wafffling, and repeating yourself.

But admissions essays are relatively short pieces of writing, and you — if you merit a place at a top b-school — are a multifaceted individual with an significant track record, so if you can’t find things to say to take up the word count this in itself flags that you have not been able to (or haven’t bothered to) properly investigate your own motivations or fully argue your merits.