Category Archives: MBA Essays

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.

Why Enterprise-building is More Valuable than Management Consulting in MBA Essays

An oldie from the files, but still as relevant as it ever was to MBA applicants framing their career goals: why an enterprise-building career goal is more valuable than a management consulting career goal in MBA Admissions…

The Economist obituary of Swatch magnate Nicolas Hayek offers me a concrete example to explain why management consulting is a medium-to-weak long-term goal for MBA admissions.

In 1982 Hayek was brought in as a management consultant by a group of banks to advise them on the sale of Switzerland’s last big watchmaking conglomerate which they had bailed out a few years earlier. But, rather than merely consult on sale-exit strategies, Hayek created and led a group of industrialists who bought the conglomerate from the bankers, and built it into the world’s largest watch company, with almost a quarter of the global market, with Swatch as the lead brand.

As the Economist says: “Mr Hayek’s strategy of making cheap watches more cheaply and expensive watches more desirable helped lift the rest of the Swiss watch industry, which is once again leading the world. Last year Swiss firms exported nearly 23m timepieces worth more than $12 billion, a figure that would undoubtedly have been far, far smaller had Mr Hayek stayed in management consulting.”

The point is: Hayek had two careers ahead of him in 1982. He could have stayed a management consultant, advising on deals, for a fairly prestigious, reasonably well-paid life. Or he could do what he did: turn the ailing consortium around through industry-innovative operations, cost restructuring, and marketing management, to totally renew the Swiss watch industry. He was a leader, innovator, decision-maker, and business-builder at the ultimate level.

If Hayek was to have presented his career options to Harvard or INSEAD or LBS adcoms, which of the two routes do you think the they would have favored more?

It’s fine to say you want to spend some time in MC in the short term, taking advantage of the rapid exposure to different industries and skills. But at the end of the day, management consultants are advisors, not doers. They are always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

If Hayes had stayed a management consultant his value to everyone, including his MBA alma mater, would have been a fraction of what it became, and his obituary would never have been splashed across the world’s financial media.

When the admissions committee of a top MBA program is looking at you, they want to think that you may possibly one day be somebody like Hayes (in your own industry and in your own way.)

If your career goal is consulting itself, you are telling them there is no chance of that.