Category Archives: MBA Essay Questions

MBA Admissions Optional Essay: To Do Or Not To Do?

As I look across my clients pushing their MBA essays for Round 2 deadlines, one common question I get is “should I use the optional essay?” (The add-on question at the end of the set, that basically says: ‘If there’s something else you’d like say, say it here.’)

So do you use it, yes or no? And if yes, what should you be talking about?

Traditionally this essay has been the place to mention and mitigate weaknesses. If your work history has been a little choppy, or your GPA a bit up-and-down, or similar, here is where you get credit by (a) ‘fessing up in advance of being ‘found out’ (Adcom sees all, so better to get in ahead of it) and (b) giving your explanation.

In this sense, the optional essay is not ‘optional’ if you have a weakness in your profile. If you have a gap in your employment history, or an ‘F’ on your record, or any such item that is not addressed elsewhere, it MUST be addressed here.

Use of the optional essay should be short and didactic. This is not the place to get poetic. Reveal the problem; make the most of the steps you took and/or are taking to ameliorate it, and stop writing. You don’t need to use the full length in this essay.

MBA admissions death comes to you via this essay if you name the problem but then find ways to excuse yourself or blame others. The admissions test is: can you take responsibility for your own mistakes? If yes, your application goes forward. If no, you’re dinged.

But, here’s the rider in choosing to use the essay or not: if you don’t have a good explanation for a problem, better to say nothing. In other words, if your salary is low in comparison with the applicant pool because you are working in a non-profit environment, that’s worth a mention. If your salary is low because you haven’t been promoted in 4 years, better to say nothing than draw attention to it.

All this, above, applies when you have a weakness or irregularity that demands discussion. But how about if you don’t? Can you use the optional essay to add another story, to tell Adcom a bit more about you, and make one final push for admission?

Traditional MBA admissions thinking says don’t use the optional essay in this way. It looks under-confident and can be interpreted as overreaching. But times change. And current practice seems to accept that if you have a positive point that is additional and special, that the admissions committee needs to know to have a genuinely better understanding of you, then you should put it down here.

Whatever you do, don’t use the essay to provide a summary of your application, just in case Adcom isn’t smart enough to have gotten it the first time you said it. What happens if you do that? I know you know… ding.

What If You Wrote MBA Admissions Essays ‘For Your Eyes Only’ (And Then Submitted Them)?

Here’s one from the files: Getting your tone right in MBA Admissions essays — particularly a fine balance between self-confidence and humility — is really tricky.

There are no hard and fast rules for this, and the exact mix depends on the candidate. The swaggering quant at BlackRock is going to have to adopt a much more modulated tone than the doe-eyed violinist from Vietnam, and so on.

I help candidates check get this element of tone right in their essays — not by doing it for them, but by reflecting back when I’m feeling the self-tooting trumpet is too loud, or in fact not loud enough

I’m always looking for ways to think more intelligently about this, and I remember some unique device suggested by Derrick Bolton, then Director of Admissions at Stanford GSB, as quoted at the time by Matt Symonds on Forbes.

Bolton’s advised candidates to write the application as if they were writing it for themselves and not going to turn it in.

Why might this work?

Said Bolton: “You don’t need to lie to yourself. [Private] self-reflection allows you to think about the things that bring meaning to you, and the knowledge and experience you need to aspire to be the person you want to become.”

There’s a lot in this. If you were to write strictly for yourself, you’d only be BS’ing yourself if you weren’t 100% honest about your motivations and intentions, and reasons for “Why an MBA” or “Why Stanford,” etc. You would hardly set out to “impress” yourself or to write what you think you want to hear.

Were you to be writing in your own private journal, you would sift honestly and reflectively through your experiences, and genuinely try to join the dots between your past accomplishments and future aspirations via an MBA at the particular institution.

The suggestion therefore offers a compelling device to cut through a lot of the preening and bluster that turns good candidates into bad applicants. It is a way to raise transparency and find that “genuine voice” that MBA admissions directors want to hear.

Having said all this… let’s not for a second be fooled that Bolton or any other admissions gatekeeper lives anywhere other than the real world. Neither Bolton, nor anyone else, got to be where they are by turning in their private reflections.

So, stay smart about the process. Once you’ve written your essays absolutely as-if for yourself, go through them again to add back clear admissions value, some gentle persuasion, a touch of artful promotion, and a dose of marketing sass before you hit “submit.”

‘Bait the hook’ says The Guardian. Its also there in MBA Admissions Strategy

Today a shoutout for this how-to-write better article in the Guardian, which happily says exactly what MBA Admissions Strategy says about anticipating reader needs and serving those needs in MBA admissions essays.

Here’s the Guardian: “Call it audience awareness, call it decorum, call it reader relations if you like, but the key principle of all persuasive writing is customer service. I’m fond of a quote – variously attributed – that says: “When you go fishing, you bait the hook with what the fish likes, not with what you like.” An obvious principle, easily lost sight of.

“Putting yourself in the audience’s shoes governs everything from the shape of your argument to the choice of vocabulary. Ask what they do and don’t know about the subject, and what they need to; not what you know about it. Ask what they are likely to find funny, rather than what you do. What are the shared references that will bring them on board? Where do you need to pitch your language? How much attention are they likely to be paying?”

Here’s MBA Admissions Strategy: “MBA admissions success turns on the simplest and oldest rule in communications strategy: to win, you need to connect your objectives with those of your audience. You need to understand what your target need to see or is ready to hear, and to increase the overlap between that and what you say…

“Conveying fit between an item and its target audience is like marketing in the sense that you are selling a value proposition (you) to a consumer-client (the admissions committee) in a situation where the consumer has lots of other choices. You have to understand their needs, wants, and desires so you know what they value and why they value it, and how to pitch your product within this value system. Like any market communicator, you need to research consumer preferences, and coordinate various methods of communication (essays, interviews, recommendations, etc.) to make it clear why you are an attractive and necessary product, so that you get picked off the shelf. You create a coordinated campaign to influence the admissions officers’ “buying” decision, and manage this campaign as it unrolls over weeks or months…

“Understanding your admissions task in these terms should turn your application world upside down: it is about you but not just about you. It’s about them, and the overlap between you and them. Companies don’t make products and then try to sell them. They study the market, determine needs, and produce accordingly…

(BUT) “There is an important, immediate caveat. Nothing about this market-communications approach implies that you need to or should try to bend yourself into something you are not, or to what you think the mold of the ideal business school applicant is, and “package” yourself as such. There is no such mold. In fact, trying to be the stereotypical candidate puts you right outside the successful profile because the admissions committee wants and needs a full spread of different, diverse, authentic individuals, not an applicant stereotype…

“Therefore, your first task is always to be highly individualized, authentic, absolutely true to yourself—and then beyond that also savvy as to which parts of your unique special selfhood also happen to overlap best with the admissions committee’s needs and preferences.”