Category Archives: MBA Essay Questions

How Strictly Must I Stick To The Word Limit On MBA Admissions Essays?

Here’s a question I get a lot from clients: “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?”

To answer this, it is essential–as always–to think about it from the MBA AdCom’s point of view. Put yourself in their shoes. Why do they set a word limit? 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 be emailing and incessantly asking the equivalent of: “Please Miss, how long must it be?”

Second, some applicants would write the great American novel, which would waste both their time and the Committee’s.

Third, limits provide a way of getting essays from different applicants to be more directly comparable, being the same length.

But there is play in the system. The purpose of the essays is to get to know you via your writing, and everyone knows that writing is a creative process. Certainly nobody expects you to hit the word count on the nail.

Note: don’t fuss the word count until they have exactly the number asked for. This is not an engineering or accounting task. You get no credit for being exact. You only get credit for a meaningful essay, well told.

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 indulgence 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.

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 in: “say what you have to say; say it once, strongly and clearly, then stop talking.”

This is the royal road to more powerful communications. Certainly there’s no merit in padding, waffling, or repeating yourself.

But admissions essays are relatively short pieces of writing, and — if you merit a place at a top b-school — you are a multifaceted, talented individual with a valuable track record.

So if you can’t find enough  to say to take up the word count, this in itself flags that you have not bothered to (or been able to) fully investigate your own motivations or present your merits.

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.”