Tag Archives: MBA Essays

How HBS Writes. Write Like That.

Have a look at the message Dee Leopold, MD of Harvard Business School Admissions, sent last month to HBS R1 applicants. The mail confirms receipt of application (heading off the inevitables who call to ask “did you get my application?”) and gives a brief description of the way forward.

What’s important here is not the content, but the writing style. Check it out:

Dear [    ],

This message confirms that you’re a Round 1 HBS applicant. All of us here on the Admissions team are pleased that you’d like to be a student here.

Let me tell you what will happen next.

Within a day or so of our Round 1 deadline, we begin to review all submitted applications.  We have a senior team who reads and makes decisions as to who moves forward and who doesn’t.

“Moving forward” means being invited to interview.  We expect that interview invitations will be issued in early October.  Interviews will be conducted from mid-October through November.  All of the necessary details will be in the invitation.

“Not moving forward” means that we are unable to admit you.  We want you to be able to move ahead with other plans so we will send these decisions out in October.

Some Round 1 applicants will be asked to remain under consideration and be reviewed again with Round 2 applicants.  We call that “further consideration” and the details will be communicated to this group in mid-October.

Regards,

Dee Leopold
Managing Director, MBA Admissions and Financial Aid

Now… if YOU were writing a letter to the thousands of HBS applicants, would you write like this? Or might you have done the following…

Dear Applicant,

The Harvard Business School hereby confirms receipt of your application for admissions in Round 1. We would like to thank you for your application and advise you of the forthcoming process…

Sound familiar? Ouch.

You get the difference. If you don’t believe me, believe Dee: it’s not only fine, it’s good to write simply and unpretentiously, as you would normally talk. Mind that you don’t fall overboard into slang and half-sentences. Just be practical and personal, using words and phrases you would normally use, and you will get it right.

 

Cut the Empty Calories from Your MBA Essay Text

An oldie from the files, but relevant to many of the essays I’m seeing (you know who you are!) 🙂

So I repost what I was motivated to write two years ago:

Let me quote Wikipedia: “Empty calories are a measurement of the energy present in high-energy foods with poor nutritional profiles, typically from processed carbohydrates or fats. An empty calorie has the same energy content of any other calorie but lacks accompanying nutrients such as vitamins, dietary minerals, antioxidants, amino acids, or in the case of refined grains, fiber.”

Empty calories define most fast food, sugary drinks, and popular cereals — so much so that regulators have reigned in advertising low-food-value items to children. (Food conglomerates have responded by adding back vitamins, minerals, etc. to cereals and other prepared foods.)

Why do I raise this? Because an MBA admissions essay — like any other piece of writing — is a meal for the reader. The reader’s hope and quiet prayer is that the text will deliver the informational nutrients they are looking for, with little fat or waste.

Consider something like this: “My journey to this point has been challenging, but the lessons I learned have been most meaningful — I truly have seen that a new beginning is an opportunity to start again, that life’s challenges are the best way to show one’s capability and forge memorable experiences, and that through passion and perseverance one can make a difference in the world.”

Or this: “I believe the best leaders are those who do things for the right reasons, grounded in a thorough understanding of economics, business, strategy, and innovation. I want to be a leader who is open-minded, can manage complex situations, and empowers people.”

Forget the turgid writing and cliche’s-running-amok for a moment. That can be fixed.

The point is, even if fixed, there is still nothing there. From the Adcom readers’ point of view there is no nutrition in the text, nothing that tells them anything interesting or specific or memorable about these applicants and why they should be admitted to b-school. There is no data, there is no record of action, no unique insights. Just words taking up space. That is, just empty calories.

The task of MBA essays is to explain your admissions value to Adcom, and you can’t achieve this via empty text. You must present nutrition-laden text, or expect to be dinged.

This means excoriating anything and everything that tends towards vacant, weary generalizations. Cut that to create space for reader nourishment — discussion of specific well-chosen experiences that show you in action, developing unique skills and fresh non-obvious insights about yourself, about your future aspirations, and about management and leadership.
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Amen Mr Jobs

The sad news today is Steve Jobs is dead, and America and the world has lost one of the most capable and innovative leaders ever born.

Steve Jobs’ Commencement address to graduating Stanford students in 2005 is the kind of orienting motivational document that is worth reading from time to time no matter who you are and what you do. But, in the spirit of better MBA applications, which is what this blog is 100 percent about, it’s worth going there today specifically to draw some lessons.

Lesson 1: Structure

In his opening few words, Jobs tells his audience: “Today I want to tell you three stories from my life.” What is he doing? He’s saying, here is the structure of what’s to come. Three stories. He’s signposted it in just one sentence, with no artifice and no fuss, and via these few words everyone knows what is coming and where they are all the way through the program. That’s being kind to your listener (or reader.) Kindness is often rewarded.

Lesson 2: Stories

Jobs needs to communicate fairly high-level and potentially abstract notions to do with choice, motivation, learning, patience, luck, love – and so on — to students. He could (so many do…) say something like: “It’s really important to be motivated and stay focused, and keep your focus when things go against you because sometimes adversity has good consequences you can’t see at the time …” Yawn.

Instead, he tells stories – relating concrete situations and events about himself. You are pulled into his life, prickled by the detail, listening or reading on willingly to know what happened next and how it turned out.

The stories make the point he wants to make all by themselves. Just one example: He doesn’t say: “I had no money when I dropped out of college, but I didn’t need much at that age.” He says: “I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it.”

Relevant, colorful story detail will make your interesting to your Adcom reader or MBA admissions interviewer; being interesting will get you noticed; getting noticed will go a long way to getting you admitted to the b-school you are applying to.

Lesson 3: Why an MBA?

Job’s again: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

When you answer the ‘Why-an-MBA’ question that all applications ask, this is what is at stake: not how will b-school put you on the next rung of a ladder, but how it will put you on or further along your life path. You don’t need a career blueprint – lot’s will change. But you do need to show the Admissions Committee some sense of what your heart and intuition calls you courageously to become, and how the MBA from their school will help you get there.

* See also How to Dent the Universe (or how to apply for an MBA like Steve Jobs would)