What If You Wrote MBA Admissions Essays Not To Turn Them In? (And Then You Did)

Getting the 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, NY, is going to have to adopt an altogether more modulated tone than the doe-eyed violinist from Vietnam, and so on.

As I’m consistently helping candidates get this element of tone right in their essays — not by doing it for them, but by reflecting when I’m feeling the self-tooting trumpet is too loud or not loud enough — I’m always looking for ways to think more intelligently about it.

Recently I found myself nodding at a unique device suggested by Derrick Bolton, Director of Admissions at Stanford GSB, as quoted by Matt Symonds on Forbes. Bolton’s advises candidates to write the application as if they were writing it for themselves and not going to turn it in.

Why might this work?

Says 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 admisions 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 gentle persuasion, artful promotion, and marketing sass before you hit submit.