What MBA Adcoms Want is an Authentic Expression of Self

There is an old post from Business Week that I find as current as ever, about how MBA Adcoms set about thinking up MBA admissions essay questions.

The context is, increasingly over time, business schools are asking fewer essay questions in total, often swapping text questions for multimedia input.

Part of the reason b-school Adcoms are asking for fewer questions is they don’t get what they want from the answers.

What they very often get is a generic “promo-style” answer from the applicant, telling the admissions committee what they think the committee wants to hear.

If an essay prompt results in thousands of formulaic responses it will be pulled when Adcoms sit down to refine their questions based on the quality of answers they got the previous year.

There’s a lot MBA applicants can learn from knowing what Adcom’s task themselves to achieve (or more specifically, what they try to avoid getting back) when they compose a good admissions question.

Liz Riley Hargrove, Associate Dean for admissions at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, told Business Week how admissions officers pass boardroom hours lobbing edits back and forth to craft the perfect question.

They answer each other’s questions. If Adcom members themselves answer the question generically, it is back to the drawing board.

What they don’t want is your elegantly varnished cookie-cutter answer that takes no risks about who you are and the choices you have made so far in life, and how those have worked out. What they do want is an authentic expression of self, something that reveals at least a part of who you really are and what has shaped you.

Taking risks doesn’t mean you are welcome make mistakes in grammar or tone or style, or you may discuss inappropriate topics or waste words capturing little admissions value. That’s taking a bad risk.

It does mean you can be yourself. Really, truly. Being who you really are, and saying what your really want is a good risk.

How can you “be yourself?” By saying things about you that are honest, that are specific in time and place, and unique only to you. This is the way to achieve an authentic voice and intimate tone in your communications.

If what you say could just as easily be in the next applicant’s essay, you’ve failed an important test in MBA admissions essay writing.