Category Archives: MBA Essay Questions

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.

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.