Answer the Question

There are only a few real rules in writing. In fact, there are so few rules to good composition that the best-ever book on the subject, The Elements of Style, is only 105 pages and tucks tidily into a Kate Spade handbag.

In business writing, and especially in writing essays for business school applications, there’s one big rule above all else: Answer the Question.

Most of you reading this blog have written business memos – even if your boss hasn’t specifically asked you a question, you know there’s a question behind the assignment. For example, if you are working on a memo, or even a PowerPoint presentation on where to open a factory in China, the question is likely, “Where should Acme Company open a factory in China?” Your memo will answer the question, say, “Shenzhen” and then support that answer. In fact, the title of the memo or the PowerPoint might even be “Reasons for Opening a Factory in Shenzhen.” The rest of the document will support that answer. For example, “We should open a factory in Shenzhen because a)it has a special economic zone b)it has great infrastructure and c)it’s close to popular shipping routes.” I could be all wrong, but you get the idea.


No Beating Around the Bush

Business school essays are much like business memos. You are given a question, for example, “What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?” (Harvard Business School) — it’s pretty straightforward, or here’s one that cuts right to the chase, “Why would you and your peers select you for admission, and what impact would you make as a member of the Kellogg community?” (Northwestern Kellogg). Remarkably, a lot of students are shy about coming right out and answering the question. What’s your career vision? Answer it: I want to be an entrepreneur, or I want to change the way health care is delivered around the world, or I want to use private equity to support clean tech investments. There are as many answers are there are people applying, because your answer will be unique to you. But you have to do one thing: answer clearly, and preferably, answer up front.
Also like with a business memo, you need to support the answer to the question. This is especially important with Kellogg’s style of “why should we pick you” question. Say, for example, you want to offer as one of your reasons that you will add to the classroom debate. You can support that statement the same way you would spell out support the argument for a factory in Shenzhen. You might say you add to the debate because you have a unique perspective from having been raised by wolves, or because you were an Olympic curling champion, or because you speak Esperanto. Or you might add to the debate because you are passionate about number theory. Whatever you decide to write about is up to you. But you have to frame your response so it answers the question, and support that response.

That’s all. Just remember that the writers of those questions write them that way because they wanted them answered. And remember, it’s no different from a business assignment. You’d answer your boss’ question, wouldn’t you?

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