Archive | Essays

Wrestling with MBA Application Essays

You are thinner, of course

Writing MBA essays can be hard work. If you know anyone who is applying to business school you may have heard them muttering to themselves, “What does matter most to me and why?” (Stanford GSB) or  “What do you hope to gain professionally from the Wharton MBA?”  (or any other school).  They may be victims of an energy-draining syndrome that shows itself every year about this time called MBA essay nightmare.  It’s a regular sinkhole of drafting, pondering, redrafting, questioning, redrafting, wondering if it is getting better or worse, redrafting, and whining.

The essays matter.  Of course the GMAT does too, and, but the real differentiator is the answer to the question behind all those questions, “Why should we admit you to our business school?”

Your answer is going to be as unique as your own DNA. But getting there is quite the chore. You could watch this MBA Podcaster video on YouTube regarding essays (in which I feature with admissions reps from Wharton and Columbia Business School), or you could read on.

Writing is HARD. You aren’t the only sufferer.

I’m going to tell you a secret.  Writing isn’t easy for anyone.  Oh, every so often, someone will tell you that they whipped up their essays the night before the deadline and were accepted everywhere they applied.   Fine.  That person is in the minority.

If you are finding that you are writing and rewriting, and rewriting again, and then stumbling, and rewriting, you are not alone.  Ernest Hemingway was said to have rewritten the ending of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” 39 times. That’s just the ending.  That means he already struggled with getting words down on paper for the first time.  Remember the movie “Adaptation,” where the main character  nearly drives himself crazy from writers block?   That should remind you that lots of people have faced down a blank page.

To write those essays, you have to start somewhere, and believe me, your first try doesn’t have to be perfect.  In fact, it can be terrible. Annie Lamott, author of Bird by Bird, a wonderful book on the writing process, life, and everything else, says it is ok to write whatever comes into your mind. “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous,” she says. “In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”

Death by Rewriting

Or what if you are looking at an essay that you’ve rewritten two or three times, and it still isn’t going anywhere?  It feels like it is getting worse word by word. Don’t be afraid to stop writing.  Read it first thing in the morning if you are an early person, or right before you go to bed if you are a late person. Or both. Keep your computer or a pen and a printout of the draft by your bed.  Print it out, walk around with it.

If you hate it, talk the essay over with a friend, confidant, or advisor.  Tell them the story without worrying about the words on the paper.  Does it makes sense? Are you excited by it? If not, go back and forth with this other person: have them tell you when they feel your energy.  If they don’t feel your energy at all when you tell them your story, believe me, the admissions officer won’t feel it either.  You may have to start all over.

These are just some quick ideas to remind you that it is perfectly OK for you to feel stuck. This is really, really normal.  Just don’t be afraid to rewrite, revise, and reconsider your own assumptions.  You probably don’t have to go around 39 times, but give yourself permission to work it until it’s right.

A Reminder: Answer the Question

People always ask: How do I make myself stand out in an MBA application?  I have three words of advice: Answer the questions.  Advice so simple it barely seems worth mentioning.

At a recent school panel, a Yale School of Management admissions officer underscored just how much she and her colleagues pay attention to those answers. That’s because business schools craft their essay questions deliberately. They really do care. To put it in modern business jargon, a rep from UVA’s Darden School of Business encouraged audience members to “take ownership” of each school’s questions.  She’s right. Let them be a chance for earnest self-reflection; let them guide you through a process that not only gets you into business school, and leaves you with a deeper self-understanding regardless of the end result.

A lofty goal, and it’s a little too easy to get cynical, so try not to.  It never gets old.  That’s because the questions are deceptively simple and designed to get you to answer the question behind the question.  You are given a prompt, for example, “Why do you want an MBA”? That’s pretty straightforward, so answer it.  You want to be as unambiguous as you can. 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. And don’t forget to answer the questions behind the question: why you?  Or, more precisely, what is it about you that puts the very special you at your computer writing an application to business school right here, right now.

No matter how you answer whatever they ask, you can still be humble and compelling in your answer. Say, for example, you want to offer as one of your reasons that you will add to the classroom debate. Support the statement, just as you would in a business problem or a pitch for angel investor money. You might add to the debate because you were raised speaking three languages, or because you were one of 12 children, or 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.

Finally, just a little admonishment from another one of the panelists at the outreach program last week. Resist the urge to force answers to one school’s essay questions into answers to another school’s questions.  The message to your evaluators is that you don’t care enough about the school or are too lazy to take the time to write a genuine, unique response.  I absolutely positively know for sure that you are not lazy, so be forewarned.

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?

Tired of my advice? How about from an HBS first-year student?

You could wear this on your blue blazer

You could wear this on your blue blazer

Some of the best admissions advisers are those who have gone through the process recently, and I think that one of the posters over at Wall Street Oasis, has been incredibly helpful in his musings about getting into Harvard Business School.  His posts and his responses are incredibly thoughtful, and I suggest you take a few minutes to go through his entire 2-page Q&A.  This is one articulate and humble guy.  He’s also honest and will tell you that he didn’t even get an interview at Wharton, blew the interview at Stanford, and was put on “further consideration” for HBS.  So just remember, this stuff isn’t predictable.

I’m quoting him below and have highlighted some of the most important points about how you differentiate yourself in the HBS essay.  You’ll see right here on this website a video on how to differentiate yourself in the short answers, and now here are some great tips on the essay.  Remember: they are looking for someone who can add to the class of already excellent MBA students.

From Wall Street Oasis:

The professor who heads the first year curriculum told us something that stuck in my head: “you weren’t selected because you’re the best at learning things (though we think you’re very good at that, too) but rather because we think you’re the best at teaching.” So when you write your application, think about what you’ll teach people: is there something unique to your background (whether work experience or otherwise) that causes you to see the world – especially business world – differently? Do you have some special skill or interest that you could introduce to HBS? Do you have a way of pulling people together (whatever the style) that could be beneficial to have in a section?

I’d highlight the sort of thinking and domain knowledge that someone with a Corp Fin background could bring to a classroom that would contrast, say, the sort of knowledge that someone with a PE background or IB background could bring. Has your job taught you interesting things that you wouldn’t realize about how the world works if you hadn’t had that experience? If not, can you seek out such experiences? Can you get your bosses to attest to that? A lot of people think that PE types are auto-admits while Corp Fin guys face much harder slogs. I’m more skeptical; I think if you make this case well, you’ve got a huge tailwind.

Another thing I’d do is find something – whether in your job or outside it – that shows that you enjoy contributing to teams. It doesn’t have to save the world, it doesn’t have to be prestigious, it doesn’t have to be big… it just has to show that, in your day-to-day life, you’re the sort of guy who voluntarily contributes to the groups you work with (b/c it means you’ll be a voluntary contributor to your section). Please make it something you like; it’s much harder to do anything of consequence without intrinsic motivation.

The key here is that you are showing the admissions committee how you add to the experience of the other people who are trying to get the most out of their two years. Remember, business school, particularly at HBS, characterized by the case method, is the ultimate crowd-sourced experience. How can you contribute?

Storytelling to Demonstrate the Real You in B-school Essays

As you sit down to draft your first essay, you might want to think about telling the story of you.  That’s the most effective way to stand out from the rest of the pack and show just how interesting you are.

Tell Stories

Whether you are writing essays, crafting presentations, or getting ready for an interview. Why do stories work? Because they demonstrate behaviors, and show in a few words a whole lot about a person’s character. Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s Poker and Moneyball, and possibly the best business writer on the planet, has been called “a genius at showing how small anecdotes revealed larger truths.”
In business school applications and interviews, telling stories brings those bullet points on your resume to life. But as an applicant, you not only have word limits, but you don’t have a lot of time to get and keep a reader’s attention.

A Story Without a Challenge is Not a Story
I have some good news! All you have to do is follow a few storytelling rules. The most important is that you’ve got to include some kind of challenge.

Most stories in the world are based on myths, and the hero who goes out to slay the monster is one of the oldest. Screenwriters love this tale; many of your favorite TV shows, movies, and video games are based on this theme, which was articulated by Joseph Campbell, a comparative mythologist. In his many writings, he talked about the archetypical hero, an everyman who is challenged and changed by his adventure. Just look at Luke Skywalker, or Katniss Everdeen. But if you look deeper at the model, you can notice the way challenges force heroes to grow and change; you can even find it in characters ranging from Piper Chapman in Orange is the New Black to Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones.

Set It Up and Explain the HOW
Even the littlest success (or failure) in your career history can turn into a story.  Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Take a bullet point from your resume, for example
Revamped a sales memorandum within three days for major client on sale of its stake in a European software firm; attracted 28 bidders.”
A. Identify challenge: Overhaul an important document for a very important client in a short period of time.
B. Demonstrate tangible results : Made company attractive to bidders, client happy, your boss happy.

Step 2: Explore HOW you arrived at results. This is where it gets interesting:
A. Took the time to figure out a plan (skills: ability to strategize, think through a problem)
B. Pulled in a SWAT team to help – for example, other analysts to run numbers or set up charts and visuals. You may have cajoled, offered pizza, or traded tasks. (skills: teamwork, influence, follow-through)
C. Was able to understand what senior partners needed in the sales memo (skills: managing up, anticipating requirements)

The Twist
In line with most challenges, you probably had a twist which made the story even more interesting. For example, in the middle of the process the stock market crashed/a tsunami hit/a subcontractor blew up. You and your team stayed focused and arrived at the result needed.

Meanwhile, as you go through the exercise, remember to keep yourself likeable – keep in mind that your reader is looking for self-awareness, where you acknowledge your own doubts and foibles. Keep it real, keep it humble, and you will absolutely win the hearts and minds of your readers.

What You Wish You Had Known Before Applying to Business School

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A student I worked with, let’s call her Jennifer, was recently admitted to Wharton (really) and waitlisted at her first-choice school, UC Berkeley. She was also a reapplicant, and has learned While waiting, she agreed to offer advice from the trenches, of one who succeeded in the process. She discusses four issues: staying committed to the goal, receiving feedback, waiting (lists), and financial matters. This is very useful stuff!


I am so glad that I reapplied. I was rejected from the four top business school programs I applied to three years ago (all without an interview). While it stung to get so little traction in the business school process, I did not take it as a sign that I wasn’t “meant” for business school. Instead I tried to understand the weaknesses in my application and knew that I would try again and do it better. I have learned so much in the application process and am very happy I have even more experience that I can bring to business school when I attend.

Get feedback! Make sure the people you are asking have something valuable to add to the process and take the time to listen — better to find two people who will give you great feedback than send your materials to 10 people and listen to no one.

Also, be strategic in your decisions about who you want to use for help in the application process, and seek out those people early on. Make sure you really WANT someone’s feedback before asking for it; I have been on both sides of the equation. Recently, a friend asked for feedback on his essays. I spent a lot of time on his essays and when I returned them it seemed that he hardly looked at my suggestions. He was giving me the essays because he thought that was what you were supposed to do, but had little interest in following up on the suggestions or incorporating feedback.

In terms of my advice for people who have been waitlisted or general feedback for students after they have applied: the most valuable thing I’ve done in my application process is turn every moment I have been frustrated into an opportunity to do something. When I found myself going crazy waiting for one program to get back to me while another waited on my decision, I brainstormed a list of all the things I had accomplished since I applied and wrote a letter to the school where I was waitlisted explaining those accomplishments. I created a campaign fueled by waiting and (sometimes) panic and created something productive. I am so glad I did this, because the time you spend sitting anxiously waiting and checking MBA chat forums is, in the end, not useful (though I did that too).

Given the calculus course I am taking and other requirements, I have completely neglected to begin financial planning and thinking about the costs and consequences of my decision. I wish I had done this in a systematic way earlier, not only so that I would be better prepared and informed about my choices and responsibilities, but also because finances are an important part of my final decision (for instance, I am trying to make a decision about two programs that cost vastly different amounts of money). Now I am finding myself overwhelmed at the process of tackling everything right now. If I had to do it again, I would start planning and filling out financial aid information earlier and getting the advice of students, faculty, family and others about their tips on going through the process.

This story has been updated since Jennifer graduated – from UC Berkeley Haas, her first-choice school. She turned down Wharton to go to Haas, and has had notable success with the start-up she launched during business school.

This story has been updated since Jennifer graduated – from UC Berkeley Haas, her first-choice school. She turned down Wharton to go to Haas, and has had notable success with the start-up she launched during business school.
A student I worked with, let’s call her Jennifer, was admitted to Wharton and waitlisted at her first-choice school, UC Berkeley. While waiting, she agreed to offer advice from the trenches, of one who succeeded in the process. She discusses four issues: staying committed to the goal, receiving feedback, waiting (lists), and financial matters. This is very useful stuff!
A student I worked with, let’s call her Jennifer, was admitted to Wharton and waitlisted at her first-choice school, UC Berkeley. While waiting, she agreed to offer advice from the trenches, of one who succeeded in the process. She discusses four issues: staying committed to the goal, receiving feedback, waiting (lists), and financial matters. This is very useful stuff!