About a week ago, I gave an MBA essay workshop to about 25 aspiring students and each one was remarkable. I don’t think they all would have agreed with my statement until they saw it with their own eyes.
To start the evening off, we went around the room, and each person gave one true and one false statement about themselves. You can guess how it turned out—everyone’s true statement was more interesting than their false statement. One woman was an avid motorcyclist, another had been an NFL cheerleader, one guy was a professional poker player and another owned a spa. I promise! I did not stack the deck.
These were amazing people who were humble enough to think they weren’t amazing. Perhaps too humble?
In fact, many students I meet think they are just routine—if they are overachievers they tell me they have “cookie cutter” backgrounds for an MBA program, so they won’t stand out. If they have an atypical background, they think that they are unqualified if they haven’t worked for McKinsey or Goldman Sachs. Everyone thinks the other guy is the perfect applicant.
To make matters worse, many aspiring students read the sample essays in get-into-MBA-school guides and think that they haven’t achieved enough because they haven’t single-handedly saved the world from Somali pirates.
Here’s the deal: nearly everyone I meet is qualified to get into an excellent business school program, because they are all really dynamic, interesting people. That’s because each one of them has had a set of experiences different from anyone else’s and has influenced the world in their own special way.
One fellow I met had written a fairly boring set of essays about his work achievements. I couldn’t find the passion. We talked about his outside interests, and I had learned he was an avid skier. Then I learned he been a member of the U.S. National Ski Patrol for a number of seasons. I asked, “Did you ever save anyone’s life?” Of course he did, but he probably didn’t even know which life he saved. He made a difference, that’s for sure. And he got into Harvard Business School.
Still, not everyone needs to write about life and death experiences. It’s ok to write about running a road race even if you think everyone is writing about the IronMan Triathlon. What if that road race is as big a challenge to you as a marathon might be to a more experienced runner? You set up your goals, you taught yourself to put one foot in front of another, and you did it. You don’t have to tell the admissions committee that you did it because you wanted to lose five pounds; it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you set a goal and you met it. Now that’s something to write about.