Tag Archives | Applications

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.

Fewer Words = More Power

Now that most top business schools have released their essay questions for for the entering class of 2013, there’s a lot of talk about the reduced essay word count. It started with Harvard Business School’s announcement on May 22 to reduce the essay portion of the application to two 400-word responses.  Now many other schools, such as MIT Sloan, Kellogg and Chicago Booth have reworked their applications to require fewer words.

Respect your reader

To that movement, I say, it’s great for the student because it mirrors reality. In my last article, I encouraged MBA applicants to consider their audience. That is, figure out what their needs are when reading you application package. Now, let’s take that best practice one step further: respect your reader’s time and attention.

Remember, leadership communication is about influencing your decision maker. At work it could be your boss. In a publication, it could be an unknown reader. In a new business pitch, it could be a potential investor. In admissions, it’s usually one reader with a stack of file folders and a 20-to-30 minute window.

These shorter essays will help you, no, force you, to write in a clearer way. I have no doubt that you can tell a story or two in a 400 word essay. Each word just has to carry more weight. And don’t forget to answer the question.

In your future career, you will be writing memos, or more realistically, emails, that clearly represent your ideas and support your recommendations.

You’ve got 30 minutes
Remember, your admissions reader has the same amount of time and limited attention span this year as she did last year.  That’s right; your essays will get the same amount of mindshare as they always did.  So a shorter essay actually helps you focus.  In the application process as well as real life, MBA students need to get to the point quickly and succinctly. So the application now requires a higher level of communication skill.

Fewer words will give your writing more power. Lots of words, or extraneous, random stories, often get in the way. A clean structure, and illustrative support for your key messages, will allow you to make your point with elegance.

Fewer words will require you to put more effort into the upfront work of figuring out what you want to say as well as how you want to say it.  Aspiring MBAs will need to work smarter to get their messaging across, and that will be helpful in the classroom, in the job search, and in their roles as leaders.

HBS Changes the Application. Now What?

On May 22, 2012, after dropping hints for years, Dee Leopold, director of admissions for Harvard Business School announced that they are

This is really my diploma

revising their application process in a significant way. For those of you who may have missed it, here are the details:

Essay Questions

All applicants must submit answers to two essay questions listed below.

Essays required for all applicants:

  • Tell us about something you did well. (400 words)
  • Tell us about something you wish you had done better. (400 words)

Joint degree applicants only:

  • How do you expect the joint degree experience to benefit you on both a professional and a personal level? (400 words)

First, let’s look at the official comments on the website. For the essays, they simply state, “Don’t overthink, overcraft and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don’t know your world can understand.”

Second, let’s think about the interview part of the MBA application. If you make the cut, you will be invited to interview. After that interview,

“Candidates will be required to submit a written reflection within 24 hours following the completion of the interview.”

Dee has explained it at length in Poets & Quants, (read her interview before reading that of admissions consultants) saying “We’re also trying to find ways to help the candidate. We know how anxiety producing and stressful this whole thing is.”  She’s also hosting an  MBA admissions webinar. Dee is very straightforward about the HBS admission requirements.

So let’s think about it. OK, they are reducing your essay requirement. This just means that HBS is  making clear that your grades, scores, and career progression are your first hurdle.  That’s no surprise! Harvard has always been selective in that way. It was never true that you could get in on the strength of your essays if you were weak in academics. Dee Leopold has always said out loud, “Hello, we’re a school.”

Now this doesn’t mean that if you have the numbers that you will automatically get in — that’s why essays still exist.  Career progression and quality recommendations also count — but they always did.  As for requiring that the student write fewer words — it’s still going to mean that you pick what you write about carefully. You’ll just have to pack in more meaning to each word. That’s plenty of room to tell a good story. I mean, Shakespearean sonnets are normally 120 words, and each speaks volumes.

And now  they are adding a 24-hour post interview response.  I admit that’s an interesting twist. I’ve never seen anything like it in business, although I have in political debates. I think the best way to think of it is to assume that nobody is trying to be nefarious.

Harvard Business School admissions tries its hardest to be straightforward. Says Dee, “We’re always in design/development mode. All throughout the year we meet and dream up ways that will make it easier for you to feel ‘understood’ and undertake assessment steps that map to what we do here in the classroom and what you will do in your careers.”

Let’s see how it all plays out

Advice from Warren Buffett on, yes, MBA essays

Imagine this: an admissions interviewer has read hundreds of essays, maybe thousands, by eager students trying to gain admission to their school. Many of those essays are written by those who are fully qualified, but just put down a laundry list of their accomplishments, like a resume in prose.  And they will be dinged.

Admissions committee members spend a long time writing questions that they believe will bring out the best in a candidate.  They leave those questions deliberately open ended so that the student can write about whatever he or she wants, but there are some rules of engagement.  The first is to answer the question; something I’ve blogged about in the past.  Always worth remembering.

The second is to write in plain English, that is, English free of jargon. Most people think that those who speak English as a second language have a hard time writing essays. It’s true that those who haven’t grown up writing English may have to take more time and get a native speaker to proof their essays. But the most cringe-worthy essays are those written by students who have spoken only English all their lives, but write in stilted prose or gobbledygook.  Writers fall into passive so that nobody knows who is writing the essay, they let nouns become verbs (e.g., incentivize), or they use their limited word budget to educate the committee about some arcane subject. The reader is either bored silly or has no idea of the point of the essay!

Consider Your Audience

Plain English is simple, straightforward writing. You’d think it was only championed by high school English teachers everywhere, but one of Plain English’s greatest fans is one of the most influential investors in the world: Warren Buffett. Claiming that “stilted jargon and complex construction” often hinder good communication, Buffett may channeling the admissions officer when he writes, “I’ve been unable to decipher just what is being said or, worse yet, had to conclude that nothing was being said.”

Buffett is no comedian. His advice is sound.  His wisdom in writing his famed investment reports holds true for those writing an admissions essay: consider the audience.  Think of the person who is reading your words.  Not a blank admissions committee, but a specific person.  You may have even met that individual at an MBA outreach event, on a school tour, or an admissions panel.

She has a name (the reader is often, but not always, female), and wants you to win her over.

But don’t take my word for it.  Here’s what the “oracle of Omaha” says:

One unoriginal but useful tip: Write with a specific person in mind. When writing Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report, I pretend that I’m talking to my sisters. I have no trouble picturing them: Though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them. My goal is simply to give them the information I would wish them to supply me if our positions were reversed. To succeed, I don’t need to be Shakespeare; I must, though, have a sincere desire to inform. No siblings to write to? Borrow mine: Just begin with “Dear Doris and Bertie.”

Actually, some of your readers may be experts in accounting and finance, but they are not experts in the subject of the essay, which is YOU.  It’s not dumbing down, it’s making your writing, and your story, accessible.

As for interesting…well, it’s about you isn’t it? How could it be otherwise?

10 Tips for Getting into Business School — Tip 9: Work Only on What You Can Control

Welcome back to the 10-Tips series.  We’re down to the wire — here on Tip 9, Work Only on the Part You Can Control.

I was anxious about mentioning the element of chance involved in the business school application process. I didn’t want the excellent applicants, along with the hard-working, underappreciated admissions committee professionals, to think that I am calling it crap shoot. It’s not. But you cannot control the entire process, particularly the outcome.

It’s Your Strategy
You cannot control the ultimate outcome, but you have some power to influence the inputs. Let’s take undergraduate grades. Think your GPA is a done deal? How about an alternative transcript? Take courses you overlooked, or even flubbed, when you were an undergraduate, then get A’s, and you have put your GPA in context. How about the GMAT? Test prep resources are readily available — I can recommend several programs and methodologies to help you improve your score and stay sane. And as we’ve discussed, your career path is in your control as well. (See Tip 2 on career progression).

Practical Tactics
Here are some tactical things you can absolutely control: the schools you visit and choose to apply to, when you are going to apply (what year? what round?), and very importantly, whom you ask to be your recommenders. You can take them out for coffee and share your aspirations. See if they are on board with doing the thoughtful and time-consuming work of writing the best recommendation.

You can also control the application timetable. Applying to business school is a huge undertaking with lots moving parts. You absolutely need to get all the bits and pieces together by the deadline… in the right time zone. Believe me, I know someone who did miss the deadline because of a time-zone issue; it happens.

Still, you cannot control the entire process. You cannot control who else is applying, or what the economy will look like when you hit “send.” You cannot control the mood of your application’s reader, or when your application is read within a cycle (some schools are more flexible about that, but trying to game it will make you crazy). You cannot control what the universe decides is the outcome. You just can’t.

From a Wharton Student Expert
I’m not the only one who believes there is some chance involved – in fact, I got the courage to write about this point from a forum post on Wharton’s Engage website (a great resource!):

Says Victor M. Lee, Wharton, class of 2011,
To some extent, yes, there is an element of luck. As applicants, we cannot control who else applies. But I would contend that the vast majority of the application process is under your control (how you choose to put your application together, where and how you choose to interview, how much you do in research into Wharton, how much introspection you perform, how well you do on standardized tests and previous academic coursework, how effective and accomplished you are in your career and extra-curricular activities, etc).


Besides, would the reward be so sweet if you knew the answer in advance?