A Dozen Tips for Your MBA Essay
Part of the business graduate school admissions process is the essay — your chance to speak directly to the people making the decisions. Learn to write a great essay with these dos and don’ts.
If you’re applying to business graduate school, the MBA essay is your opportunity to get personal and show more of yourself than fill-in-the-blank applications or transcripts ever could. But before you unleash your inner Faulkner, review these tips from Donna Spinella, assistant dean and director of the Duke MBA Cross Continent Program at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.
Spelling and Grammar Count.
“One or two tiny errors, of course, are no big deal,” says Spinella. A pattern of errors, though, is a red flag. “It often means one of two things: The communication skills are weak or that the person is careless.”
Presentation Counts, But Don’t Overdo It.
No handwritten essays on smudged paper, please. Otherwise, keep it straightforward and let the quality of your words make the impression. “There’s no need to gild the lily,” she says. “Putting it on fancy stationery or trying to jazz it up with funky fonts is not going to win you brownie points.”
Watch Your Length.
“If you really, really want to win the hearts of the people reading [your essay], stick to the requested length,” says Spinella, explaining the standard essay length requested is between two and three double-spaced pages. “We have readers who, if an essay runs significantly longer, just stop reading where we’ve set the page limit.”
An MBA essay is certainly not the place to be shy about your merits, but it’s no place to stretch the truth. “When parts of the application don’t fit together, it’s easy to surmise that someone is probably stretching the truth beyond optimistic interpretation,” she says.
Don’t Tell Readers What You Think They Want to Hear.
Schools receive thousands of essays. Distinguish yourself by answering thoughtfully. “We really do want to understand people’s own unique thoughts so tell us something unique. If you are not a real iconoclast, then at least describe your strengths, skills and potential contributions with the level of depth and passion you want us to believe you will bring to the program,” Spinella says.
Answer the Questions Asked.
“Everybody starts by answering the question, but then by the end, a lot of people are off on some completely different track,” Spinella says, advising applicants to constantly make sure they are answering the question asked.
Use Concrete, Personal Examples.
It’s much more powerful to read a personal experience in the answer to a question about leadership, for example, than just an opinion.
Show Your Desire to Attend the School to Which You’re Applying.
Even if you’re applying to 10 schools, don’t write one generic essay. “We’re interested in more than just why they want to go to business school, in general,” she says. “We want to hear why they specifically want to come to this school and this particular program.”
Use Your Essay to Explain Gaps.
Spinella says it’s not uncommon to receive a strong application that contains some spottiness. The essay is the place to explain what happened. That said, don’t diminish yourself in the essay. “We’re not looking for an apology,” she says. “We’re looking for an explanation.”
Have Someone Else Read Your Essay.
Spinella recalls a less-than-impressive essay on risk-taking in which the writer chose to write about whether or not to purchase a car. “Have someone else read it,” she says. “Ask ‘Is this really interesting? Would anybody care?’”
Show You’re a Hard Worker.
“We’re always reading between the lines to find commitment,” she says. Getting an MBA is daunting, and application essay readers are looking for qualities indicating applicants have what it takes to get through the program.
There Are Limits.
It’s an essay, not a confession. “Don’t tell us things that are too personal,” she warns. “Use the level of discretion you would use the first or second time you meet someone in a social setting.”
Your application essay is your opportunity to speak directly to the people making admissions decisions. Show them, as concisely and respectfully as possible, that you’re an individual capable of thriving at their school.