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The Pitfalls of MBA Admission Essays

by Linda Abraham

Take a few buzzwords like "synergy," "global village," "e-commerce," "empower," "diversity." Season with acronyms B2B, B2C, IPO, M&A, VC. Stir in generous platitudes about "forces that molded you into the person you are today" and "the top-notch faculty, diverse student body, and outstanding alumni network" at the schools to which you are applying. Cook on your hard drive while seeking feedback from a bevy of your fifty closest colleagues, friends, and relatives. And voila! You have an MBA application essay.

No, you may have a recipe for rejection.

All too often MBA applicants grope for a recipe for success, a one-size-fits-all approach to writing the essays. Push the right buttons, stir in the correct ingredients, and you'll have it made. Right? Wrong! That recipe doesn't exist. You aren't making pancakes here; you're trying to portray yourself as a multi-faceted, one-of-a kind gem. How do you do that? Use the tools below to focus on your uniqueness, accomplishments, and strengths as you refine your essays.

1) To thine own self be true.
Sincere self-reflection forms the basis for insightful essays. Go beyond the stereotypes of a marketer, an immigrant, an IT professional, a member of a particular ethnic group. Go deep into yourself so that you will answer distinctively and honestly.

Examine all areas of your background to determine which unusual qualities and experiences you can contribute to your class. When have you overcome obstacles? Where did you excel? What is important to you - besides obtaining an MBA? Why? Where have you served someone or some cause other than yourself? Why? What distinguishes you from the stereotypical candidates from your field? And of course, when have you motivated and led others? Why did you choose this particular venue for leadership?

The answers to these questions form the raw material of your essays. You will mine them again and again as you go through the application process. If you go through this stage with sincerity and integrity, you will find the gold vein. Fool's gold is for those who lazily fool themselves.

2) Do your homework.
You have to know what you want to do with the degree and why you are applying to the particular programs you have chosen. An incredible amount of information about the schools and their programs is available. Use it first to determine which schools you should apply to. Then use it to target your essays for each particular school.

3) Look at the application as a whole and use the essays to bring out information not found elsewhere.
In the essays, don't merely repeat the superficial information contained in your resume or provided in those little boxes elsewhere in the application. Highlight your multi-faceted personality, diverse interests, and accomplishments.

Strategize. While you certainly want to write about significant professional achievement, shouldn't the adcoms also know you are a disciplined athlete who has competed on a master's swim team for years? Perhaps you founded a bereavement support group in your native land where such groups are unheard of, or took up violin after you began earning a living, thus fulfilling a childhood dream, and are today part of a local orchestra. Or maybe you rejected a promotion to care for an ailing parent.

In any case, determine which achievements best answer each individual question and in combination with the other essays and the rest of your application, present the most complete and powerful portrait of you.

4) Develop a theme for each essay.
In one-sentence, a theme should summarize your essay and answer the question. This theme--the point you are trying to convey--may or may not appear verbatim in the essay, but it should guide you in writing and ensure that you stay on topic. Throw out anything that doesn't support your theme.

It is particularly important to clearly state your theme if you are writing about more than one event or aspect of your life. Stating a lucid theme immediately following the lead (see #6 below) can provide the reader with a roadmap to your essay and contribute to the essay's cohesiveness.

5) Use concrete examples to prove your point.
Oh the generalities! The consultant-speak! The wasted forests! MBA application essays prove that consultants, especially those from top firms, use more resources saying absolutely nothing than any other species (except politicians and lawyers).

But you don't want to waste the adcom's time; you want to inform, convince, and captivate. Use specifics, vivid images, and details to convey your points. Don't merely discuss a belief or value; illustrate it. For example if you want to write about your mother's influence, start with details that allow the reader to see, hear, or touch your differences and similarities. You could start, "Although Mom and I are very different people, I consider her the most profound influence on my values and the person I have become. I constantly try to emulate her." OK. Yawn. Or you could start, "I love jogging, tennis, skiing; she considers walking to the car to be exercise. My alarm clock rings at 6:30 AM on Sunday; her day begins at noon. I need a certain amount of time pressure to produce my best; she hates a last-minute rush. Yet, despite these irritating differences, Mom has set an example of determination, professional excellence, and service to the community that I am constantly trying to emulate."

Note the amount of information conveyed in a short period of time. Note also the interest created by not identifying the mysterious "she" immediately. Finally and most importantly, pay attention to the use of detail. It creates interest and forms an intrinsic part of a distinctive essay.

Specifics are also important in discussing professional achievement. Numbers are particularly revealing (and take up little space). Did you lead "a team," or did you lead "a thirty-person team"? Did the division you manage increase sales and efficiency in your company, or did your division win an award for top sales with average annual increases of X% per year since you became the manager? Did you negotiate the purchase of a large piece of commercial real estate, or did you negotiate the purchase of a $250 million trophy property?

Specifics and details distinguish you, add interest to your essay, and speak volumes about you.

6) Start your essay with an attention-grabbing lead that immediately illustrates your main point.
The opening of your essay will determine whether it is read out of obligation or interest. You need to start with a lead, something that grabs the reader's attention. Journalists constantly capture our attention with anecdotes, quotes, interesting statistics, and gripping descriptions of a scene or event. Use the same techniques.

You have big dreams for yourself. You can start your "goals" essay with a short anecdote revealing one of those dreams. Or perhaps you are particularly proud of a special professional moment. Start your essay with that moment and then write about its influence and significance.

7) Include description and analysis in your essay.
While I have emphasized the importance of detail and specifics, the essays also must provide insight into you. Balance description with analysis. Facts without analysis can easily turn into a resume in prose or a boring, superficial autobiography. Combine a few critical events with insightful analysis and you will really polish the gem.

8) Don't whine.
Everyone has blemishes. Don't whine or cry about them. Doing so merely magnifies them. If you feel you must address some poor grades or a less-than-desirable GMAT, then take responsibility; if relevant, explain the circumstances that contributed to the weakness, and move on. If you can portray the difficulty as a growth experience, you could turn a liability into an asset.

9) Conclude.
Don't leave me hanging with no sense of completion or unity. Bring your essay full circle by referring back to your lead and highlighting the main point(s) you would like the reader to remember.

10) Write it right.
To make this baby really shine, ensure it is correctly written. The essays must follow the rules of grammar, punctuation, and style. Here are a few tips:
1. Use transitions between paragraphs.
2. Avoid the passive voice, overuse of the to be verb, redundancy, and awkwardly constructed, convoluted sentences. (Who, me?)
3. Correct unreferenced pronouns, dangling modifiers, misplaced apostrophes, and missing articles.

Read the essays out loud to yourself (or into a tape recorder) to catch errors that your eye misses. And while I do not recommend seeking feedback from your fifty closest friends, I do recommend showing the essays to a few people, preferably two to five. Ask those who write well to comment on the writing and ask those who know you well to comment on whether it reflects you.

No, you won't find a good recipe for a winning personal statement. Writing compelling essays requires self-reflection, research, and much hard work. But using these tools to produce and refine a revealing, multi-faceted portrait of you will also create a unique gem of an essay.

Linda Abraham is president of Accepted.com (http://www.accepted.com), an online resource for B-school applicants. Accepted.com provides tips and advice on writing MBA application essays, an MBA interview feedback database, admissions chats, and top-notch professional editing services.

 

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