Provided by Charlotte Thomas, Petersons

Whoever came up with the idea that people like to talk about themselves has probably never confronted a blank sheet of paper (or blank computer screen) with the deadline ticking away for completing an MBA application essay. Writer’s block takes on new meaning when it comes to answering questions about why you want an MBA and how a particular program fits in with your career plans. All those lucid reasons that seemed so intelligent before are suddenly nowhere to be found. You’ve done the application, it’s deadline time, and the essays remain to be written.

“Few people really enjoy writing or talking about themselves,” explains Christine Gill, Interim Director of Marketing and Admissions at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio. “Essays just don’t roll off the top of their heads.”

After reading more than 3,000 essays a year, they know a well-written essay when they see one

She should know. Gill reads 3,000 plus essays a year, which is not unusual as Linda Baldwin, Director of MBA Admissions at the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles, can attest. She reads the same amount and has done so for eleven years. That’s a lot of words, but she never seems to tire of them, explaining that her curiosity about people propels her to dig into the pile. Well-thought-out essays are inspirational, she reflects, because they give her a sense of who that person is rather than just a litany of accomplishments. “I’m always amazed at how people see things differently,” she adds.

The reason the application essay can be such a source of anxiety is that the process demands a deep level of introspection, and so it should. With so much time and money involved, the decision to pursue an MBA is a serious one. Plus, the competition to get into good programs means that not only grades and work experience are scrutinized but also the personal attributes of the candidates. “It’s one of the few times people are asked to pause and look at their lives,” Baldwin suggests.

Will essays make or break my chances?

While essays play an integral part in getting into an MBA program, they are not the only factor by which admissions directors make their decisions. Essentially, essays offer the opportunity for applicants to provide information about themselves that can’t be deducted solely from test scores and work experience. “Essays tie all the pieces together,” says Baldwin, speaking of an applicant’s skills, beliefs, value systems, past experiences, and future goals that become evident in a well-written essay. The objective facts gleaned from test scores and resumes provide the framework. Essays flesh out the skeleton.

Brian Walker, Assistant Director of Admissions at Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Management at Rice University in Houston, Texas, notes that the application asks for work experience and gives applicants only a few lines to list employers. The essay, on the other hand, offers multiple pages in which to tell program directors what’s between the lines of your resume and application–even why circumstances didn’t work out as expected. “You might have been a geology major in college,” illustrates Michael Wynne, Director of Graduate Admissions at Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College in New York, New York. “After graduating, you went into that industry, but didn’t like it. You found yourself managing the budget and realized that you were gradually changing direction. Now you want an MBA.” Or, it could be that an applicant’s undergraduate experience wasn’t a particularly stellar one. Extenuating circumstances can be explained and accounted for.

Unfortunately, some MBA applicants don’t take full advantage of essays and make the mistake of simply adding verbs and nouns to a resume in the attempt to turn it into an essay. They’ve missed the boat, says Walker, if applicants copy a resume instead of using the essay to add to it. “Don’t fall into a trap and regurgitate your application,” reiterates Walker.

Looking for leaders who can communicate

The ability to communicate is the key quality MBA admissions directors are looking for in essays. Can you succinctly inform a reader who you are and do it in a given amount of words? Though not everyone is a gifted author, communication skills are essential for business leaders. Walker mentions a survey done at Rice that asked top CEOs what they wanted in their management teams. The respondents indicated they needed people who can communicate. “You can be smart, and motivated, and come up with the greatest strategies, but if you can’t get them across to customers or to upper management, your ideas are worthless,” says Walker.

In a competitive academic environment filled with applicants who have high test scores and impressive resumes, essays level the playing field. Wynne points out that the more case-oriented and selective MBA programs usually require more essays and put more weight on them.

You’re unique, the program’s unique–is there a match here?

With essays such an essential part in the selection process, it would be helpful to know what readers are looking for. However, there are no cut and dried rules or checklists to consult. According to Walker, the bottom line is whether the reader will know more about the writer as a result of the essay. Does the writer think clearly and answer the essay question within the stated boundaries? Most importantly, says Gill, readers use essays to discern if individuals will fit into their programs.

Because of the emphasis on teamwork in most MBA programs, a student’s successful relationships within the class will ultimately affect his or her own education, as well as that of other classmates. “It’s a ripple effect,” Gill says, explaining that the essay questions from Weatherhead are designed to reveal how that person handles pressure, works with others, and deals with ethical situations–characteristics that can positively or negatively affect others in the program.

In the final analysis, Wynne says the essay is part of determining if the individual has the motivation and commitment needed to be a successful manager. Due to competition with other students and the sheer volume of work, completing an MBA program is a tough challenge. “Thus,” says Wynne, “we’re looking for people who can convince the admissions’ committee that they really need an mba and that this MBA program is right for them.”

Greasing the writer’s block

With so much at stake, MBA applicants can become immobilized by essays. “People think they have to create a masterpiece,” contends Baldwin. For that reason, it’s wise to give yourself plenty of time so that you can reflect on the question, process it, and frame it from your own perspective, not someone else’s. Baldwin elaborates, “We’re looking for people who distinguish themselves.” Walking the line between arrogance and letting others know of your accomplishments takes some thought.

So what does an MBA candidate sound like?

In the effort to present a polished view of oneself, applicants often get caught up in perfection. That’s not what readers are looking for. “Focus on where you’ve added value or taken initiative,” Baldwin advises, “and above all, don’t try to sound like what you think an MBA should sound like.” She suggests letting a friend read the essays and if your friend doesn’t know more about you after reading them than before, the essays have not achieved their purpose. MBA program directors want candidates who can distinguish themselves from the pack and show how their individual qualities fit an MBA program. Canned answers won’t work. Being real will.

First things first–follow directions

As simplistic as this might be, program directors say they often get essays that far exceed the page limit or, conversely, contain only a few paragraphs when applicants mistakenly reason that their academic history and work experience speak for them. “If we thought that was enough, we wouldn’t ask for essays,” Gill says. Other obvious mistakes include not checking for spelling and grammar as well as the grand prize mistake: submitting the same essays to multiple programs and forgetting to change the institution’s name. It happens.

One size does not fit all

Writing one set of essays and then with some slight modifications, using them for subsequent applications is not a good idea. “If you’re tweaking, all those tweaks start to sound alike,” cautions Baldwin. Directors look for candidates who match up well with their programs, so candidates must speak to the strengths of individual schools. Each program occupies its own niche. Essays should note how that program fits their personal goals. “Let’s face it,” says Walker, “people are applying to two or three programs, not ten to fifteen, so they need to write distinctive essays, even if the questions are similar. Individual programs warrant unique essays.” Wynne agrees that anything you can do to make it clear that you appreciate that program’s specific strengths enhances the impression that you know what you’re doing and why you’re applying.

Other than reading a program’s literature or web site, a smart way to get to know about a program’s niche is to talk to past and current students. Go to open houses and receptions. “Articulate to anyone who reads your application that you have a strong feeling for the school. You know what it’s about and want it. You’re not just duplicating what’s in the catalog. Rather, you’re filtering it through your experience,” tips Baldwin.

Don’t pay to be perfect

A few clicks into Internet resources reveals services available to the MBA applicant who wants help in writing and editing essays. Baldwin notes that these services have been around for a long time and that there are multiple ways readers know that applicants have used them, such as inconsistency in writing styles or different use of language between the resume and essay. “It just sticks out,” she observes. The majority of the essays she reads are done by the individual, which is fortunate because she feels the essay questions are well within the realm of anyone who thinks he or she has what it takes to get through a competitive MBA program. “You’re not helping yourself by using someone else to write your essay for you,” counsels Wynne. “In many cases the contrasts and differences are evident.” Assistance with grammar and syntax is fine, but beyond that, make each essay your own.

Cutting some slack for non English-speaking applicants

MBA program directors are slightly more lenient towards applicants who speak English as a second language. However, they advise candidates to honestly craft the essays in their own words. “We can tell by other indicators if a person can handle our work,” says Baldwin. Gill, too, observes that MBA programs with a large international population realize that their essays will not be letter perfect. She would rather see a few mistakes than essays that obviously are not written by the applicant. English skills will undoubtedly improve once the applicant is in the program so the thinking that goes into the essays is more important that perfect grammar.