Essays are an incredibly important part of the application process, says Stacy Blackman, an MBA admissions consultant. Seemingly straightforward questions require a great deal of introspection. Make sure you budget time to draft and redraft, try new approaches and carefully edit so that each line packs the maximum punch
1 As soon as you know that you are going to apply to business school, you can start to prepare in a low-stress way. Keep a notebook and jot down anything interesting that comes to mind. An inspiring lecture, a disappointing performance review, an enlightening conversation with a friend, a travel experience, running a marathon, a stimulating book—all of these can be terrific material for your essays. Don't agonise over whether it will make a great topic, just jot it down. You will find that you quickly have a plethora of material to choose from.
2 As you begin to approach essay-writing time, consider putting together a “brag sheet”. Write down all of the things about you that would not necessarily appear on a résumé: languages you speak, all extracurricular involvements, family traditions and more. This can also be mined for essay content.
3 Once you have the essay questions in hand, there may still be a few stumpers. Even with lots of content, when you are faced with answering a question such as “What matters most to you?” it is difficult to decide. Here is an exercise that stops you from over-thinking: set your alarm clock for 3am. When you wake up, ask yourself the question. The first thing that comes to mind might surprise you. Do this for a couple of nights and you may come up with a few options or find that you are building a consensus around a certain topic.
4 Before you actually write the essays, take the final step of mapping out the general topics you will cover in each essay. As you map a topic to a question, check it off on a master list of stories you want to cover. This way, you can make sure that a given school is receiving all of your key stories, and that you are spreading out different stories across an application and not being repetitive.
5 Everyone works in different ways: some work best first thing in the morning, others are night owls. Some need to outline concepts on paper, others go straight to computer. So develop a plan that supports your individual style. Many find that the first application can take around 40 hours of work—brainstorming, drafting, editing, refining. As you approach this process, make sure you have the time. Tackle one application at a go. Do not take work leave or attempt it in a single week. Essays require time to gel. Therefore make sure that you have plenty of time to do it right. You may require six weeks, or you may even want 12.
6 Many applicants are inhibited by perfectionism. They can sit at the computer for hours, unable to generate that “perfect” essay, rewriting so furiously that they don't get past the first few sentences. It is often easier to edit than to write. So just type. A page full of so-so text is less intimidating than that blank page.
7 It is essential that you research your target schools and understand how to appeal to each of them. Each will have a slightly different ethos and look for something different in their students. But…
8 …you can also save yourself a bit of work. There are certain qualities that all business schools want to see in a successful applicant:
- team skills
- communication skills
Just saying “I am a strong leader” is not enough. Every claim you make must have supporting stories that help the reader believe you. You do not need to check off every quality on the list. Select a few that apply to you and reinforce those in an honest and compelling way.
9 Nobody is perfect. The schools know this and you need to show them that you are realistic and self-aware. Revealing your humanity—in the form of quirks, weaknesses and flaws—can often help the admissions committee to like you. A story about how you learned from a failure, improved upon a weakness or struggled with challenges can be compelling. The other side of this is the ability to demonstrate that you can really benefit from the MBA degree. If you know everything already, an admissions committee may wonder why you want to return to school.
10 Get some help. Even the most meticulous writers benefit from a second or third set of eyes. Ask someone to review your essays, look for typos and tell you if you are hitting all of the points in the right way. Is your attempt at humour coming off correctly? Do you seem too humble, too cocky, too serious, not serious enough? After you have been buried with your essays for weeks, a fresh perspective can often help you see the application as an admissions-committee member does: for the first time. Enlist someone who knows about the application process and make sure they are not just reassuring you that all is well, but are actually giving you some quality feedback.
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The applications for MBA programs are unique in that rather than asking for one large admissions essay, they usually have 4-6 prompts of varying lengths.
And unlike other schools that have multiple prompts, MBA applications require you to answer all of the prompts offered, or at least most of them. So get ready to write several essays.
Because of this variety, it’s impossible to say exactly what type of essay prompt you’re going to be focusing on in your particular application. Instead, we’ll take a look at some of the most common general categories of admissions essays in this market.
If you'd prefer to have some advice that is specifically tailored towards the exact essay prompts you're focusing on in your applications, then you'll want to head on over to EssayEdge and take advantage of the Ivy League graduate editors there.
"Why This School?"
Prompts of this type are relatively common, and are looking to see whether you can eloquently describe why you will be a good “fit” at a particular institution. These prompts aren’t trying to see if you match the description of an ideal or average student at that school. Instead, you should view them as an opportunity to show that you are familiar with the school and have a clear reason for thinking that you could do well there.
When facing a prompt like this, make sure you take time to carefully plan an answer. You want to avoid regurgitating information that’s presented on the school’s website (such as average class size, faculty-to-student ratio, etc.), since admission officers are intimately familiar with that data. To really impress them, you need to dig a bit deeper – try to find at least one particular aspect of the school that you believe really matches something about you, and then explain that fit in your essay. This may be a particular faculty member, a class or learning method, scheduling option, or any number of other things. By digging beyond the basics, though, you’ll make your essay much more compelling.
Also, don’t forget to explain how that aspect of this program connects to you. Saying “I want to go to your school because of X” technically answers the question, but saying, “I want to go to your school because of X, which perfectly matches Y element of me” is much more effective.
"Why do you need an MBA now?"
Another common prompt, this one wants to see if you can give a clear reason for seeking an MBA at this point in your life.
The most common mistake made when responding to this prompt is to simply list your qualifications and say that you have the necessary education and work experience. Doing so often makes it sound like you’re pursuing an MBA simply because you happen to have the necessary qualifications. It’s kind of like being asked why you’re baking a cake and responding “Well, I had some flour, sugar, and eggs, so I figured why not.”
Instead of saying that you’re qualified, focus on explaining how an MBA will enable you to take the next step in your career. It’s fine to say that you feel that you’re qualified now, but be sure to complement such a statement with a detailed explanation of what an MBA will allow you to do that you can’t do right now.
In addition, you might want to even note a particular deficiency in your skill set right now, and then show how an MBA is the best (or only) way for you to fill that gap and prepare for the next step in your career.
"What are your career goals/plans (both short and long term)?"
This is a tricky prompt, since it’s difficult to find a balance between a goals statement that is too vague and one that is too detailed.
Some applicants focus on goals that are vague. What often happens then is that their goals sound clichéd, since they’re applicable to a huge number of people. If you talk about your plans to “become a business leader,” “make the world a better place,” or “maximize profits,” you will disappear into the crowd.
If, on the other hand, you sketch out a year-by-year plan for the remainder of your career, you’ll often come across as unrealistic or worse, pompous.
To ace this essay question, strike a balance between those 2 extremes. When discussing short-term goals (usually defined as within the next 5 years or so), talk about where you want to be both professionally and personally. Focus on what you’ll accomplish by earning your MBA and how those skills in particular will enable you to progress.
For long-term goals, be ambitious but don’t be unrealistic. If your goal is to become the CEO of Microsoft or some other such company, it’s usually best to find a way to put that in a more generalized context. Emphasize that you are motivated to move up the corporate leadership ladder in a technology-based company, and that you are committed to attaining a position where you will be able to make decisions that direct the company’s future. You can then say that you are particularly interested in advancing within company X. If you make your point in this order, your point will be more compelling because your goal will have justification behind it along with a broader base of possibility.
"Describe a challenge and how you overcame it."
Talking about challenges can be… well, a real challenge for many applicants. After all, when you’re filling out an application and trying to paint yourself in a positive light to an admissions committee, it can be difficult to admit that you struggled with something. Discussing a failure (which is the next prompt we’ll examine), can be even tougher.
When thinking about which challenge to write on, many applicants choose something relatively superficial. I think this is because they want to seem like they’re capable of handling anything and that this challenge was only a minor blip. In addition, they write about the challenge in an extreme nuts-and-bolts fashion: here’s what happened, here’s how I overcame it.
The purpose of this prompt is to see if you can accurately and honestly assess yourself, and to see how you handle adversity. As a result, you want your story to not only describe the challenge and your solution, but also give the reader a deeper understanding of you. To do this, you’re going to need to color your story with some reflective comments that show what you were thinking during that challenge and how your unique personality shaped your response. At the end of your essay, you should be more concerned with the reader understanding how you handle challenges than understanding the details of this particular situation.
"Describe a time when you failed and what you learned."
Like essays that discuss challenges, essays discussing failure do not come naturally to most MBA applicants. Most are used to constantly painting themselves in the best possible light and not to focusing on mistakes and failures. That’s one of the reasons that adcoms ask this question; they want to see whether applicants are capable of doing this important exercise, which is vital to business success.
When writing about a failure, the most important thing is to be 100% honest. Don’t try and minimize the scope of the failure or to shirk blame. In addition, don’t write about some “failure” that was really a triumph or success. You need to talk about some situation in which you clearly failed, admit that failure, and ideally explain why it happened.
Just as important (if not more so) is your assessment of that situation, particularly what you learned from it. While you want to avoid clichés like “learning from mistakes,” you still want to describe how this failure helped you grow in some way. Maybe it motivated you to strengthen a personal weakness, maybe it convinced you of the importance of teamwork, or maybe it helped you realize that a particular job or field was not a good fit for you. Whatever it was, show the admissions committee that you have handled failure to this point in your career and that because of that, you’re prepared to do so again in the future.
"Describe a situation in which you demonstrated leadership."
There are few things that MBA applicants and applications alike enjoy discussing more than leadership. Since it’s so closely related to success in the business field, this is unsurprising. But a surprising number of applicants respond to prompts of this type in fairly boring, uninspiring ways. It’s not enough to simply share a story of a time when you were a leader. Instead, you have to convince the reader, through this story, that you are a leader in all situations, not just in this one.
How did you demonstrate leadership? How is your leadership style unique, and what caused it to become that way? How has your leadership helped you, and how will it continue to help you? Answering questions of this sort will make your response stand out and lead the reader to a deeper understanding of your overall leadership abilities.
"Describe the career accomplishment you are most proud of."
Prompts of this type are not asking you to simply brag about yourself. Instead, they exist to gauge what you consider valuable and worthwhile. Asking you to share which career accomplishment you are most proud of is not the same as asking you to share which career accomplishment you think is most impressive.
To help you better understand this, let’s say that you launched an advertising campaign that increased sales at your firm by 200% in a single quarter. That’s definitely an impressive accomplishment and one that most people would be quite proud of. But what if you had also launched a charity initiative through which many of your fellow employees began volunteering at a local community center – which accomplishment would you be most proud of?
While you could easily write compelling essays about either of those accomplishments (and countless others, both larger and smaller), the question is not which is better but which you feel most proud of. If your firm had been struggling financially and your ad campaign provided a desperately needed spark, you would likely write about the first accomplishment. If your firm was already on sound financial footing and your charity initiative caused a substantial shift in corporate culture, maybe you’d instead write about the second. Whatever your particular situation is, don’t worry about writing on the most impressive accomplishment; write on the one you’re most proud of.
"What will you contribute to this program?"
My suggestion for this prompt is short and sweet: be honest and be personal. Remember, MBA programs are full of elite, accomplished scholars and businesspeople. You’re probably not going to be the smartest or most experienced one there, so you shouldn’t try to play up those aspects of yourself.
Likewise, you’re not going to be the most hardworking or studious one, nor will you be the best team player or most inspiring leader. What you will be is you… so ask yourself what makes you unique, and how that trait will enable you to enrich your program.
"Describe an ethical dilemma and how you handled it."
This question has seen a tremendous jump in popularity in recent years, as the importance of business ethics has continued to grow. My suggestion for tackling a question like this is identical to my suggestions for tackling a question that asks about a challenge you overcame, since this is essentially a more focused version of that same question. As you respond to this prompt, though, focus on showcasing your personal belief in the importance of business ethics.
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