How to Write an Unforgettable Business School Essay

For most qualified MBA applicants, the difference between getting accepted or getting dinged usually comes down to a compelling Personal Statement. There is no denying that solid numbers can help your application be considered – but it definitely does not guarantee acceptance. While a 500 GMAT or a 2.5 GPA will most likely raise the red flag at Harvard Business School, even a candidate with a perfect GMAT score and a 4.0 GPA can be rejected from an elite MBA program. Strong numbers will never make up for a weak personal statements or negative recommendations. The business school essay is an integral part of the application process. And although seemingly straightforward, these essay questions require a great deal of introspection and thought.

What the Admissions Directors are Saying

Rebekah Melville from Yale School of Management points out one of the most commonly cited pieces of advice for MBA applicants – justify why you are the right person for this class and explain how your aspirations will fit in with the school’s values:

“What we are looking for is to get a little bit deeper in the sense of who you are, what you value the most and the actions you’ve taken towards your beliefs. No one gets in on the basis of a fantastic essay, but it is another valuable piece of your application.”

In a similar vein, Luke Anthony Peña, the Executive Director of Admissions and Financial Aid, Tuck School of Business notes:

“You have great strengths, and you also have growth areas—this is why you are pursuing a graduate management education. It’s tempting to highlight the strengths and downplay the growth areas, but that reveals only a portion of the complete person. Show us that you acknowledge and own both.”

4 Tips to Craft the Perfect MBA Essay

Be Authentic:

Are you telling your own story, or a story that you think the MBA Admissions Committee wants to hear? If it is the latter, try again. Business schools are looking for students who are self-aware and think about their own strengths and weaknesses, so you have to talk about something that gets at the heart of who you are, and it has be genuine to you. And the MBA admissions committee can tell when you are not.

If music has always been a big part of what you do, then by all means to talk about it, and talk about it as a passion. Perhaps even that passion that is driving you to consider a career in the arts. Conversely, if nothing in your background indicates any entrepreneurial experience or initiatives then don’t bother talking about your dream to start your own company, even if that is what is students are doing at places like Haas or Wharton.

Be Unique:

An authentic story, generally, means a unique one as well. And by unique we mean talking about something only you can talk about. So it shouldn’t sound like what the guy in the next cubicle over is talking about. For example, Wharton is pretty tired of a run of the mill private equity story, particularly when many applicants that have private equity as their goal, frequently don’t know what it is. (Need to better understand the different types of PE? Check out this article.)

Instead, dig deep to find that professional and personal experience that you know no one else is talking about in their MBA application. A very successful applicant to INSEAD explained why infrastructure investment banking was his goal. As an engineer who was in charge of big infrastructure projects, he had seen only too well how many great projects couldn’t get the financing they needed to be built. His response was to get an MBA to help finance things like bridges and tunnels. Needless to say this was not a story many business schools had ever heard which explains why his application was so well received.

Be Specific:

Specificity is the soul of credibility which means that the more specific you are about what you have done and what you want to do the more credible your entire MBA application becomes. So your goal is not to “join a private equity firm,” rather it is to “join a private equity firm focused on mid-size, manufacturing companies, in India.” Similarly, consulting is a big field, so pick up on the story you are telling about your future career and narrow that down some. Maybe by consulting you really mean health care consulting. And then even take it a step further: will you be looking to join the health care group of a large consulting firm like Accenture or at a boutique health care consulting firm like ZS Associates. Do your research, drop some names, show that you are knowledgeable about the space you want to go into. It makes your whole story more believable.

Know the Difference:

It is easy to say that all business schools are alike but in actual fact they can be much different, and your applications must reflect this. So it is not enough to say that you want to go to business school, rather you must explain why business school, and even more importantly, why that particular school. For example, inside the classroom some schools may teach exclusively using the case method (most famously Harvard Business School, University of Virginia, Ivey Business School), while others may be only lectures – though in actual fact, the vast majority use some sort of combination. Similarly, outside the classroom, many schools are very much focused on experiential learning which means spending time doing real world projects for all types of businesses. MIT Sloan’s Action Learning Labs, for example, provides such opportunities in a wide range of disciplines including entrepreneurship, health care, sustainability, and others.

To understand how Haas is different from Fuqua, and Yale SOM is different from Booth, you have to connect with the schools, including visiting, attending local events, webinars, speaking to current and former students, etc. So when your do your MBA Personal Statement, MBA programs see why specifically you want to go to their school, and how you will fit in.

Give Yourself Enough Time to Write Your Personal Statement:

With this article you get a better sense of what makes for a successful MBA Personal Statement. One thing that we have yet to include but is extremely important in crafting a successful MBA essay is… time. Most successful business school application essays take time to write well, be it the MBA personal statement or that 250 character short answer. A good essay is written, rewritten, and rewritten, getting critiqued along the way. This is generally not something that can be hurried up.

While everyone works differently, some faster and some slower, my own instincts on this say that it takes about six weeks to really produce a high quality first essay. Each additional essay takes less and less time, as you build off of all the other essays you have completed. If you can complete an essay in a week or less, good for you, though I am somewhat skeptical of its quality.

Remember, admissions committee members are reading hundreds of essays, and they don’t have the time or the patience to wade through last minute essays which are generally overly long, repetitive, and don’t quite answer the question. Remember the old adage, “If I had had more time, I would written you a shorter letter.” Now you have the time to write that concise, elegant, and to the point essay – an essay that may just get you in to your dream school.

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Author: Harold Simansky
Before Stratus, Harold began his business career at Bain & Company, where he was a member of the Private Equity Group. His work there included investment deal generation, strategic due diligence and portfolio company acceleration. Following this, Harold took a more entrepreneurial road, starting four successful companies over the last dozen years. These endeavors have generally been focused on residential energy efficiency and the “green” home. His most recent company was a website and print magazine (yes, print!) devoted to healthy and sustainable homes. This company was successfully sold in February, 2015 to a regional media company.

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