MBAnalysis Blog: Lessons on Writing an MBA Essay from Philip Roth

With the passing of Philip Roth, America has lost possibly the greatest of its twentieth century novelists and essayists. If not necessarily the greatest, he is at least my favorite writer whose work I have long respected, and loved, if we can love something that is at times brutal and cringe-inducing.

As I now begin the process of reviewing my clients’ preliminary business school essays, I am taking a moment to consider what a Philip Roth business school essay would look like and what the average applicant can learn from his expertise. After all, for the vast majority of applicants, their likelihood of admissions will boil down to the quality of the essay they write.

To be even clearer, admissions to the top schools will require an essay that is personal and powerful, and says something not said by anyone else. To write such an essay, below are some points that Philip Roth may have given you:

Every word counts. Each word is an opportunity to express a new idea or thought, so no word should be wasted. One of his last, great essays, I Have Fallen in Love with American Names, weighs in about 1700 words; some of his novels were so short, they were actually published in magazines. So next time that the first draft of your essay weighs in at 1700, understand this is the length of a New Yorker piece rather than a successful business school essay, so you better take out the ax and try again.

It takes time. Roth retired from writing novels a few years back, not because he didn’t have ideas but because he didn’t have the time for rewrites. His work was painstaking and deliberate. Before he even started writing he had planned out the arc of each story, the traits of each character, each detail that would add color. And when the writing started, it was the rewriting that took up most of his times. When it comes to writing, excellence requires revisions and revisions which in turn requires time. One thing we regularly see at Stratus is that the earlier you start your essay, and the more time you spend on it – think 6-8 weeks – the more success you will have when it comes to admissions.

Extraordinary from the ordinary. At first glance, many of Roth’s characters, are well … boring. A glove manufacturer in Newark, is first seen as someone who is ordinary, at best. Yet, Roth at some points circle back to note, “I was wrong. I was never more mistaken about anyone in my life.” His point, that even the most common person has a story that is unique and extraordinary in its own way. And, this is the charge of most business school applicants: to prove to the admissions committee that though you may look like a lot of other candidates — in terms of GMAT, GPA, work experience, and even hobbies –you have a story to tell that is like no one else’s. And it is this type of story that gets you in.

Imperfection is compelling. Be it on a resume or in an essay, there is a tendency for most applicants to talk only about their successes, how they did a great job both here and there. But one thing Philip Roth made clear is that characters are compelling because of their missteps, not despite them. This is the same for a business school essay: Business schools can pretty clearly see all the great things you did; what they are more curious about is where you fell short, and how you grew because of it. One of the best essays I have ever seen was a description of how this applicant’s startup business failed. It was candid, and personal, and successful … the writer is now at Harvard Business School.

Of course, one could probably not imagine a person who was less interested in business school than Philip Roth. But if he did go, he would probably spend most of his time pulling out the truly unique qualities of his classmates; he would try to figure out what made each classmate interesting, and what was compelling about each. He would wonder what their path to business school was and why it made sense. Of course, Philip Roth is not going to business school (though if he did, he definitely would be a Stanford Cardinal), which now makes it incumbent on you to create that unique essay that shows you as no one else: a person that the admissions committee finds fascinating, self-aware, concise … and is excited to accept.