Understanding what the essays really do for Admissions…

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Business school is mostly a logical, quantitative, rational kind of place. So you'd think that MBA admissions would be a logical, quantitative, rational kind of process. But what really happens is that school asks applicants to write between three and seven open-ended personal essays. These essays absorb an inordinate amount of admissions staff time in assessment and deliberations. So why do they do it?

Essays are the ‘tie-breaker’ between excellent candidates

Business school is mostly a logical, quantitative, rational kind of place. Much of it is about making numbers work out and you’re never far from your Excel spreadsheet. So you’d think that MBA admissions would be a logical, quantitative, rational kind of process: take an applicant’s GMAT and undergraduate scores, add a multiple-choice personality test and a weighted average for credentials and achievements, feed it all into a computer, admit the top 10 or 20%, and voila!

Not only would this be quick and fair, but it would make operational sense too, given the thousands of applicants MBA admissions officers have to process each year.

But what really happens is that school asks applicants to write between three and seven open-ended personal essays on their life, achievements, goals, motivations, failures, and so on and so on. These essays absorb an inordinate amount of admissions staff time in assessment and deliberations (some schools even pay adjunct essay readers to deal with the extra workload) and introduce a large dose of subjectivity into the applications process.

So why do they do it? Why do they make the application process longer, more subjective, and more resource intensive than it apparently needs to be? Answering this question is the key to knowing what you need to do to write a successful essay set.

To understand what’s going on, put yourself in the shoes of the Admissions Committee (Adcom)—whose holy grail is to (a) select the best applicants, and (b) balance the skills, aptitudes, backgrounds and experience of the incoming class. Any decent school can take half of the applications it receives and throw them in the bin: “not enough experience”, “luke-warm references”, “poor GMAT”, “too old”, etc. That’s the easy part. The challenge is what to do with “the top half,” that is, how to distinguish between the quality candidates that remain.

If you are faced with a GMAT 720/ GPA 4.0 banker from Chicago and a 720/ Oxbridge graduated systems analyst from Glasgow, and a 710/ Chinese Fulbright scholar, and you can only take one, who are you going to choose? How can you choose?

Schools set hard, open-ended, searching personal questions in order to be able to choose between good applicants. Asking “what really motivates her, why he needs an MBA, which of her achievements matters most and why, how he copes with failure, how she envisions her future,” etc., and reading the results over three or four pages, gives Adcoms subtle distinctions between those with an apparently equivalent good claim to admission. Through the essays the truly compelling candidates make themselves known.

Meeting the essay requirements

Given this specific role the essays play, it follows that your task in writing them is to provide enough differentiating, high-quality, material about yourself so that Adcom is motivated to make those subtle distinctions in your favor. A non-communicative statement will not put sufficient distance between you and the competitors in the top half.

Differentiating, high-quality material is not hard to recognize: it is anything that turns you from a set of numbers and achievements into a unique, memorable person on an interesting path.

If you have trouble knowing what it means to add value to your file in this way, imagine yourself at a cocktail party with thirty other competing MBA applicants and one admissions officer. You all work for the same company and you all have the identical GMAT score, but only three can be selected. You each get about five minutes to talk to her—what do you say about yourself that is interesting, insightful, provoking and memorable? That is your essay material.

Your personal statement should open a window into your single and unique life, and through it Adcom should feel they have met you and come to know you and identify with you, so that they can distinguish you from the crowd. You achieve this by selecting and sharing personal events and stories, and analyzing and reflecting on them in an honest way, so they get to understand what you stand for, are interested in or are motivated to do with your life, and why.

You’ve succeeded when they no longer think “MIT undergrad, science major, 3.8/710, ex-PWC,” but, for example, “The guy who majored in botanical studies, left consulting to create a successful small business in exotic East Asian seedlings and now needs an MBA to develop a community-friendly agribusiness worldwide. (By the way, he also has big-6 consulting experience and great numbers.)

The 5-point essay quality checklist:

  1. Don’t repeat information from your file. Use the essays to develop, explain and positively frame the information that is already there and develop the reader’s insight into it.
  2. Be personal. Give Adcom real insight into your character, passion, personality and self-understanding. Don’t think you can escape with the standard platitudes.
  3. Be unique. How do you know if a statement is not unique? Easy: if what you say could be said by the next applicant or the one after that, it’s generic. If what you say could only have been said by you, it’s unique.
  4. Be yourself. Forget what MBAs are supposed to be like and supposed to want. Talk about who you are what you want. Talk about your real goals, motivations, dreams and fears. Give voice to your own values and your real ethical or personal struggles.
  5. Don’t say too little. Seize the opportunity the essays present. If you give more than a muttered safety-first statement, you’ll get more back. The reader can only get out what you put in.

Back to MBA Applicant Essay Help section


A.V. Gordon is author of one of the top MBA admissions books MBA Admissions Strategy: From Profile Building to Essay Writing as well as available for expert MBA admissions consultations through The MBA Admissions Studio.

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