MBA Essays: 10 Crucial Things You Should Never Do

An excerpt from the new edition of Paul Bodine's "Great Applications for Business School.

This is the season when most MBA applicants are frantically trying to complete their applications for their target schools. You probably already have your GMAT or GRE done and are now wrestling with your essays. It’s important to remember that when admissions committees must choose between equally qualified super-achievers, nothing helps them more than your own words. More than ever, the handful of essays that business schools typically require play the critical role in helping admissions officers see you as a unique person deserving of admission rather than a lifeless statistical “profile.”

As you’re working on your essays, here are ten crucial mistakes you need to avoid:

1. Fail to answer the question. The answer to their particular question is
what the schools want, not the answer to another school’s question.
Remember that schools purposely customize the wording of their essay
questions to differentiate themselves (and test your ability to follow orders). They don’t want cut-and-paste responses. Often their particular spin or twist is subtle and can be addressed by modifying some key words or sentences in your introduction or conclusion. Thus you rarely need to start from scratch. Just be sure you’re being sensitive to the particular nuance contained in the question.

2. Write essays that lack a point or underlying thesis. This mistake is often a result of omitting the data-mining or outlining stages of the pre-writing process. Applicants appear to address the individual parts of the essay question, but when you look beneath the surface detail, you can’t be sure where the essay is going, why the applicant is relating this experience, or what she thinks about it.

3. Sound negative, whining, complaining. Successful leaders are positive,
forward-looking types who even describe their failures in terms of the constructive lessons they teach. They inspire respect, not pity. The ideal tone is conversational and confident; energized, fair-minded, and optimistic; and self aware but world directed.

4. Use clichés or hackneyed ideas. These reflect superficial or tired thinking whether they’re committed on the micro or sentence level (“I broadened my horizons and learned that hard work and persistence are invaluable”)
or on the macro or essay level.

5. Write a résumé in prose. This blunder usually stems from the misguided
notion that it’s better to cram as much strong material as you can into an essay than to focus on one (or two) experiences in extensive detail. Believing that admissions officers evaluate human experience on some gross-volume basis, the applicant breezes through a long chronicle of mini-achievements, none detailed with enough specificity to distinguish him from any other applicant.

6. Write what you think admissions officers want to hear. Aside from the fact that this approach is insincere and won’t help you stand out (because so many others do it), it assumes that admissions officers know what they want to hear. In reality, admissions officers live to be pleasantly surprised by a story or profile that answers their question and that they couldn’t have anticipated because they’ve never encountered it before. Make their day.

7. Fail to catch grammatical and spelling errors. Don’t rely on your own eagle eye or computer’s spell-checker alone. Show your essays to other people, ideally someone with training in the rules and conventions of good writing and the English language. Read Strunk & White’s deeply helpful guide to incisive writing, The Elements of Style.

8. Leave out the passion. Choosing boring material or writing about interesting material in a boring way sends the wrong signal to admissions officers, who are looking high and low for engaged, enthusiastic people with multiple interests and a zest for life. All your essays are ultimately about you, a subject schools naturally expect you to be somewhat excited about.

9. Fail to be strategic about your essays. This means knowing how to strike a balance between standing out from other applicants and having the minimal skills and values to be accepted by future classmates. It also includes the error of forgetting to view each school’s essay set in its totality to ensure that you’ve included all your key stories and that your essays are a multidimensional mix of personal, professional, and community material.

10. Omit the lessons learned or takeaways. A B-school admissions essay (regardless of topic) that lacks a closing lessons-learned section should be a contradiction in terms. Whether the school asks for takeaways or not, give the committee reflection, thoughtfulness, and your analysis of the significance of the essay’s subject matter in a single paragraph.

Paul Bodine

Paul Bodine is the author of “Great Applications for Business School and an MBA admissions consultant based in San Diego. This is the first in a series of excerpts from Paul’s newly revised edition of  “Great Applications,” which is on our bookshelf as essential reading for all MBA applicants. The second excerpt will appear next week. You also can follow Paul on Twitter and Facebook.