MBA Essays: Data Mining Your Life

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

Once you have your self-marketing handle, you have the multipart message that should inform all your essays for every school (albeit with some tweaking here and there to match particular schools’ emphases). Now you need to find the best specific stories that illustrate that message. Unlike medical and law schools, which often give you carte blanche in formulating your subject matter, business schools help you by posing several highly specific “thesis-bearing” essay topics—topics, that is, whose theme (or themes) is contained in the wording of the question itself. Moreover, within each essay question, schools also usually pose several specific sub-questions (What are your goals? Why do you need an MBA? Why now? Etc.). This may feel like cruel and unusual punishment when you’re writing your essays, but by limiting the scope of the essays for you, schools at least spare you the agony of brainstorming your own essay topics.

Study the wording of each school’s essay prompt carefully. You will hear a lot about “positioning” themes and thinking “strategically” about your essays, but none of that will make a whit of difference if you don’t reflect in a sincere way on the question the essay poses. After all your savvy positioning, some of that sincerity must shine through, or your essays will read as blandly as a committee-written Hollywood script. Business schools put a great deal of thought (even ingenuity) into their questions because they’re looking for the most effective and varied ways to get you to open up and let them peer inside at the unique you.

Since capturing your key uniqueness factors was exactly why I advised you to craft a self-marketing handle, schools’ multiple essay topics should not intimidate you. Unfortunately, you won’t usually be able to simply match each of your themes to your schools’ individual essay questions. Some schools may force you to discuss several (or all) of your themes in a single essay. Other schools may pose questions that none of your self-marketing themes seem appropriate for. Many essay prompts ask you to address several things, so pay special attention both to the question’s subject words (for example, career progress, nonprofessional accomplishment, or leadership experience) and the direction words (describe, discuss, assess). Columbia’s “Please tell us about yourself and your personal interests. The goal of this essay is to get a sense of who you are, rather than what you have achieved professionally” might seem straightforward, but you can bet some applicants will discuss professional or ignore the crucial “tell us about yourself ” question and focus exclusively on their hobbies. And many programs pose much more maddeningly complex questions. So read carefully, break out all the sub-questions, even shoot an e-mail to the school if you’re unsure, but know what you’re being asked.


The data mining or “life inventory” step is not optional. You should no more exclude it from the essay-writing process than you would omit gathering business requirements before developing a software application, rehearsing a piece of music before performing it publicly, or conducting research before writing a dissertation. It’s that essential. Inventorying your own life is by definition a subjective process. Your memory can deceive you, stories you consider unexceptional may actually make outstanding essays, and stories that you’re convinced are distinctive and impressive may actually be fairly commonplace. So at this early stage you want to suspend judgment and simply “brain-dump” as much as you can as quickly as you can. The goal here is to find different ways to bypass your inhibitions and trick your mind into disgorging details you overlooked, significant events you’ve taken for granted, passions you forgot you once had.

The following techniques may help you:

Using your résumé as autobiographical timeline. Your résumé can be a memory aid for generating essay material. Let your mind linger over each section of the résumé, recalling the challenges, breakthroughs, and changes each stage of your career offered you. Recall and write down the full details of the accomplishments listed in the résumé’s bullets as well as the achievements you might have excluded from the résumé that could make good essay fodder. Since many of your essays will involve a chronologically ordered narrative (e.g., your career progress, your greatest accomplishment), this exercise can generate useful material and a timeframe for understanding your development.

■  Recording thoughts or conversations. If you are one of those people who find any kind of writing exercise inhibiting, a voice recorder may enable you to get your thoughts out painlessly. Either record yourself as you extemporize about your life or goals or record a conversation with a friend (over a beer if it helps) as he or she probes you with some of the basic questions listed in the Put Yourself on the Couch exercise elsewhere in this chapter. Transcribe this recording (minus the “um”s and “dude”s), and you may find that you have a rough but potentially useful data bank of essay content.