Writing the Self-Revelation Essay

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

Andrew wanted to get into Stanford, but I told him he wasn’t being realistic. His 700 GMAT was fine, but didn’t compensate completely for his mediocre GPA in college, his hardly electrifying profile (IT guy with a major consultancy), and his fine but unremarkable extracurricular credentials. Then Andrew told me his story. Raised in one of America’s poorest and least educated counties by an alcoholic father, Andrew had watched in horror one night as his mother wrestled a gun from his raging father’s hands.

Traumatized by his home life, he had imploded academically in college, until his junior year, when he met a studious and traditional Asian student, who simultaneously stole his heart and set him straight. Gradually, Andrew’s life began to turn around, academically, professionally, and extracurricularly until, by the time I met him, he felt he had earned the right to call an MBA his best next step.

Andrew’s finished essay read like the treatment for an especially moving Hollywood romance—and every word rang true. By getting the admissions committee to focus on his remarkable life rather than his unremarkable profile, Andrew earned admission to Stanford GSB.

In one form or another every business school essay question is trying to get you to open up and reveal yourself to the admissions committee. Andrew found the formula. Are you the sort of person whom this most exclusive of exclusive clubs, the top-drawer business school, really wants as a member? What will you be like chatting it up after study group, floating opinions in class, officially representing the school as an alum? More directly than any other topic, the essays in this group try to answer these pivotal “fit” questions. With them, biting the bullet of self-revelation is not optional.

With self-revelation essays your goal is not to sell the admissions committee on the viability of your goals, your ardor for their program, or the grandeur of your accomplishments, but simply to be yourself. These are the worst possible essays in which to tell schools what you think they want to hear. No matter how facile a writer you may be, admissions officers have spent their entire careers reading between the lines, sifting the real from the bogus. If you try to fake them out, you will not win. Be real.


1. Forget that the focus should be you. Self-revelation essays are about get- ting you to spill the beans about your values, interests, and life experiences. Make sure that your response provides information unavailable elsewhere in your application and insights about you that corroborate the themes of your application as a whole. Don’t waste unnecessary space on information that is not ultimately connected to who you are.

2. Choose inappropriate material. Not everything revealing about you is essay fodder. Some, such as relationships, is too personal. Others—religion, politics—are rife with danger because of their inherent controversy. If such risky topics are essential to who you are, frame your essay so as to defang them of their offensive potential. For example, focus on what your faith or political career have enabled you to do for others, not on doctrinal issues.

3. Fail to admit weaknesses. Failing to acknowledge that you have negatives when a question invites you to discuss them or palming off a disguised strength as a weakness damages your credibility with the admissions committee.

4. Write passion essays that lack passion. Because self-revelation essays always come down to you—someone you presumably are vitally interested in—yours has failed if it portrays you as a person not enthusiastically engaged in your own life.

5. Bite off more than you can chew. Since many self-revelation essays leave the scope of your answer up to you, your urge to communicate all your strengths may tempt you to spawn a kitchen-sink essay packed with three-sentence generalities about scattered shards of your life but bereft of examples and a unifying theme. Resist temptation.

Open up and reveal yourself. Follow these basic rules and you may achieve what Andrew did at Stanford.

Author and MBA admissions consultant 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 fourth 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 first four articles: “MBA Essays: 10 Crucial Things You Should Never Do,” “MBA Essays: Making a Lasting Impression,”  “MBA Essays: Data Mining Your Life”, and “MBA Essays: Why The Goals Essay Is Critical.” The sixth excerpt will appear next week. You also can follow Paul on Twitter and Facebook.