MBA Essays: Making a Lasting Impression

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

Imagine you’re at a tony cocktail party where you find yourself competing with the best and brightest of your peers to make a lasting impression on your welcoming but overworked hosts. You’re all splendidly accomplished, well-rounded types, but you know your influential hosts are only likely to remember a handful of you when the evening’s done. When your moment comes, would you collar them and begin reciting your promotions and academic feats? Let’s hope not.

You’d probably turn on the charm, complimenting them on their home, probing for areas of shared interest, telling a few of your choice stories, and generally captivating them with your engaging personality. On one level, your B-school essays represent this same interpersonal challenge: how to put your best foot forward when your personal distinctiveness, not your résumé, is what will separate you from the other super achievers vying for your B-school spot.

If there are three applicant categories—the dings, the “doables,” and the dazzling—it’s in your essays that you can elevate yourself from the doable to the dazzling.


The essay-writing process begins with introspection; there’s no shortcut around it. Before you begin writing, even before you know the questions your target schools ask, begin developing a short personal ‘marketing’ message or “handle” that integrates the key themes (strengths, values, experiences, interests) you want your application to communicate. Picture our admissions cocktail party again. Your hosts’ time is limited. They must make the rounds with all their guests before the night’s over. Since you can’t give them your whole life story, everything you say must communicate a compact multidimensional message that’s distinctive enough for your hosts to remember you by long after other partygoers have made their pitch. Take your time, cast your net widely, and ask friends and family for their input so the handle you devise reflects the key uniqueness factors from your professional, personal, community, and academic lives.

‘Marketing yourself’ to business schools simply means understanding that your application is an act of personal advocacy, not a workplace self-evaluation, class paper, or confessional. But don’t get carried away with the marketing metaphors. Brands are often faddishly short lived, skin-deep, and exhaustively focus-grouped. You should not be. All Apple iPads and Nike Air Jordans are essentially the same. No two humans are.

Thinking of yourself as a brand is the first self-falsifying step away from the self-reflection schools want and toward the pointless preoccupation with other applicants that they abhor. Before you know it you’ll be wasting time trying to figure out what schools ‘want to hear’ or which post-MBA goals are hot this year. Rather than projecting flashy, airbrushed images of yourself as the Maseroti or Pringles of B-school applicants, conceive of yourself instead as a unique person who desperately needs to communicate something to the adcom. That something is not just your need for an MBA – it’s deeper: what makes your life and experiences compelling to you. So, yes, market yourself, but your self, not some phony personal brand.

As a rule of thumb, construct your self-marketing handle out of four or five themes, each one rich enough to build an essay around. If you come up with, “I’m a natural leader with strong analytical skills and a social conscience,” you’re thinking way too broadly. (As an exercise in concision, try reducing your self-marketing handle to one tweet—140 characters). If your handle runs past a sentence or two, unless it’s truly scintillating, business schools may garble it or lose it in the crowd. Your set of themes should emphasize your multidimensionality—who you are professionally, personally, and in the community. In other words, you’re not only a testing team lead at Qualcomm; you’re also a Norwegian-American raised in Ecuador who also loves taxidermy and tutoring immigrant kids for The Knowledge Trust Alliance.

Remember that your admissions “hosts” will be bringing a long memory of past conversations to your brief encounter. Simply telling them that you’re a banker or a marketing manager will trigger all sorts of mostly valid assumptions about your skills and professional exposures. If you’re applying from a traditional MBA feeder profession like consulting or investment banking, for example, your handle will come equipped with analytical and quantitative strengths. So round it out distinctively by including themes that B-schools don’t automatically associate with your profession, such as creativity (e.g., your lifelong devotion to basket-weaving), social-impact causes (e.g., that stint training subsistence farmers in Malawi), or out-of-the-box professional experiences (e.g., your first career as a geography teacher). Or look for unusual childhood or family experiences, distinctive hobbies, or international experiences that offset the predictability of your professional profile, and incorporate these in your handle.

Conversely, if your profession is unusual (e.g., nonprofit or creative) B-schools will already be giving you points for distinctiveness, so balance your handle with themes that show them that you also have the quantitative, analytical, or business skills they automatically associate with consultants and finance types. Instead of, “The award-winning African-American photographer who grew up in Portugal and organized her church’s choir,” pitch yourself as “The Lisbon-raised African-American photographer who runs her own five-person media studio and handles her church’s finances.” Like the consultant or finance professional, your goal is a handle that communicates multidimensional balance, but one that also reassures schools that you’re MBA caliber (in addition to being unlike anyone they’ve encountered before).

Don’t try to do this alone. Relying only on your own sense of your distinctive strengths may not be enough to separate you from your peers, especially if you’re a member of a crowded applicant demographic. For example, a male technology applicant from India (a large applicant pool) could be forgiven for deciding that the strongest aspects of his profile are his degree from an ultra-selective Indian Institute of Technology, his leadership of his school’s cricket team and cultural festival, and his fast-track career at Intel. Unfortunately, at the very top schools this stellar background will be only par for the course among Indian information technology candidates. To find a self-marketing handle that really sets him apart, our Indian friend will have to dig deeper—perhaps by focusing on unusual aspects of his upbringing (nonacademic obstacles overcome or cultural, geographic, or religious uniqueness factors) or hobbies or involvements that few of his peers will share. Experienced admissions consultants can help you isolate the potential themes that can make your handle stand out.

Although a distinctive multidimensional handle is ideal, it must truly capture who you are. Don’t try to force a theme—”internationalism,” for example, or “creativity”—onto your profile if you don’t have the experiences to back it up. Again, each of your handle’s themes must be deep enough that you could write a full essay around it.

You don’t have to figure out your self-marketing handle first. If it’s easier for you, you can start the process with your best stories—the experiences from your professional, personal, and community lives that you’re proudest of or that you identify most closely with. What do these stories say about you? What values or talents do they communicate? The answers to these questions can become the foundation of your self-marketing handle. The bottom line is that you be able to approach the essay-writing process with (1) an idea of the general themes that distinguish your application and (2) the specific stories that will illustrate them. Which you arrive at first is entirely up to you.

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 second 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 article, “MBA Essays: 10 Crucial Things You Should Never Do,” was published last week. The third excerpt will appear next week. You also can follow Paul on Twitter and Facebook.

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