The Words Behind Those Admission Essay Questions

rainbow-slinkyWords. They are about all you have control over while applying.  Which is why the essays are probably the most stressful part for most people. Does this word express what I mean? If I don’t mention how skilled I am in this, will they think I’m daft? Will peppering my essays with words like “synergy” and “collaboration” and “acumen” convince the admissions committee that I’m the one they’ve been waiting for?  Probably not, and it’s anxiety-provoking even for someone like me who actually likes to write!

When writing anything, we must careful consider the tone (formal vs. personal) and style (creative vs. direct).  But, when writing essays, is there a right way to do things?  I believe that the admissions committee is giving you hints about how to formulate your responses in a way that is more appealing.

So how did I unravel the admissions committees’ intentions? Well, I’ll share. I may not have been right at every turn, but in the end things worked out.

The best advice we can all take to heart is this: “Say what you mean and mean what you say.”  The problem is how do we know that we are doing this?

Tone should mimic the question, but the style should be yours.

When someone’s words hover in the formal register, we take that person more seriously.  We believe them to be responsible because they are acting serious. Perhaps they have used the word “utilize” or “employ” instead of use, so we intuit that they are a somber soul. Great, that’s easy enough to do! But sometimes we want to show that we’re fun, witty, and personable. This would call for more informal writing.  So what’s an MBA applicant to do?  Do we dazzle with delightful diction that is candid or subdued?

In my opinion, the cues are staring us in the face: the questions themselves.

Of all the prompts, I find Harvard’s the most interesting. They come across as quite neutral, but it would be dangerous to say they are simple. I know that the admissions committees fret over every word in their prompt (Dee expressed this exact fact during a presentation). If they put so much effort into crafting the question, we should at least take a bit of time to unpack it ourselves! We’ll come back to Harvard’s because these other two are much more straight-forward.

Take Kellogg’s first essay question: Discuss moments or influences in your personal life that have defined who you are today. The question clearly asks you to show a personal side. If any question offers a clear opportunity to let your guard down, to share meaningful and impactful stories from your past, it’s this one. Nonetheless, they ask us to discuss “moments or influences” not “stories or memories”. We need to keep things personal “light,” meaning no horror stories of back alley drug deals gone wrong.

Let’s look at another from Haas: Describe a time when you were a student of your own failure. Let’s think about what the question doesn’t say: “Tell us about a time you screwed up.” The prompt embodies the kind of response they want: clear and concise. They want to know what you learned from an experience but they managed to ask in such an economical way. Your response needs to be equally succinct and meaningful.

Tell us about something you did well” and “Tell us about something you wish you had done better.” Interestingly enough, the prompt is actually leaning toward the informal side of things. They ask you to tell us; they intentionally call out the reader. You aren’t writing for a computer, so they ask you to remember the audience. I bet it’s no coincidence that Harvard is the only school that uses a personal pronoun aside from you/r. They want you to tell a story, not just describe it. They’re looking for a narrative that is perhaps a bit less prosaic and lofty. I really believe they want something personal, or maybe better said, natural. They want to hear you share an experience, plain and simple, but it shouldn’t be so formal you are bashing their heads in with your Extreme Seriousness. In fact, quite the opposite: you should tell it like it is.

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