Can You Really Tell The Truth In An MBA Admissions Essay?

MBAOver30Over the past few weeks, I’ve spoken with a number of 2013-14 MBA applicants while helping them with their application strategies for this admissions season. A few days ago, one of them asked me a very candid question about his admissions apps for several top 10 schools. “While writing my essays, should I tell the truth, or should I just play the game and tell the adcoms what they want to hear?”, he said [in so many words].

Initially, I was taken aback by his question.   Then, I flashed back 12 months to when I was in the same position and had similar thoughts. “I really appreciate your honesty”, I replied. “That is a question that I believe everyone grapples with in a competitive climate like top MBA admissions”.

“The Truth”, “The Game” and Authenticity

In my opinion, the whole moral dialectic of being honest vs…well, basically lying and/or embellishing actually clouds the true issue at hand.  For starters, lying or embellishing what is true is a fool’s strategy. Adcom members have seen and heard it all; thus, they posses highly sensitive BS meters. I wouldn’t bother testing your luck in that department.

Additionally, my opinion is that the kinds of things that people lie about are rarely the things that either get  you “in” or keep you “out of” a program. Of course, only an adcom can tell you that for certain, but I”m about 99% sure that my assumption is a true fact.

Save yourself the energy of writing up that $2M deal as a $20M deal; and don’t bother saying that you won that award that you were really the runner up for. The adcoms are much more interested in the fact that your post MBA goal is entrepreneurship but you’ve never started your own company before; or that your primary recommender said that you’ve had challenges getting along with other people.

Furthermore, inflated stories almost never “sell” as well as the authentic ones. Even if the adcoms aren’t able to point out your foul play, they are likely to sense that something is “missing”.

The Truth Shall Set You Free

The truth can be liberating. The feeling of having “nothing to hide” not only takes a lot of pressure off, but infuses your words with an air of authenticity that can become a gold mine if played properly. Let’s take me for instance. My pre-MBA job was about a 25% pay cut from the job that I had immediately prior. That data point clearly threatened the narrative of upward movement in my career.

Rather than attempting to gloss over it, however, I simply attacked it head on in my application. I explained that while I was indeed making less money, I had taken on more responsibility, had more control over my new company’s strategic direction and   had also taken the next most logical step toward my goals. That was true. It was also true that I hated my previous job and had little respect for its leadership, but that wasn’t necessary to say.

There is a fine line between authenticity and TMI. Learning to walk this line skillfully will help you immensely not only in your essays but in life in general. It will also communicate to adcoms that you’ll be more likely to give a great interview and land a high paying job (which affects their reputation and rankings) upon graduation.

Look, no one’s past is perfect–no one’s; and the adcoms know this. Tell the truth, provide the proper context that shows what you learned or gained from the experience and how it aided in your development, avoid TMI and you should pretty much be good to go.

And if you end up getting dinged anyway, trust me when I tell you with confidence that it was probably not because you were overly candid in some anecdote in essay #2 for Columbia or Kellogg; either your profile just didn’t make the cut or there were already too many others who had been chosen whose profiles were too much like yours.

MBAOver30 offers the perspective of a 30-something MBA applicant who was offered admissions to Wharton, Booth and MIT Sloan with fellowships to each. He is a member of the Wharton MBA Class of 2015 and majors in Entrepreneurial Management and Marketing with an emphasis in Customer Data & Analytics. He blogs at Previous posts on Poets&Quants:

How I Totally Overestimated The MBA Admissions Process
Musings on MBA Failophobia
Letting Go Of An MBA Safety School
When A Campus Visit Turns Off An MBA Applicant
Yale, Tuck and Booth: The Next Leg of My Pre- MBA Research
 My Countdown: Less Than 30 Days To The GMAT
From Suits To Startups: Why MBA Programs Are Changing
Why I’m Not Getting Either A Part-Time MBA or An Executive MBA
Preparing To Sit For The GMAT Exam
Falls Short of GMAT Goal, But The 700 Is A Big Improvement
A 2012-2013 MBA Application Strategy
Celebrating A 35th Birthday & Still Wanting A Full-Time MBA
A Tuck Coffee Chat Leaves Our Guest Blogger A Believer
Heading Into the August Cave: Getting Those Round One Apps Done 
Just One MBA Essay Shy Of Being Doe
Getting That MBA Recommendation From Your Boss
Facetime with MBA Gatekeepers at Wharton
The Differences Between Harvard & Stanford Info Sessions
My MIT Sloan Info Session in California 
Round One Deadlines Approaching
Jumping Into The MBA Admissions Rabbit Hole
Relief At Getting Those Round One Apps Done But Now A Sense of Powerlessness
On Age Discrimination in MBA Admissions & Rookie Hype
Judgment Day Nears
Harvard Business School: No News Is Good News?
Researching Kellogg, Tuck, Berkeley and Yale
A Halloween Treat: An Invite To Interview From Chicago Booth
The MBA Gods Have Smiled Once Again
Interviewing At Chicago Booth and Wharton
My Thanksgiving Day Feast: Completing Applications
The Most Painful Part of the MBA Application Process: Waiting
An Invite To Interview At MIT Sloan
An Early Morning Phone Call From Area Code 773 With Good News
An Acceptance From Wharton
Going AWOL From The Admissions Game
The 10 Commandments of the MBA Admissions Game
Networking With Fellow Admits At Wharton and Booth 
MIT Sloan Let My Outspoken, Black Ass In — Hallelujah!
A Scholarship Offer From MIT Sloan
A Five-Star Experience: Wharton’s Winter Welcome Weekend
Dispelling Chicago Booth Myths
Why I’m Going To Wharton–And Not Booth or Sloan
What Happens After You Get Into A Great School 
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GMAT Quant Practice For Class of 2016 MBA Applicants