I noticed last year when I was writing my essays that I could find almost no examples of essays written by current applicants. Of course, there were the books published by HBS and some admissions consultants, but I thought it might be helpful to you (and me) to go back and take a look at my essay from last year’s application.
The question was: “Describe a time when you pushed yourself beyond your comfort zone. (500 words or fewer, limited to one page)”
Five hundred words? How are you supposed to do that??? I could have gone with something boring like “blah blah I presented something to management and they didn’t like it and I defended myself blah blah” but instead I decided to go with the comedy option.
Here’s my response in it’s entirety:
“So you’re asking my staff to take time out of their busy days for you, what will they get in return?”
“Ice cream,” I responded with little expectation of this conversation going any further. I didn’t know the Vice President of the company who I was talking to in his reception area, and he didn’t know me. I was in the process of convincing him to let me use his staff as test subjects for the medical device I was developing. He was a serious guy, and looked unimpressed staring at me through his thick-rimmed glasses. He took his time responding.
“Perfect,” he said. “Come back in a couple of hours.” Surprised, I shook his hand, and sped to the store to buy ice cream.
I had been tapped by the Director of Marketing at the startup company I was working for to help her with a problem. People in a recent focus group she conducted were clicking a button on the insulin pump we were developing to give themselves a dose of insulin, but we weren’t sure if the device was actually dispensing. If these were real devices on actual patients, this was a life-threatening situation.
In addition, all of the 20 employees at my company had been roped into so many experiments that everybody knew how our device worked. We needed an outside source of “users,” who had no preconceived notions of how to use the device.
Ideas ranged from calling family members in to putting an ad on Craigslist. I suggested that we walk up the street and pitch other companies in the office park. About 30 minutes later, I was walking out the door, thinking about what I was going to say to my coworkers when I got rejected like a door-to-door salesman selling vacuum cleaners.
During the walk, I was thinking fast of what to say. I had never sold anything in my life. This was way outside of my discipline as an engineer. The BEST reward we could come up with was free ice cream. What do I even say to the receptionist? It turns out that I had such an oddball request that she passed it directly to the nearest VP, and a few hours later people were lining up outside of his conference room for our study.
I was able to make a compelling pitch by embracing the absurdity of the situation. I realized that I didn’t have a fear of talking to him or anyone else at the company, I was afraid of failing. Once I accepted this, it became fun to try and convince the VP to help us out.
At the end of the day, we got great data. From this point forward, marketing treated me as their go-to engineer for everything from data analysis to rewording the instructions for using the device. The highlight of this experience for me was when the Director of Marketing said “You know, I was impressed with your presence in there. I thought engineers were supposed to be bad with people!”
A lot of people seem to think that good writing is an innate talent, but it’s not (I’m not saying that my writing is good, by the way). This was far from my first attempt at writing this essay. In fact, I went through no less than five completely different versions of this particular essay, with countless micro-drafts in between.
For all five applications, I ended up writing over 30,000 words across all the different versions of the essays I wrote. That’s just short of a full novel (but does qualify for novella status – maybe I have a future in romantic fiction?)
The takeaway from this is that no matter how many essays and how many applications you have to do, you have A LOT of writing ahead of you, and you better start making it a habit so that you don’t wait until the last minute like I did.
William Faulkner was a wise man who once said:
I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at nine every morning.
In my experience, it was far easier to pick up where I left off on an essay if I had just finished the last version the day before. Which is why this year, I will plan to write at least one version EVERY DAY once I enter the “essay phase” of my plan.