Time for the breakdown of my essay:
“So you’re asking my staff to take time out of their busy days for you, what will they get in return?”
I was hoping that a skeptical quote would immediately hook the reader. Let’s continue:
“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.
Ice cream? That’s kind of weak…but here I was trying to illustrate that I had to think on my feet and that despite being uncomfortable, I had to keep improvising and continue with the plan (whatever that may be, I haven’t exposed that yet). Also, I have the additional pressure of trying to persuade a seemingly important and imposing stranger, and also start leading into the non-engineering side of my job. This was something I wanted to emphasize since I wanted to stand out from the rest of the engineering applicants at Sloan.
“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.
Wow! It worked! The plan here was to demonstrate that I had successfully negotiated with this guy on a pretty weak premise. The rest of this section is a little background about the story, that’s all. Although discussing how I had worked with marketing and had been specifically sought out further supports the “atypical engineer” theme I’m trying to emphasize.
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.
More background, but I’m weaving some humor in here. Wouldn’t you get bored if you had to read a bunch of dry essays about someone else’s accomplishments? I’m hoping that some humor will help here. Also, I note that it was my idea to go pitch the other companies. Business schools want people who think outside of the box, right?
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.
Purpose of this section: here’s why this is outside of my comfort zone. Explain what I’m feeling. Appeal to the fact that most people who are reading the essay have probably felt some emotion similar to what I was feeling and draw them into the story by focusing on feelings rather than facts.
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!”
Here’s the conclusion. Main themes: “It was out of my comfort zone at first, but then it ended up being fun!” I explain why I was afraid at first, and explain how this initially scary situation turned into one that was ultimately a success for my company. I also explain that by getting over my fear, I had distinguished myself in the eyes of my co-workers in other departments. The closing line is an actual quote, and drives home my main thesis – I don’t have the typical negative traits associated with engineering types.
Although this essay wasn’t quite good enough to get me into MIT Sloan this year, it (and other parts of my app) landed me on the waitlist. More importantly, this essay was the genesis of a great conversation I had with my interviewer. Since this was a light and easy going essay, I was able to loosen up a little in the interview.
I think that every application should have one essay like this as part of the package. The adcom wants to see your human side, and the better you can distinguish yourself from the other applications in the stack the better your chances of admission.
So, when it comes time to write your essays, be sure you’re ready to throw away a lot of work. It’s a process, not an event.
Scott Duncan is a medical device engineer in his late twenties looking to transition from designing medical devices to starting and running the companies that develop them. He is sharing his MBA application journey at a blog under his own name at ScottDuncan.com.
His previous post on Poets&Quants: