The Case For Writing About Your Passions

Should you write an essay about your salsa dancing?

Should you write an essay about your salsa dancing?

Imagine you’re an admissions officer, into the third week of reading applications. You’re rubbing your fatigued eyes, having already pored through 20 applications today. Private equity, private equity, investment banker, startup founder, investment banker, consultant, social media specialist, engineer, engineer, consultant, okay, another private equity applicant. Another Ivy Leaguer. Another 3.5+ GPA and 720+ GMAT. Another lifeless, generic essay. Yawn!

Wait a minute . . .

The lights dimmed. The fast 180-beats-per-minute music began. Heels cracked against the dance floor, stomping along to the rhythmic beat of hand-drums, Latin horns, and Spanish lyrics. More than one hundred people had crowded into the dance studio. It was my first salsa lesson. Feeling extremely nervous, I found it hard to breathe. With my clumsy feet, often in the wrong position, I repeatedly stumbled through halting half-steps. There were numerous awkward turns amidst tangled hands. Thankfully, I got the feel for the music and began to dance up to tempo. For the next several lessons, I struggled to find salsa in my steps. Learning to dance was as difficult as I could’ve imagined, but I persisted. 

Now, a year later, I love learning new steps, finding it incredibly rewarding to master all the techniques, footwork, and arm styling involved. Captivated by its passionate beauty and dynamic pace, I feel ecstatic when I dance the salsa. As I step and spin to the music, daily life fades into the background, and I am transported to a place where I feel really alive. All my problems and tiredness melt away. The best part of it all is that I love dressing up and showing off my moves on the dance floor. The once retiring engineer is now the belle of the ball! 

Now this candidate has your attention! And not just your attention. You’re inferring a good deal about her from learning what she does for fun. She’s willing to go way outside her comfort zone to try new things. She has the humility to potentially fail, in front of other people no less. Persistent, she puts her heart into what she pursues. She’s also letting you know that she isn’t a stereotypical Asian engineer—all numbers, all work, all day.

Over the past 10 years as an admissions consultant, I’ve occasionally encouraged applicants to write about what they do for fun to round out their candidacy. In this era of increasingly shorter applications, I’m finding it a compelling way to differentiate candidates who belong to overrepresented groups. I also find that these essays are often my clients’ best ones; when they truly enjoy the topic about which they’re writing, they do a much better job!

Who should consider writing about what they do for fun? And what you can convey beyond the obvious when you write about your passions?

I’m Not Your Typical [Fill in the Blank], Honest!

Although we all would prefer not to put people in boxes, our minds have a tendency to do that, and some of those minds belong to admissions-committee members. As it turns out, when it comes to MBA applicants, some of these stereotypes have at least a grain of truth. One such example: applicants who are Asian engineers (particularly Indian and Chinese) work a lot but don’t do much for fun. There’s some basis for this because the educational systems in these regions have focused almost exclusively on grades and test scores, and there has been much less emphasis, if any, on extracurricular activities and free play. If you fall into this demographic and are competitive in terms of grades, GMAT, work experience, and community involvement, you can get a lot of mileage out of informing the admissions committee that you also love to brew beer, sew your own clothes, or snowboard.

Those with finance and consulting backgrounds often also need help in differentiating themselves. They apply in large numbers and there are only so many ways they can distinguish themselves at work. If these folks have time for anything, I’ve found it tends to be golf. Imagine how delighted the admissions committee might be to learn that you perform in an improv troupe or throw pottery.

It’s also easy to pigeonhole military applicants in the all-work, no-play, no-creativity category. Josh*, a military-academy graduate and battalion leader, blew this stereotype by writing and submitting a poem that gave me goose bumps and brought a tear to my eye.

When is it NOT a good idea to write about what you do for fun unprompted? When you’re a nontraditional candidate who should use the space to convince the adcom that you can handle a rigorously analytical program despite your non-quant background, that your work experience is both impressive and transferable, and that you really are interested in business and have a clue about it. If you’re already exotic or highly underrepresented in some way, you don’t need to differentiate yourself further by using up valuable word-count real estate going on about your origami collection.

That doesn’t mean nontraditional candidates should never share what they do for fun. If asked for explicitly or implicitly, this can be a great way to demonstrate a talent transferable to business. For example, Marcia had limited full-time work experience and weak recommendations. She was an avid painter. Since she wanted to go into luxury retail, her sense of color and design were critical for her career, so I suggested she submit some paintings for Stern’s Personal Expression and write about painting in essays asking what she did in her free time.

Deborah Knox is founder and CEO of Insight Admissions. While she works extensively with traditional MBA applicants, she loves the challenge of assisting qualified nontraditional candidates. Devoted to the study of leadership excellence, Deborah has also served as a researcher and editor on numerous book projects for best-selling management author Jim Collins. To increase her FQ, she has recently taken up the hula hoop.

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