HBS asks for your resume and two letters of recommendation. You’ll also provide academic transcripts and test scores, and fill their online application with details of your background and accomplishments. So then they ask ‘What more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA Program?’
Where do you start? What should you include? And when should you stop, bearing in mind this single essay has no word limit but you know they are not looking for a 7-page odyssey? Your challenge is to say more with less.
Harvard is not alone in requiring fewer and shorter essays from MBA applicants. Across several schools, this year has seen a continuing trend of reductions in word limits and essay questions, leaving increasingly confined space for you to communicate your strengths, potential and values to the reader. MIT no longer require an essay: applicants are asked to simply submit a cover letter, and can choose to submit an optional, open topic essay. INSEAD has dropped their cultural diversity essay in favor of their new video component.
Not all schools have hopped onto the ‘less in more’ bandwagon. Wharton, for example, actually added an essay question to their application this year. But, such actions are increasingly the exception, rather than the rule. Columbia Business School has also been a touch kinder; instead of enforcing lower word limits, they are now providing minimum and maximums (100 – 750, 100 – 500 and 100 – 250 for their three essays). This subtler approach allows some scope for the more wordy among us, but also reminds us that powerful points can, and sometimes should, be made more succinctly.
Here are three tips to tackle the ever-dwindling space in MBA applications:
1. Start with strategy — From blue oceans to five forces, in business school you’ll learn all about strategic models that help businesses analyze opportunities and chart their best course of action. Your MBA application isn’t so different. Begin with a basic, and brutally honest, assessment of your strengths and weaknesses, gathering input from friends and colleagues if you can. Narrow the list down to the most relevant 2 – 3 key strengths, experiences and / or attributes to highlight in each school application, and 1 – 2 greatest weaknesses the admissions committee might perceive and how you can proactively address them.
2. Build a narrative – Once you know what you want to say, you must next identify how you want to say it. Remember that showing is always more powerful than telling. I can tell the admissions committee that I’m smart, but showing it through a strong GMAT and previous grades carries a lot more weight. You’ll need to think of examples that show the unique strengths and attributes you identified in your first steps, and also the results of those strengths and attributes. Then thoroughly review all parts of the application for each school to which you are applying, and map out which items / stories best fit where. Remember that your essays are only one aspect of your overall application, they work in conjunction with your recommendations, transcripts, test scores, resume and all other components that the school may require. Make sure you connect all the dots, so that when viewed together, the application as whole, if not a single essay, tells the complete story you want to communicate.
3. Edit – I have a writing program on my computer called Day One. Each day it either prompts me with a subject about which to write (What is your earliest memory? Where did you first live on your own?) or it provides a pep-talky line or two to nudge me towards writing. A few months ago, the line that popped up said, “Quality can be distilled later by editing”. I took a photo of it that has been the background image on my computer ever since. If you’re a perfectionist (and, let’s face it, many of us b-school types are), this can be especially difficult. Just start by getting some words down. Don’t be intimated by the topic, discouraged by the quality of your initial writing, or confined by the word limits. Exhaust the subject. Then get out your box of red pens. Read, edit, repeat. As many times as you need to. There is a reason that the phrase “to write is to edit” has become a truism for writers world-wide. Like a painter who pencil sketches on paper before putting color to canvas, writing is just the preparation. The real work, and the art, is in the editing.
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By Cassandra Pittman. Cassandra is an Expert Coach at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and an Executive-in-Residence at London Business School. She holds an MBA from Columbia Business School, and has worked in Admissions at both INSEAD and London Business School. Fortuna is composed of former directors and associate directors of admissions at many of the world’s best business schools.