The essay is perhaps the most important piece of an MBA application package. Through the essay, you can convey your personality, expand on the dry facts in your resume, and show to the admissions committee something that is not evident on the application form. A winning essay serves as the glue that keeps the application together and fills in the spaces not covered in other pieces of the application package.
Without further ado, here are my five tips for aspiring applicants on how to write a winning MBA admissions essay.
#1. Start early.
I cannot stress enough the importance of an early start — for your application package preparation in general, and for your essay drafting in particular. Usually, essay topics at top business schools don’t differ much year to year, with only slight changes occurring at some of the schools., if any. Take the time to look at essay topics from previous application cycles before new ones are released in the early summer.
#2. Provide anecdotes and be authentic.
People love reading stories, and business school admissions officers are no different. After all, they are people, not robots. Always start your essay with a hook to grab the admission officer’s attention. Make her want to read your essay from the first word to the last. I once was told by a friend of mine, a Harvard Business School graduate, to imagine the worst-case scenario of how the application package review process goes:
8:00 p.m. on the clock, it’s pouring rain outside. Ms. Smith, an admissions officer at a top-ranked business school, is reviewing her 50th, and the last, application for today and it happens to be your application. She is in a rush, because she still needs to pick up her groceries and be home in an hour. She throws a quick look at your test scores, work history, and achievements, then turns to your essays. You have only a few seconds to grab her attention. After a 30-second scan she finds nothing to catch her eye and puts your application into the “Reject” pile.
Even though there is a degree of exaggeration in this scenario — for one thing, the application review process is usually much more thorough than this — I hope you get the point: It’s crucial to start with a hook to grab their attention and write emotionally onward to keep the reader’s focus.
Don’t just copy and paste someone else’s essay that just so happened to be successful for a certain business school. The idea that there is a magic template out there that you can fit yourself into to be successful in your MBA admission couldn’t be further from the truth. Write your own unique story, and don’t forget to emphasize your unique personal traits that may be important to a particular business school.
#3. Show your leadership & teamwork skills and convey your values.
One way or another, leadership and teamwork are at the core of business education. This is especially true at major MBA programs whose ultimate goal is to educate and grow young leaders who one day will be behind the wheel of major corporations, organizations, and institutions. This is why MBA programs pay particular attention to clear displays of a candidate’s leadership potential and teamwork skills.
Values, too, are an integral part of any MBA program. For example, Wharton MBA students’ core values are leadership, integrity, humility, initiative, learning, diversity, and community. Make sure you thoroughly research your target schools’ values and convey them in your essay through personal anecdotes.
#4. Don’t bother about word count at first, but edit relentlessly thereafter.
Write as much as you want in your first couple of drafts and don’t pay attention to the required word count. This way you’ll be able to lay out all the information you have in mind. Write down every detail, even if you think it is useless and won’t add much value to your essay. By doing this, you’ll have a clear understanding of what material you have on hand and you can then see how to connect the dots between your stories.
Upon connecting the dots, you’ll end up with a more coherent draft, but chances are it’ll be well above the required word limit. That’s OK. The next step is to edit your existing draft relentlessly, making sure your sentences are crisp and succinct. After several revisions, you’ll be close to what you can call a “final draft.”
#5. Show your essay to someone who knows you well, then proofread it diligently.
“Great, I have my final draft. Now all I need is to review it once again and I’m done, right?” Not so fast. Make sure you show your “final draft” to someone who knows you well, preferably a person who has an MBA. By doing this, you’ll be able to avoid the common trap of cutting your essay to the point that it no longer conveys your personality and who you really are. After several iterations with your reviewer, you’ll be almost good to go.
The final step is to proofread, proofread, proofread. Do it multiple times and make sure your essay is flawless before you hit the “submit” button. A brilliant essay with a couple of careless typos could ruin your entire application.
To sum up, writing a decent MBA admissions essay takes a lot of time, at least one month and probably more like three. Don’t fall into the trap of writing your essay at the last minute — chances are you’ll end up with zero offers. Provide anecdotes and be authentic in your writing, show your leadership and teamwork skills, and convey your values. Write it all out, then edit relentlessly.
Finally, show your work to someone who knows you really well — preferably someone who was in your shoes before — and then do multiple proofreads of the final version of your essay.
Most importantly, remember a simple truth: You get out what you put in.
Nick Gaidai is a Wharton MBA student. Before coming to Wharton, he was a co-founder and CEO of EasyBusiness, a government advisory organization that worked to create favorable conditions for businesses in Ukraine. He also served as adviser to the prime minister and presidential administration of Ukraine. He earned a B.A. in International Economics from Kyiv National Economic University and M.A. in International Business from the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina.