For most qualified MBA applicants, the difference between getting accepted and getting dinged comes down to a compelling Personal Statement. There is no denying that solid numbers can help your application, but they definitely do not guarantee acceptance. While a 500 GMAT or a 2.5 GPA will most likely raise the red flag at Harvard Business School, even a candidate with a perfect GMAT score and a 4.0 GPA can be rejected by an elite MBA program. Strong numbers will never make up for weak personal statements or negative recommendations. The business school essay is an integral part of the application process. And although seemingly straightforward, these essay questions require a great deal of introspection and thought.
WHAT THE ADMISSIONS DIRECTORS ARE SAYING
Rebekah Melville from Yale School of Management points out one of the most commonly cited pieces of advice for MBA applicants: Justify why you are the right person for this class and explain how your aspirations will fit in with the school’s values:
“What we are looking for is to get a little bit deeper in the sense of who you are, what you value the most and the actions you’ve taken towards your beliefs. No one gets in on the basis of a fantastic essay, but it is another valuable piece of your application.”
In a similar vein, Luke Anthony Peña, executive director of admissions and financial aid at the Tuck School of Business, notes:
“You have great strengths, and you also have growth areas — this is why you are pursuing a graduate management education. It’s tempting to highlight the strengths and downplay the growth areas, but that reveals only a portion of the complete person. Show us that you acknowledge and own both.”
4 TIPS TO CRAFT THE PERFECT MBA ESSAY
1. BE AUTHENTIC:
Are you telling your own story, or a story that you think the MBA admissions committee wants to hear? If it is the latter, try again. Business schools are looking for students who are self-aware — who think about their own strengths and weaknesses — so you have to talk about something that gets at the heart of who you are, and it has be genuine to you. And the admissions committee can tell when you’re not doing that.
If music has always been a big part of what you do, then by all means talk about it, and talk about it as a passion — perhaps even as a passion that is driving you to consider a career in the arts. Conversely, if nothing in your background indicates any entrepreneurial experience or initiatives, then don’t bother talking about your dream to start your own company, even if that is what is students are doing at places like Haas or Wharton.
2. BE UNIQUE:
An authentic story, generally, means a unique one as well. And by unique we mean talking about something only you can talk about — so it shouldn’t sound like what the guy in the next cubicle over is talking about. For example, Wharton is pretty tired of run-of-the-mill private equity stories, particularly when many applicants that have private equity as their goal frequently don’t know what it is. (Need to better understand the different types of PE? Check out this article.)
Instead, dig deep to find that professional and personal experience that you know no one else is talking about in their MBA application. A very successful applicant to INSEAD explained why infrastructure investment banking was his goal. As an engineer who was in charge of big infrastructure projects, he had seen only too well how many great projects couldn’t get the financing they needed to be built. His response was to get an MBA to help finance things like bridges and tunnels. Needless to say, this was not a story many business schools had heard, which explains why his application was so well received.
3. BE SPECIFIC:
Specificity is the soul of credibility, which means that the more specific you are about what you have done and what you want to do the more credible your entire MBA application becomes. So your goal is not to “join a private equity firm,” rather it is to “join a private equity firm focused on mid-size manufacturing companies in India.” Similarly, consulting is a big field, so pick up on the story you are telling about your future career and narrow that down some. Maybe by consulting you really mean healthcare consulting. And then even take it a step further: Will you be looking to join the healthcare group of a large consulting firm like Accenture or at a boutique healthcare consulting firm like ZS Associates? Do your research, drop some names, show that you are knowledgeable about the space you want to go into. It makes your whole story more believable.
4. KNOW THE DIFFERENCE:
It is easy to say that all business schools are alike but in actual fact they can be much different, and your applications must reflect this. So it is not enough to say that you want to go to business school, rather you must explain why business school, and even more importantly, why that particular school. For example, inside the classroom some schools may teach exclusively using the case method (most famously Harvard Business School, University of Virginia, Ivey Business School), while others may be only lectures — though in actual fact, the vast majority use some sort of combination. Similarly, outside the classroom, many schools are very much focused on experiential learning, which means spending time doing real-world projects for all types of businesses. MIT Sloan’s Action Learning Labs, for example, provides such opportunities in a wide range of disciplines including entrepreneurship, healthcare, sustainability, and others.
To understand how Haas is different from Fuqua and Yale SOM from Booth, you have to connect with the schools, including visiting, attending local events, webinars, speaking to current and former students, etc. That way, when your do your MBA Personal Statement, MBA programs see the specific reasons why you want to go to their school, and how you will fit in.
FINALLY, GIVE YOURSELF ENOUGH TIME TO WRITE YOUR PERSONAL STATEMENT
With this article you hopefully have gotten a better sense of what makes for a successful MBA Personal Statement. One thing that we have yet to include but is extremely important in crafting a successful MBA essay is … time. Most successful business school application essays take time to write well, be it the MBA Personal Statement or that 250-character short answer. A good essay is written, rewritten, and rewritten again, getting critiqued and honed along the way. This is generally not something that can be hurried.
While everyone works differently, some faster and some slower, my own instincts on this say that it takes about six weeks to really produce a high-quality first essay. Each additional essay takes less time, as you build off all the other essays you have completed. If you can complete an essay in a week or less, good for you, but I am somewhat skeptical of its quality.
Remember, admissions committee members are reading hundreds of essays, and they don’t have the time or the patience to wade through last-minute essays that are generally overly long, repetitive, and don’t quite answer the question. Remember the old adage: “If I had had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.” Now you have the time to write that concise, elegant, and to-the-point essay — an essay that may just get you into your dream school.
Harold Simansky received his MBA from MIT Sloan and a BA in economics from Brandeis University. Following graduation from Sloan, Harold worked at Bain & Company in its private equity group. His efforts included being one of many consultants working on the largest media merger of all time. Upon leaving Bain, Harold founded a series of companies in sectors that have included financial services, real estate, green energy, online rewards, print media and others, while also consulting to a private equity firm.