As if the holiday season wasn’t hectic enough, you have decided to target your business school applications for Round Two. With deadlines for top schools looming in roughly a month (HBS on Jan. 6, Wharton on Jan. 7, Stanford GSB on Jan. 9), thousands of applicants face crunch time with one of the favorite admissions essay topics, “Introduce Yourself.”
Some of the top schools, like HBS, ask the question fairly directly through its prompt, ‘what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?’ while Kellogg slips it into its query, ‘what values are important to you and how have they influenced you?’ MIT Sloan deploys a video prompt, which solicits a one-minute version of your self-introduction, and one shot at the recording. These and others are code for ‘help us get to know you,’ which can feel both straightforward and maddingly open-ended.
During my tenure as head of Wharton admissions, I always wanted my team to really get to know the candidate in a meaningful way – well beyond the stats that quantify academic or career excellence. Yet the ‘introduce yourself’ essay trips up many an applicant. That’s because the key to answering it in a coherent and compelling way is having this clarity of purpose for yourself first. It’s sort of like starting to make the recipe but making sure you read it first, so you have all of the ingredients at your fingertips.
TOP FIVE TIPS FOR CRAFTING YOUR STANDOUT RESPONSE
In answering the ‘introduce yourself’ question, you want to make a deeper connection with an admissions committee member who most likely will be reading anywhere from 25-30 such files every day during the busy application season. Here are five tips from my colleagues at Fortuna Admissions on making the most of your limited real estate and leaving a memorable impression.
- Keep your audience in mind.
Responding to the ‘introduce yourself’ question in an MBA essay is different than introducing yourself at an “ugly sweater” holiday party. Remember, the MBA admissions committee has already reviewed your resume and has supporting material in hand, such as your letters of recommendation and online app. So not only are you not starting from scratch over the punch bowl (nor presenting for a job interview), but your audience is discerning for specific qualities and characteristics. “It’s important to understand the key attributes top business schools are looking for—leadership, the ability to work on teams, emotional intelligence and analytical thinking, among others,” says my Fortuna colleague Sharon Joyce in her article, How to Develop Your MBA Elevator Pitch. “A deeper awareness of what your target schools care about will also help you make important connections to your personal strengths, passions, and unique story.”
- Take time to reflect on what is unique about your story.
The groundwork for greatness here is ample of self-reflection. This means taking a step back and really think deeply about who you are, and how your values and decisions have shaped your experience. What strengths are you bringing with you? What are the growth areas you want to develop? What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning, or what are the things that you would do for free because you care about them so much? What makes you tick and what helped you become the person you are today? Start by whiteboarding all of the themes and messages that may fit into this category to see them all in one place; getting the “ingredients” ready to incorporate into your recipe. Capturing your ideas in one place allows you to perceive the elements that are the most important to your story. It also shows you what you may be missing and may want to add.
- Illustrate your points with anecdotes.
After you have been able to shake out the important thematic threads, you’ll want to offer examples that really bring your story to life. This means conveying to your reader how it felt at a decisive moment in your development or the impact of a certain individual, with a sense of the color and importance of these events and people. Getting personal and daring to be vulnerable in your storytelling allows you to make an emotional connection to the reader. Your job is to pique the reader’s interest so that they want to learn more about you by inviting you to interview. It does not have to be a “shocking” episode or epiphany of your life, but it should allow the reader to understand you as an individual a lot better.
- Share who you are beyond your work accomplishments.
Your professional experiences are certainly important, but they aren’t the whole story. Be aware that a key question in the file reader’s mind as they read your application is “what will this person bring to our school community?” Tasked with building a diverse class who will contribute in the classroom and far beyond, admissions reviewers want to perceive what you’ll bring to their community of change-making visionaries. How will your character, contributions, and participation make the school a better place and enhance its alumni community? Plan to speak to what the school gets if they admit you; by highlighting your engagement and abilities, the goal is to demonstrate that you will give to the school as much as you get. What is your signature “spice”?
- Be discerning about how much you share.
While it is also tempting to hold nothing back, you will want to be thoughtful about how much you can credibly share in the context of your essay. You will want to stand out in the admissions officer’s mind as someone who conveyed depth and passion, rather than a candidate who spread themselves too thin and tried to exhaustively (and exhaustingly!) cover their history. Instead, you need to hone in on a few topics that you feel that you can credibly cover in the word count allotted. This means being discerning with what you share and omit – be thorough, but leave them wanting more. Authenticity is key, so stay true to yourself and your personal style. Less is always, always more, in this case.
While the “introduce yourself” may feel daunting, it presents a valuable opportunity to reflect on how you became the person you are now, and where you see yourself growing though the opportunity before you. Your goal is to leave a positive impression in the reader’s mind, making them hungry to share in that wonderfully seasoned creation you’ve served up.
Dr. Judith Silverman Hodara, EdD, is a Director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Wharton acting head of Admissions. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.