It’s November, which means it’s time to write. If you’re aiming for the Round 2 MBA application deadlines, and you haven’t already started on your application essays, now’s the time. And right on schedule, we’re here to offer you some practical advice.
Often the hardest part of this process is simply taking the first step. What makes for a good topic? Which details can be skipped, and which should be emphasized? What are adcoms looking for? With big questions like these looming over the process, it can be intimidating to set fingers to keyboard and start that first sentence. And to some extent, it should be! We see plenty of folks with the opposite problem: overconfident in their approach, veering off in the wrong direction from the start based on bad information and hearsay. There are smart ways to develop essay strategies before you ever commit pen to paper.
We’d like to address a few key questions and provide some example do’s and don’ts from the many thousands of MBA essays we have reviewed. Hopefully, this primer can jumpstart your brainstorming and help you objectively evaluate any essays you may have already written.
Let’s start with a few ingredients that are fundamental to a good MBA application story.
You must be the protagonist
Almost every applicant intuitively understands that they should be at the center of any events described in their application essays. That’s a good start, but it’s not nearly enough. Consider the following example:
My company, a large casino owner, was downsized recently. The experience of watching many of my co-workers get fired inspired my plan to start an HR consulting firm for the casino and entertainment industry. My firm will use new and innovative approaches to handle staffing in this highly cyclical sector, retaining talent that is currently often lost and making the industry more appealing to high-skill workers in the process.
Is the applicant the protagonist of this story?
No! The applicant “watched.” Her role is that of a passive witness to events she did not control (the layoffs). Those events had a big influence on the applicant, and ultimately led to the goals that inspire her application, but they do not prove anything about her potential for leadership or her ability to execute on those goals after graduation. On an MBA application, we cannot afford to waste an entire essay talking about an event that doesn’t involve (cool, impressive, leadership-related) ACTION on the part of the applicant. Here’s how we might rework this story to make the applicant the protagonist:
When my company, a large casino owner, was downsized, I resolved to do something to prevent more of my co-workers from getting fired. I created an internal club focused on upskilling and cross-training my team, and spearheaded a new digital initiative which achieved success and led to the creation of 20 new positions. I plan to continue this work by starting an HR consulting firm for the casino and entertainment industry… [etc. etc.]
This new example explains the applicant’s motivations, but it also proves that she has relevant skills and experience by highlighting actual results that she has already achieved. A good application essay should (must!) do all of these things at the same time.
Your actions must involve leadership or teamwork
If your story doesn’t involve two humans coming into conflict or disagreement in some way, it’s probably not suited to an MBA application. “Man vs. technology,” “man vs. deadline” and “man vs. self” need not apply. Most (all?) forms of success in business will require you to convince someone of something at some point, and the same definitely applies to success in business school. The problem is that many applicants are relatively junior employees, who spend a lot of their time at work working with things, not people. Here’s an example from an ex-military client:
That winter, I was responsible for keeping the entire base of 500 men supplied with food, clothes, and equipment. Temperatures in the Northwest Territories regularly drop below thirty degrees, and I had to drive the lead 3-ton truck of our convoy across ice with no ABS or anti-skid. It was nerve-wracking, to say the least, but in those sunless months I learned a lot about persistence.
This is undoubtedly a cool, unique experience, that’s interesting on a visceral level (who doesn’t love an Arctic survival story?). The problem is that there isn’t much obvious relevance to the MBA. This is a “man vs. nature” story, which doesn’t tell us much about the critical interpersonal soft skills that adcoms are looking for. We need to see “man vs. man.” We can still write some gripping scenes about the True North to establish the stakes, but the core conflict must be between the applicant and another human. Here’s what that might look like.
Something had to change. I was driving a 3-ton truck on ice roads in the middle of a minus thirty blizzard for the fifth time that month. The problem was simple: it was taking too long to load the trucks. As a result, we left the supply depot in late afternoon, when the risk of bad weather on the return trip was much higher. I knew we needed to change our schedule before someone got hurt. But to do that, I would have to convince the Colonel…
It may be obvious to you that truck driving isn’t a relevant skill to an MBA adcom, but you would be amazed how often we see this type of mistake. Usually, it involves a technical skill that might have some relevance in the MBA classroom–“I stayed up late to code an elaborate spreadsheet, saving the day” or “my model was accurate within X% of the real number, allowing the company to save $Y.” Those skills are worth mentioning in the background of the essay, but applying them should never resolve the main conflict in a story. An H/S/W MBA simply doesn’t need that many technical skills: they’ll have subordinates to delegate to. That’s why adcoms are focused on interpersonal skills–influencing other humans is what elite MBA graduates specialize in.
Your goals and successes should be clearly defined
The adcom is looking for high-impact top performers. Great, you are one! But here’s the rub: the adcom knows nothing about you, your company, or even (in many cases) your industry.
When someone coming from a finance giant says they worked on a $5 million deal, that might have been the smallest deal that their team did all year, and it might even have been staffed by B-team players. When someone in mid-sized agribusiness works on a deal of exactly the same size, it might be a make-or-break moment for the company, a golden opportunity, and an indication of absolute confidence. Here’s an example of what NOT to do:
In the end, the apartments sold and we made a 15% profit. I am proud that I was able to achieve this while beating the construction deadline by two days.
Having concrete numbers is a good idea, but they’re meaningless without context. The adcom does not know how impressed they should be unless you tell them. That doesn’t mean telling the adcom “and by the way, I’m great.” It means giving the adcom the background knowledge they need to evaluate your performance for themselves. For example:
The project was going to be tough. The first phase had only had a 5% margin, and senior management was uncertain about going forward. Many of my colleagues lobbied to avoid the assignment, but I saw an opportunity and requested it for myself. I believed we could achieve a 10% profit by…
[a few paragraphs later]
In the end, the apartments sold and we made a 15% profit, beating both my target and the first phase’s performance. In addition, we beat the construction deadline by two days–an impressive feat in a department where the average project finished two months late. I received the John Smith Project of the Year Award…
By establishing what was expected at the beginning of the essay, then showing that he exceeded those expectations, this applicant has given the adcom the information they need to understand his performance. This also makes for a better piece of writing. There’s a lot more dramatic tension if we know from the start that what the applicant is attempting to do is hard. A good example of this in fiction is the pre-battle briefing scene in Star Wars: A New Hope, where the general describes how hard it will be to destroy the Death Star (they have to shoot a two-meter hole).
Pilot: That’s impossible! Even for a computer.
Luke Skywalker: It’s not impossible. I used to bullseye womp rats in my T-16 back home, they’re not much bigger than two meters.
This is all totally meaningless made-up nonsense and yet it heightens the perceived difficulty of the task ahead and makes the battle more exciting. A good application essay does the same thing, except in this context you’re setting real-world expectations for a real-life event… that may nonetheless be just as outside the adcom’s expertise as shooting womp rats.
The story should demonstrate conscious growth
Adcoms will often explicitly ask for stories that demonstrate growth of some kind, but even if the prompt doesn’t include that word, pretty much everything on the application should show some sort of progress. Meaning that at the beginning of the story you were X amount ready to do an MBA, but at the end of the story you were Y amount ready, where Y is greater than X. Here’s one attempt at that:
In 20XX, I took over as chief engineer on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. This experience taught me a lot about how to lead a crew, and how to train new employees on complex assignments. It all started in July when I walked landed on the rig Drill Baby Drill. I quickly realized that my team didn’t have any idea what they were doing, but I fixed that in just two months by keeping everyone focused on the big picture.
Resist the temptation to get ahead of yourself when telling the story. Rather than tell your story through the prism of someone who has already learned the lesson, and knows what all the correct moves should have been and why, take us through it in real-time, BEFORE you came to those realizations. Crucially this means a willingness to discuss initial mistakes and ignorance. Adcoms will not be turned off by this (unless your mistakes were egregious and irredeemable).
You get more value out of frankly discussing your initial blunders and laying out your learning process than you do by papering them over and pretending that you had total mastery all along. Countless applicants are nervous about revealing any vulnerability in their essays, but the truth is that adcoms are far more impressed by somebody who makes a mistake, owns up to it, and learns from it than from somebody who claims never to have made a mistake (which we all know is impossible anyway!).
Why? Because B-school will expose you to lots of new ideas and new moves, in areas where you have no experience. The adcom needs to know that you are capable of encountering a situation you’ve never seen before, experimenting a bit, and learning the necessary skills, through trial and (yes!) error. They want to see you learning. The only way to show that is by taking the adcom through the story in real-time, showing you BEFORE you learned the lesson, and then showing how your behavior/actions changed AFTER learning the lesson. That transition from A to B will say a lot more about your future potential than whatever skills you already have right now, in the early stages of your career.
Here’s what that might look like:
At first, I tried to improve the maintenance team’s performance by subdividing the task into many smaller parts. I hoped this would make the process easier to master, but after three successive failures, I realized that I had failed to equip my crew with a clear sense of the big picture. I decided to go in the opposite direction, stop the work, and hold a 20-minute theoretical discussion in the drill shack so that all hands could conceptualize how their role fit into a much larger context. It clicked, and from that moment forward, things went a lot smoother…
A few common mistakes
Finally, let’s address a few common misconceptions. Many of these mistakes originate in applicants misunderstanding what the adcom values.
- Stories where you worked with someone important. We suppose it’s preferable to have worked with someone important, all other things being equal. But all other things are very rarely equal. Since MBA applicants are usually fairly junior employees, the stories in which they interact with top management usually don’t put their leadership skills at the fore. It’s not worth picking a story where you play a marginal or subordinate role just because you happened to be in the room with a CEO for a few minutes. Especially because, while this person may be a leading light in your specific industry, the adcom has almost certainly never heard of them. We learn more about your leadership potential from seeing you in a room managing subordinates, even if that room is comparatively far from the C-suite. Remember: Choose a story where YOU, not the CEO or chairman of the board of your company, are the protagonist.
- Stories where you worked very hard. Working hard isn’t bad, but it’s not automatically good either. MBAs do the work that needs to be done, no matter what, but they also work smart. If you’re not sleeping for a week before a big deadline, there has been a management failure somewhere: either in your own time management or in the workload that has been assigned to you. This is particularly problematic if you were working hard on a technical assignment. Your ability to stay up late writing code or making spreadsheets should be irrelevant to your post-MBA life–you’ll have a team of subordinates to do that for you. The challenge will not be staying up late to do work, but rather dividing tasks and delegating in such a way that none of your employees has to stay late. Moreover, working long hours, weekends, etc. may be a badge of honor in certain industries (especially at more junior levels), but it’s not uncommon (especially in those industries), so it won’t make you stand out from the crowd.
- Overestimating the uniqueness of your story. “Hey check it out, while I was doing this consulting project, I also ran a marathon.” “Guys, I won an award at work for a project I did! Amazing, right?” “Sure I went to an elite college, but did you know my parents were poor and struggled a lot before becoming small business owners? Looks like I’m not as privileged as you thought!” We could honestly go on for days. These are egregious examples, but the point is this: until you have read a few thousand MBA admissions essays, you simply do not have a sense for how unique your story is. Spoiler alert: It probably isn’t nearly as unique as you think.
That’s not a problem at all… any achievement, no matter how common, can be impressive if you’ve framed it correctly. That means presenting it not as a thing that on its face should be respected, but as a thing that, given your personal circumstances at the time, is impressive regardless of the next guy’s version of a similar or even more impressive achievement. Do not assume that the adcom should be awestruck by your story by default; instead, assume that your story is repetitive, and write an essay that would work even if there three dozen similar ones sitting in the adcom’s inbox.
Hopefully, these pointers have given you some ideas for how to start or improve your application essays. Use them as a checklist, either to help cohere a million buzzing thoughts or as a litmus test to see how you did on your own. If you’ve ticked most or all of these boxes in some fashion, chances are good that by doing THAT ALONE, you’ve advanced yourself past a handful of applicants who may have similarly impressive profiles, but missed the mark on making that clear to the adcom.
Once that foundation is set, your next challenge is to finesse the story organization, writing clarity, and dramatic tension to the point where the essays go from solid to mind-blowing. But don’t fuss about that until you’ve really nailed the foundation. Killer foundation with rough writing beats a weak foundation and super-polished prose eleven times out of ten. The elements we’ve discussed above are the real key, the rest is icing.
If you think you’re missing some of the elements we’ve identified, or maybe you’ve fallen into one of the traps and are just now realizing it, and you want our take, give us a shout. We’d love to hear from you.
Alex is the Managing Director of Systems & Content at Admissionado, a top admissions consultancy. Since graduating from Columbia University in 2013, he has worked with hundreds of MBA applicants on thousands of essays, helping his students maximize their MBA potential. From his base in New York City, he has written a wide variety of education-related reports, case studies, and articles, many of which can be found on Admissionado’s website and Amazon store.