*A senior colleague who went to your dream school, your best friends, your mom/dad
Nothing is more disheartening—or confusing!—than receiving negative feedback on your business school application essays from someone you trust, especially after you have slogged over them for months and are staring down a fast-approaching deadline.
Rest assured, this happens. Often. At some level, it happens because you asked for it—by requesting someone’s honest feedback, chances are it will not always be positive. An element of ego and bias is involved. The person reading your essay does not want to let you down; even if your essay is practically perfect, they want to add value and help you make it even better. Sometimes, the feedback you receive is valuable; an outsider’s fresh eyes can often spot things you had not noticed. But just as often, what you get back is a lot of noise.
Before you start reworking everything, take a deep breath and consider who you asked—and their perspective.
A senior colleague who went to your dream school
This can be the trickiest advice to not listen to. This person has been through the process themselves. And they got in, so obviously, they must know some secret recipe and are now kindly bestowing it upon you. You would be crazy not to follow their advice, right?
Not necessarily. Alumni reviewers generally fall into one of two buckets: (1) the ones who project (i.e., they feel that whatever stories or themes they highlighted in their essays are the same ones you should highlight in yours) or (2) the ones who think you need to focus on proving your love for the school. Let us consider the fallacies in each of these arguments.
The first—whatever strategy worked for them will automatically work for you—assumes a one-size-fits-all approach. Unless you are living under a rock (and we assume you are not because you are reading this article), you have heard from schools that they value the individual and are not looking for a “type.” This is actually true! What “works” for one person is irrelevant to the next because no two people are the same. So when you are reviewing feedback from an alumnus/alumna, ask yourself, “Is this feedback applicable to my story, my experiences, my values, and my drive?” If it feels as though your reviewer is trying to shape you into something or someone you are not, resist the temptation to cave to their suggestions and remember that the most effective strategy in this process is being true to yourself.
The second—insisting you show more love for the school in your essay—typically stems from alumni’s boundless love for their alma mater, which makes them want to see the same from you. They encourage you to double down on praising the program, highlighting special courses or experiences, and mentioning the people you have spoken to. Now, all of these elements are fair play, and you will definitely need to convincingly convey your interest in the application process, be it in an essay or an interview. But not all essay questions ask (or leave room) for you to include this kind of information. And for those that do, conveying your interest goes beyond simply praising the school or referencing certain classes. The admissions committee does not want to read an essay about how great the school is and what it offers; it wants to learn about you! You must communicate why you are highlighting specific resources and how they can help you reach your goals. Paint a picture of who you will be on campus—what will you do, and why? Your alumni reviewer might not feel this conveys sufficient adulation, but the admissions committee will recognize that you have reflected deeply and specifically on how you plan to leverage the program’s academics, community, clubs, and other resources to progress toward your goals.
Truth be told, I would discourage you from asking for feedback from a graduate of the school who is senior to you at work. Doing so could cause you a lot of angst. For example, a few years ago, I was coaching someone on his “Why Stanford?” essay. He had a very senior and prominent alumna read his final essay. This alumna was truly vested in my client, wanted him to succeed, and suggested “more love for GSB.” He rewrote the essay from scratch, mentioning more resources and adding more compliments while removing key elements about his candidacy. I pushed back, reminding him that Stanford already knows all about Stanford and that he was squandering an opportunity to tell the school what he had to offer. He was in a pickle and scared that following my advice over that of the senior alumna would hold him back. I would not be mentioning this story if he had not ultimately made the right decision (he submitted his original essay). He recently graduated and started his own venture fund, and although we chuckle about the incident now, the pressure he felt was real. So, try to avoid asking, and if you cannot, just do your best to ignore any projection or prompting to amplify the love.
Your best friends
Your friends’ feedback can be a little easier to decipher. In general, friends simply want you to submit a “good” essay because they want you to achieve your goal of getting accepted. This feels harmless (and true!) enough, but their feedback can still lead to disarray. The problem is that even if they are currently enrolled in business school themselves (in which case, their feedback may be similar to that of the senior colleague we just discussed), they have little to no understanding of how an admissions committee evaluates applications. I find that friends often encourage you to use “buzz”-ier words (e.g., grit, lean in, comfort zone—words that can certainly work in an essay, but just including them will not earn you any points) or to focus more on work stories.
While well-intended, this advice presumes knowledge of what the admissions committee is seeking. Yes, the MBA is a professional degree, but you are so much more than the work you do in the office. And although schools certainly want applicants who have “grit,” just saying you do is not nearly as powerful as showing it in your essay. (In fact, directly stating you have grit can sometimes actually convince the school of the opposite.)
Rather than asking your friends for their general feedback, ask them, “Does this sound like me?” Immediately, the focus shifts to something they are well-positioned to answer. Your friends should be able to recognize the “you” in your essay, and if they cannot, then their opinion is worth its weight in gold.
Our parents are often our biggest champions and cheerleaders. Not only do they want us to have success, but they also believe we deserve it. What I often hear from parents is that an essay does not show off the applicant enough. They want to squeeze more accomplishments and wins into the essay, believing that if the admissions committee sees a long list of achievements and accolades, it will naturally recognize the applicant as the amazing candidate they believe their child to be.
You need to keep two things in mind when considering this kind of feedback. First, more is not always better, especially at the cost of reflection and self-awareness. Second, no one—and definitely no one on the admissions committee!—likes a braggart. You can use your resume instead to articulate many of your wins and accomplishments, but in your essay, showing the “how” behind some of these wins and why you went for them in the first place is much more important. The end result might offer less razzle-dazzle than what your parents want to see, but the schools will appreciate this more nuanced approach.
When you ask your parents for feedback, focus their attention, as you would with your friends, on whether the person in the essay sounds like the person they know. Also, ask them to keep an eye out for any typos. As we know, parents are usually good at seeing things their children miss, so you may as well use this knack to your advantage!
Best Practices for Getting Outside Feedback on Your Essays
Having a second set of eyes (or a third) on your essay is a good way to gain some insight into what is working and what might not be. But too much input from too many people (or the “wrong” people) can be more confounding than helpful. Here are some tips on how to solicit feedback that will truly help you strengthen your essays.
- Ask only a few people (two or three, max). The more input you get, the more you will need to balance and interpret—and the greater the risk that your essay will become one by committee.
- Ask people who truly know you, and direct their focus on evaluating whether the person conveyed in your essays is consistent with the person they know you to be.
- Remember that when you ask for feedback, you will get it. So when you do, take in the person’s perspective with a grain of salt. Although an outside reader will often have good insight and can help you refine or shift something in a way that makes your essay more powerful, just as often, the feedback offered will not add to the quality of your essay. Trust in yourself to recognize the difference and ignore any unhelpful advice.
- Consider contacting a professional for a second read. Yes, I am biased in this recommendation, but having coached thousands of candidates over the years, I know how to help applicants bridge the gap between what the schools are looking for and who they are as candidates. Putting other people’s knowledge and experience to work for you can pay dividends.
- Be confident and remember that the schools truly do not want a “type”; they want individuals. Be authentic and sincere in your application essays. It is your number one strategy for getting admitted to business school.
With close to 80 five-star reviews on Poets & Quants, Liza is one of the most sought-after admissions consultants in the industry. A former Bain & Company consultant and an MIT Sloan graduate, Liza brings discipline, logic, and curiosity to her coaching, enabling hundreds of success stories at schools such as HBS, GSB, Wharton and MIT Sloan. Her past clients cite Liza’s relentless commitment and positivity as critical factors in their success. Liza is also the co-author of the new book, “What Matters?” and “What More?”: 50 Successful Guides for the Stanford GSB and HBS (and Why They Worked).
To learn more about Liza, Gatehouse Admissions, or your MBA candidacy, request a free consultation.