Your business school essays are about bringing your story to life and providing context to your application by connecting the dots. You’ll want to capture an admissions reviewer’s attention with your story and authenticity, persuading them to learn more by inviting you to interview. To get there, your essays should convey a strong sense of who you are as a person and what makes you tick, up and beyond what the admissions team will glean from your academic record and work history.
In her recent video conversation with Poets&Quants Editor-in-Chief John A. Byrne, Fortuna’s Melissa Joelson (veteran storyteller and former INSEAD Director of Communications), zeroed in on three essential tips for crafting a standout MBA essay. View her top tips in this 6-minutes strategy session and read on to discover our combined advice on getting how to get started – from strategy to sample prompts.
For a deep dive on the topic and a chance to get your questions answered in a live Q&A, join Fortuna’s free, 50-minute MBA Admissions Masterclass: Writing a Powerful MBA Essay on Wednesday, July 13 at noon ET. Registration is free but space is limited so reserve your seat.
If the prospect of distilling your essence into essay form makes your stomach tighten (especially the quant-leaning among us), take heart: This isn’t an essay writing competition and you’re not trying to win the Pulitzer Prize (although admission to a top 10 program can feel that competitive). Schools care more about the substance and messages than the style.
The worst thing you can do is play it safe and write something you think admissions wants to hear (yawn). This is a medium to be courageous, although memorable cuts both ways – how well you walk the line between original (good!) and weird (lamentable) reflects your judgment.
Within Melissa’s top three trips for a successful MBA essay, I’m offering some strategies for getting started and providing questions to consider.
Laser focus on the question.
“Schools are looking for key qualities including leadership potential, aptitude, and alignment with program values,” says Melissa Joelson. “Each school has a different way of discerning this, and you want to keep laser focus on the question to ensure you’re speaking to what they’re asking.”
Before sitting down to write, consider the big picture. Your ability to be both genuine and reflective about some fundamental questions – such as your motivations, goals, strengths, and career aspirations – will set you up for success. In the end, your motivations and future ambitions become the filter for crafting a powerful narrative about who you are and where you’re going.
- Brainstorm: What factors have driven your personal life and professional career?
- Reflect: What key messages do you want to convey? What are the three or so most important take-aways you want the reader to know in the context of the questions?
- Frame: Start with a bullet point version and show a logical flow in your path.
Get personal and storytell.
“Those essay questions are all trying to elicit who you really are. It requires a lot of introspection,” Melissa Joelson says. “Schools want to know what makes you tick, what are you passionate about and why? This includes why you made certain choices throughout your career and life, what inspires you? You want to get personal and tell your story.”
Think about the memorable experience and why it might have brought you great happiness – or proved to be a particularly rewarding challenge. This might be an opportunity to share an experience where you grew in confidence from a lesson in failure or went beyond yourself to succeed. Consider what you want a business school to take away from your essay before you try to capture the story in writing.
A few ideas to consider:
- What are your major accomplishments, and why do you consider them accomplishments?
- Does any attribute, quality or skill distinguish you from everyone else? How did you develop this attribute?
- What was the most difficult time in your life, and why? How did your perspective on life change because of the difficulty?
- Have you ever struggled mightily for something and succeeded? What made you successful?
- Have you ever struggled mightily for something and failed? How did you respond?
- What are your most important extracurricular or community activities? What made you join and continue these activities and why are you passionate about them?
Then, think about it from the program’s perspective: they want students who love the school, understand what makes it special, and can explain why it’s a great fit. They also want to understand how your presence and participation will enhance the overall experience—for others as well as for yourself. Take the pulse of the program and show that you understand what the school cares about and that its values are aligned with your own. And as Melissa Joelson emphasizes in tip #1, outlining your key messages will help you to stay on track and keep a laser focus on the question.
More ideas to consider:
- What are your dreams for the future? When you look back on your life in 30 years, what would it take for you to consider your life successful? What people, things, and accomplishments do you need?
- How does this particular program fit into your plans for the future?
- And, most importantly, why the MBA?
Edit, edit… then edit some more.
Get inspired and avoid working in isolation. This is where an MBA admissions coach can add a lot of value – both in helping you to discern the stories that will capture the MBA admissions committee’s attention and in helping you to edit your story with unflinching precision. The secret, as Melissa Joelson says, “is that the best writers have the best editors.”
If you’re feeling stuck, seek some inspiration or entertainment in other great writing. To this end:
- Read sample admissions essays.
- Consider your childhood.
- Consider your role models.
- Ask for feedback (if not from a coach, then from a trusted supervisor, colleague, friend, professor, or relative.)
- Reflect upon self-assessment tools you might have taken in the past, such as CliftonStrengths, and how your unique set of talents and traits can be highlighted in your b-school essays.
Once you’re sufficiently prepared and inspired, start to play with possibilities on the page. Dare to have a little fun here – humans respond to enthusiasm and your voice conveys your personality. Know this: There is no right story other than your own. And the person best poised to tell that story is you.
Join us for Fortuna’s MBA Admissions Masterclass: Writing a Powerful MBA Essay on Wednesday, July 13 at noon ET, a free, 50-minute strategy session and the chance to get your questions answered in a live Q&A. Registration is free but space is limited so reserve your seat today.
Sharon Joyce is a director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Berkeley Haas Associate Director of Admissions. Melissa Joelson is a Fortuna Admissions coach and a veteran writer, editor, and storyteller as well as former INSEAD Director of Communications. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.