Writing a Powerful Leadership/Achievement Essay

MBA Admissions for Smarties

In honor of the first birthday of MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools, by Linda Abraham and Judy Gruen, we are posting a series of excerpts from the book throughout November. This post is excerpted from Chapter 6: “How to Handle Specific Essay Types: Goals, Achievement/Leadership, Failure, Personal Influences and Optional Essays.”

Essays that ask you to write about significant achievements fall under the category of what are known as behavioral or experiential questions. The basic assumption behind these questions is that past behavior is a great predictor of future behavior. They are all varieties on the theme of “Tell us about a time when you. . . These questions are meant to take the measure of your managerial potential.

Achievement questions present fantastic opportunities for you to reveal the uber-value of business schools: leadership. No question about it, great managers are leaders. To the extent you can display leadership through your achievement or other behavioral-related essays, you will want to do so.

Let’s look at how one candidate effectively addressed this essay question from Stanford: Tell us about a time when you made a lasting impact on your organization.

Notice how the writer avoids writing about leadership in general terms and focuses instead on the specific aspects of his contributions and their impact:

The Change Agent

When I was invited to become the Vice President and General Manager at Third Way Associates (TWA) two years ago, the company was in financial and administrative disorder. Employee retention was poor, and TWA took too long to pay vendors because of poor communication and accounting processes. Cash flow was managed based on immediate needs rather than by the logic of budgets planned by project and city. Sloppy expense reports that were turned in with no receipts were reimbursed to employees.

TWA founders Scott W__ and Glenn L____ had good intentions, but spent most of their time selling sponsorships and getting new clients rather than directing and managing the company. As we begin 2011, TWA is much healthier in every way. Under my direction, vendors are paid in an average of 20 days from date of invoice, instead of 60 days or more. Our cash flow is better administered since I introduced very specific detailed area budgets with over 125 budget lines per city. Because I can give the company founders much better stability and macromanagement vision, the three of us are able to look more to the future rather than simply put out fires.

Despite the difficult economy in 2010, we not only retained our same clients but also signed several new client agreements for three years or more, including a two-year contract with Puma worth $1.3 million. I’ve brought fresh accounts and industries into TWA, including _____ Airlines and Gatorade, among others. Combined, these accounts generated more than $500,000 in 2010 and we estimate close to $1 million dollars in 2011.

Since my arrival, we have a much wider and broader sales menu which has been crucial to generate more revenue. I’ve expanded our most popular sports events to 25 cities, giving our clients new investment opportunities. These events range from recreational soccer clinic tours to professional soccer games broadcast on TV.

 I also expanded our field staff, and at present we have 25 strong and reliable managers who report directly to me from each city. Despite the economy, 2010 was not a bad year for TWA, and 2011 promises to be even better if we continue our current strategy and continue to work as a team. 

In every paragraph, this writer mentions concrete measures he took to introduce order to a chaotic company that was trying to grow. From instituting budgets with line items, an improved accounts payable system, and recruiting additional big-name accounts, the writer proves how his efforts strengthened the organization.

As you choose among your own experiences as essay material, think about these questions to help you frame answers of substance:

  1. What was the obstacle, challenge, or problem that you solved in this accomplishment? A tight client deadline? A complex merger transaction? A new product launch amidst fierce competition?
  2. What did you do to rise to the challenge you are writing about? Motivate your team to work overtime? Sell senior management on the deal’s long-term upside? Identify a marketing profile for your product that no competitor can match?
  3. What facts demonstrate that your intervention created a happy ending? Did your team submit the project deliverables three days early despite being 20% understaffed? Your client approved the $500 million merger, the largest ever in its industry? Your new product has 20% market share after only one year? What was the impact of your leadership?

Another tip: Look for opportunities to incorporate strong verbs that illustrate your strengths in these areas. Good examples of leadership might incorporate several of the following:

  • Listening
  • Initiating
  • Mentoring
  • Teaching
  • Persuading
  • Organizing
  • Establishing a goal or vision
  • Motivating
  • Managing
  • Obtaining buy-in
  • Taking responsibility

The old adage, “Show, don’t tell,” remains a classic bit of wisdom in the writing process. Make that a guiding principle not only in your leadership/achievement essays, but throughout your application.

This month marks the one-year anniversary of  MBA Smarties publication, and Judy Gruen and Linda Abraham the co-authors, will be sharing excerpts from the book throughout November. Whether you are still deciding whether to get an MBA, deciding where to apply, working on essays, preparing for interviews, or trying to deal with a “special situation,” MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools provides practical, down-to-earth advice for the MBA application process in a coherent framework — and for less than the cost of a first-run movie. Check it out. Download the first chapter FREE.


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