The essay-writing process begins with introspection; there’s no shortcut around it. Before you begin writing, even before you know the questions your schools asked, begin developing a short personal marketing message or “handle” that integrates the key themes (strengths, experiences, interests) you want your application to communicate.
Imagine the admissions process as a cocktail party. Your hosts’ (the adcoms) time is limited. They must make the rounds with all their “guests” (applicants) before the night’s over. Since you can’t give them your whole life story, everything you say must communicate a compact, multidimensional message that’s distinctive enough for your host to remember long after other “partygoers” have made their pitch. Take your time, cast your net widely, and ask friends and family for their input, so the handle you devise reflects key uniqueness factors from your professional, personal, community, and academic lives.
As a rule of thumb, construct your self-marketing handle out of four or five themes, each one rich enough to build an essay around. If you come up with “a natural leader with strong analytical skills and a social conscience,” you’re thinking far too broadly. If your handle runs past a sentence or two, unless it’s truly scintillating, business schools may lose it in the crowd. The blend of themes should emphasize your multidimensionality. That is, you’re not only a testing team lead at IBM, but you’re also a Norwegian American raised in Ecuador who also loves taxidermy and tutoring immigrant kids for the Knowledge Trust Alliance.
Remember that your admissions “hosts” will be bringing a long memory of past conversations to your brief encounter. Simply telling them you’re a banker or marketing manager will trigger all sorts of valid assumptions about your skills and professional exposures. If you’re applying from a traditional MBA feeder profession like consulting or investment banking, for example, your handle will come equipped with analytical and quantitative strengths. So round it out distinctively by including themes that B-schools don’t automatically associate with your profession, such as creativity (e.g., your lifelong devotion to basket weaving), social-impact causes (e.g., that stint training subsistence farmers in Malawi), or out-of-the-box professional experiences (e.g., your first career as a geography teacher). Or look for unusual childhood or family experiences, distinctive hobbies, or international experiences that offset the predictability of your professional profile — and incorporate these into your handle.
Although a distinctive multidimensional handle is ideal, it must truly capture who you are. Don’t try to force a theme — “internationalism,” for example, or “creativity” — onto your profile if you don’t have the experiences to back it out. Again, each of your handle’s themes must be deep enough that you could write a full essay around it.
Excerpted from Great Application Essays for Business School by Paul Bodine (McGraw-Hill, 2006).