Outstanding MBA application essays have several things in common. One of the most important among them is successfully making connections between your past and your present, and between your present and your future. The decision makers will want to see you make persuasive connections between your interests and your activities, and between your passions and your commitments.
For example, if you claim that you are excited about working in green tech, be prepared to show that you have involved yourself in some way in the field. If you haven’t actually worked in green tech, what other actions have you taken to prove your interest? Have you become involved in an organization that promotes it? Can you talk about books you have read on the subject? You can’t just talk the talk. You have to walk the walk.
If you cannot connect the dots of your life, your readers will wonder: Do you really know what your goals are, either for obtaining an MBA or for your career beyond? When in doubt, the easiest step for a harried adcom member deluged with between five and ten applications for every seat in a class is to deny…
In addition to making these connections, you will also want to keep two words in mind when you write your essays: balance and values. Don’t write exclusively about career-based experiences, whether accomplishments or setbacks. Write about community involvement, hobbies, playing competitive water polo, performing with a band or in a dance troupe, or the time you trekked alone through six countries in Asia. Toss some personal experiences into the mix. As a guideline, I recommend using a 2:1 ratio of professional to personal experiences, but you will always have to use your own good judgment as to the sources of your strongest material.
As you develop your list of potential topics, also ask yourself these questions:
• Do these experiences complement one another?
• Do they show different facets of my personality, strengths and involvements?
• Do I show self-reflection, lessons learned, personal growth?
Answering these questions will also help you achieve a balance of material that will create a full-bodied profile.
Each school also promotes its own set of values through their curriculum and programs. These values reflect the school’s philosophy and are stated plainly on their websites. For example, Harvard’s website devotes substantial paragraphs (on the Who Are We Looking For? page) to each of their three key criteria in applicants: “Habit of Leadership;” “Analytical Aptitude and Appetite;” “Capacity for Intellectual Growth,” and “Engaged Community Citizenship.”
The University of Texas McCombs School of Business asserts that their full-time MBA program is built on four pillars: “Knowledge and Understanding; Responsibility and Integrity; Communication and Collaboration; and A Worldview of Business and Society.”
Notice the different emphases in just these two schools. Take care to know the stated values of the schools where you are applying. When choosing what to write about, try to include experiences that reflect and resonate with each school’s values.
Writing with sensitivity about a school’s values does not mean writing what you think the adcoms want to hear. Believe me, readers in the admissions office can sniff out disingenuousness from the far side of the campus. Only write what is true and real, without exaggeration.
Add insights and analysis
In MBA application essays, the “why” is usually more important than the “what.” This brings us back to the importance of making connections. Great essays are not simply a list of interconnected anecdotes and experiences, even if each of them individually may have some interest. Whether writing about career goals, achievements, personal influences or even your love of Salsa dancing, it is not enough to write solely about what happened. Without insight and analysis, your essays will appear superficial, so make sure to give events and decisions context by evaluating why things happened the way they did, explaining what factors led to the decisions you made, and providing lessons learned. Adding even a sentence or two of analysis and reflection about events in your life will demonstrate maturity, intellect, emotional intelligence, and self-awareness – all valued qualities in MBA applicants.
MBA essays of distinction clearly show that you have drawn a path between where you have been and where you want to go. They demonstrate a proven interest and experience in your stated field, as well as an understanding of the school’s values. They include insights showing that you have learned from your experiences. And of course, the writing is crisp, specific, and includes colorful anecdotes that will keep your readers’ attention.
This article is an excerpt from the book, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools, by Linda Abraham and Judy Gruen.
For personalized advice on how to create a winning MBA application essay, check out our MBA admissions consulting and editing services and work one-on-one with a pro who will help you discover your competitive advantage and use it to get accepted.
• MBA Applicants: Make Your Work Experience Work for You, a free guide
• Leadership in Admissions, a free guide
• 7 Signs An Experience Belongs In Your Application
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