Most of us have heard the saying “less is more,” but how many of us put it into practice when it counts? Your graduate-school essays are the perfect forum for reaping the benefits of this deceptively simple principle.
First, what does “less is more” really mean? It’s the idea that we must resist our natural tendency to overplay our hands, to choose complexity over simplicity, to include unnecessary details, to say what needn’t be said, to be redundant . . . See? Often, more information is of less value in getting your point across.
Every day we have multiple opportunities to explain ourselves, demonstrate our skills, or express something: speaking in class or at a meeting for work; trying to convince our friends, colleagues, parents, or children of something; even leaving a voicemail for someone. I mention that last example because it’s the perfect instance of blatant failures to practice less-is-more. How many outgoing voicemail messages contain far too many details: “Hi, you’ve reached Steve. I’m not here right now [I figured that when your voicemail came on] but if you leave your name, number, and a brief message [thanks for reminding me; I wasn’t going to leave any of that] I’ll call you back as soon as I can [as opposed to waiting a year or two].” And message-leavers are far from innocent of redundancy: “Hi Steve, this is Nancy. I hope you get this [he wouldn’t be listening to it if he hadn’t]. I’m calling to remind you to bring the exhibits to the meeting tomorrow at 5PM. You know, the PowerPoint document [“exhibits” is probably sufficient]. Okay, so just remember to bring the exhibits tomorrow. For the meeting. [Steve is pressing “delete” now] 5PM. Oh, and this is Nancy.”
I wish I were exaggerating. With all the time we could save by practicing less-is-more, we could have solved the energy crisis and probably cured some major diseases by now. So how do you apply this to your graduate-school apps?
Here are three key areas to practice less-is-more:
· Open-ended essays: From personal statements to MBA goals essays, focus on key details on your work experience, fit with the program, and lessons learned. DO NOT repeat the question or include vague generalizations: “You asked about my goals, so in this space I will tell you about my goals”; “Each of us faces many key decisions in our lives.” At best, admissions committees, who read far too many generic essays, will just gloss over these parts. At worst they will see them as evidence that you don’t express yourself in a compelling way. Also, don’t succumb to “pack-it-in-itis” and try to tell fifteen different stories in these longer essays. Pick the two or three most powerful stories about your experience and/or goals, and polish those until they shine.
· Interviews: Same principle applies here, especially because our tendency to include the unnecessary is amplified by anxiety. A perfect example concerns the dreaded “Walk me through your resume” request. When I practice this with my MBA clients, over 90% of them start by telling me where they went to college and what their major was, then more or less read their resumes, sometimes point by point, to me, often taking close to 10 minutes. Huge mistake. A much better—and simpler—approach is to say something like, “My resume shows that I have a strong engineering background, with professional experience that has focused increasingly on business-related problem-solving and leadership.” Then proceed to illustrate each of those three main points with select, high-impact details from the resume. Two or three minutes, tops. Less is more.
· Additional Information Essays: These are the essays typically used to explain weaknesses: low GPAs; poor test scores; gaps on the resume. Here again our fear of leaving out key information often compels us to include too much, thus diluting the answer. Don’t start this essay with something like, “Your school has very high academic standards, and I know you prefer that students meet these standards. My grades and test scores are below the standard, so here I wish to explain why and hope that you will not hold these against me.” Too late. Instead, use less-is-more: “My GPA and GMAT score do not adequately reflect my academic capabilities.” Then use key information, including numbers (a particularly effective way to practice less-is-more), to back up your claim.
Using less-is-more is a smart way to impress admissions committees and ultimately end up with more options for graduate school. My fellow editors and I would be happy to help you put this principle into practice.