Getting the MBA Edge: Step 5 – The Application Essays

Getting MBA Edge Step 5 - The Application Essays

(This 7-step MBA Admissions series is produced by Fortuna Admissions, a team of former Directors of Admissions from Wharton, INSEAD, Chicago Booth, London Business School, IE and UC Berkeley Haas).

It’s hard to sit down one night and think “OK, now I am ready to write my application essays.” We generally suggest looking at an aggregate list of the questions asked by the schools you are considering, and pulling out the main themes that the essays are looking for.

You can then create a master list of personal and professional examples you may want to consider using (leadership, failure, career goals, why you want an MBA…). Armed with this document, you can begin to frame the answers around the examples you have selected. Perhaps you should begin with your number 2 school choice; you can work through the best way to present a certain theme, and polish your ideas/word choice in the process. By the time you get to your first choice school, you will have a much easier time of making your case.

While there are very few applicants who really relish the essay-writing marathon, it’s a great way to consider some of the basic questions that you should be able to answer. Why do you want an MBA? What do your long-term goals encompass on a professional and personal level? What have you learned from a failure you have experienced? It’s this kind of introspection that not only helps make the story much clearer for the individuals who read in admissions offices, but can also help the applicant clarify in their own minds why this next part of their lives is important. Many students comment that they learned more about themselves in the application process than they ever thought possible.

In recent years, the essay questions have become much more behavioral in their focus. Increasingly questions begin with “Reflect on a time, or discuss a time when.” This encourages a great deal of introspection. Applicants tend to focus a great deal on the example that they choose to illustrate their point, when in fact outcomes and learning are the important parts of the discussion. It is easy to get caught up in the narrative, but you need to share what the event actually meant to you.

If you were to imagine admissions committee members representing you during a decision meeting, you want to be able to give them as much information and depth to go on during that discussion. That means that you will want to vary your examples between the professional and the personal, and allow your true self to come through in your writing. There is no “one profile” that is more admissible than any other, and schools pride themselves on really getting to you know you as an individual – and representing you as one – during the admissions process.

Career Essay. Otherwise considered as “What I want to do when I grow up.” This essay is as much to do with planning and viability as it is the actual path you choose. If business schools awarded diplomas only to the students who actually were following what they wrote on their career goals essays, they would have a very small graduating class! Your job in this essay is to create a path that makes sense to admissions committee members, given your academic and professional background, highlighting the transferrable skills which you will bring with you to the next steps in your career. How can you best achieve your goals given what you will learn in business school, entering the job market, and progressing in your field? You need to demonstrate, either as a career enhancer, or a career switcher, that this path is viable. And importantly, that now is the right time. You also need to believe in this path to be able to present a convincing argument in your essay. What you do beyond the first day of school at your first recruiting event is entirely up to you!

Why I want to go to school X Essay. One thing this essay should NOT be is a laundry list of classes, activities and professors you think you may want to get involved with. Admissions committee members can read the website too! What you want to do is infuse the essay with a sense that you understand the culture of the school; you have taken the time to meet current students and alumni, and you understand what you will get out of the program both academically, personally and professionally. You are clear about your contribution to the community as well. After all, admissions committees have the luxury of building their own community each year, and they want to understand what you are bringing with you as a member of that environment that will enhance the overall experience for others as well as for yourself. When a school talks about their culture of innovation, for example, they are in fact giving you the chance to explain why the school is a great fit for you because of a shared passion. Engagement, commitment, and passion are of course adjectives that you would want to bring to bear in this discussion; more importantly than the clubs you want to join or the events you want to attend; its how you will leave your mark on this particular institution that really matters.

Failure Essay: This essay should really be titled “What I learned after I drove my car into a tree.” The failure essay prompt is a hard one. You want to choose something meaningful enough to discuss that has some depth to it, but you don’t necessarily want to paint yourself in a horrible, unredeemable light. You also do not want to choose something that has no impact. Being a perfectionist is not a failure for example. And scoring 790 on the GMAT you worked so hard for doesn’t count either. It’s certainly a fine line what you choose to discuss in this essay, but at the end of the day, the point is not really about the failure itself, but what you learned about yourself in the process. Too often students will spend a number of paragraphs telling the story of what the failure was all about, a little bit about what their role was in the failure, and a short wrap –up on how they have grown as a result of the experience. We encourages applicants to shrink the rest of the general example, express more about their own role and responsibility, with a much greater emphasis on how the student has grown since then, and what that means by extension for their years at business school.

Optional Essay:  This is not the time to reiterate how great you are, or why the school should accept you over all the other qualified candidates. This is not the time to explain why you only scored a 630 on the GMAT. This is the time to discuss why you were under house arrest for unpaid parking tickets, why you had to drop out of school for a semester because of illness, why you had a gap in your employment due to family circumstance or economic downturn. The essay does not need to be more than 3 or 4 well worded sentences and does not need to go into excruciating detail. Bottom line, if you are concerned that somehow in your professional or personal life you “ totaled the car”, admissions committees will be concerned as well; so use the Optional Essay to get it all out in the open, take responsibility, stop worrying, and move on with the rest of your presentation.

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