Many business school candidates take a straightforward, historical approach in their personal statement essays. Although this can be an easy way to organize an essay, it may deprive applicants of an opportunity to deliver a more focused and gripping introduction. Nothing is fundamentally wrong with taking a historical approach, of course, but an anecdotal approach can better maintain a reader’s interest in certain circumstances. Of course, this all comes down to execution.
“When I graduated from New York University with a finance degree, I eschewed Wall Street and pursued my own distinct path; I opened a flower shop in midtown New York, never imagining the challenges I would face as I strived to bring in new customers and locate products around the world. With time, I learned to advertise selectively (on billboards in local office buildings) and developed relationships with suppliers, particularly one in Peru, with whom I obtained an exclusive on Heliconia flowers. After one year, we started to specialize in foreign flowers, and with a niche identified, we developed a strong client base. My firm stabilized, and I was no longer bleeding cash to support my 11 employees; we were cash-flow neutral and contemplating a new location.”
This introduction is very direct and informative but involves almost no drama or emotion. To be more effective, the writer might instead consider positioning himself/herself as “the hero” and drawing the reader in with some anecdotal tension.
“My hand quivered as I signed the lease for 1,000 square feet of retail space in midtown New York. Two months later, I threw open the doors to my flower shop and was stunned when I did not make a sale until my third day. Admittedly, I began to question the wisdom of entrepreneurship and wondered if I should have joined my peers from New York University’s finance program as an analyst on Wall Street instead. However, each day, a trickle of customers came in, and more often than not, they commented on the colorful and rare flowers in my window, like the Peruvian Heliconia, exclusive to my shop. Within weeks, I had core customers picking up scheduled orders and referring friends; I bolstered this ‘word of mouth’ with select advertising on electronic billboards in the four 50-story office towers surrounding the shop. Soon, I noticed a surge of customers and was no longer bleeding cash. After one year, we were cash-flow neutral, and I was even contemplating opening another location.”
In this version, the same information is conveyed, but the tension inherent in the “quivering hand” and the empty store acts as a “hook” to draw the reader in. By taking this more personal, emotional, and indeed anecdotal approach, the writer allows the reader to identify with his/her struggle and thereby maintains the reader’s interest. Again, this is not a case of right or wrong, and each MBA candidate should decide what works best in his/her own essays.
Indeed, our philosophy is that candidates should let their experiences, not just their word choices, captivate the admissions committees. Sometimes we find that applicants attempt to emphasize their actions with “extreme” adjectives and adverbs—an approach we strongly discourage.
Example: “As others withdrew their support, I remained remarkably dedicated to our crucial fundraising efforts. I dramatically increased my participation in our strategic planning meetings and insisted that we push forward with a wildly creative guerrilla marketing plan, which brought forth tremendous results—$1M in ‘instant’ proceeds.”
In these two sentences, the writer uses the descriptors “remarkably,” “dramatically,” “wildly,” and “tremendous” to make his impression. We find that a more effective approach is to eliminate these “extreme” descriptions and let the experiences do the “talking.”
Example: “As others withdrew their support, I remained dedicated to our fundraising efforts. I increased my participation in our strategic planning meetings and insisted that we push forward with a guerrilla marketing plan that brought $1M in ‘instant’ proceeds.”
In this second example, the writer does not need to say that the results were “tremendous,” because the $1M in proceeds speaks for itself; we do not need to be told that the marketing campaign was “wildly creative,” because this is implied in the nature of guerrilla marketing. In addition to truly showing a level of humility on the part of the candidate, this approach is also less wordy. Although the eight words saved in the latter example may seem inconsequential, we removed them from only two sentences. If you can remove four words from every sentence in your original draft, you could significantly but humbly augment your essay with other compelling ideas.