Skip the Formal Introduction and Own Your Story in MBA Application Essays

Most high school students in the United States are taught that essays must begin with a formal introduction, followed by a body that supports that introduction and a conclusion that reinforces the main point presented in the introduction. This approach and structure are fitting for academic work and can facilitate comprehension, but business school application essays are constrained by word count. As a result, candidates often must use less lengthy openings because they do not have the luxury of “wasting” 100 words to introduce their topic.

In such cases, we recommend a “non-introduction” introduction, depending on the context and pace of your story. If you have a gripping opener that places your reader in the middle of a scenario, we suggest launching right into your story to grab and keep your reader’s attention.

Consider this traditional introduction:

“Throughout my career, I have strived to continuously learn and develop as a manager, frequently taking enrichment courses, seizing mentorship opportunities, and seeking frank feedback from my superiors. When my firm staffed me on its $4.5M Oregon Project (our highest-profile product launch in a decade), I considered it a tremendous opportunity and never imagined it would become the greatest test of my managerial abilities thus far. When I arrived in Portland, I discovered a project deemed so important by our firm that it was overstaffed and wallowing in confused directives from headquarters in Chicago. I quickly surveyed the situation and began to create support for changes to…”

What if this essay, under the pressure of word limits, were to begin with a slightly modified version of the body?

“When I arrived in Portland, I discovered that my firm’s $4.5M Oregon Project—our highest-profile product launch in a decade—was overstaffed and wallowing in confused directives from headquarters in Chicago. I quickly surveyed the situation and began to create support for changes to…”

In this case, more than 60 words are saved, and the reader is immediately thrust into the energy and crux of the story, learning how the applicant jumped into the project and ultimately saved the day. Although the “non-introduction” introduction should not be used for every essay, it can be a valuable tool when applied with discretion.

In addition, applicants should assert a sense of ownership in their essays. Many business school candidates unwittingly begin with platitudes—obvious or trite remarks written as though they were original. For example, when responding to the essay prompt “Tell us about a time when you made a difficult decision,” an applicant might mistakenly write the following:

“Managers constantly face difficult decisions. Still, everyone hates indecision.”

The applicant does not “own” this idea and cannot lay claim to this statement. A simple alternative would be to insert his/her personal experience and viewpoint into the sentence:

“I found myself back in the boardroom with Steve, anticipating that yet again, he would change his mind on the mbaMission file.”

By discussing your personal and unique experiences, you demonstrate ownership of your story while engaging your reader. Avoiding platitudes and generalities—and ensuring that you are sharing your experience, rather than one that could belong to anyone else—is a simple but critical step in creating a compelling message.

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