Avoid Negativity and Overusing Quotes in Your MBA Application Essays

Sincerity. Honesty. Candor. We encourage MBA candidates to incorporate these attributes into their applications, and when they do, the result tends to be successful essays. But can an applicant go too far? The answer is “yes,” especially when candor turns to negativity. Sometimes, when MBA candidates believe they are just being candid, they are actually revealing themselves as predisposed to pessimism—which can make connecting with their profile challenging for the admissions reader. Such situations are unfortunate, but luckily, they are also avoidable; an ostensibly “negative” idea can almost always be expressed in a positive and optimistic manner.


“In my current position, I am no longer learning and am afraid I will continue to stagnate without my MBA. I cannot achieve my objective of becoming a leader in the marketing department at my firm unless…”

Common sense would dictate that admissions committees probably do not get very excited about applicants who believe that they have stopped learning or that their career progress can be thwarted by basic obstacles.

Revised Example

“As I look to the future, I recognize that with MBA training, I could dramatically increase my impact on my firm. With an eye toward a leadership position in our marketing department, I am…”

In this revised example, the candidate is expressing the exact same need for an MBA in positive terms and thereby comes across as a warmer and more engaging prospect, while still candidly stating a need for further education.

Before submitting your file, check for unnecessarily negative statements. Although we would never suggest that every line in your essays must be full of sunshine, you should certainly take steps to avoid portraying yourself as a pessimist.

Take care also to avoid relying on famous quotes in your essays. Sometimes, incorporating a well-known quote (or perhaps a lesser-known one by a well-known person) can add a little something special to the story you are trying to tell. If the quotation truly enhances your message in a significant way, it can serve as an effective tool, making your submission that much more compelling. Consider the following examples:

Example 1

“The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”

– Theodore Roosevelt  

Roosevelt’s words are as true today as when he spoke them. The essence of a manager is…

Example 2

As Peter F. Drucker said, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” I have found the distinction between management and leadership especially important…

However, some candidates fall into the trap of using quotations as a kind of crutch, essentially relying on someone else’s clever or poignant wordsmanship in place of their own. Think of using a quotation as a way of enriching an already interesting narrative, rather than as a shortcut to a more impressive essay.

Before using a quote in your application essay, ask yourself three questions:

  • Does the quote fit the essay’s main theme?
  • Does the quote reflect who you are or what you believe?
  • Does the quote truly enhance the essay?

If you can answer “yes” to all three questions, incorporating the quote into your submission might be a good idea. But first make sure your story is strong enough to stand on its own and make a positive impression without the quote, and limit yourself to just one quotation per application—not per essay.

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