Avoiding Essay Pitfalls

Avoiding Essay PitfallsUnderstandably, MBA candidates have an almost endless number of questions about how to master their application essays. Here, we present our advice on several facets of this challenging portion of the MBA application, in hopes of helping you craft compelling submissions that will stand out to the admissions readers.

Consider Sharing Your Personal Stories

MBA candidates often fixate on their professional and community-based stories when writing their application essays, completely unaware of the potential their personal stories have to be powerful differentiators. Because so many applicants have similar career experiences, personal anecdotes can help candidates stand out from their fellow applicants. In particular, stories of commitment to oneself or others can have a strong emotional impact on an admissions reader, making the candidate much more memorable.

As far what types of experiences you should discuss, the first criterion is that they be truly distinct and specific to you. For example, one individual may have helped his adopted cousin relocate his birth mother, while another might have taken a six-month leave of absence to take her disabled grandmother on a tour of her home country. Each of us has interesting anecdotes we can tell about ourselves, and these kinds of stories can be nicely showcased in your essays with a little bit of thought and creativity.

Connect with the School in a Sincere and Personal Way

To start, let us say that if your target MBA program has not explicitly asked, “Why our school?,” do not try to find a way to answer that question in your essays anyway. This is not a test, and the admissions committee has not asked the question for a reason. If, however, the school has asked you to explain your reasons for choosing it, you must be sure to provide an authentic and well-researched answer.

Some candidates mistakenly believe that they must aggressively and enthusiastically state their love for their target school, sometimes resorting to pandering or speaking merely in glowing generalities. Rather than showering a program in compliments, focus on demonstrating a thorough understanding of what the MBA program offers and of how that connects with you personally. A common mistake is discussing one’s firsthand experience with a specific program in a very vague and general way. Consider the following example:

“During my visit to Cornell Johnson, I was struck by the easygoing classroom discussion, the warmth of the professors, and the time spent by the first-year student who not only toured the facilities with me but also took me for coffee and asked several of his colleagues to join us.”

Although these statements are positive and may in fact be true, the text contains no school-specific language. If the Yale School of Management, Michigan Ross, or the name of any other school were substituted for Cornell here, the statement would not otherwise change at all. It could easily apply to any MBA program—and this is not good. In contrast, the following statement could refer only to the University of Virginia’s Darden School:

“While on Grounds, I was impressed by Professor Robert Carraway’s easygoing and humorous style as he facilitated a fast-paced discussion of the ‘George’s T-Shirts’ case. Although I admittedly felt dizzied by the class’s pace, I was comforted when I encountered several students reviewing the finer points of the case later at First Coffee. I was impressed when my first-year guide stopped mid-tour to check in with a member of her Learning Team and reinforce the case’s central point. That was when I knew for sure that this is the right environment for me.”

If you were to replace the Darden name and even the professor’s name with those of another school and professor, the paragraph would no longer work. The Darden-specific information regarding the day’s case, First Coffee, and Learning Teams ensures that these sentences have a sincere and personal feel—showing that the candidate truly understands what the school is about and resulting in a compelling personal statement that will catch the attention of the admissions committee.

Respect Word Limits, But Do Not Be Constricted by Them

Candidates often worry about exceeding a school’s stated word limits, even by a mere word or two. Although we certainly feel that adhering to a program’s guidelines is best and encourage candidates to do so, we also believe that admissions directors are rational individuals and are not unnecessarily punitive. We doubt that any admissions director would ever say, “We think this candidate is great, but he exceeded the word limit by 20 words, so we are going to have to reject him.” Basically, we recommend that candidates not exceed word limits by more than 5%, but we also feel that applicants should exercise this flexibility judiciously and sparingly—and avoid consistently exceeding the limit on every essay.

That said, we feel slightly differently about page limits and advise very strongly that candidates stay within any stated page limits. Although a line or two beyond a school’s word limit may not be readily obvious, an admissions reader can immediately tell when an applicant has exceeded a page limit. Adding an additional page, even for just one extra sentence, sends a clear message to the admissions committee that you are disregarding the rules—something you obviously do not want to do!

Limit Outside Reviews of Your Essays

Before you submit your application to your target school, ask someone you believe will give you honest feedback to read your essays and offer their evaluation and advice. However, limit yourself to requesting input from no more than two people. Because the application process is subjective, the more individuals you involve, the more opinions you will receive, and if these opinions differ markedly, they can create unnecessary uncertainty.

We are not suggesting, of course, that you ignore critical feedback, but take care not to complicate the final days before you submit your application by creating doubt where it may not be due. If one or two readers support your ideas and feel that your application needs minimal work, you are probably best off ending your feedback loop there and submitting your application.

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