Monday Morning Essay Tip: Past Tense Versus Present Tense

Virtually all MBA application essays are written in the past tense, which makes sense, considering that candidates are most often discussing past experiences. Although the past tense is quite “user friendly,” another choice is to use the present tense to heighten the immediacy of the experience being presented and to draw the reader into the story. Consider the following examples:

Past tense: “I arrived at my supervisor’s office at 11 a.m.; we tabled the deal no less than 15 minutes later. Then, the two of us sat by the phone, casually chatting about baseball, and waited. When our CEO finally called two hours later, we discovered that we had indeed submitted the winning bid….”

Present tense: “I arrive at my supervisor’s office at 11 a.m. Fifteen minutes later, we table our deal. For the next two hours, as we casually chat about baseball, we wait by the phone. When it finally rings, our CEO is on the line, informing us that our offer has been accepted….”

These examples do not represent “right” and “wrong” options but instead illustrate two different styles a candidate might use, both of which can be equally effective; choosing which is the better fit for a particular essay depends entirely on the skill of the writer. Executing well in the present tense can sometimes be difficult, and we recommend that candidates undertake the task with caution. Further, this choice also depends significantly on the story’s content and context—the present tense is a good option when the experience recounted involves “high drama,” but it is not necessarily appropriate for every essay.

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