Set the Tone Early, and Employ Active Verbs in Your MBA Application Essays

Any good journalist will tell you that the key to writing a good news story or opinion piece is to grab the reader’s attention with the very first line. Many book authors employ this same tactic. Although only a small percentage of people have actually read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, most know that the novel begins with three famous words: “Call me Ishmael.” A powerful first line can stick with readers long after they have finished reading something (and sometimes with those who have not even read it!). For example, we all likely recognize the statement “It was a dark and stormy night,” but few may know that it is the opening line of a book by an obscure writer (Paul Clifford by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton).

Although beginning an essay with a very short introduction is the norm, sometimes a punchy opening line can capture a reader’s attention in a useful way. Consider the differences between the following pairs of openers. Which line in each example better captures your attention?

Example 1: A “Why MBA?” essay

A: “After I graduate with my MBA, I want to work in the wine industry.”
B: “Blood runs in the veins of all humans, but wine also runs in mine.”

Example 2: A “What are you most passionate about in life?” essay

A: “I enjoy nothing more than playing ice hockey.”
B: “As soon as the nearby river freezes, I wake at 6 a.m. each day and join my teammates for a prework hockey scrimmage.”

No set formula exists for opening lines—the possibilities are endless, and each opener depends on the context of the story being told. Nonetheless, our point is that you must carefully consider your opening line, because it will set the tone for your essay and determine whether your reader will want to read more.

Now let us examine the role of active verbs in your essays. Anyone who has ever written an email that has been misunderstood—let alone an MBA application essay—is no doubt aware of the subtleties of language and the nuances that can change a message’s meaning. Indeed, you can enliven a basic sentence simply by choosing more active verbs.

For example, consider the verb “earn.” By using “earn” rather than a more passive verb in the following examples, we can alter the meaning and impact of each sentence. Suddenly, you are in control. Suddenly, you worked hard and, as a result, accomplished great things.

Passive/poor example:
 “I was promoted from junior to senior analyst.”
Active/good example: “I earned a promotion from junior to senior analyst.”

Passive/poor example: “After being awarded my MBA, I will be able to…”
Active/good example: “After earning my MBA, I will be able to…”

Once you have finished your application essays, review them to see how often you can replace certain words with “earn” or a similar verb—such as “achieve,” “gain,” and “attain”—that denotes action on your part.

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