MBA application essays are chance for members of the selection committee at business schools to meet the person behind the GMAT scores and the myriad of work history information sent in an application form.
Writing a good essay can be one of the most challenging aspects of an application: it's difficult to put into words all that you've achieved and learned over the last few years, and to make sense of the highs and lows of your professional life.
We spoke with Ryan Condon, a second year full-time MBA at Duke Fuqua Business School, and Nguyen Giang Troung, a full-time student on the Nanyang Business School MBA, about the strategies that proved useful for them.
For them, essays are more than the obvious opportunity to sell yourself in long form prose.
They are also the perfect opportunity for some valuable introspection, alongside your research into business schools, to ensure the values you hold dear match those of the school, and that its the right environment to nurture your ambitions.
Most programmes ask direct questions about your career plans and how pursuing an MBA will help you achieve them. They may want to know about your leadership style and your drive.
For instance this year, Nanyang asked applicants to describe one of the most meaningful and rewarding leadership challenges that they had faced and reflect on the leadership attributes they aspired to develop through the MBA.
Other programmes may emphasize teamwork, and community spirit and want to know if you will excel in such an environment. One of Duke Fuqua's required essays took the interesting format of asking applicants to list 25 random things about themselves.
The essay's aim was to give the admissions committee a chance to get to know the things that make an applicant who he or she is, in addition to professional qualifications and academic achievements.
Giang advises identifying the core values of each MBA programme, and the qualities they look for, and matching them to the qualities that you have or desire.
Ryan advises allocating significant time for the essays, “If for no other reason but to start chewing on the ideas and putting words on paper early on to allow for changing direction and feedback later”.
When you've got down the points you want to put forward, Ryan recommends reviewing your essay direction with others. He explains that current or recently graduated MBA students can easily spot contrived or cliched points, catch inaccuracies and tighten up the expressions in the essay.
“It is extremely challenging to find the confidence to share a half-baked essay with someone else but the improvements can be drastic. I certainly did not do enough of this”, he said.
Students and alumni are also well placed to help you make sure your story and points of emphasis match the school’s “feel” and priorities. He uses the example that a Fuqua essay and a Kellogg essay might have very similar prompts and the content might work well for both, but there are nuances only a student or an alum would catch to make each essay Fuqua-or Kellogg- appropriate.
Since Giang has been on the Nanyang programme he’s found out several other key values that he could have highlighted in his essay. He said, “Nanyang values honesty, motivation, good work ethics, integrity, and they are keen on sustainability. These are things I could have used to make my essay better”.
Both MBAs finally advise that you should be the most compelling version of you on paper, that is possible. A good compelling story can go a long way if it is in your true voice and directly addresses the essay question.
Ryan thinks that a sprinkle of emotion won't do any harm either. “I think in many ways we are trained to be fairly emotionless in business, but there is incredible opportunity to stand out as an applicant by showing passion, sincerity, or excitement though a well-written essay that touches on emotions”.