By Chioma Isiadinso
Writing a phenomenal MBA essay is not an easy task, but I've helped hundreds of students write essays that get them admitted. Here's how they did it:
1. Think about what the admissions committee wants
Every good essay is written with an audience in mind. Generally, admissions committees are looking for the following qualities in applicants:
Leadership - Demonstrate it through examples of innovation and entrepreneurship, through management experience and through taking initiative to solve significant organizational problems.
Teamwork - Business school is a highly collaborative environment. Admissions committee members are looking for students with good interpersonal skills, who can get along well with others even when they have very different backgrounds.
Intelligence (both academic and emotional) - The admissions process isn't an essay-writing contest any more than it’s a contest to get the best GMAT score. However, it is important that your essay is coherent, persuasive, and reflective of an ability to communicate well in writing. You don't have to be Tolstoy, but your writing should be able to showcase the depth of your thought and self-awareness.
2. Know your target school's brand
Every business school has a unique brand that reflects how they want to be perceived in the broader market. Before you choose the topics and examples you'll use in your essay, be sure to understand your target's school's brand.
Duke University's Fuqua School of Business has a brand that is heavily focused on teamwork and character. If you want to get in to Fuqua, your essay needs to show that you understand and support the school's cultural values.
If you’re applying to Harvard, you should understand that their brand focuses on leadership; at Stanford, they value entrepreneurial candidates; and the London Business School brand focuses on finance.
3. Understand the question behind the question
In one of its MBA application essay prompts, Columbia Business School asks: CBS Matters, a key element of the School's culture allows the people in your cluster to learn more about you on a personal level. What will your cluster-mates be pleasantly surprised to learn about you?
On a surface level, you want to make sure you answer the actual question: what is something that people will be pleasantly surprised to learn about you?
But what they are really asking about is differentiation. Columbia values diversity. The question behind the question is “What is different about you? What unique or interesting perspective will you bring to the school to enrich the Columbia experience for your peers?”
Think about your hobbies, your passions, the experiences that have shaped you, and look for an example that really points to something that makes you, you.
4. Choose the right examples
Many students are tempted to recycle information from their resume, but the essay is a chance to show the admissions committee a different side to you.
Stanford has an MBA essay prompt that reads simply, What matters most to you, and why?
For this essay, it's very important that you focus on the “why”. What are the aspirations and motivations behind the things that are most important to you? Look for stories and examples that give your reader a real sense of who you are and what defines you. The more clear and specific you can make your example, and the more you can hone it down to a single moment or event that illustrates what matters most to you, the more it will resonate with your audience.
If the essay reads like it could have been written by anyone, you need to do some more work to make sure that your authentic voice and your personal brand comes through.
5. Rein it in
MBA application essays come with a fairly rigid word count limit. One of the mistakes I have seen students make is to try to cram way too much into that limited space.
Don't be overly ambitious – painting a precise picture of a single example is far preferable than throwing in several vague anecdotes. Keep your focus clear and narrow, and your essay will be far more effective.
6. Be strategic
Communicate a clear sense of your personal brand and be strategic about the stories you tell in your essay, so that your reader comes away from it with the exact message you want to convey.
If you have a strong history as a collaborative person, the examples you choose for your essay should reflect that strength.
7. Give yourself time
A phenomenal MBA essay is not written in a day, or even a week. Start early - at least eight weeks before your deadline - and don't skimp on any step of the following writing process:
• Create an outline – Yes, even for a 500-word essay. You won't write a focused and effective essay by simply sitting down at the computer and writing whatever comes to mind. Brainstorm, then make a plan to work from.
• Get to the point – Don't waste time on fluff or an overabundance of examples. Keep the essay focused on the main story you want to tell.
• Highlight the “so what?” – This is your takeaway, the message you want readers to come away from your essay with. Don't leave them guessing; make it clear why you chose the example you did, and what it says about you.
• Get feedback – DON'T ask 50 different people to read your essay; you'll be drowning in contradictory feedback. Choose a few trusted people to give you their thoughts on the piece. For the best feedback, ask them specific questions about how well you accomplished certain goals or conveyed certain messages.
• Set it aside – Give yourself some time to process the feedback and think about your message before you go back to the essay. It's always better to edit with fresh eyes.
• Revise, revise, and revise some more – Hone your message, incorporate your feedback, and cut the essay down to size. Between every round of revision, set the essay aside for a while so you can come at it again with a fresh perspective.
She's also a former Harvard Business School admissions officer and the author of the Best Business Schools' Admissions Secrets.
Chioma publishes on the topics of personal branding, leadership development and business school admissions for college students, young professionals, entrepreneurs and executives.
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