When it comes to submitting the essay for your MBA application, the pitfalls are obvious, right?
You hear stories about people submitting essays to multiple business schools and forgetting to change the name of the school. But the biggest mistake you can make on your MBA application is less obvious: if any part of your application could have been written by any candidate applying to any school, you are on the wrong track.
So, what’s the best way to avoid this mistake?
Think like a Disney character
Your essay needs to revolve around why you specifically should be at this business school.
Note that this is different from showing that you have researched the business school—this means building a case for why you as an individual would benefit from a seat in the class more than the next applicant.
If you are applying to multiple schools, don’t keep the same essay with a few added stereotypes and a bit of internet research. Think about the reasons you chose each business school, and how each one speaks to different parts of you.
To drive this point home, I’ve often asked people to think of how the application essays of Disney or comic book characters would vary if they were applying to different schools. It’s a very silly exercise, but it helps people avoid making the biggest essay mistake in their own applications.
For example, The Little Mermaid might write about her life-long interest in different cultures when applying to INSEAD, but focus on her passion for reducing ocean pollution when applying to Yale School of Management.
What’s more, she will outline how her passion for reducing ocean pollution is different from the next land-loving millennial’s. Her hometown, background, family, culture, and royal responsibilities mean that she has a unique perspective that sets her apart from the next ‘passionate’ candidate.
She could also write about how Yale’s loan forgiveness program will help her make her own decisions and devote her life to her passion, even if that means being disowned by a conservative family (and don’t get me started on underwater student loan rates!)
That is the recipe for a great essay, because if you changed the name of one business school to another, it would not make sense. No part of her essay looks like it could be from any other candidate applying to any other business school.
It’s all about specificity
How can you apply this in your own essay?
Researching the school can help you motivate your argument, but you will still need to link this research to your candidacy. Including generic lines like ‘I want to build a network’ as a reason for attending a particular MBA program is too superficial, as virtually any applicant could benefit from building a network at virtually any business school.
Instead, in order to build your case, you’ll need to show how you can benefit from the MBA program at a specific school in a way that will help you achieve your career goals.
You could, for example, talk about the ties a specific school or center at the school has with the industry you are looking to build networks within. For instance, NYU Stern School of Business has close ties to the investment banking industry, a specialization in banking, and a strong alumni network on Wall Street.
What’s your contribution?
You’ll want to demonstrate what you can contribute to the class. Peer-to-peer learning is a big focus in an MBA program: admissions officers are obsessed with diversity and genuinely want to bring different perspectives into the cohort.
I’ve heard one admissions officer referring to candidate selection as ‘like casting a play’, so a lack of personality or differentiators in your application can be a deal-breaker. You want to avoid generic answers, rehashing your CV, or clichés as much as possible.
You need to highlight who you are, and what you can bring to the class. Don’t tell the admissions committee what you think they want to hear; instead, try to give them insights into the way that you think, what drives you, and what makes you tick.
The essays are a space to be authentic, and to demonstrate your intellectual curiosity, values, drive, and the meaning you find in your work, as well as the vision and goals your MBA will help you achieve.
Your essays are also a chance to demonstrate your insights into the world; the events that have happened to you are less important than the insights you have gained from them.
The lesson is this: to use the opportunity of the application essay to present yourself as a perfect fit for the school of your dreams.