You’re ready to go back to school for your MBA, and have narrowed down the MBA programs where you plan to apply. Next step: Writing an MBA application essay that stands out from the pack.
Most MBA applications have shrunk in recent years, both in number of essays required and essay length. As an MBA admissions consultant, I’ve watched this trend with interest. On one hand, clients are happy about it: They have fewer essays to write. On the other hand, the admissions committees still need to get to know you professionally and, to some degree, personally. So it’s a bit tougher to present yourself as a terrific candidate when you have less space to present your case.
Most schools still have a goals essay—let’s look at this one from the University of Texas at Austin’s 2017 application and see how you might handle it:
Based on your post-MBA goals and what drives you in your personal and professional life, why is the Texas MBA the ideal program for you and how do you plan to engage in our community? (500 words)
Go Point to Point in Your MBA Journey
This prompt has three questions. The obvious ones are why you’re choosing UT Austin and what you will add to the community. But the question about your post-MBA goals is implied, and the admissions committee expects you to address it. Pay attention to each word in each essay prompt so you don’t miss questions within questions or other subtleties.
Strong essays make logical links between past and present, then present and future. In your narrative, go point to point between where you’ve been professionally and where you want to go. How is the MBA program part of that journey? Don’t be intimidated by the process of writing these essays—it doesn’t have to be hard!
I tell my clients to begin the first draft imagining that you’re simply answering the questions while chatting with a friend over coffee. Not only will you relax enough to start writing, but you’ll almost certainly end up with a stronger first draft that has a friendly, personable tone, including specific anecdotes that are essential. Still stuck on a beginning? Start in the middle, or even at the end. Just start saying what you want to say. You can edit for a smooth flow later.
Keep it Real
Write from your life, using specific examples from your professional experience. For example, my client Sasha managed a product launch filled with glitches and went through six weeks of hell before dealing with all the technical and personnel issues involved. In his essay, he discussed how having the knowledge that an MBA provides would enable him to manage a similar situation in the future much more professionally. Another client, Keith, did a stellar job quarterbacking the integration of several international teams during a merger. His outstanding work earned him a fast-track promotion, and management encouraged him to go for an MBA, which they even offered to subsidize.
Remember, only you have lived your life, had your experiences, gained your insights. Let them get to know you—they really want to!
You must write succinctly to answer all three elements of this question. The research you’ve done will help you here. When answering why you’ve chosen a school, list particular things that convinced you to apply: names of classes, the chance to study under a renowned professor, research or entrepreneurial opportunities, professional clubs. In just a few sentences you can prove that your vision for your journey at the school has been researched and thought out.
Resist the temptation to offer clichéd flattery about the school. If a program has “world-class” faculty or facilities, they don’t need you to remind them. Also, never cut and paste chunks of text about the program from their website in your essay when you want to describe aspects that appeal to you. To shine in these essays, you must write with enthusiasm, sincerity, originality, integrity, and meaningful content.
The admissions committee is required to read every essay, good, bad, or ugly.
Follow these additional tips so that they’ll read yours because they want to, not because they have to. The list is based on the most common mistakes I find in MBA essay drafts. And here’s a bonus: These tips are also great advice for almost any kind of nonfiction or business writing you’ll need to do.
6 Tips to Make Your MBA Application Essays Shine
1. Ditch the clichés and business buzzwords. Words and phrases such as scalable, paradigm shift, streamline, best practices, buy-in, and core competency are boring and usually meaningless. Make every word count; readers appreciate a clear and jargon-free narrative.
2. Write with specifics. Look at this before-and-after sentence to understand the difference between bland, generic writing and sentences that tell a story:
“Although I have been responsible for many exciting projects, I want to move into management, which may not happen on my current path.”
This sentence could have been written by a thousand different people. What kind of projects? What sort of responsibility? Why is a management path closed off?
“My role as a product manager for a mid-sized giftware business has allowed me to develop my creativity as well as communication and market research skills. As exciting as it has been to participate in the planning and release of our innovative kitchen giftware e-commerce site, I want to move more into management, which seems unlikely at this family-owned and managed company.”
In this second sentence, can’t you more easily visualize the writer as a real person, whose goals you are ready to support?
3. Use active voice to save words and add impact.
Before: This project was one of several that I managed. (9 words, passive.)
After: I managed several projects. (4 words, active.)
4. Don’t be limited by chronology. Launch your story in the present, the past, or even in a vision of the future. This variety would be a welcome surprise to your readers.
5. Add insights. In MBA essays the why matters as much as the what. Whether writing about career goals, achievements, personal influences, or even your love of Zumba, give events context. Share what you learned, and go beyond the surface. Adding analysis and reflection about why things happened the way they did demonstrates the maturity, intellect, emotional intelligence, and self-awareness that MBA programs value.
6. Edit. Read your essay aloud. Can you hear where it needs trimming or more specifics? Enlist a friend with some literary skills or hire a professional if you can’t edit completely on your own. You need to cover all the bases while respecting word limits.
Writing with clarity, personality, and impact will ensure that your application will get serious consideration. You’ll stand out with the admissions committee for all the right reasons.
Judy Gruen is the author of four books, including co-author of MBA Admissions for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools, and an advisor with Accepted.com.