The admissions committees at top business schools want to meet the real you, the man or woman behind your GMAT scores, transcripts, and résumé. They want to know who you are now—what motivates you, what sets you apart from others, and who you'd like to become—what career goals you have and how you'd like to achieve them. Revealing your inner self, your hopes and dreams, is the purpose of the business school application essays. "The essays are windows into who you are as a person, your heart," says Stacy Blackman, president of Stacy Blackman Consulting in Los Angeles. Your No. 1 priority is to communicate just how much your entrance into this business school means to you, and what you bring to the table.
Before you even think about writing your essays, you should take time for serious self-reflection by focusing on your strengths, weaknesses, and aspirations. Try to look at yourself objectively and contemplate what you'd be bringing to a business school and where B-school might help you improve. Also, reflect on the career you'd like to create for yourself after the MBA and how you could realistically achieve such goals. Finally, you must thoroughly research the schools, their programs and courses, and the campus culture.
After you have scratched all the above tasks off your to-do list, then you can start writing your application essays. Without getting hung up on what you think the admissions committees want to read, you should try to make your essays lively and fresh.
Whatever you do, don't get into "term-paper mode", warns Paul Bodine, senior editor at Accepted.com, an admissions consulting firm, and author of Great Application Essays for Business Schools (McGraw-Hill, November 2005). "Make it about self-discovery," he adds. "Make it fun." Keep in mind that the committee members read thousands of responses to the same questions as they consider applications, so you don't want to bore them. Using anecdotes, including vivid details, and avoiding spelling and grammar mistakes that could distract the reader are key.
One of the biggest mistakes applicants make, say admissions consultants, is failing to do what is asked of them. "The answer to the question being posed should be in every single essay," says Linda Abraham, president of Accepted.com. "It's not always there, and that's bad news." Having someone proofread your essays and then guess the original question is one way to stay on task, says Shelley Burt, director of graduate management enrollment at the Carroll School of Management (Carroll Full-Time MBA Profile) at Boston College.
Keeping it real is the golden rule of application essay writing. "You need to approach the essays with a certain level of integrity and sincerity," says Abraham. "What the adcomm wants to do is learn about the applicant, so if you try to hide yourself, then on some level you're failing." Abraham adds that you must recognize yourself in your work and that you must be the one to write the essays, even if others look them over for you or give you advice on how to improve them.
MAP YOUR CAREER GOALS
Sending the right messages about your candidacy throughout the application is imperative, and the essays are your chance to make certain points stick. For starters, you have to express your career goals and how you hope to achieve them. Many programs have a specific essay question that asks outright about your plans. One interesting way to approach the question in an essay, suggests Abraham, is to write about a typical day in your life as you imagine it to be five years down the road. If you decide to try to do this, adds Abraham, you must be clear about the path you plan to take, the duties you'll be carrying out, and where you'll be working.
Simply saying you'd like to be a consultant is not enough. That is fine as a short-term goal, but it's not specific enough, say admissions consultants. You have to explain how your experience up to that point, combined with what this business school's program offers, can help you achieve both short- and long-term goals. Bodine says you might even go through the course catalog to see which classes might help you and mention their titles in the essays.
Make no mistake about it: Explaining your career goals in a thoughtful and detailed manner could be the difference between getting accepted and rejected. Increasingly, business school applications are being evaluated by career services looking for evidence of employability at graduation. "Schools are looking at the essays to determine if they can help the student achieve his goals, not just educational but professional as well," says Burt. In fact, the director of Career Strategy at the Carroll School sits on the admissions committee and scans the essays to determine if the school would be able to help the applicant succeed.
WHY THIS BUSINESS SCHOOL?
In tandem with your career goals, you must demonstrate your knowledge of the school and how you will fit into its distinct culture. Linking your personality traits with the culture of the school—noting that you led your college's comedy troupe and that you'd like to participate in this B-school's annual follies show, for example—is one way to prove that you're a good match.
Another way to show you would fit in well is by visiting campus and mentioning what you encountered there and why that appealed to you. "Share conversations you've had with members of the community," suggests Burt. The point is to show that you have an understanding of what your life would be like at this particular business school and that you'd be successful and happy on campus.
PROVE YOU CAN RULE THE WORLD
Leadership gets a lot of lip service in business school circles, and it's an important part of your application. But it's hard to define. Blackman suggests you think of it as an overriding term for 50 or so characteristics—from a good work ethic to an ability to motivate teammates. Once you start to look at leadership from that perspective, you can go through the list of characteristics that you come up with and choose the five that play to your strengths. Then, you can trumpet those in your application essays.
Repeating leadership-related buzz words is not the right road to take. If you'd like to demonstrate that you know how to mentor others, you might describe the bond you developed with the elementary school student you volunteered to tutor in math, and how you taught him to budget his allowance so that he could later afford a video game he really wanted.
FLAUNT YOUR PERSONALITY
Letting down your guard is a must. "Show unique characteristics," says Burt. "Show a little personality." Demonstrating how you're different from the competition is necessary, says Bodine. For example, if you grew up in Borneo in a large family, you could bring those experiences and your culture into an essay, says Bodine. Another candidate might have an unusual hobby or work experience. "You can always come up with five things that set you apart," says Bodine. Including your personality in your essays also will help members of the admissions committee see how you can play a role in creating diversity in the class that they are assembling.
Your pen—rather your keyboard—holds your destiny. Ultimately, the essays are the best way for schools to determine if you are a capable communicator, an attribute every leader must always strive to improve. Aside from demonstrating that you have the basics of writing nailed down—from proper grammar to organized structure—you should also personalize your writing for the school to which you are applying. "Students who write essays that can be repurposed at other programs are a red flag to us," says Burt.
Staying on track is also important. "Don't ever write about someone else," says Blackman. "Keep the focus on you, even if the question is, 'With whom would you like to go to lunch?'" Your message should be that this school is the place for you to gain the tools necessary to fulfill your dreams—and that you'll reciprocate the favor by contributing to the community in your own unique way. To make this point, write what you have to write concisely but with verve.