Crafting an intricate admissions essay is perhaps the most daunting part of applying to business school. Applicants shouldn't sit down to write without direction, so U.S. News asked Jeremy Shinewald, founder and president of the business school admissions consulting firm mbaMission and graduate of the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, to offer insight on how to write a piece that will set you apart from the competition.
1. What do admissions officials typically look for in essays? What qualities should applicants try to highlight?
There is a common misconception that admissions officers are looking for something precise and that they possess a secret that candidates need to unlock. These days, applicants read blogs and accept the opinions of armchair experts [that] reinforce stereotypes about "types" of candidates who get accepted. But, the truth of the matter is that there is no secret "type" that attracts admissions officers and that admissions is not a simple science—if it were, admissions officers would just post criteria on their websites and skip the costly process of searching the globe for great applicants. So, we advise candidates to eschew the oversimplified 'scientific' perspective and instead to profoundly explore their own stories and present sincere pictures of who they are and what they can offer that is distinct and interesting. "Gaming" the admissions process by pandering to a stereotype that is not true to applicants' experience only 'sells' candidates' weaknesses and ignores their strengths.
To that end, I offer two quotes:
"Because we want to discover who you are, resist the urge to 'package' yourself in order to come across in a way you think Stanford wants. Such attempts simply blur our understanding of who you are and what you can accomplish."
— Stanford Graduate School of Business Admissions Director Derrick Bolton
"(Consultants) can help you with this anxiety around what a business school wants to hear. Which is exactly the question you shouldn't be asking. It should be what you want to say as an applicant."
— Harvard Business School Admissions Director Dee Leopold
[Learn more about what work experience you'll need before applying to b-school.]
2. What are common mistakes in an essay that will result in an application likely being rejected?
I think it is a mistake to try to game the process and assume that a school "wants" one thing [in] particular and then to try to become that one thing when it is not who you are. So, people assume that Columbia University is a finance school, despite the fact that it has an excellent international business program, remarkable entrepreneurial offerings, and more. And, so, even if they are not finance oriented, they will try to become finance candidates, and that is of course absurd. You are now a weak finance applicant, applying with a very strong finance field, ignoring your distinctive operations experience, for example.
Additionally, I think that many candidates make the mistake of failing to explore their goals and neglecting to show an identifiable need for their skills. Many candidates will write a very brief and unsophisticated goal statement, which leaves the admissions officers confused, wondering if the applicant truly knows where he or she wants to go in his or her career:
"When I graduate, I want to join a consulting firm. Thereafter, I will climb the ladder and become a partner in this consulting firm."
The above statement does not inspire confidence that the applicant really knows what consulting is and understand why he or she would be effective in this career.
[Get more advice from business school admissions officials.]