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.]
3. Should applicants write a new essay on a school-by-school basis, or will slight variations of a generic, but well-polished, essay suffice across the board? Why or why not?
Many candidates will write an essay that is easily interchangeable with other programs and thus won't create compelling answers. If you look at the first example below, you could easily swap in another institution like the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the sentences would still make sense—that is a problem! Unfortunately, this kind of fill-in-the-blank answer will reveal that the candidate just does not know why he or she wants to go to this school. In the second example, the applicant has clearly done his or her homework and shows how the school (Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management) is a key part of a journey and not a mere want.
"Kellogg is remarkable because of its wealth of biotech/healthcare resources. I am excited to join a community of aggressive and exciting innovators. I really believe that the Health Enterprise Management major is unique and offers a depth of courses and practical offerings unmatched by other schools."
"What appeals to me about the Health Enterprise Management (HEMA) major is that I can delve into traditional management offerings at a high level, while engaging in the pure science at the beginner level, where I admittedly currently stand. The science boot camp and science tutorials will ensure that I am conversant in the language of the field and will prepare me for the advanced courses that will be crucial to my success as a manager in this sophisticated field. Considering my career interests, I am looking forward to Intellectual Capital Management and Medical Innovation, where I would experience an unprecedented view into the innovation life cycle. I would also seize the opportunity to join the Global Health Initiative, wherein…."
[Learn how to get the best b-school letters of recommendation.]
4. How much time should applicants spend writing and revising their essays? Should applicants have several people critique it or is it obvious when editing gets too heavy-handed?
The answer to this question is different, depending on the candidate's communication skills, his or her ability to integrate feedback, his or her level of knowledge of the process and more. I think that everyone needs a second set of eyes, but I do think that because this is a qualitative process candidates should limit their feedback loops. If you ask enough people to read your work, you will eventually find someone who does not like what you have written and it may cause undue doubt. I might show my completed work to two people, and if they both approve, that would be the time to end the search for feedback.
5. How much do essays tend to matter when compared with other aspects of the application?
Essays are important as they are entirely in the candidate's control. The candidate has the opportunity to subtly persuade the admissions officers of his or her worthiness of a place in the class. Still, writing effective essays is not a matter of using multi-syllable words, but is in fact an exercise in using past experiences to reveal profound contributions to the class while a student and remarkable career potential as an alumnus. [Ultimately], the admissions officers are interested in the entire candidate. GPA, work experience, GMAT, recommendations, interview skills, and more are all factors in a process that is evaluated on a qualitative basis. Admissions officers are at pains to tell candidates that this is a holistic process. After 10 years of experience, I can say with confidence that this is not just a cliché.
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