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6 Tips for Getting to the Heart of Your M.B.A. Application

The essays are critical, a former admissions dean says, so make sure you use care when writing them.

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Essays are really the heart of any M.B.A. application. Why? Because other than conducting an interview, the essays are your primary means of "speaking" directly to the M.B.A. admissions committee. 

During my time as dean of admissions at University of Chicago Booth School of Business, I read thousands of M.B.A. application essays. Based on that experience, here are a few pointers to keep in mind as you compose your business school essay: 

1. Set the right tone: How you communicate is often more important than what you communicate. In other words, your tone needs to be positive but not pompous; conversational but not colloquial; thoughtful but not trivial. 

Resist the temptation to use slang or sound like you are having drinks with your friends. Remember, you are applying to business school. Therefore, it is a professional conversation, an "interview on paper." Pretend you are sitting in front of the M.B.A. admissions committee members and speaking to them. 

When commenting about yourself, keep it factual but not self aggrandizing. It should not sound as though you are congratulating yourself, or suggesting that you are superior to other applicants. When discussing your accomplishments, it is always wise to start by saying something like: "It was my privilege to..." or "I consider it an honor to have..." or "It was very exciting and yet humbling when I..." Be thoughtful in your comments. Show that you spent time working on your essays—that you really mean business. 

[See U.S. News's Best Business Schools rankings.]

2. Answer the questions: This seems like a no brainer, yet it happens so often. While there are many topics on which you could wax eloquent, stick to the topics requested for the essay question or questions. An M.B.A. applicant's credibility quickly sinks when he or she submits a lengthy essay that, while interesting, is not on point. 

3. Adhere to word count: Another huge temptation for M.B.A. applicants is to exceed the word limit. This will hurt you. Admissions staff evaluate literally thousands of business school application essays. They will look negatively on an application with a 10-page essay when the length requested was 1 page. If you cannot follow directions at this point, you're likely not to get the opportunity to demonstrate you can follow directions as an M.B.A. student at that school. 

4. Dot the I's and cross the T's: Check and recheck for accuracy, correct grammar and spelling. Do not obsess, but at the same time, make sure your essays are the best they can be. Have someone read them for style and accuracy. Remember: Poorly constructed essays are a kiss of death. 

5. Avoid the "whoops": Believe it or not, it happens more than you think: Essays are sent to the wrong institution. It seems almost silly, but often essays meant for one program end up going to another. On many occasions I would read an essay that was prepared for, say Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business, and mistakenly sent to me at Booth. The applicant would stress that "Tuck" was his or her "first choice." Sometimes my outwardly vocal response was a good laugh. However, my regular unspoken response was: "I hope you get into that program, because you won't get into mine." 

[Avoid the 7 deadly sins of b-school applicants.] 

6. Weigh the "optional" essay: Sometimes you are given an opportunity to complete an optional essay. The optional essay is typically offered for one primary reason: to give the M.B.A. applicant an opportunity to convey additional information that he or she believes will truly help make the application complete. If you believe something important has been missed, this is your opportunity to provide that information. But remember, if you are going to use this question to address a part of your application that you believe is a potential disadvantage, do not offer excuses. Instead, provide clarification. 

If the optional essay is in the form of an additional question from the M.B.A. admissions committee, by all means, answer it. If the optional essay is offered as an open-ended opportunity for you to address a topic of your choosing, be careful. Do not repeat what has already been communicated elsewhere in the application. Consider addressing topics of particular relevance to business schools such as current economic issues, why business and business education captivates you, or how the business school experience will give you the chance to give back and do something special to make a difference in people's lives.