On the surface, many applicants to elite MBA programs share similar backgrounds and traits. They are ambitious, driven, accomplished, and have strong academic records and impressive test scores. In short, they are leaders and achievers. But just because candidates share these characteristics doesn’t mean their MBA application essays have to beat the same drum. Unfortunately, loads of applicants make the mistake of writing about what they think the admissions committee wants to hear, as opposed to what really resonates for them personally. Here are two ways that this common mistake manifests in MBA application essays:
Mistake #1: Mimicking the applications of your friends
A common mistake that many applicants make is looking at applications submitted by friends who have been successful and thinking, “Well, it worked for them so I’m going to do that, too.” The thing is, you never know whether they were admitted in spite of a tactic or story or if they were admitted because of it. You have to focus on what works for you and reveals something unique about yourself. Business schools look for qualities that can translate into leadership, so being a school teacher who can communicate effectively and move and motivate groups of people can actually be more relevant than someone who sits alone in a cube at a "business" job crunching numbers.
Mistake #2: Focusing too much on reciting generic business projects
We already know that Kellogg School of Management is bombarded with people wanting to go into packaged goods marketing, or that Chicago Booth School of Business is overloaded with finance aspirants. Despite having many of the same career goals, applicants need to think of how they can brand themselves distinctly. Too often stories get overdone, with candidates devoting paragraph upon paragraph to describing assorted business projects because hey, this is business school we’re talking about, right? Wrong tactic! This course of action does nothing to enhance their candidacy because such generic experiences weren’t meaningful for the candidate.
If you leave out the stories about your martial arts training, extensive travel experience, or obsession with college basketball because you figure it’s not relevant to b-school, you’re missing out on a golden opportunity to allow the admissions committee a chance to get to know the real you behind the data points. Also think about family, friendships, languages, interests, passions, dreams—categories that are not necessarily “business-y” but that reveal character traits you want to emphasize.
That said, you should still include some traditional work topics. When brainstorming, think about a real and attainable career goal, something that truly excites you personally and that makes sense given your interests and trajectory to date, not just something that seems to make a good story for b-school.
For example, let’s say you are a first year analyst at an investment bank—just like hundreds of other applicants. Don’t give the three-bullet pointed job description that appears on your resume. Talk about the little spreadsheet that you identified as inefficient and decided to overhaul. Try to identify smaller but more personal and unique stories that tell how you were a different analyst than all the others.
One client we worked with showcased his leadership activities by describing how he put together guidelines for his firm that became a part of new employee training. Maybe you created a new process or led recruiting efforts – any of these work activities can help your application stand out.
While many applicants have similar credentials, the beauty of the MBA application process is that it allows candidates a chance for self-reflection, and to discover that they are more unique than they first imagine. All applicants, even those from typical pre-MBA backgrounds, have a story to tell, and an opportunity to go beyond numbers and statistics to present the admissions committee with a snapshot of who they really are.
This article is a guest post by Stacy Blackman Consulting.
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There are a handful of business school essay questions that seem to capture the heart and imagination of many an MBA program.
It seems that, across the board, admissions committees feel these queries offer the best insight into the minds of their applicants. You are likely to see a version of one or more of these common MBA essay questions on your b-school application. These tips will help you craft the perfect answer.
1. Describe your specific career aspirations and your reason for pursuing an MBA.
This may be the most important essay question you tackle. You must convince the admissions committee that you deserve one of their few, cherished spots. Reference your background, skills, and career aspirations, demonstrating how this degree is a bridge to the next step in your professional life. Be sure to speak to how this particular program will help you realize your potential.
It's okay to present modest goals. Deepening your expertise and broadening your perspective are solid reasons for pursuing this degree. If you aspire to lofty goals, like becoming a CEO or starting your own company, be careful to detail a sensible (read: realistic), pragmatic plan.
2. What are your principal interests outside of work or school? What leisure and/or community activities do you particularly enjoy?
There's more to b-school than the library. The best programs buzz with the energy of a student body that is talented and creative and bursting with personality. These students are not just about case studies and careers. Describe how you will be a unique addition to the business school community.
B-school is also a very social experience. Much of the work is done in groups. Weekends are full of social gatherings or immersion experiences, and the networking you do here will impact the rest of your career. Communicate that people, not just your job, are an important part of your life.
3. Who do you most admire?
The admissions committee wants to know the qualities, attributes and strengths you value in others and hope to embrace. Drive, discipline and vision are fine examples but try and look beyond these conventional characteristics. Tell a story and provide specific examples. If you choose someone famous (which is fine), remember that you risk being one of many in the pile. Instead, consider a current boss, business associate, or friend. Know that your choice of person is less important than what you say about him or her.
4. Describe a situation in which you led a team. What challenges did you face, and how did you overcome them?
The committee isn't looking to see how you saved the team through your heroic efforts (so put yourself on ego alert). They want to see how you helped foster an environment in which everyone contributes, illustrating that the sum is greater than its parts. B-schools like leaders, but they like leaders who can help everyone get along and arrive at a collaborative solution.
You should shift gears for this question. Almost the entire application process thus far has asked you to showcase "me-me-me." Now the focus of your story needs to be on the "we" and how you made the "we" happen.
5. Our business school is a diverse environment. How will your experiences contribute to this?
This essay gets at two concerns for the admissions committee: (1) how will you enrich the student body at this school and (2) what is your attitude toward others' diverse backgrounds?
Diversity comes in many shapes. If a grandparent or relative is an immigrant to this country, you can discuss the impact of his or her values on your life. Perhaps you are the first individual in your family to attend college or graduate school. Maybe you are involved in a meaningful or unusual extracurricular activity. Whatever you choose to write, it's vital that you discuss how it contributes to your unique perspective.
6. Describe a personal achievement that has had a significant impact on your life.
Don't pull your hair out just because you haven't founded a successful start-up or swum across the English Channel. Smaller accomplishments with a lot of personal significance are just fine if they demonstrate character, sacrifice, humility, dedication, or perseverance. A good essay describes how you reached a personal objective and what that meant to you. Maybe you didn't lead a sports team to a victory. Maybe the victory was that you made it onto the team .
7. Discuss a non-academic personal failure. What did you learn from the experience?
Many applicants make the mistake of answering this question with a failure that is really a positive. Or they never really answer the question, fearful that any admission of failure will throw their whole candidacy into jeopardy. Don't get crafty. You should answer with a genuine mistake that the committee will recognize as authentic.
Write about a failure that had some high stakes for you. Demonstrate what you learned from your mistake and how it helped you mature. This is a chance to show b-schools your ability to be honest, show accountability, and face your failures head-on.
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