Today’s post comes from Manhattan Review China, a well-known provider of test prep and MBA Admissions Consulting in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shanghai for Top Business Schools.
If you’re trying to get into business school, applying for a job, or asking for a promotion, you know the kind of bind writing about ambition is. You want to praise yourself, but you don’t want to be too boastful or even smug. So what’s to be done? Writing can be a very effective way to put your case delicately and gently sing your praises. The next time you’re working on that big essay, use these handy tips!
Show & Tell?
No. Show!You’ve probably heard the phrase "show, don’t tell." It’s a cliché, but that’s for a reason. People are increasingly visual and over-stimulated and tend to tune out when they’re being told. But one thing remains the same: people love a show. Use this to your advantage.
What does this mean in terms of an application essay? Don’t write, "I’m an excellent written communicator," because that should be apparently in your writing. Show it, don’t tell it. Why tell your reader about your "strong work ethic" when you can give examples that show it? Examples and strong, active language go a long way to making your essay readable and engaging. Remember, and use, these basic writing skills: don’t end sentences with prepositions; use active verbs ("ing" is the enemy); take as few words as possible to make your point; and keep your sentences clear and declarative. Like this one.
Here’s another way to show rather than tell: use a mini-story to make your point. Mini-stories, unlike simple examples, have a beginning, middle, and end. This is the "three act structure" as recorded by Aristotle (read The Poetics if you want a primer). In the beginning a protagonist (you) is confronted by a challenge; in the middle, the protagonist overcomes the challenge through adversity and persistency; in the end, the protagonist (still you, but changed) has learned some invaluable lesson. For instance, “Growing up, I had a hard time focusing. I worked hard for years to master myself and learned French, German, and the oboe. Now I know I can apply my skills focusing to whatever work I do. I’ve learned the incredible value of focusing!” Expand as needed. Remember it’s a mini-story, so keep it to a single paragraph.
Whether you’re applying for a job or business school, your task is to show your reader you’re worthy for serious consideration. It can be tempting to write about yourself as if you’re a superhero who’s never made a mistake. Now imagine how that reads to someone who sees a lot of applications. "Ahh, another shining starchild has deigned to apply to our sad little program! Whatever shall we teach this god descended from the halcyon heights to bless us with his application? NEXT."
What’s the trick? Be realistic about yourself, and be sure to write about at least one flaw you’ve overcome and one you’re working on. Showing you’re conscious of your limitations, and striving to improve, is at once humble and sneakily boastful. You’re saying, "I’m so outstanding, I know that I’m not always outstanding, and I’m confident enough to admit it!"
Add Some Personality
You do have a personality, don’t you? Employers and business schools receive many, many applications, and while you shouldn’t write your essay in Comic Sans or anything so horrifying, you shouldn’t be afraid to let your personality out to play. What are you passionate about outside the realm of business? What makes you excited about applying to the program or job, beyond the obvious (e.g. salary, prestige, season tickets). Be professional and don’t over-share, but don’t be afraid to let drop a touch of the personal to color your letter and show who you are when you’re not all business. Think, and then write, responses these questions: what do you value; what drives you; and why are you an exceptional choice? Put the answers into your application, and if you can sneak a bit of personality into a Mini-Story, all the better.
Share Your Story
When you write about yourself, remember that people want to understand why you became the person you are. Talk about what inspires you, what matters to you now, and what forces drove you to decide to do what you’re doing. Your story is, after all, the one you should know best, so tell it in a way that’s engaging, and the rest will take care of itself.
Derrick Bolton, director of MBA admissions at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, says his best advice for application essays is this: "Don’t try to stand out." What does he mean by this? He’s channeling Yoda. He means don’t try to stand out. Just be yourself, tell your story, and your essay will do its job. Just make sure it’s readable and tyop-free. Whoops. Ask a friend or two to review it, read it to yourself aloud, and review it again to make sure you’re typo-free and it reads well. Good luck!
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