What NOT to Include in Your MBA Application Essays
There are certainly a lot of things you should include when writing your MBA application essays, but some things you should definitely not include. Here are a few:
False claims of uniqueness“The semester I spent in France during high school was a unique experience.”
“I want to attend Columbia Business School because of its unique Entrepreneurial Club.”
“The opportunity to do hands-on consulting at Ross is unique.”
“My finance background and strong interpersonal skills will allow me to make a unique contribution to Cornell’s Investment Management Club.”
One of mbaMission
’s consultants recently counted five uses of the word “unique” in a single 600-word essay. What is more, not one of the uses actually fulfilled the term’s correct definition: “existing as the only one or as the sole example.” Applicants tend to use the word “unique” as a way of trying to make themselves stand out to the admissions committee. However, because they use the word imprecisely—and often too frequently—it instead has the opposite effect of making the essay lose its distinctiveness and believability. Another danger of using the term too casually is that you risk exposing your lack of research about the school if you claim something is unique to its program when it really is not.
Here are the same four statements written without the generic term “unique.” In each case, the sentence is far more descriptive and therefore much less likely to appear in any other applicant’s essay!“The semester I spent in France during high school was eye-opening, from the frogs’ legs I was served at dinner to the concept of shopping daily for my food.”
“I want to attend Columbia Business School because its Entrepreneurial Club offers an incredible range of activities and resources that will prepare me to better run my own company.”
“The opportunity to do hands-on consulting at Ross will complement the theoretical background I will gain by taking classes on consulting.”
“My finance background and strong interpersonal skills will allow me to effectively coach and mentor classmates new to finance through Cornell’s Investment Management Club’s mentorship program.”
Many business school candidates unwittingly start their essays with platitudes—obvious or trite remarks that are written as though they were original. For example, when responding to Harvard Business School’s essay question “Tell us about a time when you made a difficult decision,” a candidate might write the following:“Managers constantly face difficult decisions. Still, everyone hates indecision.”
However, the applicant does not “own” this idea and cannot lay claim to this statement. A simple alternative would be to insert his or her personal experience and viewpoint into the sentence:“Yet again, I was in the boardroom with Steve, anticipating that he would change his mind on the mbaMission file.”
By discussing your personal and unique experiences, you take ownership of your story and better engage your reader. Avoiding platitudes and generalities—and ensuring that you are sharing your experience and opinion, rather than one that could belong to anyone else—is a simple but often overlooked step in creating a compelling message.
Too many sentences starting with the word “I”
Although putting yourself at the center of the stories in your MBA application essays is certainly important, a common mistake business school candidates make is beginning too many sentences with the word “I.” As a general rule, you should never have two sentences in a row that begin this way. Consider the following example:“I worked for three years at ABC Plastics, a small injection molding company. I was responsible for overseeing the overall management of ABC Plastics, from day-to-day operations to strategic planning. I managed 100 people. I worked very long hours, but I learned more than I could have ever imagined.”
Now consider the same statement reworked to avoid using the word “I” at the beginning of subsequent sentences:“For three years, I worked at ABC Plastics, a small injection molding company. My responsibilities at ABC included overseeing the overall management of the company, from day-to-day operations to strategic planning. Because I supervised more than 100 staff members, my days were long, but the experience taught me more than I could have ever imagined.”
As you can see, the second example reads much better than the first—and none of the sentences in the second example begin with “I.”
The abbreviation “etc.”
As a general rule, “etc.” should never appear in your MBA application essays. Consider the following sentences:“I helped draft prospectuses, analyze key company data, value companies, etc.”
“I look forward to courses such as ‘Small Business Management,’ ‘Leading Teams,’ ‘Multiparty Negotiations,’ etc.”
In the first sample sentence, “etc.” replaces information that if of interest to the admissions reader and that he or she would use to evaluate the writer. The reader cannot make the leap and understand where the writer’s experiences led. In the second example, “etc.” trivializes the school’s resources and may even suggest to the admissions committee that the applicant is just too lazy (or disinterested!) to properly do his or her homework.
We are at a loss to think of one instance in which “etc.” could be used appropriately in a business school application essay. Very simply, ensure that this term does not appear in your essays.
Our philosophy at mbaMission
is that candidates should let the experiences they share in their essays—not their word choices—captivate the admissions committees. Sometimes we find that applicants attempt to emphasize their actions with “extreme” adjectives and adverbs, and we strongly discourage this approach. Consider the following example:“As others withdrew their support, I remained remarkably dedicated to our crucial fundraising efforts. I dramatically increased my participation in our strategic planning meetings and insisted
that we push forward with a wildly creative guerrilla marketing plan, which brought forth tremendous results—$1M in ‘instant’ proceeds.”
In these two sentences, the writer uses the descriptors remarkably, dramatically, wildly and tremendous in an attempt to make an impression on the reader. We find that a more effective approach is to eliminate these “extreme” descriptions and let the experiences do the “talking.”“As others withdrew their support, I remained dedicated to our fundraising efforts. I increased my participation in our strategic planning meetings and insisted that we push forward with a guerrilla marketing plan that brought $1M in ‘instant’ proceeds.”
In this second example, we do not need to be told that the results were “tremendous,” because the $1M speaks for itself; we do not need to be told that the marketing campaign was “wildly creative,” because this is implied in the nature of guerrilla marketing. In addition to showing a level of humility on the part of the candidate, this approach is less wordy. Although the eight words saved in the latter example may seem inconsequential, we removed them from only two sentences. If we can remove four words from each and every sentence, we would be able to augment your essay with other compelling ideas.
Business school candidates often fret about striking the right balance between confidence and arrogance in their MBA application essays. For example, you might have difficulty choosing the better choice from between the following two statements:“At the Stanford GSB, I will take advantage of the newly designed curriculum to…”
“At the Stanford GSB, I would take advantage of the newly designed curriculum to…”
Or between these two statements:“After completing my MBA at Harvard Business School, I will pursue a career in…”
“After completing my MBA at Harvard Business School, I would aspire to a career in…”
In each set of examples, you are choosing between certainty (“I will”) and diplomacy (“I would”). Considering these options, you might ask yourself whether the first option is too presumptuous or the second option too weak. The answer is that neither of these examples is “right”; each candidate needs to choose an approach that is consistent with his or her personality. However, the key is to maintain consistency—mixing the two styles is distracting to the reader and can seem sloppy.
Recently, a prospective business school candidate emailed mbaMission
with the following question: “What is the most basic stylistic error that candidates make when writing their MBA application essays?” Our answer: unnecessary repetition. Although repeating a word within a single sentence or in consecutive sentences does not constitute a grammatical mistake, it can still be grating to a reader’s “ear.”
Consider this example:“During my time at XYZ Sales, I increased productivity by 31% and increased revenue by 21%. Meanwhile, I increased my client base by an industry-leading 81%, bringing increased prestige to my firm.”
Although this example—which uses the word “increased” four times in just two sentences—may seem like an exaggerated case, it is actually not as rare as you might think. However, the repetition can be easily eliminated and the sentences made increasingly reader friendly with just a few simple changes:“During my time at XYZ Sales, I increased productivity by 31% and revenue by 21%. Meanwhile, I grew my client base by an industry-leading 81%, thereby enhancing my firm’s prestige.”
The key to eliminating repetition is to first become aware of the potential problem and then gain distance from your work. If you step away from your essay drafts for a day or two and then go back to reread them, you will have the objectivity necessary to catch—and correct—this easily avoidable mistake.
Mentions of rankings
In your essays and interviews, you should thoroughly demonstrate your interest in your target program by developing and presenting arguments that center on the school’s academic and environmental attributes (e.g., research institutes, professors, experiential learning opportunities, classes, pedagogies)—but do not identify the school’s position in the various MBA rankings as a reason for applying. Although applicants, administrators, students and alumni all pay tremendous attention to rankings, within your application, the topic is entirely taboo.
Why is this? Rankings are a measure of a school’s reputation and tend to fluctuate from year to year. By citing rankings, you indicate that you could (or would) be dissatisfied by a drop in your target school’s prestige, as conveyed by such rankings—a drop that would be out of the school’s control and that, from the school’s perspective, could ostensibly put your relationship as a future student (and later as an alumnus/alumna) at risk. Further, MBA programs want to be sure that you are attracted to their various academic offerings and that you have profound professional needs that they can satisfy. Rankings, however, are superficial, and referencing them in your application materials undermines the profundity of your research and motives.Have questions about applying to business school? Sign up for a free, 30-minute, one-one-one consultation with an mbaMission senior consultant at www.mbamission.com/consult.php.
mbaMission Insiders Guides: http://www.mbamission.com/guides.php?category=insiders
Free Consultation: http://www.mbamission.com/consult.php