Did you ever have one of those moments growing up when your mother or father gave you a cold, hard look and asked, "Well, if everybody else was jumping off a bridge, does that mean you would do it too?"
I often think of that advice when I hear some of the conventional wisdom making the rounds these days about MBA admission essays.
You need to recognize that business school essays are important, but you also need to recognize why they’re important. They are your chance to connect with every single person on the admissions committee. An effective essay will make you stand out in committee members’ minds as a three dimensional human being, and – more importantly – convince them that you’re someone they want as a student.
Unfortunately, people who rely on ‘canned’ admission essays risk doing the exact opposite. They make themselves sound like a clone of a hundred other applicants in the admissions pool.
There is one essay template that admissions officers have seen so often that it has become quite a popular joke among them. It always begins with the writer sitting at home and thinking about college days.’And then,’ it goes on, ‘as I looked around the room, my gaze fell on my old lacrosse stick propped in the corner. It reminded me of how much the team had meant to me, and why teams are still so important to me.’
Of course every single essay didn’t use exactly those words. But they did use the same sequence of images, the same reasoning, and the same sentiment. And they really did all mention lacrosse sticks.
I suppose it’s possible that a bunch of nostalgic ex-lacrosse players all just happen to apply to the same top b-schools each year. (No, they aren’t all teammates. They come from different schools.) But what I assume happens is that various people had come across the same version of a model business school essay and adopted it as their own. Even if they had substituted a baseball bat or mountain climbing gear or anything else for the lacrosse stick, they still sound so much alike, and so uninteresting, that very few of them make it far in the admissions process.
One of our admissions consultants has told me he’s grown to hate essays that talk about the writer having overcome some hardship. It’s one thing when the writer really did come through some kind of adversity to get to where they are in life. But most of the time the hardship the essay describes doesn’t amount to much. The impression the reader gets is that the applicant is only writing about hardship because it’s supposed to be a sure-fire way to get into business school. It winds up making them sound both unexceptional and whiny.
The career goals applicants cite are also often cliche and cute. At AdmissionsConsultants, we have noticed a trend towards too many applicants giving ‘to run my own business’ as their goal in life in b-school essays, without showing the ideas to back it up. If you really want to have your own business, say something about the kind of business you want to run and why you want to run it. If you can’t explain your reasons for aspiring to run a particular kind of business, you’ll sound exactly like hundreds of other applicants. (I estimate that we successfully dissuaded over 80% of our clients last year who started off with this well-worn stated career goal.)
Recently, we’ve noticed a lot of people giving their post-MBA goal as entry to a management rotation program. That’s fine if the program really suits your interests. However, we suspect that in many cases it’s just that management rotation programs are something that people are talking about, and applicants think it’s an acceptable goal to put on a business school application. (Hint: It’s not feasible for many applicants and, therefore, it won’t make a good story theme for those same applicants either.)
The bottom line is that MBA admissions committees are looking for leaders, not followers. The essays are your best chance to convince them that you have the leadership qualities they’re seeking. That means looking like you, not like one of the herd. Please be aware that by reading model essays, or even model outlines, you are probably doing more to stifle your creativity than unleash it. Key imagery from those sample essays is likely to remain in your subconscious when it comes time to bring your brainstormed essay topics to the keyboard.
Go ahead and read other people’s essays if you are truly convinced that these essays will indeed help inspire you to organize your thoughts and to write them up. (You’re definitely in the minority if these essays inspire rather than stifle your creativity. Each year hundreds of our clients confess they read model essays after our consultants point out various cliche and cute items in the first drafts.) But, regardless of how you choose to start the essay topic selection process, when you start to write your essay, make sure that the outline, the words, the facts, the images, the reasoning, and the style come from no one but you.