Acing MBA Admissions Essays

By Chioma Isiadinso, CEO of Expartus

Hundreds of books have been written on the subject. Each MBA program brands itself differently and takes a certain slant on the admissions process. An Internet search brings up a bewildering array of blogs, articles, consultancies, essay-writing help. It's enough to make your head spin. So we're keeping it simple. Hitting the universal 'must haves' as well as the 'avoid at all costs'.

We all know that the MBA application process is fiercely competitive and that most applicants are not admitted to the schools of their choice. We also know that each admissions committee is keen to ensure applicants will bring further glory to their program by going on to fulfil far-reaching career goals. While many applicants possess similar undergraduate GPAs and GMAT scores as well as career backgrounds - only the fortunate few are accepted by top schools. This fact is not as random or mysterious as it may first appear. MBA admissions essays are important. Very important.

It is helpful to view each admissions essay - usually around four per program - as a unique sort of interview. Unlike a face-to-face interview which requires quick thinking and can easily let you down due to nerves or other variables, essay 'interviews' afford valuable time in which to strategize the way you present yourself to each admissions committee. Let's now deal with how it is possible to maximize your chances of gaining favor amongst the thousands of applicants per program, per year.
  1. Reflection. It's vital. That is, do not begin writing your essays without taking time out well in advance of admissions dates to think about why you are motivated to complete an MBA and what you hope to achieve during your years in the program. Also, consider the implications of what such a commitment will cost you in terms of finances, career interruption and your personal life. Such realistic reflection - coupled with determination to proceed - will only strengthen the overall tone and thrust of your essays. Passion is important. So is candor. A dull or generic essay which reveals little of your personality and/or is full of trite attempts at pleasing the admission board will inevitably land on the 'no' pile. Admissions committees are attracted to applicants who reveal themselves as courageous and real individuals, with clearly defined goals and a personal and career-related background which lays a clear foundation for future goals.

    Committees are also naturally interested as to why you feel their program is the best 'fit' for you. You must present a powerful tailor-made case to each program you apply for. Do not attempt to present a uniform case if applying for a number of programs. It will be noticed as programs do range significantly in terms of branding and focus. Begin planning months in advance of admissions dates. Don't do too much at once. Rushing will only weaken your applications.

  2. Strengths and weaknesses. Some schools will ask you about them. Even if they don't ask you for this information directly, it can be implied as they evaluate how self-aware you are. Ensure that your self-assessment lines up with that of past employers or others who may be questioned about your background. Carefully analyze your selected weaknesses. Committees are impressed by mature self-awareness. Describe how you have learned from past mistakes and continue to correct ongoing problems. Reveal a readiness to be corrected by self and others.

  3. You will definitely be judged according to how the committee views your leadership potential. This can include career-related experience as well as 'unofficial' leadership experience in which you collaborated effectively with a team. Select one or several leadership situations most relevant to your application - this requires good judgment and perhaps running various options past people you trust - and then analyze each situation. Were objectives clearly established and determined? Did you communicate well and motivate your team? How did the project evolve and what was its final outcome? It is vital to discuss both 'hard' and 'soft' outcomes.

  4. Write clearly and concisely. Do not pad. Respect the word limit and all specified form and formatting rules.

  5. While there is certainly room for creative flair - this is not a writing competition. That is, tell your (well-judged and relevant) stories in your natural voice. Evoke vivid images without being flowery. Don't use unnecessarily formal vocabulary as this can appear pompous. On the other hand, absolutely do not write in a casual tone or use slang - except in context. If necessary, enlist the help of one or several good writers who understand the nature of such applications and will edit accordingly.

  6. Having done all, let each essay sit for a while. Come back refreshed and take another look. Ensure your essay powerfully highlights your personal branding and whether it is slanted in such a way as to attract the specified committee.

  7. Reflection... is key. Take your time. Be yourself. Reveal 'heart'. Select content carefully. Position yourself strategically. Write simply but evocatively.
Good luck!
Chioma Isiadinso consults, writes and presents on how to gain admission to the most selective schools in the world. She is the CEO of EXPARTUS®, LLC, a global admission consulting company, and the author of The Best Business Schools' Admissions Secrets.