Writing a Business School Essay
Hello and welcome to the business school admission guide. This article is based on a course written by a Harvard MBA graduate and admissions worker. We are excited to assist you through the process of starting to write your business school essay. Follow these tips and steps below to launch you on the right track!
Let’s start by first examining your essay audience. You may believe you are facing an amorphous admissions committee (AdCom). In truth, your application will be placed in a queue and examined by a single reader. Even when there is a second reader involved, you must first appeal to a single person to start. To that end, you can assume the reader has a great affinity for their school, that they are professionals who want to know the real you, and finally they read A TON of essays. To frustrate this reader, obscure the reasons for why you are applying to the school, bury the lead on your career goals, or contradict earlier statements with your narrative. Instead:
- Inspiration: What kind of person and leader do you want to become? How do you want to help others?
- Exploration: Canvas different schools to understand what is on offer. Create a list of 5-10 reasons why you want to attend each school on your list.
- Clarification: Hone down on what makes each school tick. Target the core DNA of the school you are applying to, taking into consideration why the program is truly unique and how you will be an asset.
Before we begin the formal process of writing your application essay, let’s take a look at some common mistakes. This list isn’t exhaustive but does provide a good framework for things to avoid.
- Pitfall #1: Arrogance; Solution #1: Graciousness. While of course you should highlight your achievements so far, by nature, admissions officers prefer candidates who understand they accomplished things with a team and mentors.
- Pitfall #2: Platitudes; Solution #2: Always Heinz, Never Ketchup. Avoid generalized statements that have no real substance. To avoid these, focus on specifics. Details will bring your story to life.
- Pitfall #3: Making the Essay about the Future; Solution #3: Less Biography, More Memoir. Business schools are transformational, and it’s tempting to talk in futuristic terms about everything you will accomplish after business school. However, our advice: don’t do it. Better, explain how you have arrived at this point in your life and why.
- Pitfall #4: Pontification; Solution #4: Don’t Tell, Share. Your job is not to educate the admissions committee about business. The reader most likely will have read about the need to transform or disrupt every industry under the sun. Rather, advance your larger narrative for why you are applying to business school and why specifically School X.
- Pitfall #5: Abstraction; Solution #5: You are a Lawyer, Not a Poet. Structure is king. Rather than be creative and confuse your reader, stick to a simple and clean layout. Think of yourself as a lawyer slowly building a case, rather than a poet expressing a dual and conflicting perspective.
Now that we’ve seen some common mistakes, let’s look at some successful essays.
- Discuss a defining leadership experience. If you have led troops in battle or started a non-profit, you might have this essay in the bag. That said, there is no absolute answer to this question. Dig deep, be introspective, find an anecdote that describes what makes you unique and a leader. Explain your thoughts and actions with passion, and don’t miss out on the opportunity to also show humility and learning.
- What would you like the Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience? Think about the following questions. What made you select your major? What made you switch courses? What would you do differently if you could relive the experience? It is tempting to simply copy and paste awards from your résumé. But that would make you lose the opportunity to add color to your candidacy. What made you what you are today?
- What is your career vision? This may arguably be the most important question of your application. Consider what your short- and long-term career plans are, and ask yourself why. Rather than just stating a goal, provide context so that the audience understands your decision-making process. Be sincere and credible, and explain why the business school is necessary to achieve your goals. Make sure you understand the differences between different schools and tailor the response to your school of choice. Then, add a sentence or two to highlight what you would bring to the MBA classroom.
- Describe a typical day. At first glance, this prompt seems easy. But while you can do just fine telling a purely chronological description, this prompt is an opportunity to show character and personality. You can resort to humor, and you can talk about matters outside the realm of profit-making to show a humanitarian streak.
- What are your three most substantial accomplishments? This is the famous three from the HBS application. Conventional wisdom is that you answer one academic, one professional, and one extracurricular achievement at two hundred words each. We recommend you analyze your choices introspectively and with meaningful personal context. Convince the reader that each achievement was worthwhile to you, made a meaningful impact on your life, and complete a picture of the larger person you are.
- Describe a setback or failure. What did you learn? Rather than dwell on negativity, turn your setback into something positive. In choosing your example, show you demonstrated initiative, adaptability, self-awareness, and strength of character. The simple structure is context, setback, consequences, lessons, solution, and future application of your key takeaways.
- What ethical issues will be most challenging to you, and what is your plan to handle these effectively? Applicants can use this opportunity to expand on their career goals or to address ethical issues specific to their chosen field. You can also draw on past experiences facing ethical dilemmas to demonstrate how they shaped your principles. A successful approach includes answering the latter part of the question. What are your short- and long-term plans, who is involved, and why will your plan prepare you? Demonstrate your ability to identify, analyze, and resolve challenging ethical issues.
- What other information would be helpful in considering your application? This essay is an opportunity to display elements of your personality that haven’t come across in other essays. Some applicants will talk about their family life and personal values; others will touch upon aspects of their personalities that differentiate them. There is no best answer, but it is essential the message remains consistent with (or will expand upon) the other essays.
Introductions and Conclusions
Having studied some individual essays, let’s take a step back and learn from universal insights for well-written essays. Good essays are clear, concise, and grammatically correct. Introductions should not begin with a quotation but answer the prompt directly. Rather than making an argument about a legal, ethical, or political topic, take the opportunity to share with the reader the deep values of your life. Be vulnerable and give the admissions a window into your heart. You are not here to educate the admissions committee (for example, about how so-and-so will be “the way of the future.”). You could also open with an interesting statistic or a “cinematic opening” (an evocative story).
Conclusions (for some, the easier place to begin writing) can turn full-circle back to the introduction. Avoid summarizing the essay as if it’s SAT essay. Broaden the focus, for example, explain why widespread access to computing will enable income mobility, or throw in a twist, if you think you have the flair.
One Last Note on Some Top Schools
If you’re applying to one of these top 6 programs, we do have one final note.
- Harvard Business School. What more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy? HBS uses the Case Study Method, so you should be able to learn from different perspectives. We recommend you stick to structure, speaking in your authentic voice, confident but not arrogant.
- Stanford Business School. What matters most to you and why? Did you experience your topic as a child? Did somebody show or teach you it? Were you directly impacted? Open with a direct answer and then demonstrate how you were moved at what particular moment. You can create a “cinematic” story.
- Wharton School. What do you hope to gain professionally from Wharton? How do you plan to contribute? You need to demonstrate how your professional experience from the beginning and your short- and long-term goals create the need at this moment to acquire the Wharton MBA. For the second essay, demonstrate humility and self-awareness as business school is “give and take.”
- Univ. of Chicago Booth School. How will Booth help you achieve your goals? Tell us something more about you outside the office. Booth specializes in a data-driven approach to business, and Chicago is a place of ideas. Draw a connection between your goals and the Booth program, with the key being clarity. For the second prompt, keep in mind that Booth has a flexible curriculum. Tackle values such as collaboration, open-mindedness, and respect.
- Northwestern Kellogg School. Provide an example where you demonstrated leadership. What values guide you in your life? Kellogg is famous for its close-knit culture and its specialty in Marketing. Write about risks you have taken rather than simply repeat a list of clubs. Regarding values, your job is to build a bridge between your values to “why it matters.”
- Columbia Business School. What is your immediate post-MBA goal? What is your long-term dream job? Why Columbia? Tell us your favorite book or movie. Columbia offers a unique New York City culture and seeks diverse leaders. Answer the prompts specifically, avoid dry or “easy” answers, and pick answers that your history backs up. Truly show rather than tell “why Columbia.”
Congratulations! You are now entering the final stage of your business school admissions essay. Re-read your essay carefully, taking note of mistakes such as “they’re/their/there,” “two/too/to,” “complement/compliment,” “effect/affect,” etc. Avoid conditional phrasing such as “probably,” “planned to,” “hope to,” and so on. Check your capitalization. More broadly, ask yourself:
- Am I conveying my message well enough?
- Have I told the story I need to convey this message?
- Have I been as specific as I can be to make this story as strong as possible?
Try changing your font size to one bigger than you use now. Blow it up to size 16 and read. You will be surprised at what you catch. Consider printing out your essay and editing with a pen or pencil. It will change your view of the essays. Submit your essay to sites such as Grammarly. Look for errors such as repetitive language, lack of transitions, conditional phrasing, and capitalization errors.
Try stepping away from the work, letting a few days pass to let the draft sink in. Make sure to carry out both editing and proofreading. Have another pair of eyes read your work, cut away unnecessary text, and re-read the directions/question prompt.