The Trouble with MBA Admissions Writing

There are unique, specific considerations to be made for all types of admissions writing. It comes as no surprise that the expectations of a college applicant will be very different than those of an MBA applicant, illustrated by the very nature of most MBA essay prompts. However, what makes MBA admissions writing so daunting for most is the challenge of presenting a thoughtful, self-reflective narrative in a very directed way worthy of an MBA program.  Consider the following MBA essay prompts:

-As a leader in global business, Wharton is committed to sustaining “a truly global presence through its engagement in the world.” What goals are you committed to and why? How do you envision the Wharton MBA contributing to the attainment of those goals? (750–1,000 words)

- What are you most passionate about? Why? (250 word maximum, Haas)

Applicants find questions like these challenging because they necessitate intellectual and emotional honesty and authenticity. Most of us are rarely afforded an opportunity to reflect like this in our day-to-day careers, particularly in the early stages. To start, it is helpful to demystify ‘the admissions essay’ and what the best admissions essays really look like.

In the broadest sense, an admissions essay is a not just a meditation on your past, it is a forward-thinking advertisement. You must consider your audience—strategically aligning your strengths with a program’s culture and offerings—and also introduce a point of view that is different from the rest. What exactly constitutes “the rest?” The range of response styles from MBA applicants can be broken down into the following major buckets:

1) Applicants who fail to fully target the full prompt, e.g. adequately address the ‘why’ component, balance a situation, action and result, or focus their content (the majority)

2) Applicants who effectively target the questions, but do nothing more; their essays read like resumes in narrative form (the majority)

3) Applicants who not only fully target the prompt and cover all its dimensions, but who also use the space to humanize themselves and enrich their full application package (the rare minority)

The best admissions essays that we read each year—and the types of essays we partner with our clients to compose—share a number of commonalities: they target the prompt, but also expand upon it; they create a compelling story; they toy with new structural frameworks; they demonstrate thoughtful self-reflection and meaningful connectivity between life events; they feel undeniably authentic and the ‘voice’ is unique to the author.

However, most MBA applicants, regardless of their background or industry, have a tough time speaking about their careers with a sense of unbridled passion and inspiring conviction. However, this is the kind of energy responsible for driving the most successful careers, it is the kind of energy that admissions committees want in their programs, and the fact is, most applicants must actually ‘fake it until they make it.’ Consider the following from an MBA applicant:

“1. What are you most passionate about? Why? (250 word maximum)

I am most passionate about corporate responsibility and social justice, and exploring how businesses can profitably advance human rights. My mother fled Cambodia in 1976, leaving dozens of family members behind. As an undergraduate at the University of Texas, I learned about the brutal 1994 genocide in Rwanda and was shocked that despite the historical lessons we have learned as a society, another genocide had occurred in my lifetime. Shortly thereafter, I joined a group of students working to raise awareness about the ongoing conflict in Iraq.”

This candidate might be the envy of an applicant with a more black-or-white, less socially-driven career path; however, even the applicant with a social cause fails to connect here. With this opening paragraph, we suggested that the applicant truly target the prompt. The prompt says it all here, and we encourage all applicants to convey passion from the onset of the essay. We might ask: what are the real details of your family history? How can the transition from a family history linked to Rwanda to Iraq be strengthened and substantiated? In addition to conveying a sense of passion—you must also demonstrate a real sense of purpose. How can you show that a personal history cemented values which translated into action? What new ideas do you have to introduce to the corporate responsibility model—what companies do you think really make it work?

With any form of writing, in the admissions, academic or business context, the ability to ask the toughest questions delineates between “good” and “exceptional” prose. Ultimately, assuming that a person has a story to tell—anyone can translate that story into an exceptional essay. With our clients, we work within their individual capabilities as writers to harvest the details that bring life and energy to an essay. Asking pointed questions is a fundamental part of that process.

To summarize, think about the following best practices when crafting your MBA admissions essays:

-Before you start the writing process, think about all that you have to tell. Start with a stream-of-consciousness listing of major life events (personal and professional), accomplishments, and shifts in thinking.

-Consider your essay (and application) package holistically—do your essays and resume convey a complete, consistent brand?

-Don’t let prompts dictate structure. Though this is not your college essay, exercise some creativity and narrative elan.

-Get a second opinion from a person that knows you, and a person that doesn’t. Does your essay ask the toughest questions? Does it connect the dots between experiences, and dig deep?

- The very architecture of your thinking and your ability to form an argument must be worthy of an
MBA community and education. Push yourself to go even further with connecting the dots and anchoring your goals to your story. Become the expert. Find a role model, read business literature—and make sure that your goals are informed by a convincing business acumen or instinct.

Lastly, remember that MBA admissions writing demands a certain degree of strategy, but not rigidity. Ultimately, while there are certain pitfalls to avoid, as with all types of writing, there are no strict formulae that dictate success or guarantee a compelling narrative. So, dare to break the mold—tell your own story—and tell it well.


Janson Woodlee

Ivy Eyes Editing

*Visit us today for a free assessment of your admissions essay, resume, cover letter and more*


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