Common Essay Mistakes for MBA Application

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We have compiled missteps that applicants often make when writing their MBA essays. As you tackle your essays, always ask yourself whether you are falling into one of these traps. Avoiding these essay errors can improve your admission chance.

1. Engaging in Essay Brain Dump: Writing your essays without first doing an outline will ensure that you create disjointed and ineffective essays. Use the SOARS model to frame up the outline before tackling any essay.

2. Being Bland and Generic: Failure to nail down your marketing will increase your chances of producing boring and undifferentiated essays. Do a brand audit to understand your overall positioning. I can often tell when an essay is written without a clear brand message: they are boring and don’t communicate a message about the applicant.

3. Being Selfish: Focusing too much on “I” can make you come across as arrogant; balance your individual accomplishment with your team involvement.

4. Going Back Too Far: Selecting accomplishments from a long time ago, for instance, during high school, especially after you have been working for seven years, may not come across as compelling; if you must go back that far, it is important to make sure the example is significant and has special meaning in shaping who you have become as a leader.

5. Using Clichés, Sermonizing, and Stating the Obvious: The MBA Board knows what conventional wisdom says. They care about what you personally think or believe.

6. Overusing Quotes: There is a place for quotes in the essays, but think long and hard before using up precious words to quote some Greek philosopher or business leader. The MBA Board is interested in your original thoughts, not those of a dead poet.

7. Not Answering the Question: If the question asks for leadership impact, be sure to tell a story that clearly
depicts you as a leader. If the question asks for weak-
nesses, give examples of real weaknesses. Don’t skirt
around the issue. You will only annoy the Admissions
Board if you do.
8. Being Unmemorable: Choose vivid stories that
resonate with the Admissions Board. Unusual
stories or a different take on a common topic can
be interesting and capture the mindshare of the
Admissions Board.
9. Not Pacing Yourself Strategically: Don’t try to do
multiple essays for different schools at once. Tackle
the essays one school at a time and complete them
before working on another school’s essays. Simi-
larly, you should not underestimate how much time
and work are needed to assemble a strong applica-
tion. Give yourself at least four months to complete
the essays and add another month or two when
factoring in other parts of the application
(including managing recommenders, campus visits,
interviews and so on).
10. Using Humor Inappropriately: Don’t be funny for the
sake of being funny. Always exercise good judgment
with your essays. Recounting the antics that you and
your friends found funny will not win you any friends
on the MBA Board. Subtle humor is more effective.
11. Being Too Rigid: This is the opposite of the inap-
propriate humor mistake. It is important to open up
and share personal (appropriate) stories that give the
MBA Board insight into who you are and what
matters to you. Focusing all your essays on your
professional life misses the chance to show the full
range of your personality, character, and motivations.

12. Trying to Be Creative for the Sake of Being Creative:
Sometimes, less is best. Artificial essays with whis-
tles and bells can backfire. I’m not against being
creative but make sure that your creativity fits with
the brand of the school and that it comes off well
instead of appearing gimmicky.
13. Being Repetitive: It is important to bring up
different stories to show the breadth and depth of
your personality, experience, and perspective. Using
the same example over and over again will suggest
that you have a limited experience base.
14. Not Understanding the Program’s Brand: Take the
time to understand the brand of the school and what
that means for your essays. Kellogg, for example, is
a program that is significantly tied to teamwork, so
essays that ask about leadership impact should show
team partnership instead of focusing on your “lone-
ranger” leadership exploits.
15. Having Too Many People “Weigh-In” on Your
Essays: Beware the too-many-cooks phenomenon.
It’s helpful to get feedback from someone who knows
you very well, especially if that person is a good
writer. But it’s another thing to have your twenty
friends, former colleagues, and that relative who
happened to graduate from the same business school
a decade ago review your essays. At the very least,
you will get a hodgepodge of feedback that will yield
a disjointed set of essays.
16. Doing a Drive-By Application: Don’t be in a rush to
complete your application. Rather, focus on
producing excellent applications. The best applica-
tions are a result of intense introspection, focus, and
multiple revisions. Applying good judgment when it comes to all your essays
will help you get closer to your admission goals. Good judg-
ment means not being stubborn and insisting that you will write
the essay about the speech you gave to five people that was the
“best speech this side of the hemisphere.” Just because you
think the world of something you did does not mean that it is
essay-worthy. If you can’t point to the tangible impact your
actions achieved, you may have to think twice before selecting
that topic for your essay.

FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE MBA ESSAYS
One thing you probably picked up from reading these sample essays is that there are different writing styles and that the topics can vary quite broadly. Two candidates can write about a personal accomplishment of buying a house for their parent, and one person’s essay soars while the other person’s essay falls flat. The difference is in the positioning of the story. Approach your application by writing heartfelt and insightful essays that take the Admissions Board into a deeper awareness of your motivations and what you care about. This approach will make your application stand apart. You need to use good judgment when selecting your admission essay topics. The same applies to the treatment of each essay. Your decision to write about how your relationship with your fiancée is your greatest accomplishment needs to be seen through the business school lens. How does that tie into who you are as a leader? Whatever example you choose, make sure it fosters your story that you are a leader and someone who can get things achieved with and through other people.

It is also important to “own” your story. It can’t be manufactured. The essays that grab the attention of the Admissions Board can be a very simple achievement, written in a straight- forward style with little creativity and poetry. These essays are successful because they give the Admissions Board a glimpse into the heart of a candidate. No matter what your life experiences are, make sure you devote enough time to introspection before tackling the admissions essays. Doing so can be the difference between a congratulatory phone call from the director of admissions and a depressing email informing you that you have been denied admission.

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