Last Updated on January 3, 2023 by MBA Gateway Team
MBA Boards have historically stressed the power of admissions essays in the application process. Unlike any other aspect of the application, essays are the one area where candidates have the most control in representing themselves. After all, undergraduate grades are already predetermined, and there is a limit to how far a GMAT score can change (it would be unlikely for someone who scores consistently at 500 to jump to 750).
With the exception of meeting the applicant for an interview, essays are the best way to reveal each candidate’s brand. Essays are blank canvases that provide candidates with an incredible opportunity to create a Picasso. We have observed numerous instances where one candidate’s application stands apart from others with identical backgrounds based simply on the treatment of the essay topics and the type of information the essays reveal about the candidate’s brand.
These successful candidates understand that presenting their experiences in the form of stories allows them to paint a vibrant picture of themselves, as opposed to simply stating facts in a dry way.
Applicants to business school must be comfortable going into depth when describing who they are and what matters to them. It is impossible to submit a powerful application without revealing personal aspects of who you are. That said, applicants need to be wise about the personal stories they share with the Admissions Board. Not all personal experiences are appropriate to discuss in your application. A good litmus test to determine whether a subject is worth including in your story is to ask yourself what it reveals about you as a future business leader. Raising your five siblings shows maturity and “management” ability. But you would be hard-pressed to make a compelling case that overcoming a rough breakup with your first love reveals something meaningful about your leadership.
The essays for business school are a test of applicants’ judgment. Make sure that whatever personal insights and examples you provide do not raise red flags about you. A sure way to guarantee that your application gets dinged is by exhibiting poor judgment.
Unlike other graduate programs where standardized scores drive the admission outcome, to a large extent, business schools’ essays can significantly influence the admission decision. So applicants who are serious about being admitted to a competitive business school should ensure that their essays are well written and embody a strong personal brand.
MBA ESSAY OVERVIEW
Time is a significant factor in presenting a winning application, so start early. The average number of essays at top business schools is four. Therefore, you should allocate enough time to tackle each essay thoroughly. To be safe, give yourself at least four months to complete two to three applications. If you are going to apply to more schools, then you should consider applying in two different rounds (three applications during the first round and two applications or more during the second round) to better manage the process. With admission to top schools becoming more competitive, more candidates are applying to a greater number of programs to increase their chances of gaining admission to at least one school. A greater number of applications means that you will need to budget even more time to ensure that you can give each application the attention necessary to yield the results you seek.
Getting started on essays can be daunting for many applicants. So take a deep breath and exhale. The MBA Board does not expect you to write like a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist. You are not tested on how creative or excellent a writer you are. The main emphasis is on how substantive your leadership impact and managerial potential are, whether you have taken advantage of opportunities available to you, and your awareness of the drivers behind your personal and professional decisions and success.
That said, you should not present a shoddy essay full of grammatical and spelling mistakes.
Make sure that you revise your essays as many times as needed to produce well-written
finished products. It is generally a good idea to have someone
you know who is a great writer, for instance, an English major,
read through your essays to catch any writing errors.
Before tackling the MBA essays, you should go through a
brand audit to identify the most compelling parts of your
story. You should also go through a brainstorming exercise to
organize your experiences. Successful essays require a fair
share of introspection. We encourage applicants to adopt a
brainstorming model we refer to as SOARS (Situation,
Obstacle, Action, Results, and So What). Investing time in
framing your questions in this format will allow you to tease
apart your story in a coherent and tangible way, making it possible for you to focus on the more compelling examples in
your story. Once you have completed the SOARS model, you
will be ready to begin writing the essays. Always do an outline
before tackling an essay. An outline is important because it
allows you to tease apart the important parts of the event.
When writing an outline, you should always aim to flesh out
these key points:
1. What is the situation you wish to discuss?
2. What was challenging, difficult, or unusual about it
that is worth mentioning?
3. What steps did you take to address or resolve the issue?
How did you do it? What role did you play?
4. What was the outcome of your involvement? Why did
you make the decisions you made or take the actions
you took? It is important to stress specifics of the
result. If it is quantifiable, then don’t fail to show the
before-and-after outcome you were able to create as a
result of your involvement.
5. So what! Be clear on why anyone reading the story
should care about it. What was meaningful about this
experience? What did you learn about yourself? Why
does it matter to you? This is where you reveal your
insights and self-awareness to the MBA Board.
Candidates to business school are not limited to following this outline. If another process works for you to effectively outline your essays, then that’s great and you should use it.
What’s important is that you take the time to assess whether the story you have selected is compelling enough to feature in your application. Using the SOARS model to brainstorm essay topics will quickly reveal to you whether the story is strong enough or whether it lacks substance. The other point we wish to make about using the SOARS outline for your essays is that you are not limited to using it chronologically. It’s a tool that helps you with brainstorming but should not become confining; that is, you should not feel bound to structure all your essays chronologically. You can vary the sequence to support whatever creative approach you wish to pursue.
EXPARTUS SOARS Model
CHARACTERISTICS OF WINNING ESSAYS
With establishing a process to outline the essays out of the way, let’s review what makes for winning essays. While there isn’t a formula to gain admission to business school, there are certainly variables or ingredients that distinguish applications that are admitted from those that are rejected. I will examine those variables closely in the next section.
The PGII Factor
A common question from MBA candidates is, “What sets apart
winning essays from bland and ineffective ones?” Having
evaluated thousands of MBA essays at Harvard, at Carnegie
Mellon, and through my consulting practice, EXPARTUS, I
have identified the fundamental ingredients that successful
essays embody. These winning essays have what we call the PGII
Factor. They include:
Essay questions that embody these four ingredients create a
solid and powerful backdrop from which the MBA Board can
assess you. Let’s take a closer look at each ingredient.
As you are preparing for your essays, ask yourself whether you
have clearly identified your passion. Take a few minutes to
complete the passion survey from the earlier chapter. Keep in
mind that if your essays do not convey your passion, there is a
good chance that they will be bland and boring, thus increasing
the likelihood that they will put the MBA Board to sleep. Do you
simply do your job, or do you bring great enthusiasm and energy
to everything you do both at work and beyond? Your attitude
reflects your passion. Think about what difference you have had
in your company, in the organizations you have been involved in,
in your community. Your essay has to convey your passion for
what you do (whether in your work, your personal life, or commu-
nity); your long-term goals have to connect with what you say
matters to you. Connecting these pieces to why you are pursuing
an MBA is a very important part of the application process.
You can’t talk about winning essays without seeing clear evidence of guts and courage to take personal and professional risks. Having guts is not about unplanned, haphazard stunts.
MBA Boards are an extremely savvy bunch and can see through
gimmicks masked to appear like courage and risk taking.
Take two people (Bob and Don) who apply to business
school. Both of them have a successful career in the finance
industry, and their academic backgrounds are equally strong.
Bob has been with the same finance firm for five years. His
essay has few examples showcasing his stepping up and having
a significant impact beyond what a typical associate does at the
firm. Can you imagine how many “Bobs” are in the applicant
pool? The Bobs of the applicant pool have made it easy for the
MBA Board to deny them admission.
Contrast this with Don, who has chosen to leave his firm to
start a real estate company, which is his passion. Even if Don’s
business folds, the MBA Board isn’t as focused on the failure of
the business as they are in what motivated Don to leave a safe
job to start a business and the lessons he learned through the
process. The MBA Board is also interested in learning the
impact Don’s business had on others. Most important, the
Admissions Board wants to learn how his entrepreneurial
venture has developed his leadership and managerial potential.
His maturity and growth will very well set him apart from
other talented candidates vying for a spot in the competitive
We are not advocating that the only way to show guts is
through an entrepreneurial endeavor. If you are an entrepre-
neur, by all means, go for it. However, for the majority of the
applicants, you can demonstrate your risk taking within your
firm by stepping up and going above and beyond your
prescribed role. For instance, as a financial analyst, you may
realize that your firm falls short in its training and professional development of new analysts, so you volunteer to start an
analyst training and mentoring program (if none exists) or to
overhaul the existing one. If you are in Equity Research, for
instance, and you have a lean group, you could raise your hand
to cover more industries above and beyond what is expected of
you. Perhaps you are in the strategy group at your firm and you
disagree with the firm’s plan to shut down a business unit and
see it as a missed opportunity. So you take the initiative to
conduct a thorough analysis, and identify how a counter
approach can add value to your firm. You have the guts to
present an alternative plan, present data to back up your
thoughts, and deliver a convincing argument to your senior
management. Behind the scenes, you build bridges and get key
people to champion the idea. Your idea not to shut down the
group is accepted. The outcome? The group ends up being a
major money maker for your firm.
So what if you are an engineer? You could demonstrate
your guts by volunteering to lead a system improvement
project that involves other departments. Or you could initiate
a new safety mechanism that improves the way an assembly
Other ways candidates can show guts is by being willing to
explore a different business environment. The American
consultant who opts for an international project in Singapore
will get a broadened perspective that can make him more
competitive when it comes time to apply to business school. I
know a candidate working in the United States who pushed to
be transferred to a European country to work because she knew
it would push her outside her comfort level. I’m not advocating
that everyone jump ship for an international assignment; this is
an option for applicants for whom such a move is in line with
their brand and goals.
Even a simple step of leaving a lucrative consulting career,
for example, to become a soccer coach at your alma mater can reflect a gutsy move on your part. But you have to show how
this move fits into your longer-term goal. And of course, it also
has to fit with your passion for athletics. If your long-term goal
is to work for companies like Nike or the U.S. Soccer Federa-
tion on the business side, you can make a compelling case for
the tie-in with sports and your career move to coaching. You
should be careful, however, if you are simply making a move to
impress the MBA Board. In the event that the admission doesn’t
pan out, you have to be comfortable living with your decision.
So whatever decision you take, make sure you choose roles that
you are passionate about and that fit with your long-term goals.
Demonstrating guts is about:
• Raising your hand to take on additional responsibility
• Seizing an opportunity to affect change
• Having the confidence to speak up and sell your ideas
• Taking a path that is untried and different
A major mistake MBA candidates make with their essays is
failing to quantify their impact. Impact simply comes down to
your track record. What was your specific role in bringing
about change or improving a process or product? Note that
impact isn’t limited to organizations; it also expands to
people—taking the intern trying to navigate a large bureau-
cratic organization under your wing, helping the co-worker
who is having a tough time grasping how to read and interpret
balance sheets, mentoring the consultant whom everyone
views as the weakest link on the engagement team and who is
about to quit as a result of his or her frustrations. These are all
individuals that many of us have encountered at some point in
our career. The question is what role we chose to play: did we
engage someone and make a difference to improve his situation
when we saw him struggling, or did we simply focus on our
own individual success? These types of experiences make for
very interesting essays.
The opposite mistake that candidates make relating to
impact is exaggerating their role. MBA Boards can deduce
when the truth is being stretched, and this is a major turn-off,
which will adversely affect your admission outcome. So tell
the story with specific details of your involvement but shy
away from stretching your account in attempts to make your
essay sound impressive.
The law of writing winning essays in the application process is
to show don’t tell. It’s not enough to tell the MBA Board how
great your accomplishments are, but you must show them how
you have accomplished something and what you learned from
the experience. Awareness is king in the admissions process.
What you have done is important, but equally important is why
you have done the things you have done and how you do what
you do that is unique to you.
Be committed to showing the MBA Board why the things
you have done matter to you. Simply stating that you have lead-
ership and management abilities is not enough. What kind of
leader are you? What is your managerial style, and how do you
rely on it to bring out the best in the people you lead? Are you
a leader who leads in front? Perhaps you are charismatic in your
leadership style. Are you more of a “quiet” leader who leads
from behind? You need to have a clear sense of your style and
have stories to back it up to reinforce your point. It is your self-
awareness that sets you apart from all the other applicants who,
at a first glance, have the same background.
The Power of the Six Cs
In addition to the PGII Factor, successful essays tend to have
the following six attributes:
When writing your essay, you should always ensure that your
essays embody these six characteristics.
The essays must capture the attention of the Admissions Board.
It is said that it takes thirty seconds to make an impression
(good or bad), and once someone makes up their mind about
you, it takes much more time and effort to reverse that impres-
sion. The MBA application should be approached from this
mind-set as well. The application as a whole and the essays in
particular are your opportunity to say, “Hi, my name is Vanessa,
and you need to pay close attention to my story.” A captivating
essay will make the MBA Board sit up and remember your story
many applications later.
Remember that the MBA Board has several thousand essays
to read and limited time to make their recommendations. So
your essay should be anything but bland. The last thing you
want is to put the board members to sleep when they read your
essays. Let your personality come through. Don’t be afraid to
take some risks (tempered with judgment) by allowing the
different aspects of your personality (brand) to come through.
You want the MBA Board to identify with you when they read
your application. So, simply said, the essays need to be
engaging, interesting, and personable.
While captivating essays are important, you have to also be
honest. There is no room to stretch the truth in an attempt to
be interesting. Fabricated stories are grounds for automatic rejection. Given the climate of corporate malfeasance and cases of falsified applications, MBA Boards are extremely sensitive to honesty and authenticity.
Candidates should always ask themselves whether their story is
believable. Given your background, is it reasonable to expect
that you will achieve what you outline as your career goals?
Avoid grandiose and unrealistic goals. Essays need to maintain
a balance: while your vision has to be big enough to warrant an
MBA to achieve it, it still has to be achievable. For instance,
saying that you will be the Donald Trump of Africa but having
little evidence of real estate passion will leave the MBA Board
skeptical of your ambitions.
Some career changers fail the credibility test by picking
future careers that are a big leap from their current role. If you
are an information technology (IT) manager, you will have a
tough time convincing an Admissions Board that you will
become a brand manager at Proctor & Gamble. This doesn’t
mean that you can’t make major career changes after you grad-
uate from business school. In fact, most graduates of MBA
programs are career changers. The challenge is that at the
application stage, you have to show that your goals are realistic.
If you select a new career you wish to pursue, make sure you can
show that there are some ties from your background, interests,
and experiences that make it believable.
Your essay needs to convey a compelling rationale for why you
want an MBA. You need to be convincing. What is your long-
term vision/goal, and is the MBA necessary to achieve it? Be sure
that you have thoroughly examined why you want the MBA and
how the degree will help you succeed in your career. If your
career ambition is simply a small incremental step, it is unlikely
that the MBA Board will give you a spot to go into a middle
management role when there are candidates who are looking to
use the MBA to have transformative impact and change.
Essays that are consistent reinforce the brand of the candi-
date. In the chapter on selling your personal brand I discussed
the importance of doing a brand audit and identifying the
brand themes, which are the basis for the essays. By identi-
fying key brand themes to your story, you can write essays
that build on each other in a way that reinforces your overall
brand message. This is an area where applicants err: they
write essays without a unifying story (theme) behind them.
The unfortunate outcome is that their application is unmem-
orable, making it challenging for the MBA Board to advocate
for their candidacy.
With limited time, Admissions Boards need to be able to ascer-
tain the main thrust of each story. Essays that lack clarity are
problematic because the board members will be unable to extri-
cate the brand message of the candidate. To ensure that your
essay is clear, make sure you address the who, what, when, how,
why, and so what (impact). By getting to the point and using
this format, you can eliminate unnecessary aspects of the story,
enabling you to present a clear picture of who you are in your
essays. After reading your essays, who you are should jump off
the pages. Also, you should ensure that you have answered the
question being asked in the most straightforward and direct way
possible. A case in point is the question about describing your
defining leadership experience and addressing your strengths
and weaknesses. Many candidates address the first part of the
question and ignore the second part about their strengths and
weaknesses (especially the latter). Make sure you have answered all the questions fully and write with as many specific examples as possible to ensure clarity of your story.
The issue of conciseness is related to clarity. Get to the point
quickly so the reader can get a clear message of your story. I’m
often asked whether the MBA Board cares about word count
and how far off one can deviate from the limits. My advice is
to always adhere to the essay word or page limits. At a basic
level, it is a sign of your ability to follow instruction. At a
deeper level, it reflects your sense of equity. (Why should you
have an edge over candidates who followed the instruction and
stayed within the prescribed limit?) In my experience, I have
found that in most cases, less is more. Rambling essays or
essays that are lengthy rarely engender positive feelings from
the overworked Admissions Board. This is why it is important
to start essays using an outline as opposed to “a brain dump,”
where you start off writing anything and everything that comes
to mind. And of course, I can’t stress enough the importance of
revisions. I knew an applicant who submitted twenty-plus
pages for his first essay to Stanford Graduate School of Busi-
ness (GSB). Suffice it to say, he didn’t gain admission. Extra
essays and supplemental documents such as newspaper articles,
CDs, and portfolios are inappropriate unless the school specif-
ically requests them.
ESSAY TYPES AND STRATEGIES TO TACKLE THEM
In this next section, I address the various essays covered in the MBA application and provide suggestions on how to deal with them. I have also included actual examples of essays used by applicants. I recognize that some essay topics may overlap across multiple categories but for the purpose of this book, we have broken the essays into four groups.
The four essay categories are:
1. Career essays
2. Impact essays
3. Who you are essays
4. Miscellaneous essays
The Career Essay
Although all the admissions essays are important, it is rare to bomb the career essay and still get admitted. Failure to nail your career essay is likely to yield an unfavorable admission outcome. The career essay category asks candidates to discuss their professional decisions and experiences to date, to explain why they want an MBA and why this is the right time for them to pursue it, and to indicate why they are interested in the particular MBA program in the first place. Some MBA programs word their career essay broadly (What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?—Harvard Business School [HBS]) while others are very specific (What are your short-term and long-term career goals? How will Columbia Business School help you achieve these goals?— Columbia). It is important to note that cut-and-paste jobs are not the most efficient way to succeed in the admissions process.
If a question is asking specifically for your short-term and long-term goals, do not simply recycle the career vision essay; it will be obvious to the MBA Board that you copied an essay from another school. I’m not advocating writing five separate career essays for your five applications. But it is important to pay attention to how the question is worded and even when you use the original content from a previous application, take the time to give it a fresh touch so that it answers the specific question being asked.
Your particular industry or sector doesn’t matter. What is
vital is showing that you have thought through your career
goals and the steps you anticipate will be necessary to achieve
them. Candidates need to be very specific when addressing their
career essays. There is little room for vague and broad career
goals. Generic career goals only signal to the Admissions
Boards that you are either unsure about what you want to do or
that you do not know enough about the professed career path.
In either case, you make it easy for the MBA Board to discount
your application. So be as specific as you can when addressing
your career goals. A statement such as, “I will become a general
manager after business school” is too vague. But saying, “I wish
to join a rotational leadership program in an apparel company
like Gap after business school, and long term, I plan to become
the president of a retail company in South America” is a very
specific and clear career goal. There is a caveat to this, however.
Schools that ask for your career vision as opposed to your short-
term and long-term career goals tend to be more open to broad
statements like “I plan to return to Latin America to help
change the pharmaceutical industry.” Harvard Business School
is one such example that doesn’t penalize candidates for not
specifically outlining the steps they will take to achieve their
Furthermore, all candidates need to make a strong case for why a particular MBA program is the best fit for them given the set of experiences they have had to date. This is where many candidates fail. The temptation to copy and paste paragraphs from previous essays is often too strong to resist. Avoid falling into this trap. Take the time to understand the nuanced differentiation or brand of each MBA program before tailoring your rationale for an MBA accordingly. Campus visits, sitting in on classes, and speaking with alumni and current students will help you zero in on exactly why a particular MBA program is a fit for you.
The issue of timing is also a factor here, so be ready to
address why now is the right time for you to pursue the MBA.
Even if the question of “why now” doesn’t come up, it is wise
to explain your thought process regarding why you feel you are
ready for the MBA and why this is the ideal time for you to
enroll as opposed to a few years from now.
Another important element to keep in mind when thinking
of the career essay is demonstrating awareness of the industry
you plan to pursue. This issue is most pertinent for career
changers. The more knowledgeable you are about the industry
and how the MBA will equip you with the skills to succeed, the
more likely your story is to be believed. It is also useful to show
how the skills you have built from prior professional experience
will be relevant in your career after business school.
Finally, no career essay will be complete without showing
that you have been successful to date in your present career.
The idea is that if you have been extraordinarily successful
where you work currently, there is a good chance you will be
successful in a new career. One of the biggest problems candi-
dates face in the application process is making the case that they
will be successful in a vibrant career after business school when
they have worked at a few mundane jobs and have lackluster
impact and track record. Should you find yourself in a situation
like this, it is critical to hold off on applying to business school
and focus on “rebranding” yourself to build a more compelling
professional track record. Doing so will reduce the likelihood
that your application will be rejected!
It is unlikely to have a winning application if you don’t nail
the career essays. So although all the essays are important, I encourage you to devote extra time to make sure your career
essay is spot on.
Here are the questions on the MBA Boards’ minds when reading your career essay:
- Who is this candidate?
- What has she achieved?
- Is it compelling?
- Is she on an upward trajectory where she is taking on more responsibility and creating more impact, or has her career stalled?
- What are her career decisions, what steps has she taken, and is there a logical connection to her goals?
- Is she a good fit for our program?
- What will she contribute to our program?
- Is she mature, and will she be able to operate in a team environment?
- Does her career goal make sense, and will she be marketable after business school?
- Are her aspirations transformative, and will an MBA help her achieve her goals?
- Does getting the MBA now make sense: did she leave applying to business school too late, or is she applying too early and needs more work experience?
Answers to these questions will help the MBA Board determine whether to admit or reject the candidate.