The business school application essay is quite a different beast from the academic essay, the creative memoir, and the informal blog post. It can be difficult to know how to approach it. The prompts are simple and yet daunting. In trying to showcase your talents, you may be tempted to communicate in a way that actually works against you — that sounds trite, awkward, or boastful.
So how can you convey your strengths with confidence while sounding authentic and memorable?
Here’s a start — steer clear of these cliched lines and bad writing habits, and you’ll be well on your way to a compelling application.
1. Copy and pasting paragraphs from your econ or finance final paper.
Example: “The negative correlation between the S&P 500 and the VIX that typically exists broke down on Friday June 23rd, as the former tumbled 0.97% while the latter fell 0.77%.”
Applying to business school may make you feel the need to impress admissions officers with high-level ideas and specialized industry knowledge. But the purpose of your essays is not to display your academic and industry knowledge. The admissions committee will already have your GMAT score, transcript, and resume on file. Instead, the essay is a chance to reveal your character, your thought and action process, what makes you “tick.”
Embrace the challenge of this blank space! Don’t copy and paste from anything — not your econ final paper, your undergrad thesis or your weekly market commentary for work. When the rest of your life (future opportunities, future network) hinges partially on this chunk of words, you owe it to yourself to draft something fresh.
Writing Tip: If the prospect of writing 750 words about yourself is daunting, try a single paragraph or a single line. Once you have a few sentences down, the rest will flow naturally.
2. Claiming you pulled off a project of enormous magnitude at work when it was obviously a team effort.
Example: “In my job as a first-year investment banking analyst, I was single-handedly responsible for LinkedIn’s IPO.”
Nothing looks as bad as puffing up one’s credentials in a flagrant way. Admissions officers are seasoned professionals; don’t try to pull anything past them. Instead of embellishing your successes, use the essay as an opportunity to reflect upon them and discuss how they relate to your future goals.
Writing Tip: Think of more subtle ways to impress the admissions committee. Describe a complex problem you tackled at work, for instance. This will not only display your problem solving skills but also show the adcom that you have been entrusted with significant responsibility.
3. Using generic language from the school website.
Example: “I am applying to Stanford GSB because it will help me develop leadership skills that will enable me to change lives, change organizations, and change the world.” (From the school website: “At the Stanford Graduate School of Business, we believe management is a noble calling—one that can change lives, change organizations, and change the world.”)
You may think there is no way to differentiate your passion for a highly coveted school like Wharton or Stanford, but if you truly want to go there, you should be able to say something other than what’s on their website or marketing collateral (which they are thoroughly familiar with).
Writing Tip: As much as you think you may be able to “get away” with not visiting campus, the physical act of visiting will often give you more precise and unique ways of expressing your interest in the school. For tips on getting the most out of your visit, check out this post.
Example: “I had to start blocking Warren Buffett’s phone calls; he just wouldn’t stop asking me for investment advice.”
There simply isn’t space for you to waste with pure name-dropping. Worked with high-profile people? They can write your recs. Read awesome books? Show how they inspired you. The names of things in themselves won’t impress the adcom. (Remember, the alumni of some of these schools have founded businesses that generate as much as the GDP of small nations; admissions officers are used to seeing important names and references to large amounts of money.) It’s the way in which you use your opportunities that impresses people, not your surface familiarity with significant-seeming entities.
Writing Tip: Pay attention to what intrigues you about any story you read online or in a magazine. What makes a story come alive? Let your discoveries inform your essay-writing.
5. Listing achievements instead of telling a story.
Example: My senior year in high school, I was a National Merit Finalist. My senior year in college, I graduated magna cum laude with a double major in Economics and Government. I then went on to pursue a Marshall scholarship at the University of…”
The short-answer part of your application and your academic transcripts are already a distillation of your achievements. Don’t waste essay space by repeating yourself (the admissions committee will assume you have nothing more to say). In some applications such as Wharton’s, the length and rigor of the application is designed to reveal some applicants’ lack of experience — those who have insufficient experience will inevitably begin to repeat themselves. So don’t do it!
Writing Tip: Think in terms of “moments,” “scenes,” or “stories,” not lines on a resume.
6. Describing yourself as “passionate.”
Example: “I am deeply passionate about brand management and believe I will be able to excel in this area.”
If you even have the space to tell people you are passionate, you are wasting the opportunity to show people your passion and make them feel it viscerally. You don’t need to state your “passion” explicitly. Instead, describe the hours you spent, the experiences you acquired, the resilience you developed, the failures you endured and the moments of insight and inspiration you experienced; this should be more than sufficient to convey your passion.
Writing Tip: The same goes for other words like “ambitious,” “intense,” “driven,” “team-oriented,” etc. Whatever you do, don’t describe yourself as “selfless” or “brilliant.” That’s for other people to say.
7. Describing a far-fetched business venture or idea that you “plan” to execute.
Example: “After gaining valuable marketing skills during my MBA, I plan to build a five-star resort in Bombay and become a world-famous hotelier.”
Business professionals have seen and heard of countless business plans. A brilliant idea doesn’t necessarily impress the admissions committee; it’s the execution that truly counts. Sure, you can quickly allude to something you plan to do, and if you are asked specifically to detail your five or ten year plan, you can discuss your future in the space provided. Just understand that a brilliant idea in itself will not impress people. You are applying for admission to a school, not trying to win a venture contest (there will be time for that later!). Also, make sure your plans sound feasible and display sound business logic; otherwise you may come across as naive.
Writing Tip: Understand that b-schools are risk averse to some extent. They want to admit people who have a given track record of success and demonstrate that they make the most out of every opportunity.
8. Trying too hard to be creative or original.
Example: “I wiped the sweat from my brow and told myself to remain calm. The wisdom of Sun Tzu flowed through my veins, and I returned to my spreadsheets with renewed vigor.”
You may think you’ll get admission committee’s attention by wowing them with flowery rhetoric, but it’s more important that you be authentic and memorable than “artistic.” Remember that you’re applying for admission to business school, not trying to win a literary or essay contest.
Writing Tip: No matter how attached you are to certain lines in your essay, you may need to cut them. “Murder your darlings” if necessary.