Writing the perfect MBA application essay involves brevity, a degree of literary panache, and total honesty. It also helps if you mention you were South Korea’s first astronaut.
It is not a dean’s duty to sift through the thousands of student applications that the world’s most prestigious schools receive each year — they have admissions teams to do that. But they are often asked to pass judgment on the written essays — and increasingly videos and other multimedia applications — from notable candidates, so their opinions on style and content count
Rich Lyons, dean of Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, spotted Yi So-yeon, the first Korean to fly in space, in 2010 from the 15 candidates he was handed. Every year, he receives a sample in each selection round, picked for the exceptional qualities displayed from a pool of about 4,000 applicants.
“I don’t even remember what score she got in the GMAT [admission test], I just knew she would add value,” he says. “You have got to have something special to get through that stage.”
The Shanghai-based China Europe International Business School last year made offers to one in every four of its applicants to fill 180 places on its full-time MBA programme.
Each essay is read and scored by the admissions team — but this is just one element of the selection process, alongside GMAT scores and proven work experience, Yuan Ding, the dean, notes.
“[The essay] is where we learn about applicants’ career aspiration, understanding of China, and writing skills.” He adds that they also look for exaggeration or an economy with the truth.
Applicants to UCLA Anderson School of Management are given a 500-word limit for their essays. They must explain their short and long-term career goals and what their time at the business school would add to their professional development.
The essays are then assessed by at least two admissions team members, each of whom are looking for elements that make them want to accept an applicant, such as unusual work experience, rather than deny them a place, according to Rob Weiler, associate dean for the MBA programme.It pays to be concise, he adds. “If an applicant attempts to add too much supplemental information, chances are they are trying too hard.”
New York University’s Stern School of Business, this year “Instagrammed” its essay format by asking candidates to pick six visual items — photographs, charts and even emojis — and give each a caption, rather than writing a piece of prose. The school’s admissions team, which has assessed about 50,000 essays over the past 15 years, likes innovation, according to Peter Henry, NYU Stern dean. They were looking for creativity and an ability to be succinct and accurate. What makes any application “leap out from the pack” during the admissions process is that the writers can explain their career goals and how NYU Stern would help them achieve these, Prof Henry says.
Barcelona’s IESE business school does not set a format for applications. One applicant recently produced a video as his cover letter — a method of application increasingly common in US schools. But content trumps format, according to Franz Heukamp, the dean.
A place on the course: how MBA admissions work
The Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) is a pan-school online exam to assess verbal, analytical and writing skills. The test is required for most business school MBA applications but does not examine business knowledge or general intelligence.
Many business schools also set mandatory essays, which tend to ask applicants to explain their work experiences, why they would excel at the school and how the MBA would help with future career goals. Most set an upper limit of 500 words.
Not all schools set an essay. Some ask for a CV and cover letter.
Shortlisted candidates are usually invited for a formal interview either on campus or online with the admissions team.
“The ones that grab our attention do so not because they say something we have never heard before, are wild or outrageous,” he says. “What makes a cover letter special is when it is very clear that the candidate knows what he or she wants to achieve professionally.”
The most important element of an essay is a “clear and concise” message, according to Winfried Ruigrok, the dean at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland.
“An MBA application stands out if the applicant knows our specific programme strengths, structure and culture,” he says.
SDA Bocconi School of Management was the first European school to add mandatory video interviews to its application process, says its dean, Giuseppe Soda, with candidates required to answer a series of random questions on camera.
Those applying to its 12-month MBA course must also submit two reference letters and attend a face-to-face interview at the school’s Milan campus, as well as performing well in the GMAT exam — its average test score is 665 out of a possible 800, compared with a sector average of about 550.
The video format complements the wider objective of Bocconi’s admissions team, to get to know each candidate by name, according to Prof Soda.
This level of detail is possible at Bocconi — which last year received 375 applications for 132 places — but not feasible for larger institutions. “We want to focus on each candidate’s personal development,” Prof Soda says. “We want to know the students by name.”
Before becoming dean, Prof Soda’s job included reading every essay from the PhD applicants. “The problem was that they were always the same sort of essay,” he says. “Written pieces can be faked so a video seems a better way.”
He anticipates a day when the video test replaces the written elements of the MBA application.
“When you write you have more time to prepare,” he says. “With our video test there is the element of the unexpected. It is not just what they say but how they say it, and there is the pressure of being in front of a camera.”
Listen to this article
Essays are an incredibly important part of the application process, says Stacy Blackman, an MBA admissions consultant. Seemingly straightforward questions require a great deal of introspection. Make sure you budget time to draft and redraft, try new approaches and carefully edit so that each line packs the maximum punch
1 As soon as you know that you are going to apply to business school, you can start to prepare in a low-stress way. Keep a notebook and jot down anything interesting that comes to mind. An inspiring lecture, a disappointing performance review, an enlightening conversation with a friend, a travel experience, running a marathon, a stimulating book—all of these can be terrific material for your essays. Don't agonise over whether it will make a great topic, just jot it down. You will find that you quickly have a plethora of material to choose from.
2 As you begin to approach essay-writing time, consider putting together a “brag sheet”. Write down all of the things about you that would not necessarily appear on a résumé: languages you speak, all extracurricular involvements, family traditions and more. This can also be mined for essay content.
3 Once you have the essay questions in hand, there may still be a few stumpers. Even with lots of content, when you are faced with answering a question such as “What matters most to you?” it is difficult to decide. Here is an exercise that stops you from over-thinking: set your alarm clock for 3am. When you wake up, ask yourself the question. The first thing that comes to mind might surprise you. Do this for a couple of nights and you may come up with a few options or find that you are building a consensus around a certain topic.
4 Before you actually write the essays, take the final step of mapping out the general topics you will cover in each essay. As you map a topic to a question, check it off on a master list of stories you want to cover. This way, you can make sure that a given school is receiving all of your key stories, and that you are spreading out different stories across an application and not being repetitive.
5 Everyone works in different ways: some work best first thing in the morning, others are night owls. Some need to outline concepts on paper, others go straight to computer. So develop a plan that supports your individual style. Many find that the first application can take around 40 hours of work—brainstorming, drafting, editing, refining. As you approach this process, make sure you have the time. Tackle one application at a go. Do not take work leave or attempt it in a single week. Essays require time to gel. Therefore make sure that you have plenty of time to do it right. You may require six weeks, or you may even want 12.
6 Many applicants are inhibited by perfectionism. They can sit at the computer for hours, unable to generate that “perfect” essay, rewriting so furiously that they don't get past the first few sentences. It is often easier to edit than to write. So just type. A page full of so-so text is less intimidating than that blank page.
7 It is essential that you research your target schools and understand how to appeal to each of them. Each will have a slightly different ethos and look for something different in their students. But…
8 …you can also save yourself a bit of work. There are certain qualities that all business schools want to see in a successful applicant:
- team skills
- communication skills
Just saying “I am a strong leader” is not enough. Every claim you make must have supporting stories that help the reader believe you. You do not need to check off every quality on the list. Select a few that apply to you and reinforce those in an honest and compelling way.
9 Nobody is perfect. The schools know this and you need to show them that you are realistic and self-aware. Revealing your humanity—in the form of quirks, weaknesses and flaws—can often help the admissions committee to like you. A story about how you learned from a failure, improved upon a weakness or struggled with challenges can be compelling. The other side of this is the ability to demonstrate that you can really benefit from the MBA degree. If you know everything already, an admissions committee may wonder why you want to return to school.
10 Get some help. Even the most meticulous writers benefit from a second or third set of eyes. Ask someone to review your essays, look for typos and tell you if you are hitting all of the points in the right way. Is your attempt at humour coming off correctly? Do you seem too humble, too cocky, too serious, not serious enough? After you have been buried with your essays for weeks, a fresh perspective can often help you see the application as an admissions-committee member does: for the first time. Enlist someone who knows about the application process and make sure they are not just reassuring you that all is well, but are actually giving you some quality feedback.
More from our application special
How to find the right MBA
Philip Delves Broughton: Why you shouldn't bother with an MBA
Application dos and don'ts
Video: What does a business school look for in an applicant?
Video: Students talk about their application experience