Discovery: Your Essential First Step to Awesome MBA Essays

Step 1 in our magical MBA Application Process is always self-discovery.

Self-discovery is a really underrated process. Seriously. Sooo SO underrated. As we’ve learned in over 30 years of collective MBA admissions experience, the very best MBA applications are built on foundations of deep self-awareness, self-compassion, and clarity.

Our You Discovery Process is the tried-and-true, totally irreplaceable first step to business school essay-writing MAGIC. (I can’t get enough of it. Can you tell?)

There are no shortcuts to self-knowledge, and no successful MBA Essay will come to fruition until you’ve taken a good hard look at yourself, your life, your accomplishments, and—most importantly—how you define all of the above.

One of the most valuable things the Discovery Process will teach you is that, as a candidate for admission, you are more than your GPA or GRE. You are more than your professional record. You are far more than any one component of your application, and your favorite school’s adcom—like any other group of humans—wants to see the whole picture. The essay is where this all comes together. 

There are 5 key areas of inquiry that you should dig into when you’re preparing to write your MBA essays.

Table of Contents

1. Your Back Story

If you had to sum up your life story in a couple of paragraphs (or even pages), what would you choose to write down? What would you tell others, if you had to give a succinct “back story” for who you are? What snippets of information would make the cut? Which life experiences?

As you explore your back story, you might also think about the people in your life who have had the greatest influence on you. Consider your hobbies and what makes you tick—even if it’s something you used to love to do, but haven’t found the time for lately. Write it all out.

2. Your Academic Achievements

I like to think in terms of achievements during the self-discovery process, because—as you’ll discover if you undertake this work—everyone defines achievement differently. We each have our own yardstick for measuring accomplishment. (Some of us find it painfully difficult to call anything at all an achievement.)

What you deem an achievement is telling, and thinking in this way encourages you to drill down to what really matters (and has mattered) to you. So, once you’ve contemplated your back story, consider what your top academic achievements would be.

3. Your Community and Extracurricular Achievements

Same thing here, only with community work and extracurricular involvement. What have you accomplished outside of school and work that really means something to you?

4. Your Professional Achievements

You know the drill by now. If you had to list your top professional achievements, what would they be?

5. Your Personal Achievements

Last, but certainly not to be underestimated, what are your top personal achievements? What are some of the moments in your life that really stay with you? I’m talking about those poignant human-to-human experiences—the times when you were able to make a contribution, pure and simple, to another person (or group of people).

Homing in on Your Values

By the time you’re done listing and evaluating your personal achievements, you’ll have built up some muscle for defining what matters to you at a fundamental level: what your intrinsic values are.

Values are the basis of a person's principles or standards of behavior—their judgment of what is important in life. These are the things you would never change about yourself, because if you did, you would no longer be recognizable to yourself as you. Without them, you’d be some other person. Any great Life Story Essay should encapsulate and reflect these intrinsic values, even if they’re never overtly mentioned, and that’s part of what makes any essay founded on self-discovery unique.

One great piece of advice from a Harvard alum is to ask yourself, after you’ve drafted the essay, “Could this essay also describe someone else?” If you’ve done the hard but rewarding work of self-discovery, the answer will be: No.

In all of your MBA essays, you are the hero of your own story. If you use the steps above to home in on your values, you will significantly deepen your awareness about the specific kind of hero you are. We want to get clearer and clearer about what kind of hero you are, because that's where your uniqueness lies.

Finding Your Voice

The final aspect of essay-writing that self-reflection will help you tap into is your voiceYour voice is critically important to your success in your MBA applications. It sets you apart, instantly and continually, from any other writer. Even if another applicant narrated the exact same experiences, it wouldn’t come out sounding the same. (Because they wouldn’t have your voice.)

So how do you find it? What defines it? It's really choice. When I help a client find their voice, what I’m really doing is helping them identify the key choices that produced their life as they know it and developed them into the person that they are.

Character: the combination of values & choices

Values are an important part of the equation. But they're not the whole story. We become who we are by virtue of our choices. Sometimes those choices result in (or include) failure, whether it’s failing to live up to your values or failing in some other way because you adhered to those values. Keep in mind that these brushes with failure are a very important part of your story. They reveal your humility and your vulnerability.

Talking about success without revealing the human part of it—your failures, fears, and setbacks—will not inspire someone. It might read like an interesting set of facts, but the admissions committee       isn’t really going to understand, respect, or feel connected to you. In order to be inspired, they need to see your humanity.

As you wrap up the self-discovery process and start planning your essays, ask yourself: What are some of the most important choices that I've made so far? And why did I make them? How did I make them? And what were the consequences? Where did they lead me? These kinds of questions will help you clarify your values and decide which life stories you want to include.

If this seems like a lot to investigate, it is. We love guiding our clients through this process and helping them deepen their self-awareness throughout the entire MBA application process.

Once you’ve completed the discovery process, move on to:

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Angela Guido

Student of Human Nature| Founder and
Chief Education Officer of Career Protocol

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