Learn how to write truly great MBA essays (like cash-money winning MBA essays) in this short tips list compiled by one of the MBA Admissions Industry’s leading experts.
MBA Essays are the GOAT. They’re the one chance in your life (till you’re the one giving the commencement address or TED talk) that you can full on tell your story and someone else will not only completely pay attention, but they’ll give you huge amounts of money for it (in the form of scholarships, that is). That’s if you get in and the school is so in love with you that they decide to incentivize you to say yes to their offer for MBA admission with money. That’s ultimately what merit-based scholarships are about, after all.
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So a brilliant MBA essay could be worth $200,000 or so. In fact, on average, for our clients they are worth about $61,000. (That’s the total amount of scholarships earned by our clients in the class of 2021 averaged out over total clients.) That’s why we put so much emphasis on helping our clients tell EPIC stories. They’re not just writing formulaic MBA essays that follow a template of clients past or some tricks for “hooking the reader” and “showing not telling.” They’re digging deep, discovering who they are, and then creating the most inspiring possible narrative about their lives and keeping it 100 in the process.
For a quick glimpse into the in depth self-examination process I recommend,
check out this video.
The essay-writing process around the Career Protocol campus is a pretty intricate one that’s one part science, three parts art, and all parts love. It’s iterative and involves multiple drafts, attempts, storyboards, and phone calls. It’s personal, intimate, emotional, and profound. As you can imagine, it’s not super possible to convey all that in a blog post. But here are 10 Tips for MBA Admissions Essay Success that will help you write your own Epic Story.
1. Write your essay to one person.
When you're writing your admissions essays, imagine that you're writing to a single person. This is much more effective than writing to a committee or to a school or to a group of faceless individuals. (Think about all those horrifying “To Whom It May Concern” emails floating around out there…They rarely hit the mark.) So write to one person. Even better than that, read or watch interviews with the Dean of Admissions for your target school and then imagine that you're writing to that person specifically.
Here’s a few:
- Kirsten Moss at Stanford talks shop
- Yale’s Bruce DelMonico
- My friend, Soojin Kwon, the MBA world’s most charismatic AdCom leader!
- An old colleague of mine, the lovely Dawna Clarke at Darden!
Just imagine you are talking directly to one of those lovely individuals.
2. Keep it simple.
I can’t emphasize this enough. Great writing (poetry, literature, and yes, narrative MBA essays and personal statements) is simple. Powerful writing is simple and direct. Don’t say in 25 words what you can say in 10. Don’t overburden your action verbs with adverbs and your nouns with multiple extravagant adjectives. Don’t be so baroque, as they say in Italy. Just cut to the chase, say it, and then shut up.
As Jack Kerouac wrote in The Dharma Bums, “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” To take that idea even further, “If I had more time, I would write a shorter letter,” to quote famous French Mathematician, Blaise Pascal. Concision often equates to power. Channel this, and give yourself time for the process towards simplicity to unfold. This means multiple drafts.
3. Watch out for “be” verbs.
I’m not gonna get too technical here, but this is a great grammatical tactic for any admissions essay. Having an abundance of “be” verbs in your essay isn’t just weak writing, it's also a clue that you’re “telling” the reader about yourself and your life vs. “showing” them (i.e. demonstrating the qualities that you want them to take away through relevant anecdotes and concrete evidence). Favor vivid verbs over anything like am/are/is/was/were/been or being.
Replacing these is a quick and easy way to Replacing these will quickly and easily shift your writing immediately from telling to showing.
4. Fight the urge to go all Shakespearean.
They're evaluating your communication skills in MBA admissions essays. They don't care how well you can write prose. Let me say that again: the MBA ain’t a writer’s degree, ya’ll. After you graduate, your life will be 100% Excel and PowerPoint. So flowery language and an excessive use of adjectives and complex grammatical structures aren't really appropriate here—They just want to see how you make a point. So, for the most part, your essay should actually read more like you talk. Being overly verbose isn’t just unhelpful, it’s actually a strike against you. Think about the case method, which demands concision, clarity, and directness as well as relatability. You have to cut to the chase, but your story also has to be relatable to anyone.
5. Read your essay out loud.
This is more than just proofreading. It’s a such a great trick for evaluating whether that first full draft (and later drafts, too) are on the mark. Not to mention for catching major MBA essay grammar mistakes. If it feels awkward as it comes out of your mouth, it probably won’t land very well for a reader, either. Highlight the places where you stumble as you read. Those are the places to revise. If it feels heavy, if it feels writerly, if it feels too much like a big speech or something that that should only live in the recesses of your mind, then your writing probably isn't simple or direct enough.
6. Get INSPIRED before you sit down to write.
Please, please don’t sit down to write cold or when you’re in a bad mood. It's impossible to write an inspiring story (or personal statement) if you’re not inspired when you sit down to write it. It’s like, you just can’t get there from here. So break out a great Pixar movie or Ted talk. Go for a walk in nature, or ring up a pep talk from your BFF. Do whatever gets your creative juices flowing. If you haven't seen the Pixar movies Up or Inside Out, start there—they almost never fail to uplift. The Ted talks where people tell their personal stories can also be really inspiring. (There are tons of them.)
Here are 5 of our faves:
- BJ Miller’s touching story of his brush with death and journey as a hospice nurse. Watch how brilliantly he weaves his personal narrative with exhortations for social change.
- This inspiring talk by my buddy, Colin Stokes, featuring many great Hollywood films about a new definition of heroism that’s more inclusive, collaborative, and beneficent. It doesn’t all have to be dragon slaying and light sabers, ya know.
- Brene Brown’s Legendary take on the meaning of vulnerability that will help you reconnect with your own soft, ugly bits that make you truly unique.
- A poignant discussion of narrative diversity by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that explains the importance of having many stories that we tell. Apply her advice to the narratives of your own life, not just society.
- An Epic Story of persistence in overcoming insurmountable obstacles: David Blaine’s fascinating recounting of how he learned to hold his breath for 17 minutes.
And a few more must-watch films to get you jamming (in no particular order):
7. Don't be afraid to talk about small moments when you're choosing where to focus your essay.
You may discover that some of the most important scenes in the movie of your life are actually small moments. They’re the kind of moments that you almost missed when they happened because they didn't seem all that significant. Like when you boarded a plane for a new continent, or submitted your first late paper, or bought a bag you thought you always wanted and then realized it didn’t matter all that much now that you had it, or rang up your boss late one night to finally ask for help.
The small moments make up life. The little lessons define you. The details reveal who you are. It's often only in retrospect that you realize how significant the moment was, because of how it aligned with your values or revealed them or changed them. Don’t be afraid to go there when you have that kind of realization.
8. Zoom in to reveal your interiority.
When you write about pivotal moments—i.e. moments of change and transformation in your life—zoom in on your thoughts, feelings, rationale, and motivations. The reader needs to know how you thought and felt about the challenge and how you drummed up the courage to make the difficult choice that you made in that moment. The how of a life-changing moment is actually more important than the why, because the reader can only relate to you—can only step into your shoes—if you help them understand how you think.
Here’s a great example of this in action:
9. If your essay doesn't inspire you, it's not final.
This is the best way to determine whether your work is “done” or not when you’re writing an MBA admissions essay. It’s a really effective final test, because it hinges on the most crucial aspect of storytelling: establishing an emotional connection with your reader. If you don't read your essay and think, “Oh man, this is a great story. This is exactly how I want people to know me, because this is my best self,” then you’ve probably got some refining (or rewriting) to do.
And that brings me to my final Pro Tip:
10. Don’t be afraid to start over.
Yes, it’s painful, frustrating, and quite frankly terrifying to throw away something that you’ve poured hours of your life into and start again from scratch, but sometimes it must be done. You can’t always refine your way to the story you want (and need) to tell. If you got off on the wrong foot, you may need to start the race all over again.
But here’s the silver lining: the process goes much more quickly when you bite the bullet and start again. It’s actually very time consuming to try to revise an essay into something it’s not; it’s faster to trust your gut and write the story that wants to come out. (You’ll also feel an overwhelming sense of relief when you take the plunge.)
OK That’s it!! If you like these tips, head over to my YouTube channel and leave us a comment on any video there! Lemme know what else I can provide that will help you on your journey!!
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