You’ve probably heard about OpenAi’s release of a new text-generating AI by now. If you haven’t, get out from under your rock and check it out. The underlying model, called GPT-3, is a paradigm-shifting achievement. It can instantaneously write blog posts, essays, scripts, poems, tweets, jokes, and even rap battles that are wildly human-seeming and (gasp, yes!) original.
The information it draws from in order to reproduce such human-like results? Essentially the entire Internet. The average high school essay is dead. The average undergraduate humanities essay is dead. The MBA application essay is… the same as it ever was. Let’s talk about why.
Here is Columbia’s second essay prompt:
We believe Columbia Business School is a special place. CBS proudly fosters a collaborative learning environment through curricular experiences like our clusters and learning teams, co-curricular initiatives like the Phillips Pathway for Inclusive Leadership, which aims to equip students with the skills and strategies necessary to lead in an inclusive and ethical manner, and career mentorship opportunities like our Executives-in-Residence program.
Why do you feel Columbia Business School is a good fit for you academically, culturally, and professionally?
And here is what the AI came back with when I simply entered that prompt.
(NB:  Technically if you enter that prompt the software will tell you it’s not a human and can’t answer… so you have to tweak it a bit and tell it to get in character: “as a business school applicant, write 300 words describing why CBS is a good fit…”)
I believe that Columbia Business School would be a great fit for me academically, culturally, and professionally.
Academically, I am drawn to the school's collaborative learning environment and its focus on providing students with hands-on, experiential learning opportunities. The clusters and learning teams, for example, provide a unique opportunity to work closely with other students and learn from their diverse perspectives and experiences.
Culturally, I appreciate Columbia's commitment to fostering inclusivity and ethical leadership. The Phillips Pathway for Inclusive Leadership, in particular, aligns with my own values and interests, and I believe that the skills and strategies taught through this program would be invaluable in my future career.
Professionally, I am impressed by the school's focus on providing students with the resources and support they need to succeed after graduation. The Executives-in-Residence program, for instance, offers valuable mentorship and networking opportunities that would help me to build the skills and connections necessary to succeed in the business world.
Overall, I believe that Columbia Business School is a special place that offers a unique combination of academic, cultural, and professional opportunities. I am confident that attending CBS would provide me with the knowledge, skills, and support I need to achieve my goals and make a positive impact in the business world.
Impressive. But certainly not mind blowing. Is this essay going to get you into Columbia? Absolutely not. Is this essay at least as good as many applicants’ essays? Absolutely yes. Is it even the kind of boilerplate that most MBA admissions consultants will coach you to write? Unfortunately, also yes.
This essay is well-organized, clear, and grammatically correct. And in that way, it is at least as good as the average essay written by real applicants. It is also laughably robotic and generic. It simply regurgitates the prompt, and for that reason alone will absolutely not get you into b-school.
So what if we give the AI a little more insight into an individual’s unique experiences and voice?
Here is a riff on Stanford’s famous essay question:
Write 600 words answering the question “What matters most to you, and why?” Answer by referencing the challenges of growing up in a villa miseria outside Buenos Aires and how building a strongly tied community was essential to survival. You later put these lessons to use as an undergraduate at Harvard, where you led the Latin American Student Coalition, and later in your career as an analyst for a quantitative Hedge Fund.
Here’s what came back:
What matters most to me is the value of community and solidarity. Growing up in a villa misera outside Buenos Aires, I witnessed firsthand the challenges and struggles faced by marginalized communities. In a place where crime and poverty were rampant, building a strong and tightly-knit community was essential for survival.
As a child, I saw how my neighbors came together to support one another in times of need. Whether it was sharing resources, providing emotional support, or standing up against injustice, our community was a source of strength and resilience. This experience taught me the importance of solidarity and the power of collective action.
I carried these lessons with me as I pursued my education and career. As an undergraduate at Harvard, I was a leader of the Latin American Student Coalition, where I worked to build bridges and foster understanding between different cultural groups on campus. I also applied these principles in my career as an analyst for a quantitative hedge fund, where I sought to use my skills and knowledge to benefit not just my employer, but also the communities in which we worked.
For me, the value of community and solidarity is not just a personal belief, but a guiding principle that informs my actions and decisions. I believe that by coming together and supporting one another, we can create a more just and equitable world. Whether it is through advocacy and activism, or through our professional pursuits, I am committed to working towards this goal.
In a world that is often characterized by individualism and self-interest, the value of community and solidarity is more important than ever. I believe that by building strong and inclusive communities, we can overcome the challenges we face and create a better future for all.
WOW! That is crazy. Where on earth did that second paragraph come from? It sounds real! You and I know that it isn’t, though. And the average admissions committee will still be unimpressed by this testimony. We’ll talk about why after looking at one more example.
Let’s try Yale’s “commitment” essay. Here is what I entered:
Write an essay answering the question “what is the biggest commitment you have ever made?” Answer by discussing your past as a competitive tennis player and your battles with depression in your teens and how you realized would never perform at the level you had hoped. Instead you reframed your notion of achievement and applied the lessons you learned from tennis to teaching math to inner city students. It turns out math and tennis have a lot in common.
And here is what it wrote:
The biggest commitment I have ever made was to myself and my mental health. As a competitive tennis player in my teens, I had always dreamed of reaching the top ranks and playing professionally. However, I struggled with depression and anxiety, which often hindered my performance on the court.
During this time, I found it difficult to motivate myself to practice and compete at the level I had previously been able to. I began to lose confidence in my abilities and started to question whether I would ever be able to reach the level of success that I had always dreamed of. This was a difficult realization, but I knew that I had to reframe my notion of achievement and find a new way to measure my success.
I began to focus on the lessons I had learned from my experiences on the tennis court, and how I could apply them to other areas of my life. I was surprised to find that there are many similarities between tennis and math, such as the need for strategy, precision, and problem-solving skills. I decided to use my passion for the sport to help others, and I began teaching math to inner city students.
Through this work, I have been able to make a positive impact on the lives of many young students. I have also been able to find a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment that goes beyond my own personal success on the tennis court.
In conclusion, my biggest commitment has been to constantly push myself to improve, even when faced with challenges and obstacles. While my journey as a competitive tennis player did not turn out as I had hoped, I have been able to find new ways to achieve success and make a difference in the lives of others by sharing my passion for math and tennis.
Holy moly!! Do we have your attention yet?! This is a jaw-droppingly well-articulated – and human-sounding – narrative. It is nothing short of stupendously and utterly mind-blowing that software can create this output from the given input.
This essay might even come close to getting an interview at Yale. Heck, it might even get one! So if a computer can do this in a few seconds, how can you compete?
First, let’s look at why these essays – impressive as they are – don’t cut it. Despite the seemingly heartfelt recounting of experiences, these essays stop at the surface level, falling short of revealing anything specific and personal that only the real human who had those experiences could.
Here’s a play-by-play (note my comments on the right-hand side of the image) of precisely how and where the Stanford “what matters most” response falls short:
And now the bot’s Yale “commitment” essay:
So how do you outcompete a bot, which is about as difficult as outcompeting around 75-80% of MBA applicants?
You compete with the same strategies Career Protocol has been recommending to MBA applicants since its founding. You have to be authentic and vulnerable and vivid. In other words, you have to be even more human than ever.
How do you do that? It’s simple! Tell the reader something that only you can.
In the notoriously impoverished neighborhoods where I grew up in Buenos Aires, we lacked most necessities growing up. Damp, hungry nights were common. But as kids, we often didn’t yearn for solutions to those wants as much as we wanted our very own bicycles. One of the most empowering experiences of my life was when a group of us children, at maybe 12 years old, decided to do something about it. We founded “El Club Bicicleta Numero Uno” with a simple plan. We would scour the city for other people’s trashed parts and tools and build our own bikes. Rusty sprockets, handlebars, old tires, and just often enough, the jackpot: a workable, or at least fixable frame…
Or the tennis one…
At the 2012 Under 16s Regional Tennis Tournament, I was the number one seed and hungry to win. The finals took place on a grueling hot day in Miami and my competitor was fierce. She played smartly and doggedly. Deep into the third set I was on serve and up 40-love with three match points. Three chances to close out the tournament as the champion! And then every tennis player’s worst nightmare happened…
At Career Protocol, we take being human both kindly and seriously.
We encourage and inspire our clients to tell their stories – the whole story – with courage and authenticity. Our clients often are surprised by the little stories and details that ultimately form the core of their most inspiring stories. It’s often the littlest moments in life, the most intimate feelings, that reveal our most authentic and vulnerable self. The best stories you have to tell are not necessarily the biggest, boldest, most impressive successes that you’ve experienced. (Though there is room for those, too.)
We find out what makes our clients tick through our unique Discovery Process, and then help them share the life experiences that really demonstrate their values and motivations. When you do that well, it’s impossible for the reader not to fall in love with you.
Self-discovery lays the foundation for amazing essays. After that, it all comes down to great storytelling. We walk our clients through key concepts like inviting the reader into your experience with vivid, specific, and orienting details. Paint a scene for them that demonstrates your core values and qualities, rather than simply telling them, “Hey, I’m great at coming up with creative solutions” or “I’m a caring person.”
Winning admissions essays are, at bottom, excellent communication. And that’s best left to humans. (For now, at least.) Essays are the bridges through which you connect with admissions committees, without even being in the same room. The best essays evoke emotional responses because they’re relatable. They’re honest. Shortcomings, mistakes, learning curves, victories, and all. When you show your reader both the struggle and the triumph, you invite them to root for you.
Here are some additional storytelling resources from the Career Protocol team to support you on your MBA admissions journey:
Craft compelling narratives
Target specific essays & essay types
What to Avoid
And most importantly, watch our MBA Storytelling Masterclass to dig even deeper into your Epic story and make it shine in the admissions process.
Sign up for a free MBA strategy call right here:
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