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Don’t Make These Five Mistakes in Your MBA Essays

Stacy Blackman

By Stacy Blackman, President of Stacy Blackman Consulting

What is the sign of a winning MBA application? Having the dean of admissions, who reads thousands of applications each season, feel like he or she got to know you after reading your essays. Unfortunately, many applicants play it safe and convey only information they perceive as MBA-worthy material.

If you tailor your essays in an attempt to make yourself into the so-called “perfect” MBA applicant, you’ve missed an important opportunity. The true purpose of your essay is to show that you are an introspective and interesting candidate. Make sure you avoid these five common mistakes in your MBA application. Otherwise, you may unwittingly diminish your chances of b-school admissions success.

Mistake 1: Submitting business-only facts.

Instead, go broader and tell your personal story. The admissions committee is looking for applicants with unique and diverse backgrounds. After you’ve adequately laid out your career experiences thus far, it’s time to infuse your application with details unique to you. Brainstorm by jotting down every possible exciting, interesting, or memorable thing you can think of about yourself. This list, or “bragsheet,” not only serves to jog your memory, but also helps you realize that your hobbies, travels, volunteering, and personal life experiences can provide raw material for brand messages and eventually essays.

At Stacy Blackman Consulting, we worked with one client who wrote a terrific essay that wove in his interest in math with his lifelong passion for jazz. By sharing his unique story about his father’s career as a jazz musician and his own keen interest in financial markets, the candidate made sure his personality came through and distinguished himself from other applicants with similar test scores and GPAs.

Another client worked in an overrepresented industry among MBA applicants— management consulting—prior to applying. However, his essays spoke of his childhood growing up in the Middle East in a poor, rural community. He was the first in his family to graduate from university, and the contrast between his economic background and his family’s pride in his progress were important highlights of his story. These details differentiated him from other applicants in the international management consulting pool. What’s more, he chose an admissions test that would complement his story and allow his skills to shine.

Business schools seek diversity in all its forms. Go ahead and showcase your unique hobbies, pastimes, or experiences–even (especially) the quirky ones.

Mistake 2: Focusing only on what you’ve done.

Instead, focus on what you value and believe in. A lengthy list of accomplishments will only get you so far with the admissions team. It’s actually more important to focus on sharing your values and what you believe in. When sifting through your possible anecdotes, ask yourself how an experience shaped your life and made you stronger. Or, which strengths, talents, or attributes helped you make a difference in your community, family, or at work.

Showing you are passionate about something other than career also goes a long way toward convincing the admissions committee that you will bring a unique perspective to classroom discussions and generally enhance the MBA community.

Focus on the white spaces in between the bullet points on your resume. What keeps you awake at night? When you look back at your life, what will you admire and regret about your choices? All applicants have a story to tell, an opportunity to go beyond their admissions test score, and other stats. Those small but important details can help you stand out from the crowd.

Mistake 3: Forgetting to use outside resources, such as social media, to reinforce your candidacy.

More and more admissions officers admit to researching an applicant’s social media profile before making a final admit decision. Savvy MBA candidates can use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn®, and/or Instagram to boost their credibility and solidify the good impressions made through their application materials.

For example, let’s say that you’re hoping to switch careers after business school. In one of your essays, you share your intention to work for a company that develops clean-energy options in third-world countries. You could tweet links to articles or books you’re reading on the subject; you could post about a local conference you attended; or you could give your take on the most promising advancements in the field. The key is to keep things professional and on point. It’s absolutely fine to let your personality shine through, too—just as it should in your essays.

Mistake 4: Neglecting to highlight your positive impact. 

The admissions committee will be looking for evidence that you have made a positive impact on the communities of which you’ve been a part, both personally and professionally. For example, highlighting community service in your essays can provide insight into the causes that drive you.

Admissions committees like to see results. To stand out, you need to provide hard proof that you made a difference and left indelible footprints. Try to quantify results in dollar amounts or percentages whenever possible. For example, if you organized a bike race that raised $6,000 for your cause, you want to highlight that concrete value.

One of our clients felt passionate about education for girls in the Middle East. In the spring before applying to business school, he co-launched a program that teamed up young professionals in New York with high school aged girls in a Middle Eastern country to provide mentorship regarding possible career paths after their secondary education.

In his MBA applications, our client showed that he had raised a meaningful amount of money and the program started its inaugural year with six mentor/mentee pairs. This high-impact activity assisted him in his successful applications to Columbia Business School, Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, and Harvard Business School.

Seek out leadership opportunities in your existing activities or find an organization that can benefit from your management skills. Taking charge in your extracurricular interests is great material for any leadership, management, or teamwork-themed essay.

Mistake 5:  Trying to conform to business school clichés.  

Don’t force yourself to fit a business school candidate stereotype. It may sound obvious, but one of the key characteristics of a successful MBA essay is simply being authentic. Stay faithful to your true interests, and show how they have helped shape the incredibly dynamic and fascinating person that you are today.

Consider also how your choice of admissions test may complement your MBA essays and overall application package. Top MBA programs began accepting the GRE® General Test in an effort to attract a wider, more diverse set of applicants. When coming up with your application strategy, consider whether submitting a score report from the GRE® General Test could be just the ticket to enhance your overall application package and MBA candidacy. Watch this video featuring SBC consultant Esther Magna to understand the ways your choice of admissions test can enhance your application.

If you are ready to take the plunge and start crafting a winning admissions essays, start by downloading a free branding guide from Stacy Blackman Consulting (PDF).