If you’re looking to create a winning MBA application, the absolute best place to shine a spotlight on your goals and accomplishments is in the required essay questions. After all, life provides ample source material—innovations, successes, ethical dilemmas, workplace conflicts–that you can mine for essay inspiration.
However, all too often b-school hopefuls make mistakes, some big and some seemingly minor, that end up torpedoing their chances at admission before they’ve even had a chance to interview. Take a look at the following 10 most common blunders that we’ve seen applicants make—and make sure you steer clear of them in your own essays.
Mistake #1: Writing what you think the admissions committee wants to hear. If you tailor your essays in an attempt to make yourself into the so-called perfect MBA applicant, you’ve totally missed the point of the essay in the first place. The goal is to show what an introspective and interesting candidate you are.
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While many applicants have similar credentials, the beauty of the MBA application process is that it allows candidates a chance for self-reflection, and to discover that they are more unique than they first imagine. So be yourself, and write in a way that allows the admissions team to genuinely get to know you.
Mistake #2: Neglecting to answer the question. Before you start writing, make sure you really grasp the intent of the essay prompt. Otherwise, you risk going off track and neglecting the underlying theme. Applicants often become so determined to drive home a particular point, or worse, drift off into a tangent, that they fail to succinctly answer the question being asked. For instance, if the prompt asks how you’ll contribute to the culture of the school, don’t use that space to lay out your reasons for targeting that program.
In other words, don’t answer with “what” when the question asks “how?” or “why?” Business schools dedicate a lot of time to coming up with essay prompts with the goal of finding out how you fit their program, and not answering the question immediately indicates poor fit. A good strategy is to have a friend or colleague read your essay without knowing the question, and then ask them to say what they think you’re trying to answer. Their response will let you know whether you’re on the right course.
Mistake #3: Cutting and pasting in essays you’ve written for other business schools. This one seems like a no-brainer, but according to numerous admissions officers, it happens every season and more times than they can count. At best, you’re not answering the precise question the school is asking, and at worst, you risk accidentally leaving in the name of the other school and receiving an automatic rejection. Several schools have decided to get creative with their questions in recent years in large part to avoid this situation of recycled essays.
Mistake #4: Not filling in the “White Spaces.” You are more than just your resume; you are what I like to call the “white spaces” in between. 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 GMAT score and other stats.
Prospective students often shy away from sharing small but important details about themselves that can help them stand out from the crowd. They think, “Admissions committees don’t want to hear about that side of me,” or “Business schools don’t want people who are interested in that.” But you never know if those years on the college water polo team, the minor in game design, or those articles you published in the school newspaper are just the ticket to creating a standout application.
Mistake #5: Using industry jargon or pretentious language. Never assume the admissions committee member reviewing your application is intimately familiar with your particular industry. Technical language, while appropriate in a resume, can really interfere with the story you’re trying to tell. Also, unless your friends always refer to you as Mr. or Ms. Dictionary, avoid flowery or stuffy language – use familiar words instead to rephrase your accomplishments so that anyone could understand them.
Though seemingly minor, the issue of poor word choice can really distract your reader from the points you’re trying to convey. With hundreds of applications on their desks, the admissions staff has only a few minutes to review each essay, so it should be immediately digestible.
Mistake #6: Not owning up to past mistakes. Nobody likes drawing attention to their past mistakes, academic or otherwise, particularly when applying for a seat at an uber-competitive business school. But believe it or not, being up front about your foibles can go a long way toward minimizing the damage and can actually boost your chances for admissions. Failing to address obvious weaknesses, such as a low GPA or employment gaps, does more harm than good in the end.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard members of the admissions committee express dismay over applicants who don’t make use of the optional essay to explain the common red flag of low quantitative stats or proof of quantitative proficiency. This isn’t the time to cross your fingers and hope for the best, no matter how many stories you’ve heard of applicants getting into the Stanford University Graduate School of Business with a 650 GMAT score.
Mistake #7: Not thinking through your career goals. The career goals essay is probably the most important question you must answer in your MBA application. The admissions committee expects that you have given enough serious thought to your own future that you can clearly articulate your short- and long-term plans. More importantly, they want to hear about why you have those goals.
Fortunately, the AdCom doesn’t expect you to know exactly what you want to be doing decades from now, and no one’s going to hold you to what you write in your essay. However, if an applicant doesn’t appear to have given any serious thought to his or her own future, that could be a red flag.
Mistake #8: Not proofreading your essays. Don’t forget to proofread, spell-check, and proofread some more. Some admissions officers liken submitting an essay riddled with grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes to wearing pajamas to your admissions interview! Errors like these reflect poorly on your candidacy and can overshadow other impressive qualities like your high GMAT score or interesting work experience.
Have a fresh pair of eyes read through your essay to catch any of those pesky punctuation errors or grammatical mistakes that we often miss ourselves after re-reading and editing along the way.
Mistake #9: Failing to make the case for why X program is right for you. Although many top schools seem similar on the surface, each prides themselves on the characteristics that make them different from their peers. Whatever your own personal reasons for seeking an MBA may be, make sure you can point out specific aspects of the skill set required for your future career that will be augmented by attending that school.
The admissions committee wants to know why your particular aspirations will be uniquely satisfied by their program, so use the essays (and later, the interview) to show you have done your research.
Mistake #10: Disregarding the school’s explicit instructions. If the MBA program you’re targeting has listed a specific word count for the required essays, or a preference in font or font size, please follow their requests. The last thing you want to do is annoy your reader by using an eye-straining font, or disregarding the stipulated word count limits.
My advice on word count is to forget about it while you’re writing the essay. Focus on getting your content together and making sure that it’s very strong. Once your content is there, you’d be surprised at how easy it is to cut words. The general rule of thumb is to stay within 10%. Don’t worry if you go a bit over, but much more than that and you are simply not following directions.
The MBA essays are your platform to show what makes you a dynamic, multidimensional person that any program would want to have. As you pull all of your materials together, really scrutinize each aspect to see if there’s anything there that can weaken your message.
Write concisely, and show the admissions team that you’ve done your research and know exactly how they can help you. If you can avoid inadvertently committing these 10 common essay mistakes, the odds of creating a positive impression on the admissions committee are strongly in your favor.