Your essay is terrible
There I’ve said it.  You’re trying to get off too easy with your choice of essay topics.

Be careful not to underestimate the caliber of your competition. They’re using every inch of essay real estate to sell themselves and fight for their precious spots in the class.  They’re showing themselves as future leaders, future managers, people who inspire change, who impact their organizations, and who initiate new ways of doing and thinking.  They step up when the opportunity calls, they persuade others, they get chosen as team captains.  They excel above and beyond their peers.

What are you writing about?  Something you wish had gone differently (passive)…or a time when you screwed up and can own it–and have learned from it since (active)?  General impressions of your experiences (nice)…or a vivid story about a specific example that has impacted you well beyond that moment in time (meaningful)?

Here are a few indicators that your essay might be terrible:

A failure that isn’t really a failure

Missed opportunities are less compelling than admitting a true error in judgment. Consider picking a single story as your example.  Explain what you did and why, show the consequences of those actions, then explain what you learned from it.  Perhaps you’ve even taken steps to improve in that area, such as coursework or through projects at work.  Ultimately, show how the experience has benefitted you in the long run.  And, ideally, through your learnings, also you’ll demonstrate that you know what it takes to succeed when faced with the same situation in the future.

It doesn’t answer the question

You can’t ask the admission committee to extrapolate your conclusions from a story. If you wish to illustrate your points through an example, that’s great—but then be sure to spell out your key takeaways from that example.  So if the question asks, “Which role you are likely to play on your future learning team?” you’re not answering the question by simply telling them about your past roles on past teams.  Follow through and explain the implications of these past experiences for your future role on a team in business school.   Another common mistake is forgetting to answer the second half of the question.  If asked, “What matters most to you and why?” it’s equally as important to explain what matters most to you as it is to explain the influences behind it.  Each word is chosen carefully by the admissions committee, and you should take each one seriously.

A weak case for going to business school

Nailing the “Why an MBA?” essay requires more than simply wanting it badly enough.  General statements about wanting to run your own business, or head up an organization one day aren’t particularly compelling.  Instead, portray a clear sense of where you want to be in the future and what you hope to accomplish when you get there.  Articulate the specific positions you aspire to have (both short term and long term) and explain how you plan to progress from A to B.  Then, show why pursuing your MBA will set you up for the greatest success.  Think about the specific skills you need to acquire and what you can gain from the core curriculum first year, as well as the advanced electives second year.  Consider your involvement in clubs and campus initiatives, and why each school’s unique offerings are an ideal fit for you—and vice versa.

A light topic, that doesn’t help sell “you”

Any essay that doesn’t reflect your capabilites as a future leader/manager is a missed opportunity.  Even a colorful essay about how you’ve excelled at the French horn since childhood can showcase your perseverance, dedication, focus: all treasured attributes for an MBA candidate.  A well-executed travel story also can demonstrate your global mindset and appreciation of diverse perspectives.  When a question asks, “How would you spend your free time outside of work?” consider whether the honest answer of “sleeping” will leave the admissions committee with the optimal impression of you.  Or, if you might be better served showing yourself living life to the fullest, whether pursuing your personal passions, engaging with others, or leaving your mark on the outside world.

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© Hillary Schubach September 13, 2012  10:50am MT