The Admissions Essay Part I: Equal Parts Memoir and Strategic Communication

Each word of the essay question seems to add significant weight to the paper it’s printed on.  As you stare at the question, you feel sluggish and frustrated. How can you possibly tell a story that will appeal to highly selective MBA admissions committees?  Where will you start?  How will you weave in the qualities deemed acceptable for future students?

For many applicants, the essays are the most daunting part of the admissions process.  The task of writing is arduous enough, but then there is the reality that application essays must be part memoir – pieces that express your individuality and unique experiences, and part strategic communication – pieces that also impart your knowledge and fit with the institution, along with your leadership and innovation potential.  

You’ve heard admissions advice, attended information sessions and combed through Internet searches about admissions essays. So, I’m not going to waste your time with repetition or complexities.  The first thing to remember is simple.  You are the writer and the admissions director is the reader.  What keeps you reading through newspapers, magazines and books?  Important to consider, the qualities that maintain your interest will be some of the same ones that engage your admissions director and help you make that memorable connection you are striving for.

The Lead:

You must capture the reader and force them to keep reading.  You can do this with an unusual idea, an interesting fact, a question or anything else that will appropriately reel them in and push them into the subsequent paragraphs.   Some don’ts worth considering: Don’t repeat part of the essay question in the first sentence of your essay – ‘I am interested in Columbia Business School because’…  Don’t lead with the buzzing of your alarm clock to transition into an essay examining a significant personal experience.  This stale, yet common introduction only signals the work of an inexperienced writer.  Don’t lead with a specific anecdote from childhood.  There are a few exceptions, but keep in mind that admissions committees want you to focus on your experiences post-baccalaureate, so any mention of childhood could be deemed inappropriate.     

The Narrative:

Admissions essays should take a narrative approach, a style conducive to applicants thinking and writing about themselves.  You want to tell a story and construct a meaningful memoir laden with specific details that show instead of just tell the reader about your experiences.  It is best to think narrow.  Don’t summarize your life since college.  Think about one or two impactful projects or events that allow the reader to come to their own conclusions about your innovation and leadership potential.  One of my recent clients responded to Wharton’s first essay question, regarding career objective, by focusing on a recent management experience that inspired her goals post MBA.  Through her minute-by-minute recount of the situation, the reader could see her potential and understand her fit, not only with the future role she is targeting, but also with the student work groups at Wharton.   Just as William Zissner describes memoirs in his book, On Writing Well, essays are meant to be a window into life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.  

The Message:

Too often, applicants surrender the qualities that make them unique to focus solely on the strategic communication aspect of the essay.  They end up writing what they think an admissions committee member will want to hear, which empties the essay of the very element that makes it memorable, the humanity behind the words.  A laundry list of the results you’ve achieved or the leadership accolades you take pride in won’t provide enough depth.  Leave those for the resume.  For the essay, use the space to show the why and the how of your journey.  Zinsser says, “What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field.  How was he drawn to it?  How did it change his life?  It is not necessary to want to spend a year alone at Walden Pond to become involved with a writer who did.”  The essays are the reader’s first opportunity to get to know you, so be yourself when you write and don’t forget that part of what makes you compelling are your weaknesses.  The struggle and lessons learned can be some of the most interesting parts of a story, so you don’t have to leave them out. 

I’ve often heard my clients refer to the business school admissions process as ‘grueling’ or ‘maddening’.  The mere thought of essay writing brings them back to the college composition class they dreaded or their article in the school newspaper mocked by their peers.  In a system where test scores and transcripts can only take you so far, some of the most powerful tools you possess are words.  Use them well.