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

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.   In Part II, I am going to address the importance of research, the jargon you must do away with, and the conclusion.

Remember, 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.


Conduct extensive research about the institution to which you are applying, so you are able to make the connections admissions directors are looking for.  Think about why the school in question is a strong choice, given where you are coming from and where you want to go.  You must get specific, but don’t over explain what the reader already knows or can figure out.  Admissions directors know a lot about their institution, so they don’t need a long list of classes or clubs you’ve regurgitated from their website.  They want to know why you are interested in specific activities and how you will be proactive in their community.  Talk to the school’s professors and career services professionals.  Visit the school and have lunch with current students.  In order to sound authentic, you must gain first-hand experiences investigating the program you claim to be so passionate about.

Get Rid of Jargon:

You want to sound like a confident leader, so don’t write like you’re not.  Good writing is concise and clear so it is best to avoid sentences cluttered with pompous jargon words like incentivize, alignment and criticality.  Readers identify with people, rather than concepts, especially if they are esoteric principles common only in the lives of chemical engineers or air force pilots.  Admissions directors don’t want to read about the measures being facilitated at the ground control station if there no human element or universal message that will move your candidacy forward.  If you are trying to explain a complex process, relate it to something we can all understand and remember, as Zinsser says, “A simple style does not reflect a simple mind.” 

The Strategic Communication:

As you begin to create your narrative, you will face the reality that an admissions essay is, indeed, a strategic communication, a piece that must communicate your leadership and innovation potential in a carefully crafted way.  The best place to start is a blank document with empty bullet points.  Think about your most meaningful experiences working in and managing teams, investigating and presenting innovative ideas that improved department efficiency or challenging the group consensus.  There are no word limits in brainstorming, so let your thoughts go.  Over time, you will be able to narrow your list to specific examples that demonstrate the high quality of your professional experience, poignant anecdotes that will serve your narrative well.  

The Conclusion:

Just as the lead’s objective is to push the reader into the paragraphs that follow, your conclusion should bring the reader back to a memorable moment in your opening sentences and, simultaneously, take them somewhere else.  A thought-provoking close will be remembered long after your file is off their desk.  As a former admissions director, I would read hundreds and hundreds of essays in any given year and, still to this day, I will never forget the gripping honesty in a conclusion written by a former officer in the military, regarding his account of a tragedy that took the lives of nearly half the men in his platoon.  Unafraid to admit his lack of heroism, his closing remarks about the harsh reality of war, left me stunned.  I realized then I could relate to and remember those applicants who were compelling and human, rather than those who tried to construct a perfect façade.

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.