MBA Application Writing Tips

What “They” Look For in Business School Essays

The great challenge of the business school application essays is how to discuss the themes that everyone else will be dealing with in a fresh way. Later sections of this guide will provide you with tips on how to make your essay stand out, but for now we will outline the key qualities and abilities you are expected to demonstrate.

As we will stress throughout, the essay is meant to convey the personal characteristics that the rest of your application cannot communicate. So we will preface our list with a warning about what not to include: anything that is fully covered by another part of the application. For example, do not tell the reader what your GPA was or list the awards that you won. Avoid simply listing your extracurricular activities. If you bring any of these issues up, you should have some significant insight to add that is not evident from another part of your application.

Sincerity

Believe it or not, admissions officers rank sincerity highest in importance, above any quality seemingly more specific to business. They ultimately just want to know about who you are, and in that sense, the best way to sell yourself is to be yourself. Don’t focus too heavily on what you think they want to see, at the expense of conveying your own message in your unique way.

“What I would love to have people do in preparing their essays is to do a great deal of self-assessment and reflection on their lives and on what’s important to them because the most important thing to us is to get a very candid and real sense of the person. I think people do themselves a real disservice if they think too much about what they think Harvard would like to hear or if they think about what might have been successful in the past in being admitted to Harvard.” — Harvard Business School

“My advice to the applicant is to be honest in your essays, lay it out, and be as specific as you can, but don’t try to second-guess what the admissions committee wants to hear.” — J. L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management (Northwestern University)

Sincerity is important to stress because it’s hard for most of us to achieve, despite the fact that it seems so simple. The pressures and anxieties of the situation have locked us into a mindset that prevents us from writing honestly. Further, because we are not used to writing about ourselves and being so close to the subject, we cannot assess the sincerity of our own writing. Thousands of students every year will read this same advice, whether in a guidebook or even in the application instructions themselves, and they simply cannot put it into practice. If you can be one of the few who truly understand what it means to be sincere, then you will already have separated yourself from the pack in one crucial way.

You might question how a reader who doesn’t know you can judge your statement’s sincerity. The basis for judgment usually lies in the context your reader has developed from reading hundreds or thousands of other essays. Assessing your essay against others is one essential area where EssayEdge can offer a more critical eye than your friends, relatives, or teachers who have not accumulated the expertise specific to the personal statement. Moreover, our perspective in reading your essay is just as objective as your admissions reader’s perspective will be.

Writing Ability

As with sincerity, you must focus on demonstrating solid writing ability before you even start worrying about the specific issues you will tackle.

“In general what we’re looking for are people who have well thought-out ideas, can express those ideas in an articulate, concise way, and can follow our directions (page limits).” — The Stern School of Business, New York University

“We’re also interested in how they write. The form of the essays can be important, as well as the content. How applicants handle the English language is important—the ability to articulate their thoughts in a clear and concise way.”— Yale School of Management

The reasons for this emphasis on good writing are evident enough. First is the important role that written communication skills will play throughout your career, in business even more so than in many other professions. Perhaps your strength is in oral communication, but until the interview, the essay is your only chance to demonstrate your communication skills and clarity of thought. Second, a well-written essay makes its points clearly and forcefully, so your content benefits as well.

Good writing means more than the ability to construct grammatical sentences. You also must create a coherent structure and ensure proper flow as the piece progresses. Because the process of developing ideas and putting them down on paper is so intimate and personal, all writers end up needing editors to assess the effectiveness of their product. You should consult people whose writing you respect for advice or even more hands-on help. Having been trained specifically in the nuances of admissions essay writing, EssayEdge editors are the best equipped to provide assistance in this crucial area.

Focus

Nearly every school has questions about your long-term goals and why you desire an MBA at this stage of your careeroften both are contained in a single prompt. Focus is another key attribute that only your essays can demonstrate, because it ultimately comes down to your ideas and plans rather than your past accomplishments. Of course, you should tie your goals in with your background wherever possible, and that’s why focus should be a quality that underlies all your essays instead of coming up only in one answer.

“We’re looking for students who show good self-awareness and a good sense of career awareness. We want students whose motivation for pursuing an MBA is clear, who seem to understand well what the Kellogg program offers, and who make rational arguments about why it’s a good match for them. Applicants need to convey strongly why they’re going to give up a job and spend the time and money to attend, and they need to be able to address where they’re headed post-MBA.” — J. L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management (Northwestern University)

“I think first and foremost we want to get some sense of the inside of an applicant’s head and in particular what it is that is prompting this person to pursue a graduate education in business—what has led them to this point, what they think the MBA will do for them in terms of their educational desires and objectives as well as their career goals.” — The University of Chicago Graduate School of Business

“We’re really looking for focus, for people who really do have a sense of where they’re headed. That’s very, very important! People who cannot fully define their short- and long-term goals (although they may not know the specific job) are probably not ready to apply to a business program. We need to know those goals to determine whether the applicants are realistic and whether Columbia is going to be able to help them reach those goals.” — Columbia Business School

As these quotations demonstrate, focus is something you achieve through self-reflection. You should perceive that as good news, because that means it’s something you have total control over even at the writing stage, unlike the set of past experiences on which you are able to draw.

Potential

Although past accomplishments say a lot about where you’re going, they don’t tell the whole story. Admissions officers look to the essays to find evidence of spark that reveals what you will have to offer in the long term, as a leader or innovator. They’re also looking to determine how you will contribute to the school community. Potential still needs to be closely linked to evidence, and so you cannot expect to succeed without valuable experiences. But how you interpret the evidence in writing can have a significant impact on how your readers judge this very subjective quality.

Character

Your readers will look for evidence of specific personal qualities to evaluate your potential as a student and business leader. There is no single list of useful qualities, and if there were, it would be foolish to try to duplicate that list in essay form. Depth is more important than breadth, and your readers are looking for a coherent picture rather than a list of buzzwords—hence this section’s title being “Character” rather than “Characteristics.” That said, the following quotation can give you an idea of how to get started in thinking about what characteristics are significant.

“We look for [potential for future leadership] in terms of certain personal qualities and characteristics that we care about. I’m referring to things like honesty, integrity, maturity, commitment to others, and motivation—some of the things that you might expect and then also some things maybe not so expected like self-awareness, self-esteem, empathy, willingness to take risks, willingness to deal with ambiguity. These are things that we think have helped our graduates and some other business leaders to be successful.” — Harvard Business School

In preparing to write, you should focus on what characteristics are your greatest strengths and focus on conveying those in a deep and meaningful way. Your readers are much more interested in learning about those than in seeing a longer list dealt with more superficially.

Personal Details

Personal details are the means through which you should convey your character strengths. Always aim for specific, personal statements rather than grand generalizations. Avoid citing characteristics without evidence and examples to back them up. Details are necessary not only to justify claims about your qualities, but also to make your perspective personal and well defined. Without the context that these details provide, your ideas cannot go beyond the generic and the superficial.

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