A Well-Written Essay Can Give You the Edge
By DAN ROGERS
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
From The Wall Street Journal Online
Editor’s Note: One of the most important parts of the M.B.A. admissions process is the student essay. Yet many students hurt their chances by not putting enough effort into it. After all, this is perhaps the best ways to differentiate yourself from all the other students applying for admission.
Dan Rogers, who is now a first-year M.B.A. student at Harvard Business School, offers some advice on writing a winning essay. He graduated from Birmingham University in the U.K. with a first class honors degree in Economics and Political Science and subsequently worked as a strategy consultant for four years. Besides Harvard, he was accepted by a number of other major M.B.A. programs.
Every year, a collection of highly motivated young professionals from around the world battles for a place in a top business school. This year the competition was fiercer than ever. The pressure on professional service jobs, and the squeeze on the new economy, persuaded many previously unconvinced individuals that they too had to join the battle to win a place.
While this excess supply of talented candidates was great news for schools admissions offices, for the aspiring applicant it meant one thing: the difficult task of getting into a top business school just became all the more challenging. Applicants soon realized that they not only had to work harder at pulling together a dream application, but also that they had to be smarter at differentiating themselves.
When genius level GMAT scores are the norm and not the exception, the admission essay is the most vital differentiating component of the dossier. While there is no magic formula for writing a winning admissions essay, there is more science to the perfect essay than meets the eye.
The science begins by zooming your microscope outward, to understand why you are writing the essay in the first place. I like to think of the admissions officer as a shopper who is going to the supermarket to buy the best products. The essay is your chance to market yourself, to shout up to the shopper, "Hey, you up there, buy me."
The Sales Message
Marketing is a two-stage process; it is firstly about understanding the buyer’s values, and secondly about creating the sales messages to convince the buyer that his or her requirements will be met and surpassed. The sales messages of the perfect product not only pander to the shopper’s requirements, but also leave a unique and lasting brand message imprinted on the shopper’s mind. The successful applicant therefore has to thoroughly analyze both the school’s requirements and his or her own experiences.
Too many applicants assume that all the schools are looking for the same thing. This often leads to the applicant shouting the same sales messages to different buyers. For example, the message "I’m the guy who leads from the front" may resonate well with some schools. But it may just as easily repel the buyer listening for "I’m the guy who leads through collaboration." This slight change in emphasis can mean the difference between failure and success.
You need to find out what each school is looking for in the perfect candidate. You have to discover which elements of leadership, teamwork, entrepreneurial experience and management skill each school wants to hear about. Only by ascertaining what the school is after can you draw upon the relevant story from your own experience.
Getting to know the business school intimately is vital. If you can’t pay a visit to your list of business schools, then at least make sure you get to know them at M.B.A. fairs. You can also use your network to find either a current or former student who can shed light on the school’s unique features. For me this led to a number of embarrassing phone calls to people I had never met before. Discomfiture aside, the effort required to set up a five-minute conversation with these loose acquaintances was paid back in full. The alumni I spoke too, albeit complete strangers, were able to tell me what the school was really like and what they valued.
Think About Yourself
The other half of the equation is the process of introspection. I began by taking out a table-sized piece of paper and brainstorming until my eyes began to close. I challenged myself to think hard about a series of probing questions. What was it about my history that has brought me to this point? What makes me tick? In what way am I unique? What are my strengths? What events in my life have shaped me? What makes me a compelling candidate? How can I prove my leadership and teamwork skills?
Only when I felt comfortable that I had completely exhausted all my ideas did I show the tapestry to close relatives to ask them whether they could think of other things that make me interesting. To really get a sense of yourself, you may even have to go as far back as the age of four. Eventually you will have a long jumbled list of stories and ideas; these will become the fodder for the essay questions.
Now you are ready to bring both halves of the equation together. For each essay question you’ll have an idea of the values that the school wants to hear about, and a pool of stories about yourself from which to weave the perfect answer. For each question you should look for an opportunity to demonstrate what experiences you have been through that highlight you as a unique, compelling and relevant proposition. Don’t forget: the admissions officers haven’t been through the process of introspection with you, so you’ll need to hold their hand as you guide them through your answers. The best answers are easy to follow and resonate clearly.
As you get into the detail of the answers, remember to keep zooming the microscope outward to see whether you come across as unique, compelling and relevant. By looking at the entire collection of your answers, try to establish what overall message you are leaving. It is this holistic view that ultimately will be imprinted on the admissions officers’ brains.
Who Are You?
They’ll remember you as "the quick-witted consultant who climbed Everest," or "the high-tech whiz who supports local charities." Think about the kind of brand you want to leave behind. I gravitated toward being the "driven consultant who perpetually challenges himself mentally and physically." This wasn’t something I consciously created for the application; it’s what I am in a nutshell. As with the rest of the application process, this isn’t something you fake. While you can change emphasis, it would be foolish to pretend to be someone you are not.
The final part of writing admissions essays is to ask for help. Successful applicants have a whole team of people contributing to their success. They have Mum, Dad, girlfriends or drinking pals who are willing to act as sounding boards, spell checkers, and grammar editors. They have bosses, managers and school alumni who provide strategic overview, confirm their strengths and challenge their ideas. These other people have the detachment when you get too bogged down and can give clarity to your ideas. I have little doubt that my true differentiating factor was seeking the help of friends who were honest enough with me to tell me when my answers were unconvincing.
So there you have the science. Like all of science’s best potions the formula is simple: Understand why you are writing the essay, know your audience, know yourself, market yourself to your audience, create a simple and unique brand, call on the help of trusted advisers. The rest, I’m afraid, is down to luck.
— Mr. Rogers is a first-year student at Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Mass.