Crafting your B-school application essays without losing your mind

BY Mary LowengardApril 24, 2021, 10:28 AM
Martin Laksman

Nothing strikes greater terror in business school applicants than the prospect of penning a 650-word piece of expository writing to “discuss your most important accomplishments to date.” Or to answer the question, “Why have you decided to apply to this MBA program?” Or to address that topic as wide and deep as the Pacific Ocean: “Give a brief, candid evaluation of yourself.”

These “Big Three” questions are what typically appear on business school applications. Generically, your answers boil down to what you have done, where you are going, and how you are going to get there. The wording may differ from school to school, but this is what they all want to know.

Business schools base their admissions decisions on a mosaic of college transcripts, GMAT and GRE scores, résumés, and recommendations. The essay is your chance to pull ahead of everyone else with similar qualifying credentials, differentiating yourself through your accomplishments, your goals, and your potential to lead.

Essays that range from specifics to the kitchen sink

Here’s an all too common scenario for many applicants: Sitting at their laptop and poised to punch out the perfect perambulation, somewhere in the journey from brain to fingertips, those great accomplishments suddenly pale. Why they chose this school seems frivolous, and the self-evaluation might benefit from consultation with a mental health specialist.

Suppose you believe you have a good shot at an elite business school and decide to apply to five of the perennial top 10. You are committing yourself to many hours of drafting, editing, polishing, and perfecting nine separate essays (one for each Harvard and MIT Sloan, Stanford and Wharton two each, and Columbia three). Plus, if you are superstitious or obsessive-compulsive—or a little of both—there are additional “optional” topics to opine upon for Wharton and Columbia.

Four of these five schools specify a maximum word count, a commandment, not an option. Harvard is the exception here, advising common sense—and adding a whole new layer of angst as you try to figure out how many words are too many and how many are too few.

Of course, while the questions posed overlap, they are never identical—such that might allow you to “leverage” your purple prose in its entirety, though grabbing good ideas and words may be possible. Do make sure if transferring exaltations of one school to the application of another, you double-check for mention of the first school, its location, or any other identifying characteristics.

What the A-list schools want to know

Harvard and MIT require a single one-and-done piece of writing. For Harvard, you are asked, “What more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program?” This is known as a “kitchen-sink question.” You have previously supplied everything but; now it’s time to throw that in, as well.

Your essay might discuss the qualities and experiences you have that distinguish you from others—or those that make you a better fit than any other candidate.

A shout-out to MIT. Sloan asks for an essay in the form of a 300-word cover letter, in standard business correspondence format (be sure to Google that), to accompany your application. How apropos is this? Sheer brilliance. It is also the only school that requires you to pitch yourself via a one-minute single-take unedited video clip.

For Wharton, you have 500 words to spend on…“What do you hope to gain professionally from the Wharton MBA?” And another 400 words to address…“How do you plan to make specific, meaningful contributions to the Wharton community?” Ask not what Wharton can do for you, but what you can do for Wharton.

Stanford applicants face a reductionist philosophical question of “What matters most to you, and why?” This is followed by, “Why Stanford?” The first question is your ticket to showcase what you’ve done and where you’re going, with the second a chance to discuss how you plan to build on your experiences and get there, thanks to Stanford.

It might be tricky to navigate redundancy, as clearly what matters most to many applicants is being accepted at Stanford, so the response to the first question already answers the second.

Columbia Business School’s first question is a pop quiz. It asks, “What is your immediate post-MBA professional goal?” in 50 characters maximum. (Given the brevity, this wasn’t counted as an “essay” among the numbers noted previously.)

Next, you are asked to articulate your career goals over the short and long term in 500 words. You will then need to answer the question of why Columbia is a good fit for you—in 250 words alone.

The final Columbia essay swerves away from the typical, asking you to name a favorite book, movie, or song and, in 250 words, explain why it resonates. Then there’s an optional kitchen-sink question, which need not be in formal essay format. There’s lots of space to pontificate, up to 500 words.

Heed this advice

Each school presents friendly advice, some of it mechanical, some paternalistic, and some cautionary—as in, “Don’t let anyone else write your essay.” Here is a mashup:

Be yourself, be introspective, be candid, be succinct. Don’t overthink, overcraft, or overwrite.

Give yourself enough time to reflect, write, and edit. Ask for feedback but don’t cross the line.

All writers, even professionals, know well the terror of facing down a blank page. For you, the applicant, the stakes are particularly high. Here are a few tips to help you put your best words forward, offered by someone who once upon a time addressed the three questions at the top of this article in a B-school application. She got in. And then wrote an article on business school application essays published in Fortune.

First and foremost, read the question, read the question, and then—read the question. Before, during, and after writing. Then go back and ask, “Did this answer the question?” If not, back to the drawing board.

Then, try this simple but powerful construct for lining up your thesis. What is the issue here? Why should anyone care about it (in particular, the school and its admissions officers)? How will you solve it?

You’ve been told this before, but here it is again: The best writing is not writing, it’s editing. Figure that out and you’re golden.

And last, sometimes you don’t ever finish, you just stop. But you’re not done until you’ve dropped your draft(s) into the Read Aloud feature in Word (or an equivalent). You will be shocked at the silly errors you find.

You’ve got this. Now go write your essays.