How to Write Your MBA Essays

After your GMAT score, the application essays are the most important element of your candidacy. Yet most applicants don't know what to write about.

The essays are a branding tool. Through them you'll convey both your professional expertise and your personal values. You will also choose a career goal and distinguish yourself from other applicants who might seem to have similar qualifications and objectives. That's not an easy task.

Keep in mind as you read through the seven evaluation items that their ranking applies only to top-tier MBA programs. Less competitive schools have entirely different motivations behind their admissions decisions.

Why Most Applicants Fail

Most applicants to top-tier schools are rejected because they do a poor job with the essays. They fail to adequately explain their work history or to articulate a clear and compelling vision of their future. They don't understand how an admissions staff assembles an MBA class or how to pitch their candidacy to meet the staff's needs. That, of course, is no easy task, but with patience—and a little guidance—it can be done.

A good starting point is our MBA Essay Tutorial below. It's far from comprehensive, but it sheds some light on the essay development process and it might help you avoid the most common mistakes.

MBA Essay Tips: Formats and Word Limits

(1) Use Headings

Because every MBA essay question is really three or four questions combined, it's a good idea to use headings that add structure to your writing and help you stay focused on the question being asked. Headings also make it easier for the reader to follow your story.

The most common (and most important) MBA essay you'll write is the one that asks about career goals. It's usually combined with a question asking why you need an MBA and another asking why you need an MBA from that particular school. The basic strategy is to write something like the following three headings before attempting to respond to the questions:

Career Goals Why an MBA? Why This School?

Under each heading you should write a rough outline of your response. Don't worry about style, just get some ideas on paper. Then try to link your responses together into a single coherent essay. (And notice that with the headings, you don't need a transition from one topic to the next.)

(2) Answer the Essay Question Being Asked!

Believe it or not, most applicants fail to answer the question being asked. A question might ask about professional accomplishments, and the applicant will respond with an essay about a spelling bee he won in the third grade! I see it all the time (and so do admissions officers).

That's why the headings are so important. I use them to restrict writers to the topic at hand. By limiting the writer to a direct response to a direct question I have a better chance of keeping him on topic. Without that structure most writers stray from the topic after just a few sentences. The problem is particularly noticeable on the Stanford essays because Stanford has the longest essays of any of the schools. (And, ironically, Harvard has the shortest.)

(3) Writing Style and Voice

MBA application essays are the dead verb graveyards of the English language. Most of the essays I see are stiff, passive, and unnecessarily formal because applicants choose to use passive verb constructions. The voicing makes me wonder about the applicant's personality. (Do I really want to sit next to this guy for the next two years? Is he going to be able to interact effectively with his classmates? What kind of dork would write like this?)

Loosen up. It's okay to substitute "it's" for "it is" and "I'm" for "I am." Some contractions, however, are too informal and should probably be avoided. For instance, I would try not to use the contraction "you'll" in an application essay. It's too informal.

Don't be too stiff, but at the same time, don't get too loose. You don't want to be caught talking about your "posse" or what a "fossilized old goat" you think Peter Drucker is. The voice you use in your essays should sound professional but a little informal. The informality conveys a sense of confidence, which is critically important in an MBA application. Try to imagine the voice you would use if you were interviewing at the school.

You also don't want to sound chatty or use a lot of slang. Admissions officers will think twice about any applicant who describes his school as "bitchin" or who stoops to "Valley Talk." ("I'm totally excited about coming to Wharton." Don't laugh, I've encountered this voice many times in application essays.)

(4) Word Limits & the Optional Essay

Most schools are serious about their assigned essay lengths. You can exceed the limits by 50 words or so, but 100 words is pushing it. That's especially true at Harvard, where the essays are very short. And now that virtually all applications are submitted online, some schools include forced cutoffs once the word limit has been reached.

Also, writing a long diatribe for the optional essay (which usually goes something like, "Tell us anything else you think we should know") is a sure way to upset your reader. I've heard a dozen admissions directors asked about the optional essay, and every one of them said the same thing: "Don't use it unless you have to. And if you have to, then be brief."

The optional essay is not a forum for you to unload all of your insecurities about applying to B-school. ("I'm sorry for my grades in college, but I was on drugs a lot and didn't know what I was doing.") Use it only to explain something that's important but that wasn't addressed elsewhere in the application.

And the optional essay doesn't have to be about something negative (though it usually is). If you are going to use it to explain sub-par grades, don't whine or make excuses. Tell your story and then shut up.

Even if your optional essay is going to be about something good, don't ramble on. Be concise and to-the-point.

(5) "Kitchen Sinking"

This is a common practice. Applicants hope to "hit" on a secret trigger topic that the admissions people are looking for — those special buzzwords that will throw open the gates of Stanford.

There is no such thing as a trigger topic, and by throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, you dilute the force of your essay. Rather than a well focused discourse that addresses two or possibly three important themes, the kitchen-sinker produces a rambling laundry list of unrelated issues that make no lasting impression on the reader.

Choose one or two topics to address in each essay and stick to them. The reader has hundreds of essays to get through, so try to give him only a few simple themes to remember about you.

(6) Brevity

After you have written an essay, see how many words you can edit out of it. That's the only way to make an overweight and ineffective essay crisp, focused and clear.

(7) Content, Not Grammar

Remember, MBA essays are more about what you say than how you say it. (That's why we work so hard on our applicants' strategies.) So think hard about what you can offer a business school before sitting down to write your essays.

(8) Specific Details, Not Generic Drivel

The bulk of our work with applicants involves prying specific details out of them about their work and their personal motivations. Those details, and even the topics an applicant chooses to write about, provide a great deal of insight into his character. So we work hard to get a story we like out of applicants before we think about how to write it.

If you're a consultant at a top management firm or an investment banker, for instance, don't tell me about the standard stuff that you and all of your colleagues do. I know all about that. Talk about the specific assignments you have worked on and what you did in those assignments. And hit the hot topics. If you worked overseas, talk about that. (B-schools love international experience.) If you worked in a tech area, be sure to mention the assignment. If you were involved in a high profile project that garnered a lot of media attention, be sure to mention it.

(9) Miscellaneous Suggestions

1. If you speak a second language, say so in your essays. Don't bury that talent in the application paperwork and ignore it elsewhere. Admissions people may not always see it in the paperwork, and even if they do, they might not put it into the context of your career goals. Speaking a second language is a significant advantage when applying, so be sure to bring it up at least once in your essays.

2. Don't spell the word "Kellogg" with only one "g." (You'd be surprised how many people do.)

3. Don't quote inane facts about the school back to the admissions committee. "Nearly one third of the students at Darden were born outside the United States." The reader knows how many international students he has at his school.

4. And especially don't quote a school's mission statement back to the admissions people. They know their own mission statements. In fact, don't quote anything from the website. The admissions people wrote the website and don't need you parroting their work back to them.

5. Don't use the expression, "thinking outside the box" in your essays. I see it constantly, and so do the admissions officers. I'm sick of it. Don't use it. Ever.

6. Don't use vague terminology and obscure industry jargon to describe the work you do: "We're a value-added services provider for mid-cap multinationals looking to penetrate third sector foreign markets." WTF?

7. The problem with throwing jargon at an admissions officer is that he has never done your job and doesn't understand the jargon any better than you did before getting hired. Very few admissions officers have MBA's, so go easy on the jargon.

8. Don't make excuses for screw-ups. Take responsibility for your mistakes. Doing so is a sign of maturity that admissions officers will admire.