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The Ultimate Guide to MBA Application Essays

According to the Graduate Management Admissions Council 2014 Application Trends Survey Report, 61 percent of full-time, two-year MBA programs worldwide saw increased application volume in 2014. This is the second straight year that the majority of these programs have had either increasing or stable applicant numbers. For the 2014-15 school year, the 469 MBA programs that participated in the survey received approximately 225,000 applications.

In the battle for b-school enrollment, the MBA admissions essay can make or break you. It gives you the chance to introduce yourself to your top-choice business schools, add color to your list of accomplishments and work experiences, and stand out in a sea of applicants. It also serves as the foundation for the rest of your application because it will confirm your resume and letters of recommendation and come up in your interviews.

"Writing your admissions essay is possibly the most personal and important task you have had to date," says Stephanie Kinkaid, assistant director of the Wackerle Career and Leadership Program at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois. "The essay should follow the essay checklist of having a clear and interesting introduction, anecdotes and examples to clearly tie the prompt to your story, and a concise summary."

Since it's so vital to your admission to business school, you better get started. Here is a step-by-step guide on how to write a stellar MBA admissions essay:

1. Reflect on your past, present, and future

The first step in the writing process has little to do with writing. You should begin by thinking about what you've accomplished that is worth highlighting, what role you are playing now, and what you hope to do after you earn an MBA. You should take your time and really give thought to your wants and needs. You'll use these thoughts to formulate an outline for your essays. But they'll also help you validate your decision to pursue the MBA and to apply to the various business schools you've chosen.

"Typical MBA applicants will simply look at the essay question, answer it instinctually, and then spend time editing vocabulary and grammar," says Ryan Barba, an MBA admissions consultant, who has worked in admissions at a couple of top business schools. "Successful MBA applicants, in contrast, typically spend several hours, before even putting pen to paper, to reflect on their story and their points of differentiation -- key strengths, unique experiences, accomplishments, interesting passions, etc."

Ask yourself some personal questions that will guide you through the entire application process and not just the essays:

  • What motivated you to earn an MBA?
  • Why now?
  • Why are you applying to this specific business school?
  • What do you want to do after you earn the MBA?

Once you have the answers to these questions, you can start writing an outline. Make sure to list the points you want to make and anecdotes that will answer those questions. Before you ever started working on an application, you should have conducted hardcore research on the types of programs, different business schools, and possible careers and promotions that may result from earning an MBA.

2. Write a first draft

Free yourself from distractions for a few hours and sit down to do nothing but write. Have your outline handy, so you can follow it. But feel free to go off topic and write whatever is coming to mind, too. This is a first draft, which you'll look at with a critical eye and drastically change anyway. You want the best stuff to spill onto the page; if there's some garbage in there, too, you can always clean up the mess before turning it in.

Each school asks different essay questions and has its own unique culture. While you might want to include certain anecdotes and examples in every application, you need to write a unique essay for each program to which you are applying. There are two rules you must follow from the start:

  • Make sure you are answering the question you are being asked. One of the biggest gripes from admissions committees is that applicants veer off topic or never answer the question. "Business schools put effort into the questions they ask because they want to provide applicants with opportunities to illustrate qualities that make them great fits with their programs and community," says Peter Roberto, managing partner of Admit Success. In other words, forget about what you think they want to hear and directly answer the question in front of you.
  • Be steadfast about word count. Some schools will stop reading after you've reached the word limit it has set, says Barba. "If you can't adhere to the word limit, the admissions committee will be left to wonder whether (a) you couldn't write concisely enough, (b) you didn't notice the word limit and are thus not attentive to detail, or (c) you don't think rules apply to you," he adds. Cutting your words can be difficult -- and downright painful -- but you have to do it to prove you can be efficient in your writing and follow directions well.

Rebekah Lewin QuoteRebekah Lewin, Simon Business School

3. Don't have them asking, "Where's the beef?"

Forget about clichés, gimmicks, or waxing poetic about leadership. Even though you'll have to write a one-of-a-kind essay for every school, there are some general guidelines for any MBA application. "The committee will be interested in confirming that candidates have a good sense for what they want from a program, where they hope the MBA will lead them, and why its b-school is particularly well-suited to help attain their goals," says Rebekah Lewin, Assistant Dean of Admissions and Student Engagement at the University of Rochester's Simon Business School. "The admissions committee is also seeking candidates who will contribute the most in a classroom and team setting, as well as who will benefit most from its program."

Again, you will turn to those personal questions and start answering them in writing. You need to explain why you want to pursue an MBA and how you plan on using it. "Realistic and clearly defined plans are always a plus and help the committee understand your path," says Dalia Pineda, Director of Admissions and Recruitment for Graduate Professional Programs at the University of Houston's C.T. Bauer College of Business. "Even if you're not 100 percent sure what the path is, there should be some direction to what you plan to get from an MBA and how you'd be an asset to the program."

You'll want to give a meaty response. Wishy-washy won't cut it, which is why self-assessment and reflection before writing is so important. The clearer your plan is, the better case you will make for your admission to a program. Period.

4. Demonstrate you're a match

Applicants also need to demonstrate that they are a good fit for a particular program. This is where your prior research will come in handy. The best way to accomplish this is by visiting a campus and talking with students, faculty, and alumni. Even if you can't visit, you can attend business school fairs and talk to reps there or contact people online. Any firsthand examples that link you to the school in a positive way should be front and center in your essay.

If the school has an entrepreneurship program or student club and you want to start your own business, then you should connect the dots. For example, you might write, "I've helped launch three startups, one of which is in the black and on a hiring frenzy." Share an anecdote about that experience. Then point out, "I have many contacts, who have experienced both the failures and successes of entrepreneurship, and I'd call on them both for personal advice, job leads, and to speak to my classmates were I to join the program."

5. Be interesting

Of course, you want to stand out from the hundreds -- sometimes thousands -- of other applicants. "Imagine reading 25 to 40 applications in one day," says Stephanie Klein Wassink, principal at AdmissionsCheckup.com. "It gets boring. Engage the reader, make the reader like you. If you are going to tell me you have x, y, z qualities, tell me a story that proves it." Just be your un-boring self, and you'll be fine.

Dalia Pineda, C. T. Bauer College of Business Dalia Pineda Quote

6. Be honest

That's another thing -- be yourself. Too many applicants embellish stories or even write lies because they think that's what the admissions committees want to read. The truth is always better than fiction. Besides, if you get caught being dishonest you will never get into that school, and it will be a big stain on your credentials well into the future. "Dig deep," adds Kinkaid. "Your own story can be told with more conviction than one that is manufactured."

7. Do more

Be thoughtful about the examples and anecdotes that you share. You have to do more than brag about doing the basic requirements of your job. Generally, Roberto says he rejects the idea of tech guys sharing stories of resolving some software glitch or investment bank analysts completing a financial model or PowerPoint presentation because those are on par with their job requirements. "That said, within each of these examples there may be a compelling essay if the applicant can clearly illustrate he or she has gone above and beyond the assigned responsibilities or championed an unpopular idea," he adds. The lesson is that you have to do more than your job and be able to describe how much more you've done when you apply to business school.

Next, share your plans on how these work experiences combined with your MBA will help you achieve your goals. Be specific about what you want to do post MBA and explain how this particular program will help you get there.

8. Revise, revise, revise

Writing is a painstaking process. It takes time and revision. Be tough on yourself. Edit your piece until it is the right word count, engages the reader, and shows the school why it should accept you. Don't stop there. Have those who know you well read the essays, too. Make sure they know you're trying to be authentic, share your accomplishments, goals, potential contributions to the school, and what makes you a good match for that program. You might even have them guess the essay question after they've read it to make sure you're directly answering the question. Of course, don't make silly grammar and spelling errors or include the name of the wrong business school. After all, you want to show the schools that you pay attention to detail but also see the big picture and have the potential to be a brilliant leader.