BORING: Mention how you’d like to be an “entrepreneur” or your “leadership experience” or your “passion for volunteering”. Be sure to talk about how you want to go to business school to start your own business. Better yet, make it a startup! Describe yourself as entrepreneurial. Then, set yourself apart by telling admissions officers that you’ve held many positions of leadership. Seal the deal by spinning that one time you dropped some clothes off at Goodwill into volunteering experience. Other winning essay topics include “I like helping people” and “I want to grow my career”.
BETTER: We’re not asking you to not use universal themes to tell your story to the admissions committee. Themes are a great way to frame the conversation. It’s the stories that make up these themes that make you unique. You’ve heard “show, don’t tell” a dozen times, and it’s especially crucial when an essay prompt is broad. If you want to mention “helping people”, be specific, speak to your motivations, discuss your roles in detail, and share lessons you’ve learned from your experience. If you talk about your great success growing revenue with your current employer, discuss how you achieved this and how you overcame challenges. Many future MBAs are leaders who like to help people, there’s only one that’s done it with your particular flair.
BORING: Have the same essay, resume, and letters of recommendation package for every school you’re applying to. So what if one school specializes in international business while the other has a heavy finance focus? You don’t have time to personalize and tailor your application material for each school, you’re trying to hammer out these pesky things over a weekend between house chores and watching football. Hey, you’re a great fit, they’ll see that, right?
BETTER: While a common application kiss of death is sending the “Why I want to go to Harvard Business School” essay to Columbia, a far more frequent application mistake is not customizing your application elements for each program you’re applying to. Applications take a long time, and you shouldn’t expect to cram them into a few days. If you’re applying to a school with a heavy emphasis on academic rigor and number crunching, highlight these strengths on your resume and in your essays. If you’re applying to a school with a focus on the greater good, emphasize your community service experience and your motivations to enter social enterprise.
BORING: Tell schools what you think they want to hear. Stanford’s located in Silicon Valley, surely they want to hear all about tech, or startups, or venture capital. Brandeis International Business School is a launchpad for their graduates’ global careers, tell them you like to travel.
BETTER: For better or worse, schools develop reputations and personas, some earned, some not, and applicants fall into the trap of trying so hard to fit in that they no longer stand out. Spend some time poring over employment statistics for graduates from your desired MBA program. What fields do they pursue post-graduation? Look at the school’s curriculum and mandatory classes to understand the scope and focus of the education you will receive. Then, it’s up to you to decide how you fit in and seem exceptional. It’s a delicate balance, and assumptions can leave your application out of the admit pile. Think of it this way: MIT Sloan’s two-year full-time MBA admits plenty of students with a background in engineering. This may lead you to believe that these are the candidates they’re interested in and that this is how you should frame your application. If you choose this route, you will end up as unremarkable: an engineer in a sea of engineers. Often, schools will tell you what they’re looking for in terms of personal qualities, not resume lines. Show admissions officers that it makes sense for you to study in their programs, then show them how you’ll be an all-star.
Admissions departments read hundreds and often thousands of applications from hundreds and thousands of bright, competent applicants. But admissions officers are human, and they want to feel engaged and committed to the students they choose to admit. Don’t put them to sleep, get them excited about you!
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