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MBA Admissions Insight: The Mindset of Your Essays

By Paul S. Bodine, Paul Bodine Admissions Consulting

Adopt the right mindset for your business school application essaysWhy do business schools use essays to evaluate MBA applicants?  Because, though it may sound odd, admissions officers want to let you in.

If you doubt that, consider the background of the typical admission committee member. Typically, she is an admissions careerist—that is, a higher education-sector professional with human-resource-oriented degrees who has worked her way up the admissions food chain, often at several schools. In other words, instead of a  statistician, demographic analyst, or business theorist, you’ll find a career development and educational administrator. Alternatively, you’ll encounter eclectic multi-careerists, for example attorneys, former opera singers, romance-language PhDs,  former ambassadorial assistants, marketing directors, venture capital partners, and management consultants (some with MBAs). You’ll find, in other words, “people persons” with polyglot interests who’ve made careers out of personal development and value finding a desire for personal development among applicants.

And here’s where the application essay comes in: Writing is really just a means of striking up a certain kind of personal relationship with the reader. Who you imagine that reader is will obviously affect what you say to him, and how. Too many applicants doom their essays from the start by assuming they’re addressing the educational equivalent of a parole board–humorless, ranking-obsessed statisticians sternly sifting your past for hints that you’ve departed from the true MBA way. The essays of dinged applicants often read like they were written for an audience of rubber-stamping, degree-issuing automatons or surly Dickensian gatekeepers waiting to pounce on signs of individuality. It’s true that admissions officers must deny eight or nine of every ten applicants, but, remembering that they are people persons, you must assume that they approach each applicant–you–with an open mind and the readiness to believe that your application is the one that will give them the rounded, diverse, interesting class they genuinely want. This is the reason why the essays of successful applicants are usually open sounding, relaxed, confident, optimistic; they know who they’re writing for.

Here’s another way to look at how the essay and admissions reader go together. Imagine you’re at a tony cocktail party where you find yourself competing with the best and brightest of your peers to make a lasting impression on your welcoming but overworked hosts. You’re all splendidly accomplished, well-rounded types, but you know your influential hosts are only likely to remember a handful of you when the evening’s done. When your moment comes would you collar them and begin reciting your promotions and academic feats?  Let’s hope not. You’d probably turn on the charm, complimenting them on their home, probing for areas of shared interest, telling a few of your choice stories, and generally captivating them with your engaging personality.

On one level, your B-school essays represent this same interpersonal challenge: how to put your best foot forward when your personal distinctiveness, not your resume, is what will separate you from the other super achievers vying for your B-school spot. If there are three applicant categories—the dings, the “doables,” and the dazzling—it’s in your essays that you can elevate yourself from the doable to the dazzling.

One of America’s most experienced admissions consultants (serving clients since 1997), Paul Bodine has helped hundreds of applicants worldwide gain admission to such elite business schools as Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Chicago, Kellogg, MIT Sloan, Columbia, Dartmouth (Tuck), Berkeley (Haas), Michigan, London Business School, INSEAD, Yale, NYU, Duke, Cornell, and Virginia, among many others. Click here for more information about Paul Bodine Admissions Consulting.