Essays are the most critical part of the application package for business schools that showcase those aspects of the applicants’ profile which other parts of their application package do not reveal. B-schools use essays as tools to know their prospective candidates outside of the typical academic and professional environment. When working with the B-school applicants on their application essays in the past five years, I have come across the following common mistakes which, I believe, can be easily avoided with careful thought and preparation.
1. Insufficient Time
Year after year, I have noticed that some applicants do not give themselves enough time for drafting their essays and begin writing them a couple of weeks (some of them even a couple of days) before the deadline. Assuming that their high GPA, great GMAT score, and strong work experience is all they require for entry into their dream B-School, they spend months in preparing for GMAT and leave essays to the last minute. Some applicants approach me a week before the deadline which obviously does not leave them with enough time to strategize and think through their stories/ experiences. Working towards tight deadlines puts unnecessary pressure on the applicants (as well as the consultant who works with them) which can be easily avoided if they engage with an expert early in the application process. You may find it extremely challenging to produce quality work within tight deadlines, if you are at work for long hours and write/ revise your essays only at night when you are already exhausted from work.
Application essay writing is an extremely time- consuming and creative process that demands a lot of self-reflection, brainstorming, strategizing, drafting, revising rewriting, rewriting, and editing on the part of the applicants to enable them to paint a unique, compelling, and authentic picture of their candidacy to the Ad Com. If you plan ahead and start on time, you will enjoy this process of reflecting on your experiences and translating them into memorable stories for the Ad. Com.
2. Failure to Comprehend the Essay Prompt
When writing essays, some applicants do not go deep into the essay prompt to comprehend its intent. As a result, the essay goes off track and completely lacks the underlying theme/ main point of the essay. For example, if the question is about the contribution to the XYZ School, you do not want to discuss your reasons for choosing that particular B-school. They are not asking you about their particular resources that interest you; rather they want to know in what ways they would benefit by accepting you. Thus, you need to think through the essay prompt and dig deeper before you begin to answer the question.
While elaborating what value you will add to your target school, make sure you connect your skill-set, your professional (e.g. professionalism, leadership potential, team working experience, and innovative ideas), and personal attributes (e.g. integrity, accountability, humorous disposition, etc.), and experience to the specific activities and resources (clubs, organizations, team groups, etc.) of your target school. (For example, click here- Comprehend the Essay Prompt.
3. Lack of Stories/ real-life experiences
A major issue with most admission essays is the lack of stories or examples from real life. Some applicants just expand their résumé and rewrite them in a language filled with technical jargon assuming everyone would comprehend them, while some others compose an objective statement of purpose somewhat like a newspaper article that completely fails to tell the reader who they are.
When brainstorming details for your story, please make sure that you have included all the relevant details with a beginning, middle, and end that would make complete sense to the reader. Please note that the beginning of an essay should be engaging enough to hook the readers and make them want to continue reading your essay. Many a time, my students apprise me of the most significant detail of their story during the final stages of the review process because they assume it’s not important. Do not assume that the readers (in this case Ad Com) will understand/ what has not been relayed to them. Please make sure to connect all the dots of your story to make it comprehensible and appealing to the admission committee.
4. Inadequate Structure/ Organization
In order to make a lasting impact on the reader, you should make sure to explain each logical step of your story without leaving any loose ends. Remember, the purpose of an admission essay is to provide the Ad Com an understanding of your professional and personal experiences/ accomplishments to help them determine if you are a good fit for that particular school or not. Strong and memorable essays tell stories with a clear beginning, middle, and end that make complete sense to the reader. You are the author of your story, so in order to make a lasting impact on the reader, you should make sure to explain each logical step of your story without leaving any loose ends. Remember, you are not writing a suspense story that would force the reader to make speculations about the details. You are writing an admission essay and its purpose is to provide the Ad Com an understanding of your professional and personal experiences/ accomplishments to help them determine if you are a good fit for that particular school or not. Your goal should be to present your story in a succinct and concise manner so it sticks in the mind of the reader.
I always recommend that you should pay equal attention to all aspects of the essay question. In order to answer the essay question holistically, you may break it down into multiple sub-segments and then build a structure around each sub-segment. Some applicants go at length in addressing the first part of the essay question, leaving the other parts unanswered or unbelievably brief.
For more guidance on organizing your story, please refer to the links below.
5. Lack of Specific Details
One of the most common pitfalls of Admission essays is the writers’ inability to use specific examples or details and share stories that are filled with vague generalities. To be able to make sense of your story and appreciate it as well, the reader needs to know the specifics of your story. Please note that the members of the Ad Com have to read hundreds of essays for evaluating the candidacy of their prospective students, so if you want your stories to ‘stick’ in their minds, your writing needs to be succinct, articulate, and specific. By providing specific examples/details about ‘what’ ‘why ‘where’ and ‘when’ of your experience and by sharing your thought process at that time, you can turn your stories into memorable essays.
6. Use of Jargon
It has been a common experience for me to review essays filled with technical terms of the applicant’s industry. Whether it is ‘leadership’ essay, ‘setback’ essay, ‘goals’ essay, ‘ethical dilemma’, or even ‘background’ essay, some applicants inadvertently provide lengthy technical details that are comprehensible only to their industry people. In their enthusiasm to showcase their technical expertise, they often omit relevant information (e.g. ‘What were the main challenges?’ ‘How did they deal with the situation?’ or ‘How was the experience meaningful?’ etc.) The use of excessive jargon makes it challenging for the readers to comprehend your story and distracts them from the ‘real story’. In order to create effective essays, you should aim at using only as much jargon as is required to convey your story.
7. Use of Passive Voice
When narrating your personal and professional stories, make sure to be personal. Your experiences and accomplishments, irrespective of how impressive they are, will fail to make an impression on the reader if they are written in the passive voice. I often come across essays composed in flawless English, but they still don’t succeed in making the desired impact on the reader. The lack of personal touch in those stories gives an impression as if these stories are referring to someone else and not to the candidates themselves.
Please remember that your stories of goals, accomplishments, challenges, cultural experience, background, setback, leadership, etc. need to be made personal. By using passive voice, you will make your own stories so impersonal and lifeless that they will not only weaken your message but also turn your heroic accomplishments into lackluster ones.
8. Writing Quotations
When writing admission essays, most applicants tend to use quotes of famous and distinguished people (leaders, philosophers, and scientists, etc.) who have made a positive impact on the lives of future generations. It is a general perception that using quotations of eminent personalities is a powerful way to impress the readers. I, however, do not recommend using precious words to quote someone else. These essay questions about your goals, accomplishments, leadership experiences, cultural experience, background, setback, and life experiences are designed to evaluate YOU to determine your ‘fit’ with the school, so using someone else’s words, no matter how eminent that person is or was, is often a waste of valuable words, and not a value addition.
9. Too many sentences starting with the word ‘I’
One of the most common mistakes I have noticed in essays is beginning too many sentences with the word “I.” Even though these application essays are about you, you should not have more than two sentences in a paragraph beginning with ‘I’. You can very well provide the same details and convey the same message by phrasing your sentences in a different way. In order to bring variety to your writing, try to compose a mix of simple, compound, and complex sentences. Sentence variety helps make your essay strong and compelling.
10. Grammar, sentence structure, and punctuation errors
The most common mistakes I have noticed in essays are– missing articles, lack of parallelism, sentence fragments, and misplaced modifiers. Please note that the last step in writing is to proofread your essay for sentence structure, punctuation, grammar, and spelling errors. If neglected, these errors are a poor reflection on your candidacy and can jeopardize your chances of admission despite your great GMAT score, good GPA, and impressive work experience. Also, to make your story more comprehensible, avoid writing extremely lengthy sentences stretching 4-5 lines. Please note that writing extraordinarily bulky sentences is not evidence of good English. The Ad. Com. only gets a couple of minutes to go through your essay, and you don’t want them to get entangled in the maze of your intricate sentences. Your goal should be to convey your message effectively in a clear, concise, and simple language that is easy to understand. (For examples, click here)
For proofreading tips for non-natives click here
To sum up, creating compelling and persuasive MBA admission essays is a skill that can be acquired with careful thought and preparation. The essence of writing is rewriting. Following the above-mentioned guidelines, you must revise your essays multiple times to ensure that all the pieces of your story fit together, and then proofread them for any grammar, punctuation, or spelling errors. I am confident that by following this structured approach, you will transform your stories into memorable essays that will help you secure admission to your chosen school.
Good luck with your Round 1 applications.