Posted on December 19, 2014

MBA Application Essays- 8 Common Mistakes You Can Avoid

The application season for B-school application is on, and  Round 2 deadlines are only three weeks away. Some of the Round 1 applicants have already received the coveted admit offer from their dream school, some of them have received rejects,  some of them have been wait-listed, while some of them will be receiving the final outcome of their applications this week. For those of you whose applications were declined in Round 1, and those of you who will be applying in Round - 2  for the first time, here are some simple but useful tips that can help you create strong essays.

When working with the B-school applicants on their application essays in the past four years, I have come across some common mistakes which, I believe, can be easily avoided with careful thought and preparation.

1. Insufficient Time:

We have always enforced that application essays are the most critical part of an MBA application package, yet some candidates approach them casually and begin writing them a couple of days before the deadline.  Some applicants approached me a week before the deadline; this obviously did 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.  Writing an admission essay is a creative and time -consuming process during which you need to go through multiple stages of the writing process (brainstorming, writing, revising, editing, and re-editing) in order to achieve perfection.   You may find it extremely challenging to produce quality work during that short period, if you are at work for long hours and work on your essays only at night when you are already exhausted from work. However, 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. Lack of Stories/real-life experiences:

A major issue with most admission essays is– lack of stories or examples from real life.  Some applicants just expand their resumes 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.

I have always insisted that the beginning of an essay should be engaging enough to hook the readers and make them want to continue reading your essay.  For example, most applicants begin their Goals essay somewhat like this:

“My career interest is in blending analytical thinking with business acumen to solve challenging problems.”

Beginning your essay like this is a killer and will fail to make an impression.  However, you will hook the reader into your story if you weave your life story around your goals as shown in the example below:

I grew up helping my dad, an Electronics engineer, repair television, radios, and anything that needed to be fixed around the house, as I was naturally drawn to applying analytical knowledge to solve problems.”

Also, 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.  Do not assume the reader (in this case Ad Com) to understand/ know what has not been relayed to them.  One of the applicants I recently worked on her R-1 applications apprised me of the most significant detail of her ‘teamwork challenge’ story during the final stages of the review process, and that too casually in an e-mail in response to my question.  When I incorporated that information in the essay, it enhanced the overall impact of the story, making it more effective and powerful.  Hence I would recommend that you share with your consultant all the minute details of your story, so your stories can be developed into impactful essays.

3. 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/ the 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.

To cite another example, let’s take a look at the first job essay question of INSEAD.

“Briefly summarize your current (or most recent) job, including the nature of work, major responsibilities, and where relevant, employees under your supervision, size of the budget, clients/products and results achieved. (350 words maximum)”

This job essay question does not require you to share your accomplishment story at your current job, the challenges you faced, and the actions you took to achieve the desired results. (one of the applicants I worked with made exactly the same mistake in his first draft). Please note that the essay prompt requests a snapshot of your career at present. Keeping in mind that this will be the Ad Com’s introduction to your materials, you might also provide the reader the context necessary to understand your place within the organizational structure and the work that occupies your days. I would encourage you to stay focused on the details of your present job and avoid drifting away to your greatest achievements. You will get an opportunity to do that in Motivation Essay question #2.

4. Lack of adequate Structure/ organization of the essay:

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.

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 example, let’s take a look at the following essay question:

“Briefly assess your career progress to date. Elaborate on your future career plans and your motivation for pursuing an MBA at the Kellogg School of Management” (500-750 words).

In order to make sure that you address both sections effectively, you may break it down into two parts, and then describe the first part (your career progression) in approximately 300-350 words and the second part (your future career plans, and your motivation for pursuing an MBA at Kellogg) in approximately about 350-400 words.

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 Admission committee 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.

Let’s look at some examples to understand how specific details can turn around an essay.

Not So Good Example:

"My family is unique because my parents are spiritual leaders to point me the way to victory. My parents were growing in a poor family. They did not have enough resources to chase their dreams. Furthermore, the most important investment is that they made countless sacrifices to foster my growth."

The above para fails to resonate with the reader because it does not provide any specifics about the place (country, city) where the writer lived with his family and why they lacked resources.

Now compare it with the revised version:

Good Example:

Growing up in Shanghai, China, I have seen my parents working double shifts to provide me a better living. I am the only child of my parents. My parents grew up in poor families, so they did not have enough resources to afford a college education. However, they made countless sacrifices to foster my growth and build a good life for them and for me.

Be as specific about your goals as you can. Remember some applications are rejected because of a lack of clarity about their career aspirations.

6. Grammar and Sentence Structure Errors:

Some applicants compose exceptionally lengthy sentences stretching 4-5 lines, while some compose awkwardly phrased and grammatically incorrect sentences.  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.  I would recommend that you convey your message effectively in a clear, concise, and simple language that is easy to understand.

And please pay attention to your ‘articles’. The most common error I have noticed is- missing articles (‘the’, a and ‘an’)

Example: ‘I aligned my team and generated the first two test files from test server…

In the above sentence article ‘the’ is missing in two places.  The correct sentence is

“I aligned my team and generated the first two test files from the test server.”

7. Inability to adhere to word limit:

Undoubtedly, following stringent word limits is an arduous task and often becomes one of the biggest challenges for almost all applicants.  They find it hard to figure out how to prune their writing and end up producing 700 words essay when the required word limit is 400 words.  The Schools provide you a specific word limit for a reason; they expect you to adhere to it.  So try to follow the principle of ‘less is more’ and be as precise as you can.

8. 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, most applicants inadvertently provide lengthy technical details which are comprehensible to their industry people only.  In their enthusiasm to provide all the technical details of their experience, they often omit relevant information (e.g. ‘What were the main challenges?’ or ‘How was the experience meaningful?’ etc.)  The use of excessive jargon not only makes it hard for the reader to comprehend your story but also distracts them from the ‘real story’.  Therefore, I always advise my clients to use only as much jargon in their essays as is required to convey their story.


To sum up, some of the common mistakes that the MBA applicants should avoid are an insufficient time for writing essays, lack of real-life examples and specific details to answer essay questions, failure to comprehend the intent of the essay prompt, lack of coherent structure, the omission of 1-2 parts of the essay question, sentence structure errors, exceeding the allowed word limit, and use of excessive jargon.

I am confident that by avoiding these common errors and following a structured approach, you can transform your stories into memorable essays that will help you secure admission to your chosen school.

Good luck with your Round  2  applications.

For more MBA articles, visit my myEssayReview blog.

For questions, email me at

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