Posted on May 8, 2013

Mistakes You Should Avoid in Your Application Essays

Well, the application season is over, and all the applicants I worked with (except one) have submitted their applications for R- 3 as well. I think now it’s time to reflect on the common mistakes I have noticed when working with the applicants on their essays.

Below are some of the common mistakes I came across.

1. Insufficient Time:

We have always enforced that application essays are the most critical part of the 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 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-3 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.

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

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 us take a look at Kellogg’s essay #1 “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 them 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.

Also, sometimes applicants inadvertently skip one or two parts of the essay prompt. For example, question no. 4 in the Personal Statement of MiF LBS has 5 parts, and it is likely that the applicant may skip 1-2 parts of it.  In order to avoid that, you may number all the parts of the question and then address them one by one. After making sure that you have satisfactorily answered all the questions, you can always delete the numbers and restructure your responses in a paragraph format.

5. Hiring someone else to WRITE your essays:

As suggested in the beginning, you should give yourself enough time to create stellar essays.  Essay writing for B-schools is a time-consuming process and you will thank yourself later if you start this process on time. I always tell my clients that if they are planning on applying to 4-5 schools, set aside 5-6 weeks for the whole process.  Planning ahead and giving yourself sufficient time will not only help you produce memorable essays that project your candidacy in the best light but will also prevent you from making that disastrous choice of thinking of hiring someone else for this job. One of the applicants I worked with during R -3 had signed up with me on time, but he sometimes failed to e-mail his updated essay drafts on time because of his long work hours.  Unfortunately, he got sick four days before the application deadline and in panic, he came up with the idea of hiring a professional writer for his ‘dinner party essay’ for Georgia Tech. He e-mailed me asking about my thoughts on his decision. I immediately called him to make him understand that no one else except he himself could create this essay (or for that matter any other essay) for him because it was about his views, his ideology, and his perspective, so no professional writer or admission consultant could do it for him. I then provided him ideas, pointers, and guidelines to help understand what the school was looking for through this essay question. I told him that he was the author of his life, and only he could talk about people who had inspired or influenced him. Convinced, he worked on his essay as and when he got some respite from his fever.  I quickly sent him my edits, and he was able to submit his application on time.

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 get a couple of minutes to go through your essay, and you do not 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 a ‘leadership’ essay, ‘setback’ essay, ‘goals’ essay, ‘ethical dilemma’, or even a ‘background’ essay, most applicants inadvertently provide lengthy technical details that 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 to revise and edit essays, lack of real-life examples to answer essay questions, failure to comprehend the intent of the essay prompt and structure the essay well, the omission of 1-2 parts of the essay question, sentence structure errors, exceeding the allowed word limit, and use of excessive jargon. Lastly, and most importantly, please do not ever ‘pay’ anyone to ‘write’ admission essays for you.

Good luck with your application.

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