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15 tips to write an MBA essay

Updated: Feb 1

Writing MBA essays is really haphazard if you aren't sure about the content and its structure. You can go on and on without touching on all parts of the essay or write fancy essays that lack deeper insights without even realising it.

In this blog, I am adding 15 tips to bear in mind to maximise your chances of being accepted into a life-changing top MBA program such as Harvard Business School, Stanford GSB, Wharton, Columbia, Kellogg, INSEAD and London Business School.

  1. Start with brainstorming

  2. Map stories

  3. Structure essays

  4. Trade place with the adcom

  5. Remove flowery prose

  6. Be succinct

  7. Show, don't tell!

  8. Be action-oriented

  9. Avoid jargon

  10. Be specific

  11. Boast with humility

  12. Be original

  13. Accept your shortcomings

  14. Capitalise on unconventionality

  15. Detail your experience clearly

1. Start with brainstorming

Use this thought framework to identify stories from 3 distinct periods of your life: upbringing, undergrad and work experience. Then, brainstorm to find stories relevant to the 12 leadership traits that you can demonstrate from these times in your life. Finally, structure the examples using the trait, story, and analysis framework from our brainstorming blog.

2. Map stories

When you read the essay questions deeply, you’ll realise the character traits that business schools are looking for. Do this before trying to map stories and analysis to essay prompts.

Since your stories will demonstrate several traits, there may be certain distinct combinations that you can use. If you need help in mapping stories to questions, book a chat now.

3. Structure essays

A simple way to structure an MBA essay is to use this two-part 'Story+Analysis' method. Of course, plenty of other structures exist, but this is a good starting point if you struggle with writing.

Aim for two parts of roughly the same length, forcing you to keep the story brief and the analysis deep. This is deliberate because self-analysis is what the admissions committee is looking for in candidates.

Since it's likely that a single story will demonstrate several traits (leadership, weaknesses), a more accurate diagram of your essay structure might be as follows.

4. Trade places with the adcom

Understand the business school's perspective: They want to recruit passionate candidates who are invested in getting admitted to their business school. Candidates who have gone above and beyond to research and understand what their school offers.

The adcom is looking for candidates who have made a deliberate choice of school based on specific academic reasons such as coursework, teaching methodology, specialisation, professors and electives. Or specific extracurriculars such as clubs, societies, and tournaments. Or the choice has been guided by post-MBA recruitment opportunities.

Whichever you choose, the adcom wants candidates who have genuinely considered why they want an MBA, especially now, why at this school, and how this program fits their future plans.

So, step back from the essays and find answers to these questions objectively before you start writing.

5. Remove flowery prose

Nobody likes to read long, redundant paragraphs that don't add value. Especially when you're writing MBA essays, don't be too concerned about fancy words from the thesaurus.

Instead, structure your stories using the SCAR method: describe the situation at hand, the challenge you faced, the action you took and the result you achieved. Focus on the learning from this incident and how you implement it in the future.

6. Be succinct!

MBA application essays almost always have a word limit - typically 500 words. Cutting words out of an essay is one of the most stressful and unproductive parts of the application process. So, aim to minimise this.

Stay on point and try to communicate the same material without wasting any real estate. Aim to write early drafts that exceed the word limit by 50% max. This will force you to consciously evaluate what you're writing and how you could be more efficient in conveying your story.

7. Show, don't tell!

Rather than simply stating that you have certain traits, tell stories that demonstrate these.

Bad: I am passionate about voice recognition technology

Good: I was an early adopter of Amazon's Alexa technology

This technique allows the reader to live the story through the author's experiences - action, words, senses, feelings and thoughts, rather than through the author's exposition, description and summary.

Instead of summarising too much, convey your story in the first person, making it infinitely more interesting.

8. Be action-oriented

Business schools appreciate that you are an action-oriented person, especially in your professional life. So, if you've taken any initiatives during your undergrad or in your work experience, make sure that they shine on your profile.

Volunteering for projects, clubs, communities, societies, conferences, CSR activities are other ways to show your action-oriented approach.

9. Avoid jargon

Different industries have their own commonly used terms which will be part of your day-to-day language now. But remember that the people reading your essays may not have had exposure to your industry and may not understand those words that you use so casually.

A straightforward way to check this is to do the “HR test.” If HR can get it, then AdCom will get it too!

10. Be specific

The MBA admissions committee will spend around 15 minutes on each application. In a top business school, ~10-15 candidates are fighting for each spot. So you’ll be “dinged” if you don't leave a memorable impression. To stand out, be specific about your background, your experience so far, your reasons for pursuing an MBA, and your post-MBA goals. Specify your contributions to your organisation and use numbers to demonstrate the scale of your impact.

11. Boast with humility

Boasting about your unique strengths, personal and professional journey, unconventional stories, accomplishments naturally makes up a large part of your application. However, you mustn’t shy away from discussing your weaknesses and failures also.

Focus on the challenges you've faced, the path you’ve taken to overcome them, and the lessons you learned. Let the MBA admissions committee see your personality and character.

We hear plenty of stories of disgruntled MBA applicants receiving feedback in interviews that "your failure isn't big enough" or "that's not a real weakness" and asked to try again. Make sure that yours are serious and real, whether in essays or interviews.

12. Be original

Reading other people's work for a point of reference is different from borrowing an essay style, structure, language and filling in the blanks.

Come up with your own creative ideas and approach the essay to reflect your unique perspective and personality.

13. Accept your shortcomings

Closely linked to 11, it's tempting to disguise failures. But failures teach you far more than successes and build resilience. How you perceive failure will show them a lot more about your approach to challenges.

The ability to acknowledge your failures shows maturity, and maturity is a key leadership trait that business schools are looking for. Therefore, by accepting your shortcomings, you're showing your leadership potential.

14. Capitalise on unconventionality!

Business schools do not want to build an army of identical professionals. Therefore, while disclosing information about the class profiles, they outline the nationalities, educational and professional backgrounds, roles and levels of seniority and the ethnic and cultural backgrounds of their candidates.

So, if you've done something unconventional, don't hide it to fit the mould. Make it clear in your resume and write essays on the topic.

15. Detail your work experience clearly

Your work experience is a personal asset you bring to the class. It's essential to break down your role, responsibilities, and nature of work in the essays using concrete examples so the adcom properly understand what you do on a day-to-day basis.

Shed light on your skillset especially. Quantify the data subsets you've managed, and define the scale of your work in dollar terms. Outline the impact of the work you're doing. Discuss how your experiences will add value to the rest of your class and the relevance of this experience to the roles you're targeting post-MBA.

If you want to receive short snippets of MBA application wisdom, attentively crafted and carefully placed in your inbox, subscribe to our newsletter Sam Scribbles.

I help determined applicants get admitted to top MBA programs. So if you need help in essay writing, book a chat now.

1 Comment

Gen Ed
Gen Ed
Feb 07, 2022

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Hi, I'm Sam.  I'm the founder of Sam Weeks Consulting. Our clients get admitted to top MBA and EMBA programs.

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