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Your Admissions Essays are a Portrait of You, at Your Best

Admissions committees hear a lot of sad, mournful violin music spilling out of the essays of applicants to graduate business school. Strains of epic-sized tragedy fill the pages of personal essays written by applicants, who all, at some point, (bring out the crashing cymbals and the horns) successfully overcame enormous challenges.

Please, folks, we've got to stop with these hackneyed stories. One admissions official has noted that in one year, multiple versions of the same lacrosse stick story arrived at his business school's admissions office. The story revolved around how the applicant gazed at his old lacrosse stick across the room, which spurred him to reflect on the value of teams, and how his grand memories of his lacrosse games helped him crystallize his MBA aspirations. We don't doubt that someone did experience such an entertaining epiphany, but too many other applicants borrowed the story, or adapted it to their own circumstances.

If you are tempted to scour the internet for essay ideas, you may need a primer on the purpose of business school essays. Your business school essays are essential statements of who you are, and it's your vehicle for transmitting the image to admissions committee members. An original, effective essay will help you stand out in committee members' minds. Your essay will show readers that you are an original, intelligent, and diligent human being, and convince decision makers that you are worthy of their full consideration.

Unfortunately, people who borrow ideas from others risk doing the exact opposite. They make themselves sound like a clone of a hundred other applicants in the admissions pool.

One of our admissions consultants, Kent Harrill, MBA, has told me he's grown weary of essays that revolve around applicants overcoming hardship. "It's one thing when the writer really did come through some kind of adversity to get to where she or he now is in life. But often, hardship essays don't amount to much, and they leave the impression that the writer is exploiting the hardship to get into business school." It winds up making them sound both unexceptional and whiny.

The personal goals people cite are also often clichéd and undeveloped. Harrill cautions against stating that you are pursuing an MBA because you want to run your own business, without supporting that goal with your ideas and plans. Harrill notes that "future business owners will want to provide information on the kind of business you want to run and why you think you can be successful with it, and how your MBA plans tie into this. Whatever your goal is in your post-MBA career, you will need to discuss why you are so committed to it, and how you plan to get there." If you cannot come up with a clear roadmap, it's likely that you haven't really investigated your stated goal and reflected on whether this is something you truly want to pursue.

For example, Harrill says, he's noticed "a lot of people giving their post-MBA goal as entry to a management rotation program." That's fine if the program really suits your interests. However, he suspects that "in many cases it's just that management rotation programs are something that people are talking about, and applicants think it's an acceptable goal to put on a business school application."

The bottom line is that MBA admissions committees are looking for leaders, not followers. A strong essay will require originality and depth. Sweating over this essential statement will be worth it, because the quality of your ideas, and the clarity in which you express them will help demonstrate your abilities to write and be persuasive. Your essay is your best chance to convince admissions officers that you have the leadership qualities they're looking for. That means looking like you, not like one of the herd.

Go ahead and read other people's essays if it inspires your creativity and spurs you to organize your thoughts. But when you start to write your essay, make sure that the words, the facts, the images, the reasoning, and the style are yours alone.

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