How Your Essays Drive The MBA Admissions Team Crazy

Often, when MBA admissions professionals get together, they talk about some of the crazy things they see in MBA applications. They don’t mention any names, and they maintain a professional level of confidentiality. But, at the end of those conversations, someone inevitably says, “I wish I could just tell applicants to stop doing THAT!” 

So, now that I’m no longer a Director of MBA Admissions, and I’m an MBA Admissions Consultant – working for the applicants, I find myself in the unique position of being able to communicate these MBA Admissions Committee “Pet Peeves” to MBA applicants. Consider this a good will gesture to all parties! 


1. Not Answering The Question 

This seems so simple, but is so often missed as a result of MBA applicants overthinking the MBA admissions process. You’ll see applicants saying things like, “Well, I know they are asking me to supposedly introduce myself to the class, but what do they REALLY want to know? Why are they REALLY asking this question? I think I need to include this annecdote in here because it’s really important for me that the committee knows this about me.” 

No, just no. Answer the question as it is asked. Answer the question in the context that is provided to you. 

One client I recently worked with wrote a beautiful essay about some things in his childhood that shaped the way he is today. It was touching and compelling. However, I had to convince him to set that aside. I vividly recall saying to him, “The question is “Introduce yourself to your future classmates at MBA Orientation. You are not going to dig into this emotional story when you are first introducing yourself to a large group of future colleagues!” 

Please, the MBA Admissions Committees are begging you … just answer the question. 

2. Using Poignant Quotes To Introduce (or Close) Your Essay

Whether it is quoting a famous writer (Robert Frost – “I took the path less traveled … “) or an influential business leader (Bill Gates once said … ), quotes are often used as a crutch at the beginning of an MBA essay to help the writer get started. I understand that. However, applicants rely too much on this as a tool. It actually takes away from your essay. You have a limited amount of space to say what you want to say. As a member of the MBA admissions committee, I want to hear what YOU have to say, not what Robert Frost had to say. 

3. Taking Generous Liberties With Font Size and Margins To Make It All Fit

I can’t begin to tell you how many essays (and resumes!) I’ve read that are submitted in a size 9 or 10 point font, with extremely wide margins and 1.5 line spacing instead of double-spaced as requested. This is why word limits are used in so many essay questions. Being able to communicate your thoughts with brevity and clarity is an important skill needed for future business leaders. How do you get there? Edit, edit, edit! You may have to cut out parts of the story that you really love, but stay within the limits given to show that you can play by the rules and communicate effectively. 

4. Being A Little Too Creative

Creativity in responding to the MBA essay questions is definitely a plus. It helps applications stand out from the crowd, and it is refreshing for the MBA Admissions Committee to read a different perspective when they have so many essays to read. 

However, there is a difference between being creative and being crazy. I once read an MBA application essay written about how the individual wanted to create a car-themed amusement park, where people could drive their cars onto the rides and both the person and the car could have a fun day together riding the rides. It was so unusual that I thought my staff was playing a prank on me. They were not. 

Another applicant wrote that he possessed all of the personality characteristics of Snow White’s Seven Dwarves (Dopey, Sneezy, Doc, … uh, I can’t remember the others). I can give him points for effort, but it was neither professional nor clever. 

It’s OK to be creative, but have someone read it for you to make sure your creativity doesn’t cross the line. 

5. Sloppy Proofreading

Oh, it happens all the time. You “recycle” the essay from another schools essays, and oops!, you forgot to remove the name of the competitor school from the essay. Cringe! Double check your homophones, too. What are homophones, you ask? They are words that sound the same, but are spelled differently and have different meanings. AND, they are not caught by spellcheck when you are reviewing the essay. 

6. Parroting The MBA Program Marketing Materials 

Funny thing about MBA marketing materials – the MBA Admissions Committee, especially if they are on the road conducting the recruiting, is very familiar with what is written in those materials. They are bringing back information to the marketing staff on what appeals to applicants, and they have to know where to find the information when providing answers to applicants. In my case, when I was the Director of MBA Admissions, my boss knew I was also a professional writer. So, I actually wrote the marketing materials. 

When applicants “borrow” (some would say “plagiarize”) the phrases and words from the brochures or website, the MBA Admissions Committee immediately recognizes this text. You must have your own words and your own reasons for wanting to attend a particular MBA program. And remember, the thesaurus is your friend! 

7. Sharing Stories That Aren’t Yours 

The very first time I read an applicant’s essay about a hike up a mountain with a group of friends, I was impressed with the story and the applicant. You see, one of the friends fell and hurt his ankle, and would not be able to make it to the summit of the mountain as the entire group had planned to do. The injured party urged the group to go on without him. “No!” replied the applicant. “We are a team and we planned to do this together and we will do this together! I will carry you on my back so that you, too, will reach the summit and enjoy the rewards of all of our team’s hard work.” How noble! What a great display of teamwork! Who wouldn’t want to be on a team with this inspiring individual! 

However, the second time I read this story, I was stunned, and felt certain I had been duped. 

The third time, the fourth time, the fifth time, and the sixth time (and many more since then), I knew that it was not possible for so many individuals to have this same experience. When I spoke with other MBA admissions colleagues, they had heard the same story in MBA essays, and also saw it multiple times. 

What a disappointment. MBA applicants who were otherwise solid candidates derailed their applications by using a story that wasn’t theirs. I never learned if the source of this story is a book on successful MBA essays, or a television show, or something else. 

What I do know, however, is that applicants should dig deep to share meaningful stories of true experiences to reveal who they are as an MBA candidate.

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