AN INTERVIEW with an ADMISSIONS OFFICER
Although different schools attach different levels of importance to the application essays, and although each school may be looking for a slightly different type of student, admissions officers have surprisingly similar desires. They want brevity. They want sincerity. They want mature enthusiasm. And a little humor–when it’s truly humorous–doesn’t hurt.
But as we perused the application questions and tried to compose our own answers, we found ourselves asking a number of questions. How “business-like” should we be? How much can we joke around? Can we relax and be the readers’ chum, or should we treat them like clients? Should we tell them what they want to hear, or should we be totally honest, even at the risk of being boring?
We asked these and other questions to dozens of admissions officers at almost every major business school in the country. The following is a condensed version of those interviews:
What’s the difference between application essays for business school and the essays we wrote to get into college?
The main difference is the way the author presents himself. What we ask of a college graduate is much more difficult than what colleges ask of a high school senior. And it should be. We don’t want applicants to simply give a self-absorbed description of themselves, like they did for their college application. Rather, we want them to describe the world they see around them, and their place in it. An analogy we like to use around here is that with the essay, a student fashions a lens for us to view the world. From looking at the quality of that lens, we hope to judge the quality of its maker.
When we finish an essay, we expect to have learned something about the applicant and an industry or management or business. If an applicant has worked in a steel plant, for example, it should be interesting to see his understanding of the problems in the indus- try. What kind of management problems has he observed, and how would he change things? You can’t expect that type of analysis from undergraduates.
We also expect more maturity for business school. That’s partly a function of age–we’re often dealing with people in their late 20’s or 30’s–but it’s also an issue of direction. Undergraduates are coming to school to explore. It’s hard to justify giving one of a few MBA spots to someone who is not pretty committed to a business career.
Do you want a description of a person or just his accomplishments?
We want an essay that brings the whole set of numbers into a coherent form. We want inconsistencies explained, and we want to see diverse activities as different facets of a single personality. We’d like to be able to say, “Oh, he did that, yeah, that makes sense. That fits with what we have.” Both the performer and his track record should be discussed, so that we can know the person underneath all the accomplishments, and also how those activities affected that person.
An applicant could discuss, for example, how his jobs at a computer firm and at a wholesale food distributor will help him make grocery stores more efficient. Or how working in a defense firm led him to see the need for military procurement reforms.
Are there any hackneyed topics that applicants should avoid?
I would be lying if I said we dive enthusiastically into the drama of every investment banker’s grueling program, but most of our questions are very personalized and no two people have exactly the same experience. Since we ask fairly specific questions, most answers are in the same vein, but we still get a good mix of ideas.
The similarity in topics is not what makes essays dull–and most of them certainly are. It’s the monotonous style. Applicants tend to use too many big words and amorphous adjectives and not enough colorful details and observations.
If reading thousands of these essays is so boring, would you prefer that applicants try to entertain you?
First off, let me say that gimmicks do not work. This year we got an essay written in crayon on construction paper. It really hurt the applicant because it made us question his maturity and competence. That kind of joking might work occasionally for a college application, but we are dealing with much more sophisticated people at this level. Jokers are admitted only if their credentials are so good that we just can’t refuse them.
You do have to captivate the reader somewhat, but many people hurt themselves by going too far. One applicant wrote an eight-page essay when we asked for one page. He was entertaining, but he didn’t arrive at any point. And he didn’t get very far in the admis- sions process, either. It’s like marketing: get our attention and then say something. Just grabbing notice isn’t enough.
I loathe “cute” essays. Nothing bugs me more than someone trying to be my funny pal. Dry wit is good, but when someone starts off with “Wow, investment banking is so neat,” I just cringe.
I suppose my best advice is to write a mature essay–nothing too formal, though–and to integrate your personality into it as best you can. Don’t be afraid to say what you feel. Remember that serious is not synonymous with humorless. We love wit, but it has to be backed up with meaningful points.
What about the offbeat essay? Does it have an advantage because it grabs your attention?
It’s true that I get tired of the same self-descriptions of the thousands of people who apply here each year. We could fill our class ten times over with people from Wall Street, and it would be nice to see someone who is a bit “off beat.” Given comparable work experience and success, I’d much rather take someone who has run a farm in Iowa than an investment banker.
But being off-beat just to get attention won’t work. The uniqueness has to mesh with the rest of the application. We do want to see different facets of an applicant’s personality. We do want people to show us how they differ from the other 7,000 applicants. But different doesn’t mean outrageous. It can mean a New York consultant who takes ghetto kids camping on weekends, or a computer whiz with a passion for scuba diving. It does not mean some goofball just trying to impress us with a bunch of one-liners.
What advantage does a good writer have? Does style beat substance?
We try to be sensitive to poor writing skills, because we aren’t looking for future authors or even scholars, necessarily. We’re looking for future business leaders. We realize that engineers will be at a disadvantage when compared to advertisers, and we take that into account when we read the essays. But there’s no question that writing style does make a difference. A good writer is convincing and engaging. She knows how to intrigue an audience, and she backs up her points with specific examples. Her ideas flow smoothly, and she makes the reader’s job a lot easier. And if she is intelligent and witty, her essay is hard to forget.
Unfortunately, we get few essays of that caliber each year, and we won’t hold it against you if you don’t write a literary masterpiece. But we also keep in mind that skillful presentation and communication are crucial aspects of business.
If your readers want a good piece of advice when they start writing, let me say this: relax and just write. Only a small percentage of people bowl us over with style. What we really want is content.
One applicant wrote an essay wondering why people on death row always ask for a cigarette instead of writing down something about their lives or even making a last statement. Well, it’s incredibly hard to express yourself, and we know that, so don’t let your anxiety about style interfere with your need to write a meaningful essay.
So what are you looking for?
An honest, thoughtful essay. I know that sounds a little trite, but it’s something we rarely see. Not only is that the best essay to read, but it should be the easiest to write. Concocting ridiculous anecdotes, attention-getting schemes, or a fictitious portrait is really a big waste of time and energy.
We want people to be vibrant, but we don’t want gimmicks. We want a business-like approach, but we don’t want to be fed dull, pompous lines.
Everyone wants us to give a recipe and a roadmap to the process, but what we want is someone who can navigate his own course. Within guidelines, of course.
Excerpted from Essays That Worked for Business Schools (Revised) by Boykin Curry and Brian Kasbar. Copyright © 2003 by Boykin Curry and Brian Kasbar. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.