For MBA hopefuls, mastering the essay portion of the business school application is not just about writing one killer essay, but about writing several. To top it off, these essays must come together to make one cohesive narrative.

Composing a Great Orchestra, One Note at a Time

It is said that Mozart’s patron, the Emperor of Austria, once commented to the great composer, "You have too many notes in this piece." Mozart, who knew that his work was balanced and perfect, replied, “Your highness, which note would you like me to take out?’

Each of your business school essays should reflect one note in a carefully orchestrated symphony. What you produce should reflect your skills, strengths, accomplishments and potential.

In addition, these essays should showcase self-awareness and concern for the greater good. More and more, today’s business world is recognizing the role of soft skills in leading a company or team to success. As such, MBA programs are focused on admitting students with interpersonal qualities that reflect leadership potential and an ability to work well with others. Some of the high notes to hit in communicating this are: humility, perspective, teamwork, and, quite simply, likeability.

If you have any weak areas that might be of concern to a school, such as frequently switching jobs or lower-level math or quantitative skills, you essays can also demonstrate the ways in which you have been proactive in addressing these issues.

As you craft your story, think carefully about which notes to amplify and which to play softly. Every note should have an important reason for existing, and should resonate with the others. You might want one essay to showcase solid work experience and quantitative skills. Perhaps others could highlight that you are a team player. Or a particular answer might focus on your soft skills. Of course, with clever enough writer, one essay could highlight all of the above.

If the programs to which you’re applying only require one or two essays, you may need to condense all of your unique anecdotes into fewer stories. But there is no single perfect way to show admissions committees that you have the right stuff. How you integrate your essays with one another is up to you.

The MBA Foundational Essay

Almost every school asks one foundational essay question: "Why do you want the MBA? Why now?" This key question should be answered with clear short and long term goals. Make sure your articulate thoughtful career plans, because these will add legitimacy to your candidacy. And while your answer need not be dry or boring, it should sound professional. This is an essay question in which, yet again, you will have the opportunity to showcase a range of attractive qualities.

What Your Essays Reveal About You

No doubt you have many stories to tell, no matter the essay question. But what you choose to write about, and the anecdotes you select as examples, will convey a lot about the real you.

One way to begin sketching out your narrative is to focus on the characteristics you want to showcase in each essay. Remember that you’re creating a symphony: in the end, each essay should come together to build one cohesive whole.

Here are some favorable qualities that you may want to convey in your essays, and some that you may want to avoid.

Share stories that paint you as:

  • A leader
  • Humble
  • Inclusive
  • Mature
  • Goal – oriented
  • Creative
  • Innovative
  • Smart
  • Hard-working
  • Team oriented/collaborative
  • Positive, with a can-do attitude
  • Reflective and introspective
  • Moral and ethical
  • Accountable
  • Able to recognize and learn from mistakes and failure
  • Self-aware
  • Unique/distinctive
  • Stable and able to handle pressure

Avoid anecdotes that convey:

  • Arrogance
  • Vanity
  • Ego
  • Perfectionism
  • Unhealthy competitiveness
  • Blind ambition
  • Greed
  • Immaturity
  • Mediocrity, or a lack of desire for excellence
  • Absence of passion or enthusiasm
  • Prejudice regarding race, gender, identity
  • Strong political leanings (this is not the time or place)
  • Religious fundamentalist (unless it’s a religious institution)
  • Poor judgement
  • Lack of focus or goals
  • Poor or uninspired writing
  • No personality

The Essay Takeaway – Getting Helpful Feedback

It’s a good idea to take some qualities from the positive list and see if you can find a vehicle for them in your life and career experiences. Then think about your essay questions, and then match up the qualities you have to share. You will begin to find connections.

If you’re stuck, brainstorm with a friend. Ask them to select positive qualities that can be used describe you, and stories that sum up your best features.

At the very least, have a few people read over what you’ve written to screen for any negative notes. Even the best writers need editing. Get an extra pair of eyes on your work, and make sure the right message is coming across.

Nedda
Nedda Gilbert

Ms. Gilbert is a certified social worker and 30 year educational consultant with an interest in helping college-bound and graduate school students manage the process and stress of admissions effectively. She is one of the senior founding managers of the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company, and the author of The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and another book, Business School Essays that Made a Difference (Random House). She is a guest contributor to Forbes Magazine on college and college life. Ms. Gilbert is also certified as a collaborative family law professional in New Jersey. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MS from Columbia University.