Writing An Original Essay: A Snapshot of MBA Applicant Trends

In an effort to stand out, applicants inadvertently end up making themselves look the same as every one else.

MBA Essay Word Usage Analysis | Admissionado

“Anyone else notice how… everyone does photography?”

We were in the thick of Round 1 and the Admissionado editors were wrapping up a monthly meeting. The deadline for Fuqua was fast approaching, so we were seeing a lot of “25 Random Things” essays come across our virtual desks. As the new kid on the block, I had assumed it was a wacky coincidence that all of my clients were passionate enough about photography for it to make the cut for their tightly curated lists of 25 facts.

Turns out—not a coincidence, but rather, an understandable but all-too-common pitfall that we see on a lot of first tries with the personal essay: in an effort to stand out, you inadvertently end up making yourself look the same as every other MBA applicant.

How does this happen, you ask? As I say to my clients, let’s crack this open…

Using first drafts as data points

Admissionado has thousands of data points, those points being our applicants’ first drafts. They shape our knowledge base for what’s going to wow an admissions officer who has to wade through 3,456 applications. We know what will garner reactions like “sweet, never seen that before!” and more importantly, we know what will garner the opposite, “that’s been done.” So let’s take a look at what we found.

A Sample Of 9 First Drafts For Fuqua’s “25 Random Things” Essay

Because it started this whole line of inquiry, let’s start with photography. From 9 samples, the word “photography” shows up… 9 times. In a perfect world, where each ‘fact’ is truly distinct from another, we’d only see the word once across 9 drafts.

So this could mean two things:

  1. Someone uses photography for more than one ‘fact.’ (which is a completely separate boo-boo, to be discussed at a later date)
  2. Most folks referenced photography at some point in their draft.

Drumroll please…. 5 separate people used “photography” somewhere in their draft, suggesting a 55.5% occurrence. But does this extend beyond that one ‘coincidence’? Sure does! Out of the 9 drafts we sampled, here’s where the topics clustered, based on associative words:


Over the course of my editing career I’ve noticed a few reoccurring themes that really give me the ol’ “here we go again…” reaction. And if I’m saying that, just imagine what an MBA admissions committee member is thinking!

Words Associated With “Travel”


My favorite is ‘bungee,’ because, just like photography, it’s meant to stand out, but if you see this once every three apps, well, it certainly doesn’t stop being cool (I mean, bungee-jumping), but it does stop being surprising and unique.

Words Associated With “Media Consumption”

Words Associated with Media Consumption | Admissionado

As an editor, nothing brings out the red pen faster than seeing a bullet point about your favorite TV show. C’mon guys, in the Golden Age of Television, Buzzfeed and iPhones, it’d only be remarkable to say you DIDN’T read or watch anything, ever.

Unless you can honestly say “I’m the brilliant hero who personally convinced George R Martin to adapt his bestselling series Game of Thrones into an HBO show watched by millions,” you’re not allowed to say TV (and besides, we all know what they say about HBO not being TV…)

Words Associated With “Romance/Love”

Words Associated with Love | Admissionado

This is definitely a thorny one, because the only response you can elicit is a “huh, good for you!” Just because it’s personal doesn’t mean it deserves a spot (or multiple) spots on your 25 list.

Write an MBA essay that stands out by using unique and descriptive language

So at first blush, these drafts seem very similar, just by virtue of the overlapping content.

Does it mean everyone’s the same??

Absolutely not. Remember—this is about words—which are the only things that you can overuse.

Much like saying “I’m detail-oriented” or “synergy,” some words are super awesome only the first time, but their power waters down with infinite uses. Back to photography. The word should indicate:

“Hey, I don’t just wear a suit and crunch numbers—I’m creative, I have an eye for aesthetic, I look at the world around me…”

Instead it says:

“I do something that everyone else does too…” (or, if we want to be really cynical, it could say: “Oof, coming up with 25 things is way harder than it looks, what should I do for the last few points… I do Instagram, there’s a camera on my phone, I think that counts as photography…”)

So, does that mean photography is off limits? Of course not! But have you thought about sharing things like this?

  • Your love of teaching underprivileged kids darkroom developing
  • That you curated a gallery exhibit of black and white portraits of chinchillas to promote awareness of cruelty to animals that raised $5K
  • You have a burgeoning portfolio of wedding albums that you’ve parlayed into a nice side business and your work has been featured by 7 wedding and lifestyle blogs?
  • Notice something? Yep, the word “photography” was not used once.

    So what’s the upshot? Unique and descriptive language will past the predictable, and into the “oh, rad, this guy sounds awesome!”

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