Our Admissionado editors have read a LOT of essays. Probably more than many of the people sitting in the admissions offices of those schools you dream about. And in their tenure on the team, they’ve seen it all: the gripping, the boring, the 2000-words-when-the-word-limit-is-250, the 250-words-when-the-limit-is-2000, and more.
So, yeah, they know their stuff – what works, how to make something work and what wouldn’t work at any b-school anywhere on the planet. And now that they’ve been through the wringer of round 2, they’re putting away their red pens for the moment and sharing with us the most common and avoidable essay writing mistakes they witnessed over and over (and over) again this year. Mistakes that, should you want to get the adcom’s attention (in a good way), you should do anything and everything to avoid.
Applying in Round 3? Next year?
Time to take some notes, friends.
Don’t write what you think the admissions committee wants to hear. For example, don’t write about how your deepest desire is “to help people” when you really want to do real estate, marketing, or start a venture capital fund. Sure, maybe you want to help people, but FIRST you need to help yourself by being more specific. Show how by investing in real estate you’re going to help families get homes or make neighborhoods stronger. If your desire really IS to “help people,” you probably wouldn’t be applying to bschool to study investing – instead, show how your goal is to help pensioners continue to lead lives where they don’t have to worry about how they’re going to pay for their next meal.
I’ve boiled it down to three (because I couldn’t pick just one):
- Missing a great opener. It weakens an application to approach essays like a Q&A interview response, with no creativity or effort to engage. It’s an essay, not an interrogation. They ask ‘What are your LT goals?’ and the applicant starts ‘My LT goals are…’ Boring! Why? If for no other reason, it’s what 95% of other folks will do, lowering your chances to make an impression.
- Failing to demonstrate any specific knowledge about the school. This shows you think of the school as some kind of commodity or stepping stone and nothing more. Be an ambassador of the school before you write the essay by learning all about them and even visiting if you can.
- Waiting to the last minute to get started. Every year people give themselves only a matter of days to complete their essays. Since most of the essay’s strengths will developed during revision, this approach lends itself to flat, forgettable essays.
The biggest common mistake is not answering the question. Doesn’t really matter how cool your essay is if you’re not tying it back the question. And this doesn’t mean you should read the question and then try to think of a story to match it; definitely think about your coolest/most impressive/interesting stories, and THEN look at the question. However, writing about those stories without thinking about the question is reallyyyy asking isn’t very productive. So often, people end an essay with “what I learned from this experience” when that is nowhere in the question… I suggest reading the question and then reframing it in your own words before digging in.
One of the most common and avoidable essay mistakes is giving your readers TOO much credit. Yes, it’s great to assume they are smart, educated people, and probably they are, but in most cases, you know your life experiences and history and field of expertise better than your reader does. Don’t assume they know what you’re talking about. Don’t leave out vital information that will help them understand where you’re coming from. You gotta fill in those details for ’em. Basically, write as if your reader was a super intelligent ten-year-old who likes a good story.
- Jargon: Some people forget that their terminology isn’t universal, others overestimate the omniscience of adcoms, and still others probably think being technical makes them seem smarter. But being able to make something complex simple is a hugely important skill. Even if the adcom doesn’t always actively think, “Wow, what a good job this candidate did simplifying this story” when they read clear language, they WILL think “Great, I understand what happened” – which is the point.
- Lip Service: When applicants aren’t clear on what something is, how it will be useful, why they want to do it, or even just how to describe it, they tend to fall back on common phrases and adjectives, like “invaluable experience” or “business knowledge” or “world-class faculty.” Common phrases are easy and safe, but they also guarantee that a candidate blends in with every other applicant. Putting in the extra thought or research necessary for tangible specifics is hard but it’s worth it to pull ahead of the pack.
The easiest mistake to make early on is to avoid connecting a school to your career goals. It’s not enough to say nice things about a school – they already know how awesome they are! Instead, you have to find why the school is a good fit for YOU. If you can convince the school that it has the exact classes/clubs/opportunities you need to become a big success, they’ll WANT you as a student.