How to Write the Personal MBA Essay

Turn off Game of Thrones and get to work


Here we are in a new application season, and, like Popeye, you got your sleeves rolled up, your spinach (or maybe energy drink) in hand, and you are ready to burn lines through the proverbial paper (okay, so you are all typing up those essays, but still…).

By now, with only 2.5 months to go until the deadlines, you‘ve taken a look at those MBA essay questions. [And if you haven’t, it’s time to turn off Game of Thrones and get to work.] You notice something? Yeah, they’re getting in there and getting personal this year. It’s not like it used to be in the good old days (read: 2014) where it was enough to write about a leadership achievement or two, and maybe a failure. Now, the schools really want to know about YOU.

This is a trend that we have seen over the years. As more students apply to MBA programs with higher GMAT scores, and the caliber of applicants gets higher and higher, the MBA admissions officers need to find new ways to differentiate the applicants. MBA adcoms know that you are successful, they know you’ve got leadership experience, they know that you have a huge impact on your team at work, blablablabla.

So now they also want to know WHO YOU ARE.

Stanford has been doing this for a long time with it’s notorious “What matters to you most, and why?” question. Fuqua came in last year with it’s “Tell us 25 things about you.” And this year Harvard joins the club with a two-worder: “Introduce yourself.”

“Introduce myself?” What the heck do they want from me?” you are probably asking yourself. “What does someone say to IMPRESS HARVARD?! It’s surely not, ‘My name is Jon, and I’m 37 years old, and I was born in the small town of Little Rock… and my favorite color is carmine red.’”

[Hint: no, it’s not.]

The thing is, with your grades and school, your application form, your resume, your job title and employer, your volunteer work and extracurricular activities, the schools already have a very good idea of what you’ve done and if you can hack it in their classroom.

But what they don’t know is WHO you are as a person. What do you REALLY want out of school and your career and life? And even more importantly, WHY?

Of course, nobody expects you to ramble on about totally disconnected items that have absolutely nothing to do with business, your goals, or an MBA; this is BUSINESS school, after all. [Click here for advice on how to keep it balanced.] But at the same time, they want to understand your character, your motivations, and the reasons behind your decisions. It’s a way for the b-schools to get to know you and to figure out how well you fit.

I mean, in any given class in pretty much any b-school around the world, one-third of the people will go into finance and one-third will go into consulting, so just writing: “I want to be a strategy consultant because that’s what us business-folk do” isn’t going to cut it. Snooze fest. The MBA admissions committee wants to know specifically where, and specifically why, and specifically how, as well as how this fits into WHO you are: your personality, your background, your life-philosophy…

This new focus on the personal makes those application essays even MORE important. [And also more difficult.] Here is the place where you are going to differentiate yourself, both through your ability to tell that story well, but also to motivate people; to exhibit your intellect and motivation; to show your uniqueness and diversity, as well as your humor and generosity. [Feel the pressure yet?]

So take these essays to heart. They aren’t trick questions really seeking out a list of achievements. Much of that will already be obvious from the other application materials. (And if you fall into that trap, you’re going to get dinged faster than the adcom can say “booooring.”) Here, what the b-schools really want to know is who you are as a person. So get in there and introduce yourself. Show them not what you’ve done, but who you are.

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