Uniqueness and the MBA Application Essay

It isn't the experiences, boys and girls. It’s how you experienced it.

Look, there are a lot of people out there competing for the exact same spots in MBA programs as you. And, not to be a Debbie Downer here, but contrary to what you might think, many come from very similar backgrounds as you. So how do you set yourself apart from the crowd? How do you show the man or woman reading your application that you’re not just like everyone else they’re going to see in that overwhelming stack of applications in front of them?

You gotta be UNIQUE. And, based on what we just said, that’s not as straightforward as you’d expect.

All of us operate under a crippling illusion that our experiences themselves are somehow UNIQUE. On one hand, there’s absolutely no such thing. Stop trying, cuz you’re gonna fail.

Before I get to the light at the end of the tunnel, I wanna snuff out any lingering misapprehensions. Firstly, let’s talk about that word “experience.” It’s complex, and sneaky… and rich (Ron Burgundy, anyone?). So you have to be a little wily to really get it right. There’s “the experience,” and then there’s “how you experienced” … “the experience.” The problem is, we get sloppy and think people are interested in the former. JUST the experience. The thing. The event. The situation. The time. The people. The circumstances. The trials. The tribulations. The grief. The joy. The challenges. The failures. The sucesses.

That’s… true…. sort of. But here’s the thing that lots of applicants miss: BY ITSELF… the experience doesn’t mean ANYTHING.

You could be leading a battalion of EIGHT into the maw of the ultimate enemy, up against fifteen thousand. And if what’s on your mind at that pivotal moment is nothing other than “Darn, this is an EXCELLENT sun and I’m not gonna get ANY kind of tan inside these fatigues!” then all of a sudden, I’m not so impressed  by your “leadership” experience.

There’s another problem with the experience BY ITSELF. If you led EIGHT guys into an army of fifteen thousand….  you can be sure that someone in the same applicant pool led four… into forty thousand. And here’s why that’s tough. If you think that you’re somehow alone in your feat, you run the risk of looking like a chump.

When schools say “tell us about an experience where/that/when…” they’re not asking you to have somehow been a part of something that — somehow — NO ONE ELSE ON EARTH — has ever had the fortune of encountering. Because they get it. It’s hard to be unique. It’s hard to be Copernicus. It’s hard to be Darwin. It’s hard to be Erastophanes.

If you happen to be one of those guys that truly changes everything, you’re in pretttty good shape. You can apply in crayon on a napkin and you’ll be in good shape. But for the rest of us, it isn’t the experience by itself that means anything at all. It’s our experience OF that experience.

K, so what does THAT mean? You can literally write about ABSOLUTELY anything. because if you’re THINKING ABOUT IT CORRECTLY, you now have the opportunity to be ACTUALLY “unique.” Because you can be sure that no one else on Earth experienced the thing the way YOU did. It’s the LENS that individuates. What we want to know is not what the experience was…. but rather, your experience of it.

When you were in that battle, what was it you feared? What was it that kept you alive? When did you lose hope? Did you NEVER lose hope? Which part made you resent the military the most? Which part made you RESPECT it the most? Which part made you question your decisions? No two people in the entire history of humanity can answer these questions in the exact same way. THAT’S where “uniqueness” comes into play.

It isn’t the experiences, boys and girls. It’s how you experienced it.

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