The Element of Surprise in “What Sets You Apart?”

Element of Surprise MBA Essay

A common theme in B-school applications (in almost any application, actually) is the “what sets you apart” question.

With thousands of candidates to assess, it’s understandable that the adcom would ask, directly or indirectly, why you’re any different from Bob, Billy or Brad—what makes you unique? What will your classmates be surprised about? They’re looking for a revelation here, something unexpected, interesting, and… surprising. This essay is a stumbling block for most candidates, and there are a few mistakes almost everyone falls for, but don’t worry, we’ve got your back.

What’s the worst kind of surprise? The one you kinda already know about. It seems obvious to point out that a good surprise should be, well, surprising, but that’s the key to cracking the “something unique about you” essay. The most common fault in this kind of essay is the topic choice: Candidates often overestimate just how “unique” their special talent or accomplishment makes them. Trust us, we see thousands of these essays, and though it may be impressive, your triathlon skills just don’t set you apart.

Think about it this way: Let’s say you’re the best swimmer you know. If you know about 30 other people who swim, and you’re the best… well now, you’re at least a 1-in-30 swimmer! But if the adcom is looking at 8000 applications, there are as many as 266 people who swim better than you. Your skill stands out in a small sample size (day-to-day life), but when you dive into a big MBA applicant pool, you’re quickly left behind. Applicants, and humans in general, are bad at predicting their uniqueness in large groups (a cognitive bias called illusory superiority).

Another common mistake is the “unique but unimpressive” essay. While it may be, um, unique that you have a stamp collection, that doesn’t necessarily tell us anything impressive about you, what you’re capable of, or your standout qualities. The unique-but-lame answer won’t stand out to the adcom any more than the generic, non-unique response.

The third, and probably most cringe-worthy mistake, is to use this essay as a chance to brag about X or Y accomplishment. This is NOT a chance to tell the adcom about an award, a competition you won, or any other singular feat, no matter how unusual, and answering this question with a “thanks for asking, let me brag about ABC accomplishment” will not win you any points. You will sink into the company of an unknown number of other candidates who have written essays about speed chess tournaments or workplace MVP awards. The point of these essays is to show that you would add a new and interesting element to the class, and sadly “braggart” is an all-too-common trope on B-school campuses.


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So what’s the hack? How can you approach this essay successfully, and avoid sounding like a total tool? For starters, think about the surprise factor. What’s something that either WOULD or DID surprise close friends or family about YOU? Something that stands out as unexpected compared to the rest of your character? Maybe you’ve already had this “reveal” moment, when someone close to you was blown away by something you did (or do). If not, think about what you could tell them about you or your life that would make them say, “Holy cow, I had no idea!” If it surprised them, chances are it will surprise the adcom, too. Needless to say, this should be a pleasant surprise, not the “I killed the cat and hid the body in your backyard” kind of surprise.

If you’re struggling to gauge the uniqueness of your subject, give this thought experiment a go: picture 10 guys or gals a lot like you—same age, background, GMAT score, goals, and so on—sitting one after the other in a bland waiting room, each soon to be interviewed by the same admissions committee member. Can you picture them saying something similar about what sets them apart as you have? Are they all sailboat-in-a-bottle fanatics too? If so, then you haven’t done your job. You want to choose something that makes your interviewer (or reader) step back and say, “whoa, didn’t see that coming!” Something that defies your “type,” something none of those other schmos could say, something badass!

Similarly, the combination of your background and your goals probably have you pinned down in a certain “category” by the adcom. Picture piles of applicant folders—you’ve got the tech people, the consultants, the engineers transitioning into business, etc. With each category come assumptions about who you are and what your interests might be; for example, if you’re a tech guy you might be into gaming, or coding, or reddit. You get the picture. The point of THIS essay is to tear that picture up and defy expectations. Instead of discussing your gaming tournament, tell them about your abiding love for the poetry of A. E. Housman. Make them rethink your “type” so they can’t put you in any of those piles.

If you can surprise the adcom, stay genuine, and avoid any applicant archetypes, then you stand a good chance of catching the adcom’s eye.


Trying to find that element of surprise in your MBA applicant profile? Our MBA Consultants and Essay Specialists are ready to help.  Hop on over and take your first step toward rocking those apps and essays.

Essay Analysis: Northwestern Kellogg School of Management 2018-19