This blog post is the first in a series of fresh essay writing advice and examples we've pulled from our experience editing 30,000 + MBA essays over the past decade.
Great intros are f*&$ing crucial!
If you’re not buying that, let me paint a picture for you. Imagine a woman in a grey business suit and glasses sitting behind a long oak desk somewhere on the east coast. The afternoon sun is spilling in through the window in her office. It’s illuminating hundreds of little specks of dust as they fall toward your MBA application, which just so happens to be the next piece of paper in a GIANT stack spread across her cluttered workspace.
This lucky woman has been reviewing applications and reading MBA essays for hours and hours, weeding through hopeful applicants from all over the world. Your big moment is literally seconds away… or at least it could be. Your essay is well-written, aside from the intro which you phoned in during a dreary Thursday evening you decided you couldn’t wait anymore to watch Season 2 of Master of None.
Fast forward from that evening to the current moment, in which a pair of tired eyes hiding behind thick, tortoise-shell glasses begin to glaze over as they scan the first two sentences of that lackluster intro. Your moment has passed as her mind drifts to something else completely (perhaps Season 2 of Master of None).
The point is simply this: You’ve really got to start strong, not only when it comes to your essays, but in life as well, or Aziz Ansari is just going to overshadow you EVERY damn time.
So, around here, we always advise people (like you) to start with a bang. Unleash your ferocity right out of the gate. Be creative and daring. Don’t hold back. At this point in the article, you may insert (here) any number of cliches that hint at the need to establish a power entrance, and then, do that.
You probably get the picture by now, but may be wondering what great MBA essay intros actually look like. If you read that last sentence and nodded, read on, my friend.
Let’s start by taking a look at what a rock solid MBA essay opener DOES NOT look like. We’ll go ahead and use the two opening paragraphs from a first draft of an essay written by a recent applicant in response to the following MIT Sloan prompt.
Please describe a time when you had to convince a person or a group of your idea. (500 words or fewer)
“As a Project Manager and Lead for Ajman Fuel Additives Company (AFAC), I had to secure the top management approval and support to create an overall company sustainability strategy in addition to developing their first sustainability report. AFAC was an important client to our firm as the overall project constituted 15% of total revenue of 2011. And thus, I had to deliver a strong business case that persuades the top management of the benefits and importance of creating a sustainability strategy and implementing it afterward through a 45 minutes presentation.”
Hey! You still with us? Okay, good. Just one more paragraph to go.
“At first, I had to understand the client overall culture and general strategy so that I can appropriately and clearly set the main goals and main points of the business case. In 2010 AFAC had an exceptional economical performance that doubled its revenue to $3.07US Million per employee, and currently the company is going through a full strategy revaluation project. The company is going through change. They are open to change. In addition, AFAC has been under the national spotlight after contracting Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to build the largest Carbon dioxide Reuse (CDR) plant in the region, and striking an agreement with the largest national bank, ANB, for an $80US Million loan to fund the project. Consequently, AFAC was invited to COP18-Doha, the 18th session of the Conference of Parties for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change hosted by Ajman. However, CO2 is a critical raw material in their production. And, this was a clear business investment. Focus on the business opportunity for AFAC.”
So, there’s a lot of good information in those two paragraphs, but yikes, what a snooze, right? In all 256 words the author formulated, none of them work to really engage the reader in an actual story. More or less, it’s just a chronological list of things that happened. There’s no drama, no excitement, nothing at all that works to get the admissions committee invested in what comes next.
That being said, compare the snooze-worthiness of the intro you just slogged through with the revised intro we worked with the author to create. It caught the admission committee’s attention and helped him gain acceptance to MIT Sloan.
“On a Thursday afternoon, I was enjoying a late lunch before catching an early flight home to Yemen for the weekend from Ajman. Damien Suoso, the president of SustainBalance, called me. He only calls when it’s urgent. “Ahmed, call AFAC (Ajman Fuel Additives Company) now. They want us to start immediately. Congrats, you are lead on this one,” he said. I was thrilled to be leading a project only 6 months after I joined, especially one that constituted 15% of the firm’s revenue at the time.
I was tasked to convince the GM to develop and adopt a sustainability strategy. Preparation was key. I directed my team to conduct background research about FAAC, best practices in the industry, and an industry wide quantitative benchmark in areas of sustainability performance while I met with the client’s department heads. Most importantly I wanted to understand what made the GM tick. Though he was a new GM, he was focused on competing in the global market. That was enough for me. I had a strategy.
I started the presentation with slides introducing sustainability and discussing industry trends. However, I quickly noticed that I was not catching their attention. I had to revert to my back-up plan. I presented a recent ranking putting the State of Ajman as the country with the highest carbon footprint per capita worldwide.”
Yowza! What a difference, am I right? Let’s dig into what makes the second approach so much more palatable.
When it comes to the structural stability of an essay, most of the weight rests on the first paragraph’s ability to establish the stakes. Two key elements come into play here:
- Defining the objective(s)
- Defining the obstacle(s)
Once the reader understands these two elements, s/he can read the rest with keen interest. In most cases, essays that fall flat do so because their authors dive into their stories without having clearly established the objectives and obstacles.
Furthermore, good MBA essay intros are recognizable upon sight. You read it, you like it. Simple as that. Think about it: you might not have been 100% sure as to WHY the second version of the intro was better, but chances are you could tell that it was in fact better before you had even finished the second sentence.
It’s because the writing is engaging. Often that’s because the author is able to make a personal or touching connection with the reader. In this case, the applicant gets a call from a VIP Client and sets the stage for how rare (and scary) that is, while showcasing the fact that he has been selected to take leadership for what sounds like a very urgent matter.
The above is a fantastic example of one way to begin a very “classic” business story with a great opener that hooks the reader from the start. The good news is that there are a ton of classic storytelling techniques to help YOU accomplish this very important task in your own MBA essay intros.
Here are a few for you to try!
Start Your MBA Essay Intros “in Media Res”
For all you non-lit folks, “in Media Res” is just some fancy Latin that means “In the middle”. This idea started with Homer (not Simpson… that other Homer… yeah, the ancient Greek one) who knew that stories are simply just way more exciting when you’re thrown right into the middle of them. Think about the opening scene of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope…
Lead with the Problem
Nothing helps to awaken the curiosity in a reader by confronting them with a big ol’ “uh-oh” worthy problem right out of the gates. When done right, it makes them yearn to learn about the solution by reading on.
Start with a Disaster
This is kind of a specific version of “In media res,” and also similar to leading with a problem, but focuses more on being thrilling and empathy-inspiring. Not only is there action, but it’s all bad. As readers we can’t help but empathize with the poor applicant (that’s you!) who has to go through all this tough stuff.
Make a Movie Scene
This approach is all about the show and not-so-all-about the tell. Paint a picture. Make a movie. Portray a scene. For instance, avoid saying things like this:
“I landed in Mumbai and it was very hot.”
And instead, say more stuff like this:
“A blast of humid heat filled the cabin the second the airlocked doors were opened and…”
Establish a Mystery
Everyone loves a great mystery. That’s the eternal appeal of Sherlock Holmes. Try to catch the reader by placing them in the shoes of someone who has something baffling to solve.
“Although we were running as efficiently as ever, production had dropped by 20% and I couldn’t figure out why.”
Ask a Question
It can be a real question, or a rhetorical one, but asking questions can often be a more engaging way to start a conversation (you can also use this time-worn technique on your next Tinder date).
Shock the Reader
This is all about saying something the person staring at your essay didn’t expect you to say for a second (within reason, obviously). Shake it up. Make a splash. Make ‘em say “WHOA!”
Start with a Quote
Kicking off your essay with perfectly-composed words written or spoken by someone who is probably a lot better at writing and speaking than you or I, can be a very powerful tool.
So, to recap, there are LOTS and LOTS of ways to make sure you equip your essay with a powerful intro. Doing so is just plain crucial to your success because starting strong is what’s going to intrigue the admissions committee and make them want to read on. Without that, you’ve got nothin’ to stand on. That being said, we’re going to leave you with a few final examples of both good and bad MBA essay intros.
Examples of Bad Openers
“I have been fascinated by the potential of information technology (IT) ever since I first surfed the web.”
“In November 2008, Barack Obama was nominated the 44th president of the united states.”
“I spent my first two years of my life in America at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.”
“At university, I chose to study institutions and financial market management because i’ve always been fascinated and intrigued by finance and capital markets in particular.”
“Laying on my shelf in my office in the landmark building of Central, Hong Kong are three items: my master degree in Spanish from Vanderbilt, a deal toy from the rage sleight deal, and a picture of my two lovely daughters. These items are the vivid embodiments of my accomplishments up to date.”
Why are those bad openers? They’re boring, confusing, pointless, or have nothing to do with the question. They tell what they should be showing. Avoid openers like this like the plague.
Examples of Good Openers
“Dan, it looks like we have to cancel this conference.”
“As a Jew from New York living in Riyadh, I had expected to bump into certain differences of opinion—but this one was catching me off guard.”
“I high-fived Kevin. Finally, after three months of hard work our client finally awarded us a new $17 million contract.”
“Zero. That was how much profit I achieved in the first quarter since I joined Greenslickets, inc.”
“It all started with an erector set and a bucket of Legos.”
“There I was on stage drenched in sweat, ears ringing, fingers raw, and guitar in hand. I felt tired, yet full of adrenaline.”
Why are those good openers? They’re engaging! They inspire intrigue and they show instead of tell. Now, go on! You try!
Like this post? Well, b-school bound earthling, you’re in luck… it’s post #1 in an entire series designed to help you write better MBA application essays. We’ll release a brand new post every other week. Check out post #2, which covers writing about your goals after graduation.