You know yourself.
Adcoms, however, don’t know you. All they have to go on is your GPA, some test scores, some letters from some people who know you, and these: your application essays and/or personal statement. With that said, your essays and personal statements are, well, personal. So I can’t (or won’t) tell you what you should write.
What I can–and will–tell you is what characteristics your essays should and should not have. There are reasons adcoms ask specific questions: 1) to figure out how well you can follow directions, 2) to learn more about your writing and communication skills, and 3) to find out more about your specific qualifications for their programs. Here’s a good starter list of dos and don’ts:
DO: Be honest.
DO NOT: “Stretch” the truth.
Never, ever “stretch the truth” in an application essay or personal statement. More often than not, these kinds of things have a way of coming back to bite you. Think of it this way: the applications process is tricky enough on its own. You’ll have enough to keep track of with your various schools and myriad essay questions and personal statement guidelines and deadlines. You’ll need to make sure you’re naming the right school, sending the right targeted letters of recommendation, meeting the right deadlines, answering the right essay question, and keeping to the appropriate margins and word counts for each school’s essays. Telling the truth means you have that much less to remember.
There are ways to deal with the less-than-pleasant elements of your past as they apply to b-school applications. There are few things that are absolute deal-breakers. Should you need to address something like a grade slump, an altercation with the law, or a blemish in your employment past, adcoms want to know that you learned a valuable lesson from the experience and that the problem is in your past and won’t happen again.
Besides, admissions folk see enough applications to develop some pretty good instincts on honesty, fluff, and outright falsehoods in applications, and I’ve heard plenty of stories about applicants being asked about elements of their applications in interviews. If you have to lie to get into a program, it’s not the right program for you. Trust that the admissions people know who and what they’re looking for, for reasons that are quite often beyond an applicant’s knowledge and/or understanding. They’re professionals. Trust them; if you’re who/what they’re looking for, then you’ll get in… and if not, well… that just wasn’t the school or program for you.
DO: Use spelling and grammar checkers.
DO NOT: Submit any writing samples with spelling errors or grammatical mistakes.
In the age of built-in spelling and grammar-check, there is absolutely no valid excuse for submitting a writing sample that contains spelling errors or grammatical mistakes. Such blunders are often considered inexcusable, and rightly so. If you’re applying to graduate studies, your most basic writing skills should display competence. A lack of such attention to detail also reeks of laziness and shoddy work, traits not so highly sought after in the business school admissions process.
But beyond mere lack of error, there are other crucial elements to keep in mind.
DO: Follow directions.
DO NOT: Exceed the allotted word limit, page count, or margins.
You are not the first person to feel like you are worth more than 500 words or two pages or whatever the particular limitations might be. I know I might sound repetitive here, but trust that the adcoms know what they’re doing (not to mention that they’re really, really busy).
Great writing necessarily involves great editing. A truly great story includes all of the relevant story elements and nothing superfluous. Need more tangible examples? Think about what happens to a joke’s punchline when you flub the build-up with too much padding, or recall a bad movie you’ve seen that seemed to carry on and on for hours with little plot development (”Swept Away” comes to mind), only to leave you feeling underwhelmed at the end (and robbed of three hours of your life).
But don’t take my word on it: When asked why he wrote a particularly lengthy letter, Mark Twain allegedly replied, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” A little bit of editing can go a long way.
DO: Answer the questions asked.
DO NOT: Stray from the topic.
To do so, your submissions must be on-point. Failure to do so can cause adcoms to think one of two things about you: 1) you didn’t think the question asked was worthy of an answer, that you know what they want better than they do, or 2) you’re unable to comprehend directions. Neither portrait is a desirable one.
Here’s something important to consider: In the applications for many different schools offering similar programs, you may find a high degree of overlap in essay question prompts. While it is definitely okay–and smart, even–to consolidate your efforts by using some of your answers to similar questions from previous applications, you should make absolutely certain that you have adequately tailored the response you submit to the particular question asked on the correct school’s application.
DO: Communicate skillfully.
DO NOT: Answer the question(s) like a simple Q&A.
This is a writing sample–a rare chance for you to shine–and, as such, your writing should positively exhibit your communication skills. Being free of spelling or grammatical mistakes is a start, and staying on point is also helpful, but you’ll need to exhibit some real panache if you want to stand out from the crowd.
In regards to tone, know your audience. Schools are looking for serious students, so you’ll want to convey maturity and commitment in your writing. The structure of your writing should illustrate your ability to introduce, develop, and conclude an idea. Your language and sentence structure should be complex enough to exhibit your linguistic skills, but shouldn’t be plugged with excessive displays of esoteric language.
DO: Be true to yourself in your writing sample.
DO NOT: Copy someone else’s personal statement or write your essays “by committee.”
Remember that this might be a school’s best chance of getting to know the real you. Be yourself in your essay. Speak in your own voice. Don’t retool the essay of someone else who got into XYZ school, and don’t get the input of your twelve closest friends and family members. Doing so only makes it more likely that your writing samples, when considered as a whole package, will sound disjointed and confusing. They’re not applying to XYZ school; you are. You know your reasons better than anyone. You know why this is the perfect school or program or field of study for you better than anyone else does. No one will be a stauncher advocate in this process.
Trust your own voice and run with it. Many applicants choose to write personal narratives, others choose to write persuasive essays, while others feel that neither option fits and choose a style more personal. There is no right or wring way to write, so long as you stick to the dos and don’ts above. Find the best way you can use this opportunity to prove to schools why you’re the right fit for their program and get to work.
DO: Write several drafts over time.
DO NOT: Procrastinate until you have only two days to submit your essays.
Trust me on this one: you’ll need time to be able to edit your essay(s) properly. Even the best writers can’t edit their own material without giving the brain some time to recover from writing mode. Give your head a little time to distance yourself from the first draft. Come back a few days, maybe a week later, and give it a fresh look. You’ll be much better equipped to find the problems in flow that need to be fixed or the linguistic oddities you’ll want to smooth out. I recommend dedicating the same day every week for a month to the process. On your application calendar, maybe block off every Saturday morning for the month before you intend to submit your applications. Use this time for drafting, writing, editing, revising, and finalizing your essays. You’ll be glad you did.
Now go get inspired! Read a few pages from your favorite book or poem or speech. Take some notes. Print out the essay questions or personal statement guidelines and start outlining what you want to say. When you’re ready to move on, we’ll get on with the business of submitting those applications you’ve been working on for so long!