The Truth vs. “Playing the Game” in MBA Admissions Essays:

by on June 18th, 2013

angelanddevilOver the past few weeks, I’ve spoken with a number of 2013-14 MBA applicants while helping them with their application strategies for this admissions season. A few days ago, one of them asked me a very candid question about his admissions apps for several top 10 schools. “While writing my essays, should I tell the truth, or should I just play the game and tell the adcoms what they want to hear?”, he said [in so many words].

Initially, I was taken aback by his question. Then, I flashed back 12 months to when I was in the same position and had similar thoughts. “I really appreciate your honesty”, I replied. “That is a question that I believe everyone grapples with in a competitive climate like top MBA admissions”.

“The Truth”, “The Game” and Authenticity

In my opinion, the whole moral dialectic of being honest vs…well, basically lying and/or embellishing actually clouds the true issue at hand. For starters, lying or embellishing what is true is a fool’s strategy. Adcom members have seen and heard it all; thus, they posses highly sensitive BS meters. I wouldn’t bother testing your luck in that department.

Additionally, my opinion is that the kinds of things that people lie about are rarely the things that either get  you “in” or keep you “out of” a program. Of course, only an adcom can tell you that for certain, but I”m about 99% sure that my assumption is a true fact.

Save yourself the energy of writing up that $2M deal as a $20M deal; and don’t bother saying that you won that award that you were really the runner up for. The adcoms are much more interested in the fact that your post MBA goal is entrepreneurship but you’ve never started your own company before; or that your primary recommender said that you’ve had challenges getting along with other people.

Furthermore, inflated stories almost never “sell” as well as the authentic ones. Even if the adcoms aren’t able to point out your foul play, they are likely to sense that something is “missing”.

The Truth Shall Set You Free

The truth can be liberating. The feeling of having “nothing to hide” not only takes a lot of pressure off, but infuses your words with an air of authenticity that can become a gold mine if played properly. Let’s take me for instance. My pre-MBA job was about a 25% pay cut from the job that I had immediately prior. That data point clearly threatened the narrative of upward movement in my career.

Rather than attempting to gloss over it, however, I simply attacked it head on in my application. I explained that while I was indeed making less money, I had taken on more responsibility, had more control over my new company’s strategic direction and  had also taken the next most logical step toward my goals. That was true. It was also true that I hated my previous job and had little respect for its leadership, but that wasn’t necessary to say.

There is a fine line between authenticity and TMI. Learning to walk this line skillfully will help you immensely not only in your essays but in life in general. It will also communicate to adcoms that you’ll be more likely to give a great interview and land a high paying job (which affects their reputation and rankings) upon graduation.

Look, no one’s past is perfect–no one’s; and the adcoms know this. Tell the truth, provide the proper context that shows what you learned or gained from the experience and how it aided in your development, avoid TMI and you should pretty much be good to go.

And if you end up getting dinged anyway, trust me when I tell you with confidence that it was probably not because you were overly candid in some anecdote in essay #2 for Columbia or Kellogg; either your profile just didn’t make the cut or there were already too many others who had been chosen whose profiles were too much like yours.

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