Twenty-two years ago this month, I was working at a multinational advertising firm in Taiwan, plotting my way out of there, and planning how to get into the doors of the business school of my dreams.
In the evenings, when most of my colleagues had emptied out of the office, I would close my work files on my Macintosh , and fire up my B-School applications. I applied to several schools, and wrote a lot of essays.
I can't remember what I wrote in most of them, except for one, the one that helped me get accepted to Wharton's MBA program.
I had a solid undergraduate GPA. I scored well on the GMAT. Positive recommendations from my manager and clients? Check.
But even back then, before acceptance rates were insanely low like they are today, it was already very competitive. What is true today was probably true then: I needed something to set me apart from the thousands of noble souls who were applying just like me, at the very same time, to the very same school.
I never kept a copy of the essay I wrote for Wharton, but I still remember the topic: "What I learned about leadership from fishing." I compared the experience of going on a deep sea sport fishing trip off the coast of South Florida with my father to what I had learned about leadership during my first few years in the working world.
I wrote about how the captain of the boat needs to lead across multiple fronts, coordinating the split-second decisions and actions of his crew and the fishermen. I wrote about how the captain needs to use the power of persuasion to get things done, since a top-down, command-and-control approach would probably be less effective. And I wrote about how the captain needs a strategy and clear set of action steps if he hopes to beat the tremendous odds stacked against him--and actually catch some fish.
While some of the details of what I wrote are now hazy, I do remember a few things about the approach I took when I wrote it. If you're applying to a top MBA program, you might want to consider some of these suggestions as you write your essays:
1. Write what you know.
I struggled with some of the essays I wrote for other schools I applied to. But the one I wrote for my Wharton application moved from my fingers to the keyboard more effortlessly than the others. I was able to draw from a deep well of memories I had stored up over the many years of fishing with my dad. Writing about what you know best will make the task of writing a great essay that much easier.
2. Write from the heart.
This is the flip-side of the point about writing what you know. It's the creative, right-brain approach, compared to the coolly logical left-brain approach. Admissions committees are looking beyond the numbers in your application and want to understand who you are as a person, and how you'll contribute to their community. Be authentic.
3. Reveal something about yourself.
This is very much related to my suggestion to write from the heart, but I think it merits its own point. This can be tough, especially when trying to impress a group of admissions officers who have to process stacks of applications from people they don't know.
You may not feel comfortable baring your soul, but if you want your application to stand out from among the thousands or even tens of thousands of applications you're competing against, you'll need to demonstrate what sets you apart.
4. Tell a story.
Fiction writers seem to get all the glory for being able to craft stories that move the heart and the mind. But I believe there's a lot that non-fiction writers--including writers crafting short essays for MBA applications-- can learn from the art of fiction about creating captivating and memorable stories. Pick one of the great stories that reveal who you are and what your career aspirations are, and share it.
5. Edit obsessively.
I remember every time I thought my essay was done and ready to send in-- it wasn't. I sweated over my choice of words, syntax, tone, spelling, and grammar. I wrote and rewrote. Obsessively. Don't let an otherwise well-written essay be tarnished by sloppy editing.