When I applied to b-school last fall, I found the essays to be the hardest part of the process. It felt like most of my application was already out of my control—it was too late for me to make major changes to my work experience or GMAT score—so I really wanted to knock the essays out of the park.
Easier said than done, right?
If you’ve been procrastinating on your essays because you don’t know where to begin, don’t fret! I’ve devised a 10-day plan to not only help you power through your essays, but to help you write ones that are sure to impress. Dedicate about 2-3 hours each day to the steps below, and you’ll be done before you know it.
Days 1-3: Gear Up
Getting started can be really difficult—but you don’t have to face that blank piece of paper (er, Word document) yet. There are actually some things you should do before diving in that will help you get started on the right track.
Over the next few days, focus on the following activities, and you’ll not only have honed in on your topics, you’ll have gotten yourself halfway to a finished essay.
Study Up on Your Schools: Individual b-schools are really, really different from one another—and application committees want to know that you understand that and that you specifically want to attend their school. So, once you’ve picked the programs you’re interested in, spend some time reflecting on what qualities of each get you the most excited. Have a separate sheet of paper or document for each school, where you can write down your favorite things about the program, copy and paste ideas from their websites that really excite you, and brainstorm why they would be perfect fits for you. This will give you a good sense of what themes you should focus on in each individual essay.
Know Your Application: The main purpose of an essay is to round you out as a candidate. You’ll want to use them to highlight important or new information that shows admissions directors how awesome you’ll be at their school. So, before you start writing, it’s worth reviewing your application to see what qualities already come across strongly, and what is missing or isn’t represented well. For example, I really wanted to showcase my leadership skills because I wasn’t sure if they were coming through strongly on my resume. So, I wrote an essay about a project I led successfully, despite difficulties that came up along the way. Understanding how your essay will fit in with the rest of your application can really help you narrow down your ideas.
Use Your Village: The people who know you well in your personal and professional lives are amazing resources during the application process. If you’re getting stuck finding a topic, can’t think of an accomplishment to discuss, or need to narrow down ideas, they can serve as a sounding board and help you land on a subject that best reflects who you are. During these first couple of days, set up coffee dates with a couple mentors or friends to talk to them about your thoughts for the essays and get their input.
Days 4-7: Get Writing!
Preparation is key, but after a certain point you’re going to have to start putting words down on paper. Spend the next few days pounding out your essays and, as you type, keep these things in mind:
Show Off (But Not Too Much): Sure, you want to use your essays to show the admissions committee how awesome you are. But you also don’t want to seem like an egotistical jerk. It can be tricky to walk the line between describing your achievements and bragging, so make sure to think carefully about your tone so that you don’t inadvertently come across in the wrong way. One way to do this is to make sure to at least reference the fact that you still have some room to develop in certain areas—schools know that no one is perfect, and they want to bring in people who are open to learning from their program.
Be Specific: Details and vignettes can really help your essay stand out from the thousands of others that admissions directors read each year. Use specific language and situations to show, not tell, why you’re a good fit for a particular school. I have fairly unique work experience that is aligned with what I want to do after b-school, so I tried to include stories from my job that would grab the readers’ attention and highlight my career goals. The only place to be careful here is when talking about your work—remember that the person reading your essay likely didn’t come from your industry, so try to avoid jargon and work-specific vocabulary.
Day 8: Take a Break
At this point, you may just want to finish up, but it’s worth taking a full day to put your essays away and focus on other things. Giving yourself a chance to sleep on it and take a day off will help you come back to revisions tomorrow with fresh eyes.
Days 9-10: Put the Polish On
Now it’s time to take your essays from great to perfectly polished. Spend the next couple days on the following steps to get your essays into their final forms:
Re-write, Rinse, Repeat: The editing stage isn’t just about checking for mistakes. Really evaluate each essay as a whole: Does it include all the information you want? Is it organized in the best way possible? Do you go off on any tangents? Does the overall message come across correctly? Don’t be afraid to let yourself totally re-write parts (or all!) of your essays at this point—this is really where the magic happens.
Sweat the Small Stuff: Your final step should be to pull out your (proverbial) red pen and go through your essays with a fine-toothed comb before submitting them. Make sure to take care of all of those nit-picky things that go along with writing—grammar, passive voice, tone, word count, spelling—so that the admissions committee can focus on your content, not your typos. It can also be helpful to have a friend or family member give it one last pass—a fresh set of eyes often sees things you won’t!
If you’ve followed this timeline you should have a set of excellent essays ready to be submitted. Now, go send them off and celebrate!