So you’ve taken the GMAT, you’ve lined up your recommendations, and you’re sitting down to write your business school application essays. Dreaded as they are, they’re also supremely important.
Just a few years ago, I was there too, and I remember it being a bit daunting. I wanted to go to Harvard—but no one I knew well had gone there before. I didn’t go to a prestigious private high school or Ivy League college. I also wasn’t an investment banker or a management consultant (I was an engineer). I did have good undergraduate grades and a great GMAT score—but I strongly suspect it was my essays that landed me my acceptances to both Harvard and Stanford.
There were a few key principles that helped me when I was writing my essays. And no matter what school you’re hoping for , the same strategies can help you get there, too. Here’s what to consider before you start typing.
1. Line up Your Critics
You don’t have to go through the process entirely alone. In fact, you’ll need outside perspectives—after drafting, revising, re-revising and re-re-revising, you will lose your ability to be objective. From the beginning brainstorming stages to the final read-through, you need people to sanity check what you’re writing to make sure it makes sense and is interesting.
Line up one person to be a consistent primary feedback-giver , and plan to touch base with him or her fairly regularly. You should also have two or three other people review your essays to get some different perspectives, but be careful adding more than that—getting too many differing opinions may give you feedback whiplash.
The best feedback-givers are people who have been accepted to the schools you’re applying to—they’re most familiar with the application process (and they obviously did something right). In the absence of a B-school alum, someone with good business sense and writing skills will work just fine, too.
2. Share Your Passions
In 2005, I heard Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi, speak, and she said something that has stayed with me ever since: “Success is what happens when the passion for what you do outweighs the fatigue of doing it.”
Top programs are looking for passionate people —they’re more likely to be successful and, frankly, more interesting to be around. Schools want to know that you understand yourself and what you’re passionate about, that you have interesting examples of how that passion has surfaced in your life, and that you want to channel your passion to do big things after business school. (There you go, beginning, middle, and end to the “what matters most to you and why?” essay question from Stanford.)
So, tell a story about your passions. Be consistent, and be genuine. Admissions officers read thousands of essays and if you’re not authentic, they will sniff you out—if not on first read, then during the interview process.
3. Show Upward Trajectory
Like a good story, your essay should build. One strategy to do this effectively is to talk about something small that becomes bigger and better over time. (Even better if you can show that you’ve overcome obstacles to reach the bigger and better state—everyone loves an underdog.)
It’s a given that you need to illustrate how you’ve progressed professionally , but you should also show growth in your extracurricular endeavors. For example, did your weekend volunteering at a non-profit turn into you landing a board seat? If you’re passionate about mountain climbing, did you start with Mt. Rainier and then rise to the challenge of climbing Mt. Everest?
4. Illustrate Your Ability to Give Back
Business schools aren’t completely altruistic—they want to know that you’ll make their campus richer by participating in community events and taking on leadership roles in campus organizations. And because the best predictor of future behavior is past performance, it’s smart to use at least one essay to illustrate how you’ve previously given back to a community .
The best examples of charity hit on two points: they demonstrate your benevolence and also reinforce your stated passion. If you’re passionate about environmental sustainability, have you volunteered to speak to high school students on the topic? Did you lead a fundraising campaign for a preservation organization?
5. Be Concise (and Correct)
There’s absolutely no excuse for going over a word limit or making grammatical errors. Both are just plain lazy—and in some cases, might get your essay tossed in the trash without a second thought.
So, once you’re done with your applications, go back with a critical eye. Cut out all unnecessary words by using contractions (doesn’t vs. does not) and eliminating excessive adjectives (“successful” is just as effective as “very successful” and “a long, dangerous, windy path” can be shortened to “a path”). Leverage your feedback-giver to help you figure out all the places where adjectives and adverbs aren’t adding anything to your story.
And please, proofread. Multiple times. Have someone else proofread, too.
Beyond that, don’t overthink it. Pick up 65 Successful Harvard Business School Application Essays —I was impressed (and reassured) by how straightforward the essays were. After all, it’s not about showing schools something that’s never been seen before—it’s about showing them that you’re a good fit.
Want more? Ask your essay and admissions questions on Twitter @ssahney . Good luck!
Photo courtesy of Patricia Drury .
Sonia Sahney Nagar has a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan and an MBA from Harvard Business School. Sonia is currently co-founder and CEO of Smarketplaces. She has previously worked at Amazon, Booz & Co. and Goldman Sachs. You can find her on her blog or on Twitter at @ssahney or at @smarketplaces.More from this Author