10 Steps to Writing Killer Essays
1. Tailor different essays to different schools. Writing essays can be a taxing process, time-intensive and exhausting, but it’s important to take individual care with each one you submit. Each business school has a different mission and different admissions criteria. Take note of the differences, and tailor your essays to reflect them.
2. Invest time in brainstorming. Finding the right structure and language to make your essays stand out should take time and effort, but it should be relatively easy compared to the time and effort you put into picking the right stories to tell in the first place. Good ideas will breed good, interesting writing, so spend a lot of time thinking about and discussing with others the ideas you want to build your essays around. The early investment will pay off in a big way.
3. Show, don’t tell. Don’t write that you are a hard worker; show it by telling the admissions committee about a time you worked harder than anyone else. Don’t say that you are creative; show it by writing about a problem you solved in an interesting way. The worst essays are laundry lists of adjectives, clichés, and platitudes. The best are stories that capture the admissions committee’s attention by recreating the moments that shaped your character and ethic.
4. Answer the question. Write the essay question you’re answering at the very top of the page you’re writing on, and make sure you answer it directly in your first few sentences. Even reuse the language embedded in the question to clearly call the reader’s attention to the answer. Admissions committees invest a lot of time and resources in picking the few questions they want you to answer; straying too far from them is a clear sign that you either can’t or don’t follow directions.
5. Essays are opportunities to highlight strengths. Every candidate has weaknesses, and in some situations those weaknesses require explanation, but don’t let them overwhelm your essays. No amount of explaining your weaknesses will get you admitted into business schools. To get admitted, you need to sell the schools on your strengths, on the reasons why they should want you. The essays are first and foremost the place to do that.
6. Keep it focused. There are several reasons why schools provide word limits, and of late it seems like those word limits are getting smaller and smaller. In such a short space, they don’t expect you to tell your life story or cover all of the strengths that you’ll bring to the program. Trying to do so will only dilute your best opportunity to make your case. Rather than trying to build a list of credentials in your essays, focus each essay on a single idea or strength. Make it a powerful idea, and don’t stray from it.
7. Have others read your work. Have at least two or three others read your essays. Ask some to focus on story and structure, and ask others, especially those with the strongest editing skills, to focus on grammar and style.
8. Enlist strangers to edit your essays, too. Try to have at least one person that doesn’t know you particularly well – perhaps another applicant you met during an admissions tour – edit your essays. Friends, family, and colleagues can be great resources, but because they know you and your background, they may fill in some gaps that aren’t obvious to an admissions committee member.
9. Proofread. Proofread. Proofread. It should go without saying, but typos, misspellings, and grammatical errors are admissions killers.
10. Be honest. The admissions committee will get a great picture of you and your experiences through the application, interview, and background check process. Hyperbole and outright falsehoods are application killers, so be honest about your accomplishments.
Our Experience – From the Founders
Kyle’s Essay Writing Experience: In hindsight, I underestimated how long it would take to think of solid ideas for my essays. I didn’t start brainstorming until after I finished the GMAT at the end of August, leaving me about one month to complete my essays and application before the first-round deadline at HBS. However, the time I did invest in brainstorming solid ideas paid off and made the actual writing process a lot smoother and much faster.
I went through about a half dozen drafts of each essay with input from two good friends, one of whom was an excellent copy editor, as well as some family members. Their input was enormously helpful, but at a certain point I found myself receiving conflicting advice from different people. It was then that I knew I’d have to finish the process independently and go with what I felt best represented my candidacy.
The hardest part of the process for me was deciding how much time to spend addressing what I saw as my biggest weaknesses, namely having no private sector experience and a relatively light quantitative background. In the end, I opted to not overtly address either. If a business school was going to admit me, I decided, then it was going to do it for reasons other than my private sector and quantitative experience (or lack thereof!). It would do it specifically because my background was different. Had I not fervently sold them on those other, “non-traditional” qualities, then I knew I had no shot. Looking back, I think it was absolutely the right decision for me.
Vincent’s Essay Writing Experience: Writing B-school essays was an intimidating experience. Essays are your best opportunity to tell the schools who you really are, while making it clear that you know why you have chosen their program and expressing why you think you would be a great fit. Admissions committees expect you to introduce yourself in a comprehensive way within extremely tight word constraints. Writing a business school essay can therefore be a difficult exercise, especially for non-native English speakers who may struggle to express ideas succinctly. Do your homework, and research the schools carefully. Be passionate about each program you apply to, and know what makes it unique. Then try to convey this passion within the word limit (stick to it). Try to be assertive, but don’t be arrogant.
Writing essays will take you a lot of time, so make sure to plan accordingly. This is definitely not something you should rush. If you are not ready, simply apply during the next round.
Finally, never, ever submit an essay that may contain typos or grammatical errors. It could really hurt your application. Ask a friend, family member, or a professional to review your work before submitting it. But of course make sure that the work you submit is your own!