The essay is one part of your application over which you have total control. The admissions officers regard essays as an opportunity to find about you as a person. The rest of your application tells them your educational history: your grades, your test scores, and your attainments. Thus they already have a quantitative picture of you. Now they want to know what makes you qualitatively different from other applicants. So, in a nutshell, a successful essay will show them that you are an articulate and distinctive person.
Both the essays you write and the references you submit are vital parts of your application. The references contain information about you told by someone else, but the essays give you the opportunity to tell the admissions committee what matters most to you. Your essays are your opportunity to �talk� to the committee. Imagine yourself addressing real people and telling them what you hope to achieve and convincing them of your potential. The keynote here is sincerity. Just as a person can judge you by the way you talk to them, the admissions tutors can read between the lines to see what kind of person you really are. They are experts at detecting lies, omissions and exaggerations, so it is always best to be straightforward. I think that the following (from the Stanford admissions department some time back) sums up what is needed. �Reflective, insightful essays help us envision the individual behind all of the experiences and accomplishments that we read about elsewhere in your application. Please remember that we are reading the essays taking into account all the information contained in your application. Our goal is to understand what motivates you and how you have become the person you are today.�
Each B-school application will require anywhere from two to six essay responses. The first step is to print out the list of topics for each school and study them carefully. It is of utmost importance to understand the questions and answer them properly: You cannot get away with submitting a generalized essay. Each component of the question must be addressed and you must not stray off the topic. For example, consider an essay that asks: "Discuss the accomplishment of yours which required the most effort to achieve. What intermediary steps where necessary? How did you overcome challenges along the way?" In your response you must cover not only what you did, but also how you did it. You must focus on only one accomplishment.
Take each essay in turn and think about your response. You can discuss your ideas with friends, colleagues, advisors and parents before starting to write. Each essay should convey a correct balance between factual information and analysis of the information. The essays are there to get at something more than your experiences; they should reveal your passions, aspirations, ideas and values.
A misleading piece of advice you often hear is, "Tell the admissions committee what makes you unique." This can lead students into thinking they have to write about exciting events (skydiving, appearing on TV, winning awards, etc.), and some are even led into inventing experiences. However, this is not at all what is required. What actually makes you unique is the way life experiences, even of the more mundane kind, have made you what you are. A typical essay might ask you, "Describe a difficult personal or professional challenge you have faced. What did you learn from this experience?" Do not be tempted into inventing something dramatic: focus on introspecting about what you learned from a real experience.
Write a first draft of each essay. Look at the draft again the next day. If you are convinced that you have done your best, show the essay to someone whose opinion you value. Once you have feedback you can think about rewriting. Before rewriting ask yourself whether you have spent enough time on explaining how your outlook on life has been influenced by whatever situation your are describing, or how you have arrived at crucial decisions. Take a typical essay that asks you, �Present a 5-year career plan, including your professional goals and how you intend to implement them. Discuss how you believe your education at our school will influence your plan.� The committee is looking for a �thoughtful self-assessment� of your goals. Not all of your plans will be worked out to the last detail, but a realistic examination of what you hope to achieve is needed here. Do not forget that the business school wants to see that they can actually help you achieve your goals. For a similar topic a Stanford tutor wrote, �You don't have to have your entire life mapped out, but applicants often find it difficult to address why an MBA is required to achieve their goals if the goals themselves are ill-defined. Illustrate why, of all the choices in your life at this time, pursuing an MBA is the best way for you to achieve your personal and professional aspirations - the answer might surprise you! Finally, explain why you believe that Stanford is the right MBA program to help you reach your goals.�
Rewrite your essays in light of the feedback you receive, then get a final edit of punctuation, grammar etc. from an expert. This way the essays portray you, and are your own original work, but are not spoiled by distracting errors. Check that you have not exceeded the word limit on any of your essays. If you have gone over the word limit, do some pruning at this point. Being concise is one of the qualities they are looking for!
When you believe you have finalized all the essays for one school, print out the whole set and read them all at one sitting. Evaluate the entire set in light of the whole application. Ask yourself whether the set as a whole conveys all the necessary information. Have you told the committee everything that they need to know? Most schools offer an optional essay in which you can write about anything else that you need to explain to them: use this opportunity only if you feel sure there is an important need for it.
Once you are satisfied with your content take a final look at the presentation. Check that you have followed all directions about formatting and used a standardized layout throughout. Unless otherwise directed, a 12-point font and standard typeface (Arial or Times New Roman) are probably the best. Justified text looks better (unless you are specifically asked for left-aligned text.) Make sure you number the essays properly, and follow any other instructions you are given exactly.
One final point: make sure you allow enough time to complete the essays to the best of your ability. Never leave them to the last minute or you will be jeopardizing your whole application. Do not underestimate the importance of essays; they can make or break your chances of going to the business school of your choice.
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