3 Ways to Make your MBA Essays Stick

Even if you never get accepted to the MBA program of your choice, writing admissions essays is a worthwhile exercise.  It can be painfully introspective, boring, and stressful, but put in the effort you’ll learn a lot about yourself.  You’ll also learn how to market yourself professionally.

After some brainstorming I read the book Made to Stick by Chip & Dan Heath — it’s about making memes sticky and memorable.  I recommend you read it, but in case you don’t have the time here are three key takeaways for essay writing:

Be concrete:

Avoid talking in concepts and generalities.  People connect with real examples and this is what you need to give the admissions committee.  Don’t say “I’m unselfish.”  Demonstrate it by telling about the time you helped a taxi driver push his  broken cab to the next gas station.  Don’t talk about your manager, use her name instead.  Put as much concrete detail into your essays as possible.  The same goes for your “Why MBA” goals essay — instead of saying “I want to work for a big investment bank” tell them you want to work at Morgan Stanley because their superior business cards have watermarks.  Concrete details make you believable in your stories and your goals.

Never bury the lead:

This isn’t a new concept, but it was pretty new to me.  News reporters are taught to always give the most important facts first, then flesh in the details.  Using this ‘inverted pyramid’ style of writing means that whenever your readers stop reading they’ve gotten the maximum possible amount of information for their time.  Your readers will have limited attention even on the most exciting essays, so make sure you tell the important things first, then flesh in the details.  Note: This can make it tricky to tell stories and create tension, but there are ways around it.  If you have to tell a story about the time you crashed an oil tanker into an iceberg don’t start your essay with “It was a dark and stormy night…”  Instead, start it with “The time I crashed an oil tanker into an iceberg:
It was a dark and stormy night….”

The Curse of Knowledge:

This isn’t so much a technique as an important guiding concept.  Remember that you know yourself better than anyone, as will people who proofread your essays.  The challenge to writing memorable essays is to take the perspective of somebody who literally knows nothing about you.    Unfortunately you can’t do this because in this respect you’re cursed with knowledge of yourself.

This means that, among other things, you need to  to be selective and targeted with what you put into the essay.

This is really a theme throughout the book and rather hard to overcome when trying to make your stories sticky, but I will say this:  I got some great feedback on my essays from a fellow MBA candidate who I met on a campus visit.  The reason his feedback was particularly good is because he didn’t know me very well, so I got quite a ‘clean’ perspective on my writing.  Everyone else who looked at my essays had known me for ages.  Their advice helped too, of course, but it wasn’t quite as impartial.

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