A guiding principle in essay strategy: Don’t outstay your welcome.

The Duke adcom has sure bucked the trend. They’ve got not one, but two exceedingly permissively long essays, PLUS three short-answer questions that add up to another decently-sized essay. Plus an optional essay! And a supplemental answer if you need it! Man oh man, they’re just feeding you out all this rope for you to hang yourself with!

Hopefully you’re already hip to the advice that “you don’t write the optional essay unless you need to.” We cover this pretty extensively here on the blahg (though we haven’t called it out directly in awhile so that’s one purpose of today’s post). The optional essay is NEVER simply an open invitation to submit whatever-you-want that you didn’t manage to fit in elsewhere in the app. It always must be deployed strategically, with a purpose, or not at all.

That’s true at EVERY school.

It’s REALLY true at Duke where they’re already giving you all this other space to tell your story.

Got a real reason behind a glitch with your grades? Why not come up with a way to mention it in the 25 Things list? No, you don’t want to force it, but there’s a chance you could make it work.

This post actually isn’t about those other elements so much as it is about Duke’s main essay. It’s the “why Duke?” question – or the alternate question asking you what you’ll be known for when you graduate there. We go into some details on which is the “better” question for most people to tackle in our Duke essay guide. What we’ll say to you today is simply about formatting.

Yes, formatting.

Just because Duke allows you all this space to construct your Essay 2 answer does NOT mean you should abuse it.

We had a BSer a few weeks ago send in a 1300+ word Essay 2.

More than 1300 words.

That’s one thousand words, plus three hundred more, plus some random change on top.

That’s like the size of five essays that other schools allow.

It was a nightmare.

The worst part? Hardly any of it was on target.

There was fluff and fluff and fluff.

This BSer got stuck in the “storytelling” mode of writing essays and forgot the “answer the question” mode. Not completely, but enough to make it a very thick essay to wade through.

We saw something similar from a BSer applying to Booth. They didn’t do the PowerPoint. They did a written essay. And that written essay was like 1200 words long.

That’s really really long. Like, too long, if you ask us.

Or if it’s a 500-word essay, and you’re running a little overlimit — you can go a little over but not too much over — and you see that it’s spilling to a second page… That’s too long. A 500-word essay should fit on a single page.

If you find yourself tweaking your margins and switching to a tiny font size in order to make your essay fit the school’s requirements, well, that’s a guaranteed sign that you’re making a mistake.

You don’t want to outstay your welcome.

(BTW, this goes for resumes, too. Your resume should be one page only. No exceptions. Okay, maybe there are a few – but you’re almost definitely not in that category.)

Reading essays is HARD. It’s like a lot of no-fun for the adcom person. You may not realize that when you’re waxing poetic with your lofty prose. But being on the other side of your writing is often just not very interesting. Reading essays is what they call WORK. Someone is getting PAID to do it. It’s not like they went out to Barnes & Noble and bought the latest bestseller and can’t wait to get home and snuggle up on the couch with your writing. No. No matter how fascinating you believe your life to be, believe us when we tell you, it’s almost definitely going to be somewhere on the spectrum of yawn-inducing when you write about it in your essay.

If you couple that with poor grammar or other sloppiness – or a combination of micefont plus toothpick margins and blocks of inscrutable justified text – well, your adcom reader is only going to GROAN when they open up your draft.

So. Here’s our Public Service Message for today:

Even though Duke technically allows you to submit a 10-point font, it’s actually in your best interest to bump up to 11-point. Or, heck! Why not party hard and go for 12-point!



Don’t be the guest who wouldn’t leave.

Honestly it will help you. Your reader will breathe a sigh of relief when opening that puppy up – instead of gritting her teeth to deal with the monster that you are presenting.

($) Sample Letters of Recommendation

We say we don’t do this, and yet here we are… We don’t publish “sample” essays. However today we’re going to offer you a veritable goldmine for your recommenders. We have some sample letters for you to pass along to them. If you’ve been paying attention, you may already have taken advantage of this. These…

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Today is Thanksgiving in the States – gobble gobble! Tomorrow is a holiday, too, though the ‘Snark may be popping in from time to time in case anyone is diligently writing essays and needs help! Otherwise: Happy eating/drinking/shopping/sleeping!

A very viable plan for a wanna-be entrepreneur.

So we’ve been known to throw cold water on the idea of using bschool to launch a business.

Yet the schools are putting more and more focus on this, and it’s certainly a shift in work and society, in that more and more of us will need to be entrepreneurial in how we manage our careers.

(Consider the source: EssaySnark has done the startup thing. Not just the one you’re currently looking at, but several before this too.)

We love startups. We think entrepreneurs are great. We don’t want to turn you off of this if your heart is set on it.

And, we know that many future MBAs may not be quite ready to start a business on Day One after graduation, but they will be at some point in the future.

So how about this?

One very viable and completely realistic path-forward is to commit to JOINING a student-run startup during school – but in a support role.

You don’t really need (or want) to be the Head Honcho Founder right now, do you?

Not if your risk profile is on the conservative side.

Instead, why not explore the possibility of helping out with some other student’s passion project. There’s always a way to figure out some terms. It does not have to be a lifelong commitment. There are plenty of courses and clubs in bschool to meet up with students who need help. You could either volunteer your time completely for free, in exchange for the valuable experience you’d gain. Or, if your skills are that in demand, then maybe you could work out a small equity stake (very small, likely). You could define the timeframe within which you’d be involved. You could negotiate.

This might be exactly the type of exposure you need to know once and for all whether entrepreneurship is for you. Or if it’s not! That can be a valuable lesson to learn, too.

The adcoms could be very receptive to this – though if you go this route in your essays, don’t get too bogged down in it. You would still, for most schools, need to discuss the details of what you plan to do AFTER bschool. What we’re mentioning here is something you would be doing DURING bschool. Still very relevant and useful, but not typically the main question that the schools want to have answered.

Anyway, food for thought.

Want more food for thought – or better yet, ammunition to prepare you for how to pitch these ambitious goals you’ve got in mind to the adcom? Check out our Career Goals Research Starting Point for Entrepreneurship — as the title indicates, it’s a way to start the research into what’s required of an entrepreneur who’s using bschool as an incubator in pitching that idea to the admissions committee.

($) “Is a regular text essay OK for Booth?”

That was a question we got after our post on how to do the Booth essay. Can you write an essay-essay for Booth? Instead of a PowerPoint-essay? Of course you can. But is it OPTIMAL? That’s a question only you (or perhaps with EssaySnark’s help) can answer. It really depends on what you have to…

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($) The simple way to answer Booth’s essay question this year.

Since we spent most of last week freaking you out about how hard it is to get in this year, we figured we may as well start digging into some actual essay-writing advice, to help you get on that horse and ride it. We’ll start with Booth. There’s a simple way to answer the Booth…

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($) Reality Check Part 3: The best advice we can offer about this competitive season

Today we’ll continue and hopefully conclude our impromptu mid-round series about the competitiveness of this MBA application season and what you can do about it (in case you missed it: Part 1 describing how competitive it really is and the possible implications of that, and Part 2 with some practical advice on how to navigate…

While much of the blahg is available completely for free, the content here is reserved for members with full blahg access only ($9.95/month, cancel anytime). Please login to view this content or purchase a membership – or return to the home page.