Essays are not a writing test. They’re a thinking test.

Here’s our wrap-up post for WRITING WEEK – which is actually not about writing. If you’re just joining us, the first of the series from Monday is here.

So much can be learned from an essay.

You may think it’s just a mechanical exercise that you have to get through, but honestly, an astute reader can glean so much about you from reading a simple essay.

Not only does presentation and professionalism matter, but what you say – and what you DON’T say – matter just as much.

What might matter most is how you organize your thoughts and express your ideas. You have to have a reasonable grasp of the English language to do a good job with this (which hopefully your college education gave you). Fancy writing is not the key. What will let you tilt your chances towards admissions success is how you construct your thoughts and lay them out for the reader – in specific response to exactly what was asked.

The problem of applicants not answering the question is so pervasive that it’s often the first thing you hear admissions people lament when they’re asked for application tips.

How to get into bschool?

Answer the question.

So that’s first. Be direct, and answer it quickly – usually in the first paragraph is best.

Then, the rest of what you construct needs to support that answer. An essay is presenting a position and backing it up. It doesn’t matter if that “position” is a statement of your short-term career goals, or if it’s your most significant achievement. In all cases, the purpose of an essay is to communicate something specific about you with enough evidence that the reader can go along with it.

It’s also your duty to the reader to be consistent, and to manage expectations.

What we mean by that is, if you start the essay making a particular claim or statement, or including certain facts, then the reader is expecting you to follow through with that.

And, they’re expecting you to operate within the standard conventions of an application to a top business school.

We had a BSer submit an essay to us recently – we’re going to change the details here but yet use the same story to illustrate what happened. This person was trying to convey “fit” to the school and they introduced it by saying (this part is fictionalized) “Community.” OK great, that’s a pretty common topic for bschool-world. Community. We know what that means.

But then, the headliner statement in this section about “Community” was about the TV show (which EssaySnark has not seen but we’ve heard of it).

OK fine, we can make that leap with you, though we’re wondering why you as the writer are asking us to do so.

But THEN, the real problem hits when the actual story they presented had nothing to do with “community” – neither the idea relevant to the MBA cultural experience, nor the TV show. They actually presented a story about having to confront a colleague at work when a project wasn’t going well.

So, that story that we got could very well work in an MBA essay. In a vacuum, it was an appropriate topic to be presenting in an app.

The problem is, it had nothing to do with what the writer said the essay would be about. The BSer was being too cute with the presentation. It was a clear abuse of the flexibility of the question that the adcom had asked. It was a case of style over substance – and style ALWAYS loses to substance in this battle for getting in. (And unfortunately here the “style” was as jarring as seeing the old dude with the plaid shorts and white knee-high socks with sandals; in another context, the individual elements could work, but all put together, just, no.)

What you’re doing with your MBA admissions essays (or trying to do) is to prove to the adcom that you can think. That you can take a vague assignment and wrestle it to the ground and come up with a solution. That you can deal with ambiguity and come out a winner.

You know that thing called the case method? Heard of it?

Yeah, well, that’s when you take in all this data and spit out a cohesive opinion.

It’s kinda like what you need to do when writing essays.

It’s true. Getting into bschool is not an essay-writing contest.

But until they invent something better, the essay is what we got.

And writing is one of the hallmarks of being human. It’s what separates us as a species. It reflects our ability to think.

If you write it well, your essay will let you show that you can do that.

Want to know if you’ve written it well? Check out our Essay Decimator two-stage essay review service – that’s the standard one, and here’s the one for Harvard. Or, to get all the pieces of your pitch mapped out carefully before writing a single word in an essay, the Complete Essay Package – there’s still time to go through the entire process with us! We’ll be around this weekend intermittently too for current clients with questions.

($) Timewarps.

Continuing with WRITING WEEK, today we’ll talk about flip-flopping (not the kind that politicians do; this is the kind that some of you do, in your essays, a lot). Here’s a comment we left on a BSer’s main Duke essay some time back: Again, why are you telling us this here? Either group all of…

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Hyphenating words does not reduce your word count.

We actually had a Brave Supplicant do this last year – and we were impressed with the creativity.

We had read through several drafts of essays from this person and we kept commenting on the grammar errors around hyphenated words. We saw a bunch of instances like “team-dynamics” and “five-years” and “live-training” — phrases that might be hyphenated if they’re used as adjectives, but used as nouns, nope. We finally told them that we weren’t going to point out the individual errors anymore, but that the draft had a high incidence of this problem, and he was going to have to watch out for it in his revisions, to make sure that he fixed them.

He finally came back with the admission: He’d been hyphenating words in an attempt to lower the word count.

Wow. We’d never seen THAT before!

But that doesn’t work.

If you’re employing some sneaky technique to try and reduce the length of your essay, well, a) it’s not reducing the length of the essay, and b) it’s introducing grammar errors.

Examples where those phrases do need the hyphen?

  • “the team-dynamics training manual” (awkward but grammatically correct)
  • “a group of five-year-olds” or “the five-year mission” (we can’t think of any case where “five-years” is valid)
  • “the live-training exercise”

As we stated above, most of those are nouns converted into adjectives, and in that case, the hyphen is legit.

But guess what? None of this matters – the bschools don’t count words (except in very rare instances where their app software restricts the amount of text you can place in a field). The admissions committee people all develop a very keen eye for a too-long essay. It’s not about literally what Microsoft Word tells you your essay length is; it’s what’s appropriate for a 500-word essay (or whatever the length limit is on the puppy you’re wrestling with).

This is why it’s important to use appropriate essay formatting, so that your 500-word essay does not spill onto a second page (just as one example of what to watch out for as you write).

It’s not just about the words that you offer in answer to the question; it’s also important to write well, and to format your presentation optimally for the context that you’re writing it.

($) WRITING WEEK! Day 2: Reduce the Fluff Factor

It’s Day 2 of WRITING WEEK on the EssaySnark blahg! In case you missed our starting post: Don’t cheat your reader. Today we’ll talk about combining essay-writing strategy and tactics. When you have hardly any space in a bschool essay, you need to make every word count. Seems obvious, right? If it were, then we…

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.

WRITING WEEK! Day 1: Don’t cheat your reader out of a proper.

You should be writing essays! To support you in that, this week we’re dedicating the blahg to posts about writing. This will be a fairly random assortment of tips and tricks for putting together a strong MBA application essay. We’ll start at the end.

Essays have three parts: Intro, body, conclusion.

It’s like a dog: Head, body, tail.

All dogs have all those things. Even the dogs with little nubs of a tail where when they shake their tail they’re actually shaking their whole butt and wiggling a lot because they only have a nub of a tail because it got docked or they’re some breed with a tiny tail … they still have a tail.

When a dog is happy to see you then it wags its tail. When it wags its tail you smile.

When your reader gets to the end of your essay you want them to smile.

Give them a conclusion to make them smile.

Don’t just end your essay at the body. Because then they get there and they’re like, “Hey! What happened! I thought there was going to be a tail here!”

We think you’ll agree with this guy: Tails are worth having!

You don’t want your reader to be reading along and then… fall off a cliff.

Essays should not just stop.

Essays need a conclusion.

Otherwise your reader is left with the sense that, “Darn it, something’s missing!” (Kinda like with the title to this post, right? 😉 See what we did there? hahaha)

PS: You’ll note that we also suggested you leave your reader something to “make them smile” at the ending? You also don’t want to end your essay on a negative. Remember, that’s the last impression that they’re going to have of you. Make it a good one.

Check back tomorrow for another WRITING WEEK! post. If you just can’t wait and want more procrastination material inspiration now, here’s this from the Snark’ives. Good luck with your essay-writing this week, Brave Supplicant!

update: Here’s post #2! Reduce the Fluff Factor

How to get rejected from bschool.

Here’s a quick list of mistakes we see people making in their bschool apps All. The. Time.

  1. Underestimate the importance of Round 1.
  2. Toss out totally ambitious career goals – like saying you want to be CEO.
  3. Toss out totally ambiguous career goals – like saying you want to lead a company.
  4. Paper the country with applications.
  5. Use the same essay for multiple schools.

Here’s why these are problems:

  1. Round 2 has traditionally been feasible but the competition is heating up – and last season was exceptionally tight in Round 2. If you’re in any sort of crowded candidate pool, then Round 1 is of even more importance.
  2. It is not realistic to say you’re going to be CEO of any organization in the timeframe that the adcoms want to see you discussing. You’re going to graduate from bschool and become, what, an associate? A consultant? A product manager? How soon do you think you’re going to be able to progress from that role to running the whole show? The adcoms are looking for ACTUAL GOALS – not dreamy-eyed ideas.
  3. Saying you want to lead a company is different since that could potentially be you presenting an entrepreneurial goal – but that statement above is totally lacking. Are you saying you will LAUNCH a company and then lead it? Or are you going to go find some company to acquire? Or convince a board of directors to hire you as CEO? All of these require different strategies of presentation.
  4. More is not better in terms of application strategy. In fact, if you apply everywhere in Round 1, then you’re losing out on chances to rebound and recover if none of them work out. Always hang onto at least one favorite school for a Round 2 strategy if needed. Also, whenever someone says they’re applying to 10 schools, that tells us a) they don’t have a strategy, b) they’re a little bit desperate, c) they haven’t done the research to know which schools are actually a proper fit, and d) they totally don’t understand the workeffort required to do a good job on ONE application. So basically, we start to lose hope right out of the gate.
  5. Not only is it very unusual that one essay will ever work wholesale for another school’s question, the bigger risk here is that the schools can usually tell when you wrote an essay for someone else yet submitted it to them. Talk about a turnoff. It’s like the loser who sends the same come-on message to every OKCupid contact. You think the chicks can’t tell?

There’s actually a helluva lot more ways to blow your chances with your MBA apps than this – but we realized as we constructed that short list that basically every post here on the blahg is about that. We caution you Brave Supplicants all over the place about missteps and fallacies of thinking. What we recommend is read the posts here – especially the ones listed in the right column that say “What we were talking about at this time in past years” – since those are especially relevant and timely for where we’re at in the cycle right now. Don’t forget to use the Search box at the top (right column when you’re on the main page) and to explore the Categories of posts, too – either the ones listed out at the bottom of every post, or using the dropdown menu in that right sidebar.

Bad essays are the main reason that an otherwise good application is rejected. Good essays can flip a borderline profile to acceptable. You have it all in your control.

At minimum you may want to check out our Pre-Submit Sanity Check service – though the full Essay Decimator is strongly recommended (yes there’s still time! even for Harvard!).

And before you do that, leverage the resources available. Like, read the silly app strategy guide that we wrote for your school before writing your drafts. It’s a little bit crazy how often we get materials submitted from Brave Supplicants that have very basic issues in evidence. A lot of the grief of the review-and-feedback process could be avoided if more time was spent exploring the resources available here before sending stuff in.

Aw shucks there we go lecturing you again. :-)

We wish all of you the best of luck – Brave Supplicants, you can do this! There’s still enough time to do a bang-up job on those applications. We’re here to help!

($) How everyone is muffing up their Harvard essays this year.

(And soon we’ll do a separate post on how everyone’s Booth presentations are a mess this year.) We’re now knee-deep in essays and it’s a good time to offer up some early-season wisdom, to give out some advice on how not to do things. This is based on the mistakes that we’re seeing be made…

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.