Today we’re looking at an actual honest-to-goodness essay that an intrepid Brave Supplicant has written for HBS, and sent in for us to look at and talk about here on the blahg! In case you’re new in these parts, we’ve got this little thing on offer where, if you’re feeling especially courageous, and you’re willing…
First tip: You should definitely be filling out your app dataset if you haven’t started that already! Second tip: Only do that for your FIRST SCHOOL — not all of them — else you’re likely going to set yourself up for a very muddy process. Why? Because you don’t currently know what your full strategy…
A lot of what we do here is coaching around essays, and today’s post may make some of you click away, thinking it’s insignificant. But it’s not.
Everything matters in an essay, and one of the best ways to succeed in life is sweating the details.
Here are two sentences pulled from a newspaper article about an unfortunate event.
This paragraph is from the first third:
[T]he grievously wounded woman, who soon died at a hospital was a police officer, too: Katlyn Alix, a 24-year-old Army veteran with two years on the force. And St. Louis authorities soon said she was killed by a colleague.
And here’s a paragraph about halfway through:
The bizarre shooting comes at a difficult time for the department, which is already under national scrutiny after four St. Louis officers were indicted by a federal grand jury in November in the brutal beating of a 22-year police veteran who had been posing as a protester during 2017 demonstrations over a fatal police shooting.
Here are your questions:
1. How old was the officer who had been shot?
2. How long had that officer served on the police force?
3. How old was the officer who was indicted?
4. How long had that officer served on the police force?
Do you see the issue?
Anyone want to comment on this? How would you write these two sentences to fix it? Let’s talk about it!
We’ve offered lots of past warnings about tone and messaging in the context of “contribution” essays for your MBA app, and today is another that’s worth studying if you’re tackling one of these beasts. The essay prompt may ask, explicitly or implicitly, “What will you contribute?” It comes up in the MIT “mission” essay that…
We’re not talking about your life.
We’re talking about your essays.
Which, at this point on the calendar as we head into Round 1, may be (should be!!) one and the same!
We realize that some of you just rolled out of bed and looked at the calendar and rubbed the sleepboulders from your eyes to realize that, “Oh. Hey. Aren’t some applications due pretty soon?” And you haven’t really begun the heavy lifting of writing any essays yet. (If that’s you: You still have time to go through all the steps of the Complete Essay Package and come up with a strong pitch!)
But others have been writingwritingwriting and despite our many warnings about DON’T DO THAT!! you wrote a full draft for Harvard’s open-ended question, or about Stanford “What matters most?”, as your very first project.
And now you have a frankenstein monster that’s 2,000 words and has every single thought that you’ve thunk in the past three years referenced somewhere.
As much as it pains us to even suggest it: It might be better to start over.
We see signs when this might be the best (only) way out of an essay morass with things like this:
- The introduction says stuff that’s never referenced again anywhere in the essay. Ever.
- The same story appears in multiple places, but only in bits and bobs.
- There’s timewarping out the gazoo.
- The essay is 3x as long as it’s allowed to be by the school’s instructions.
- The essay commits the #1 worst mistake in all of essays to bschool ever.
These are just some of the signs, and it’s certainly not an exhaustive list. But if even one of those is present in a draft, it is a good indication you may be headed for trouble.
It’s possible to do open-heart surgery on a draft that’s in trouble, but usually, it just makes a mess and gets guts on the floor and the patient ends up dying on the table anyway. And then the surgeon is exhausted and goes out to have a cigarette and doesn’t come back for two days.
That’s inefficient and non-productive (and dangerous: somebody’s gonna slip and fall in that mess of guts you left behind).
So yeah. We’re saying to put this beast out of its misery and start over.
But you know what?
If you do this, it may be painful at the beginning — just because that decision to drop what you’ve started and abandon all the words you wrote seems like a defeat.
But very, very soon, if you do this and ditch the too-long/overfraught/impossible spaghetti-mess of a document that you’ve constructed, and you do that horrible little step of “File->New” in Word, and stare at a pristine blank page that’s seemingly laughing back at you…
If you have the bravery to do that, then guess what?
It’s highly likely that the same good ideas you had before will still be there. Those good ideas will still make their way to this draft. And very soon, after going through some emotional angst in the difficult decision, you’ll start to see sunlight again, and you’ll get energized.
That is, provided you don’t repeat the same process that got you the Frankenstein before.
You need to start over and do the first step differently.
Don’t start over by writing a new draft.
If you do this, then you need to START OVER WITH OUTLINES.
Figure out EXACTLY what the answer to the question is first. This needs to be YOUR FIRST STEP.
Now that you’ve written a bunch on this topic, you will have a whole arsenal of ideas to pull from. The step that many people skip is ORGANIZING THOSE IDEAS. Selecting the best ones, and leaving the others aside for another essay on another day. Structuring your thoughts. Putting things in their proper place. Sticking with the skeleton form of an essay first. Not writing it.
If you just start writing, the draft will end up looking like the inside of your brain looks: a frenetic upchuck of random crazy thoughts and ideas that may be tangentially related but really don’t make all that much sense. (Isn’t that how your thoughts work in your head? Lots of pingponging? Associations and tangents? Snippets and memories and muddiness and distractions? We often see essays that are a direct representation of the thought patterns going on in the person’s brain. Revealing that to the adcom is not actually a good way to get into bschool. 😉 )
Here’s some actual honest-to-goodness real-life feedback we gave to a BSer after coming to the conclusion that this person’s Harvard draft was similarly unsalvagable:
(Such feedback — and plenty more like it, that’s actionable and specific and very very detailed — is given through our Essay Decimator Essay Review service, in case you were wondering.)
Remember, writing essays is not a writing exercise.
There are very, very few people who know what they want to say before they start writing — yet they start writing anyway. And then they have an essay that doesn’t know what it’s saying.
Don’t be that guy.
Sometimes the quickest way to where you want to get is to slow down, or even, sometimes, to start over.
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There’s an unfortunate reality in this MBA admissions consulting scene where the lack of transparency works against you, the client/bschool applicant.
You want to pick the best advisor to help you with your apps. But how do you know who that is?
How do you evaluate whether an admissions consultant will help you get in — or if they’re planning on Photoshopping your face onto a tennis player’s body?
Our business model is set up to a) divide out each part of the process into individual services, so that you can pick and choose only those that you need, and thus make services more affordable to all, and b) telling the truth.
Sometimes, we get a BSer come through the door whose sights are set high — unfortunately, a little too high, when we see the reality of the profile. It’s not that the profile is flawed or that they’re not qualified. It’s just that they’re all, “HARVARD! STANFORD! WHARTON!” and we’re like, “Well, have you considered maybe Booth or Berkeley?”
We know that that can cause offense. We try to say it delicately, but we know that it can suck to have someone rain on the parade and it can feel like we’re saying, “You suck, a##hole, you’re never getting in anywhere good!”
Which is totally not what we’re saying.
Our Comprehensive Profile Review gives us a chance to look at some of the most important points of the profile. It is, errr, comprehensive. We don’t do free consults with anybody. Instead, we prefer to spend serious time digging into the details, and we develop a report custom to you that you can then use as a resource as you go through the entirety of the process.
This is not how many admissions consultants do things, and unfortunately, we know that there are many out there who are unrealistically optimistic when it comes to telling a prospective client that they have strong chances of success.
So ask yourself, as you are kicking the tires on advisors and consultants, and before you speak with any of them, or pony up some of your hard-earned ducats for a report on your qualifications delivered by some snarkster on the internet:
Would you rather be told yes you can get in?
(And potentially find out later that no you cannot?)
Or would you rather be told the truth, in time to take action and fix the weaknesses, or adjust targets, or in some other way change strategy to make sure that you’re optimizing chances of success?
We might be wrong about saying you can’t get into Harvard — and we would love for you to tell us if we are! But unfortunately we don’t know of a single instance of a false negative, where we told someone “Sorry, we don’t think it’ll work out” and it ended up as an admit to HBS. Yes there have been some cases of a false positive, but even those were closer to a false neutral — meaning, we told people, “Yes you have a shot if it all plays in your favor” and then it didn’t end up working out.
But if you’re shopping for a consultant to “believe in you” well…. not sure that’s truly the best approach.
EssaySnark believes in you, and we will be the first to celebrate your long-shot successes!
But we also believe that it’s professional incompetence to shine on a candidate who has no chance in the world, but based only on a 760 GMAT and a decent college GPA, to convince them that sure, Harvard might want them, when everything else on the profile is lacking that “it” factor that is required for a success story at Harvard.
We do not think it’s the admissions consultants place to tell someone “no you can’t get into Harvard” unless they’ve really gone into the profile — so don’t get caught up in the opposite trap either. There are consultants out there dishing out verdicts on whether a candidate will make it in based on very scant information. (We call those the “adcon” and we do not agree with the tactics.) The admissions teams get to make decisions on your app. Not the consultant. If you’re truly feeling inspired by Harvard and you want to give it a go, we’ll be right there to support you, showing you what’s needed, helping you to make that essay all it can be. We’ve even been known to step in at the last minute and help BSers start their HBS essay over from scratch in the week before deadline, once the applicant realized that the advice they were getting from their original advisor was not quite panning out. (In more than one occasion, those candidates got in.) We will not squash all of your dreams if you’re truly motivated to make them happen! But we also feel strongly in shooting straight, in making it clear when we see essays that are not where they need to be, or a profile that’s not showing the level of differentiation that a school like Harvard requires.
That’s one thing we promise you, Brave Supplicant: After working with us on your essays, you should have visibility into your chances and clear expectations when you submit of whether you’re going to earn the interview invite or not. In a down season, as this year should be, then sometimes we’re wrong in a happy direction, but much much better to have well-managed expectations, that force you to put in real effort and make everything as tight as you can possibly make it, and then be surprised at an interview…. then to do all that work on an app that has low chance even in a downcycle, and then not have enough energy and enthusiasm available to do an equally stand-up job on other schools where the chances are much greater.
So the purpose of this post is just to be an educated consumer. Ask lots of questions before signing up with any consultant. Make sure you understand their philosophy of advice, and evaluate what information you provided to them that led to their pronouncements on your chances of success. If you conveyed very little to them, then how can you trust their predictions?
And if a consultant says, “Hmm, dunno, have you considered some other schools?” then let yourself feel the sting of that, and acknowledge, ouch, that’s not what you wanted to hear, but then consider where they’re coming from, and ask why they say it. If there are valid reasons behind it, then instead of shopping for another consultant who will feed you sweet nothings, look at your strategy and see if adjustments might be in order.
It all comes down to your priorities and values. For some people, HBS or bust is a thing, and that’s fine if that’s where you’re at.
But for others, the Round 1 process is rockier than necessary, and having a hurt ego because a consultant said “Hmmmm” is way better than having a total blow to your self-confidence when a consultant says “You’ve got an excellent shot!!” and then HBS cuts you loose at the first chance they can in October.
Sometimes we come across a draft of an essay written by a BSer that’s technically sound — no typos, sentences are clear, proper length, answers the question. It has all the elements that we suggest go into an essay of that type — appropriate references, using an example, talking about X or Y or Z…
Have you seen any of these Fyre Festival documentaries? Pretty incredible, how all of it went down. The entrepreneur dude who tried to pull it off is called a pathological liar. The most incredible part of all is, even after he got prosecuted by the FBI, he launched a totally new swindling scheme. Apparently his moral compass is calibrated a bit differently than our own.
These tales tend to be rife with irony.
Take the case of a journalist or nonfiction author who plagiarized and fabricates. Every so often we hear of such a case. A big incident happened in 2012 when science writer Jonah Lehrer’s books were pulled. It was discovered that he even made up Dylan quotes for his articles. He admits that his acts “caused deep pain” and he says he did it out of “arrogance”, “a willingness to take shortcuts” and “carelessness” — all reasons why we detest plagiarism. (The big irony of course is that those candid comments came from him during a speech he was paid $20k to give talking about decision-making.)
It’s really easy to get a certain smugness when sitting outside of the circle where such a thing happened. It’s easy to look with an eye of disdain upon the participants in the Fyre Festival fiasco. How could someone do that? How could you be so naive? Why didn’t you say something? How come you didn’t blow the whistle?
The thing is, it’s easy to get sucked in. You get a charismatic enthusiastic charmer and you can get swept away with an idea that, if you stepped back and gave it some distance, or put on your thinking hat, you’d easily recognize it wasn’t so brilliant.
Like all the nonsense with that elite colleges admissions scandal.
So today’s post is a reminder to poke your head out of the morass that it’s mired in, and make sure you’re keeping things on the straight and narrow.
(You’d think we were some type of morals-and-philosophy blog, the amount of time we spend on this stuff. But honestly, in the modern era of The World is On Fire!! we feel that it’s important to be public about these, well, important things.)
So here goes:
When you fill out your MBA applications, telling the truth is important.
Seems obvious — too obvious to even have to say it. But that’s how poor decisions are made.
It’s not that we expect BSers who come to the EssaySnark blahg will be trying to bribe admissions officers or sports teams to get in.
It’s more insidious than that.
You get some idea that you need to show the adcoms that you’re a really impressive candidate so you start making up career goals that you think “sound good” — like, you want to be a some CEO at some big corporation some day.
That’s not exactly a lie, since anybody can say anything about what they want to do in the future, and who knows, maybe you legitimately are aiming high. That’s not going to keep you out of bschool if everything else lines up well and you convince the adcoms about what you’ve done in the past that sets you a part. (Most schools really don’t want such long-term and lofty visions for a career goals statement, but that’s not the main point we’re trying to make today.)
Where things can get slippery is where you get a little creative with the facts of your past.
Maybe you tried to start some type of do-gooder organization at some point. You got together with a few friends and put the basic sketch of a plan together where you would launch a non-profit to raise money for underprivileged kids to pay for their school fees. A noble cause for sure! You had the best of intentions. But after about six months there was some disagreements with your buddies, and one of them took a new job and suddenly had no free time to devote to the project any longer, and you hit some walls in trying to get started. Nobody wanted to give you more than a few bucks. It was harder than you expected. The shine of the fresh idea started to wear and it became work instead of fun, and then it languished by the wayside of your life, and suffered the slow demise of yet another abandoned initiative. It still exists for you in concept, and it was something you always intended to go back to and revive, and make real, but you know it’s not a real thing that actually went anywhere.
Yet in your MBA apps, you have a section of your resume about it with dates coming into the present day, and in an essay you talk about this NGO that you started. You kinda sorta fail to mention that it floundered and never got off the ground.
You really need to be telling the truth in your apps.
You realize that schools do background checks, right?
You don’t need to inflate your history — and it could easily backfire on you if you do.
Same deal with massaging the dates of employment to try and cover up a gap, maybe because you were laid off and are embarrassed about it. Or that you feel you don’t make enough money, so you round up (significantly). Or you’ve heard that it’s possible to make too much money and you don’t want that to keep you out of school.
You don’t need to lie to get into bschool. Really truly you don’t.
Yes the process of constructing your messaging in the applications requires some careful planning, and there’s an art to choosing what to say and definitely also how to say it. That’s part of what we mean when we say that you need to construct a pitch — it’s messaging and it’s being selective in what you share and the way you present it. (Pro Tip: This is why a) you need to plan for multiple drafts of every single essay, and b) getting the help of a qualified reviewer who knows how to pitch to a top MBA adcom is critical.)
If you’re talking to an admissions consultant who advises you to go ahead and apply to Columbia Early Decision as an “insurance policy” even if Columbia isn’t your first choice, then please consider carefully the ethics that this person is demonstrating. Just because an admissions consultant tells you it’s OK does not make it OK. Don’t leave your own morals outside the door when you enter into an agreement with any type of coach or advisor.
We believe in karma — to the extent that each and every decision you make affects you. You are the only person who has to live in your skin, inhabiting your life experience. Every time you cut corners or fudge the truth even just a little it decays your core. It takes the shine off your being. Do this often enough and you’ll end up a nasty person without even realizing how you got there. Maybe all that matters to you is your own success in whatever external way you’re defining it. But we would suggest that that’s not the recipe for true happiness in this life.
One of the best ways to make a crappy set of essays is to write what you think the schools want to hear. This post is not about that. Instead, this is a follow-on to our previous post about theme. If you want to figure out how to position yourself in the best light possible…