Yesterday we offered a rule of thumb for recency in your MBA applications. We explained why keeping your content and the stories that you tell in your essays within a range of, say, something like the past two or three years is ideal. Of course, there are always exceptions.
The big one is when you’re asked to talk about the “most significant ________________” you’ve ever dealt with – such as, the “most significant challenge” or your “most important commitment.” In those cases, you don’t want to artificially limit things to just the past three years if there’s something that’s truly more significant or challenging from longer ago. For essay questions like these, it can often work to go back further in life. Within reason of course. If you’re talking about your “most significant challenge” being when you immigrated to the U.S. from Bosnia, but that happened when you were five years old, then we’re going to push back on it. You weren’t really the one dealing with the challenge at that time; it was your parents who were faced with the difficulty. It’s not like your experiences as a newcomer to the U.S. in that context are immaterial. It’s just that that’s not really a challenge that is yours to talk about – at least, not in a way that would reveal useful or meaningful content in your MBA applications.
However, if you had that same experience six years ago, when you were 20 years old, and you did it by yourself, on your own and without a family, then maybe it’s more feasible to use as an application story (maybe).
The other type of essay where an anything-goes approach is valid is Stanford Essay A, What matters most? There are no timeframes or arbitrary limitations on that. The answer you provide in that essay especially will require digging deep in the past in order to uncover its roots. In order to do a compelling job of writing about what matters to you, we want to get the origin of the answer, and hear about how it was formed in your life. It’s an essay about values, and it requires serious reflection and self-understanding in order to do a good job with it.
Of course, we cover all of this in the Stanford SnarkStrategies Guide, in case you’re wondering where to start with that one in particular.
There are often exceptions based on extraordinary situations, where you can get away with disregarding the standard advice. Sometimes we hear of applicants flouting the policies on how many recommendations to submit, or how long their resume should be, and they still get in. But it’s risky. If an adcom has specifically stated that you should write about a story from the past three years in your answer to their essay question, and you use a story from 2013, will they immediately reject you because of it? No. But they’re also going to notice that you’re not following the rules. There needs to be a very good reason why you would do so. Tread carefully, Brave Supplicant. Be clear on the reasons why the adcom has set a particular policy or guideline, and evaluate it from all sides before deciding to disregard it.
For deciding your strategy on content for MBA applications, recent is almost always better.
We’re still not 100% sold on an “immigrated to a new country” story for MBA apps only because those stories are very common, and most BSers have trouble digging deep enough into their personal experience to make it a truly meaningful addition to their apps. It’s obviously something that is important and meaningful to you if that’s part of your life history, however you’ll need to spend a lot of time reflecting on the events and what happened and what you did in order for it to stand out from the crowd of similar stories being told by countless others this season. The “meaningful” part will need to really be communicated to your reader. If you came to the U.S. for the first time for college, then ditto to all of this. Yes, we know that it was a big part of your development as a person. Capturing what that actually means for you and the troubles you went through, and how they truly affected you, is going to be important.