Authenticity is just a concept.
You can’t see it.
You can’t touch it.
It’s not like a question on the GMAT, where there’s only one correct answer and you can find out if you did it right (or at least, on a practice exam you will find out).
Because it’s a concept, authenticity is not easily definable.
For example, here’s a definition for similar concept, beauty :
the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit
Isn’t that weird? That beauty is defined by how something gives pleasure? Definitely not what we expected to see when we went to look it up!
Here’s a few aspects of meaning for the word “authentic” :
real or genuine; not copied or false; true and accurate.
Honestly, we kinda would like to use the definition of “beauty” for “authenticity” when it comes to looking at MBA essays!
So this rather straightforward definition of “authentic” is basically just saying, “don’t lie.” Yup, got it. You’re not gonna do that.
But that admonition does not get you to the heart of things.
What the adcoms care about is they want students who have an appropriate level of maturity.
They want students who care, who will give back to their peers and make a meaningful contribution to study teams, classroom discussions, or even the school community at large, such as through a leadership role in a club.
They want students who aren’t a-holes (at least, most schools want that; some seem not to care, based on who we see them sometimes accept — ack! that’s a post we’re never going to write though).
Maturity. Caring. Not being an a-hole. How do you show all THAT in an essay?
The short answer is, you don’t — at least, not as part of your strategy of authenticity.
There are important tactics to use in writing a “why this school” essay, for example in talking about what you will literally do on campus in terms of student involvement. Those are tactics, and anyone can insert such a statement into an essay, and many people do, whether or not they actually intend to ever do those things when they get onto campus.
The best way to reveal your character through your MBA apps is through the way you present your background.
Character, after all, is what makes you you, and if we’re talking about “authenticity” in a way that means “real and not fake” then that’s what it’s getting down to.
The schools want to know YOU.
The real you.
They read a gazillion apps from others with very similar backgrounds.
How do you convince them to admit YOU? You answer the questions that they’ve asked without trying to second-guess the question.
You write in a straightforward way, without a bunch of hi-falutin’ words that you trotted out from the thesaurus.
You think deeply about those questions before you answer them. You don’t (usually) write the first thing that pops into your head.
You dig deep not just into the questions, but into the meaning of your life.
And hey, maybe some schools admit a-holes because those a-holes manage to authentically communicate who they are. Maybe they own their a-holeness to the extent that it impresses the adcom reader. When an adcom reader is inundated with blah-blah-blah essays over and over all day long, and then one stands out because the applicant really embraced all their Alpha Dog tendencies and blasted them all over the page with abandon, and it comes accompanied by a stellar GMAT and prestigious college and Goldman Sachs or BlackRock or whatever on the resume, and the adcom person can’t help it. If you’re an a-hole who knows you’re an a-hole and you can manage your a-holeness sufficiently through the interview process so that you come across only as cocky and confident and not totally an a-hole, then hey, who knows, it just may work for you still.
But for a wide range of schools these days that are screening for elements of emotional intelligence and values in the candidates they accept, then looking for ways to demonstrate such qualities will be to your benefit.
Showing self-awareness can go tremendously far in your apps. The problem of course is that just like driving, where everyone thinks they’re above average, everyone also thinks they’re self-aware.
The great benefit of having a (qualified) reviewer of your MBA essays to critique them during your development process is that they can serve as a very real sounding board. It’s hard for anyone to accurately self-diagnose or self-critique their own work, especially for any type of creative product, at least at the beginning when you’re learning skills and figuring stuff out. Your essay may be technically sound, where it’s hitting the right words in the right places with the right commas and semicolons and no typos, and it’s within word count of the school’s stated requirements. Every sentence may be factually true and accurate, and you may even have literally answered the question they’re asking. But how do you know if it’s GOOD?
How do you know if you’re sharing enough of yourself, in an appropriate way, that demonstrates values and characteristics the schools will appreciate?
How do you know if you’re going to come alive on the page for your admissions reader, as a real person with a story to tell, who they will want to meet for an interview and are interested to have you as part of their class?
These are the non-tangibles associated with this slippery concept of authenticity.
It’s a tricky one. You can’t touch it, or see it, but you know when it’s there, because you can FEEL it.
We’re tagging this essay for Stanford even though we’ve not explicitly discussed Stanford.
If you want to do some brainstorming around these concepts, try coming up with a list of 5 different examples where you had to make a difficult decision; 5 examples of where you had to navigate a challenging relationship at work; 5 different examples of times you regret your behavior. That should be an excellent place to begin your investigations on character and insight and self-awareness!