Today is technically a holiday here in the U.S. – but we’re around reading essays just as fast as you are writing them! For those trying for schools like Stanford especially, we have a post today on a common practice used in MBA essays that doesn’t usually work.
We see many essays that start out with a story about a grandfather who built a business from scratch, or being a child of immigrants who came to this country with $36.09 and had to figure out how to survive in America with nothing.
It’s not that these stories are bad.
It’s just that they don’t do very much.
When Berkeley Haas has this year invited you to talk about your upbringing or the circumstances of your childhood in their series of optional questions — who raised you, what was their education, what language did you grow up with — then that underscores a more prominent shift in admissions, that the schools want to know more about you.
That’s been true for some time, it’s just that it’s being elevated in a new way with questions like these from Haas. Many schools have asked questions in their online applications about your parents’ highest level of education and where you graduated from high school. These demographic questions help the adcoms get a sense, even if it’s generalized, of a person’s background.
Side note: The admissions teams at all the colleges in the U.S. have vast databases where they track the high schools all over the country from which they’re evaluating applicants to their undergrad programs. These schools have a lot of data! They have an immediate understanding of the type of environment that you come from if you graduated from this high school versus that one.
That being said, it’s long been a favorite device of BSers to open an essay with some reference to someone in their family who they feel is inspiring.
And that’s fine. But almost 100% of the time, it’s wasted words.
We’re carving out those optional answers for Berkeley as a separate category where today’s advice does not apply, since many of those questions are deliberately asking you about other people.
But the well-worn technique of starting an essay — especially one about your family business — with some generic reference to an inspiring entrepreneur in your life just doesn’t work.
Because in almost every case, it says literally nothing about YOU.
If your grandfather was applying to business school and wanted to talk about the business he built, that’d be great! Totally relevant.
But for you to talk about it…
You have to ask yourself, what purpose does it serve?
When you have only 500 words or often far fewer to work with, what does this entire first paragraph about somebody else do for the message of the essay?
YOU are the one applying for an MBA. That means, almost every single sentence you write should be about YOU.
There are of course exceptions, because there are always exceptions. But even if you’re able to say, “I had such-and-such experience in grampa’s business and my long-term goal after bschool is start a business of my own” it still doesn’t have enough legs to support it.
If you are able to go into detail — like, talking about the actual work you did in this business, which could reveal different aspects to your background like how hard things were for you growing up in a family trying to make ends meet, that you had to work to help keep food on the table. Or, how you were given responsibilities that were quite advanced for your age. Or how you ASKED to get involved in the business and kept hounding your dad until he relented and let you, and now you’re the go-to young woman who everyone knows has all the answers and keeps the place humming.
These we can see as potentially having some value.
But these all require a significant investment in words that most people do not deploy.
And depending on how old this example is, or how meaningful your childhood experience with this business really was, then it may or may not prove useful in support of the answer you’re giving to whatever question it is that you’re trying to answer.
Here’s another example of an intro to a career goals essay that’s practically a template, we see it so much:
In 2015, my best friend was diagnosed with diabetes and I saw him struggle to obtain the same affordable and quality care in India that is available in the U.S. As a lifelong witness to many similar painful disparities, my ambition is to narrow the gap in care across geographies.
Skipping that overblown “ambition” statement at the end, our response to this is: This is only a passing reference. We can appreciate that it was difficult to see this friend have problems but this is not enough to capture the motivation for YOUR specific career goals. This whole opening is not compelling enough to warrant keeping it. If you can make this about YOUR experience then perhaps it’s worthwhile but right now it’s too far removed to be meaningful.
We gave feedback like this to a BSer who was saying that his mother’s experiences in the health care system are what motivated him to want to work in healthcare. The next draft that came through spent even more words, talking about how he’d accompanied her to appointments and had to wait for an hour to see the doctor…. So what he did in response to the feedback was he went into greater detail about his own experience of shepherding his mother through the system. But unfortunately that still wasn’t enough to make it a story about him.
We’re sympathetic to issues with family or how you’ve made sacrifices or the challenges that you’ve gone through. But in this case, all that the additional wordcount delivered in terms of meaning was that he was a devoted son and his mother was having troubles, and it was stressful. But we already had gotten that in essence from the original version we saw. And this new revised version wasn’t giving us anything more concrete in terms of insights or skills for the applicant.
So in this case, additional details didn’t actually help. It still was someone else’s experience. Being a witness or being involved in stuff doesn’t get you where you want to go when we’re talking good MBA essays.
All this boils down to the essence of: You must be the protagonist of your stories. There are very few exceptions — those Berkeley Haas optional questions being among them — where you’ll be justified in talking about anyone who is not you in the essays.
If the experience of helping your mother through the healthcare system has motivated you to devote your life to fixing it, great! Now use that quick anecdote of the horrors you and she experienced together, and talk about what you have ALREADY DONE that has made even a tiny bit of inroads into addressing the problem.
Without that, it’s just an experience you had, and an attempt to tie it into your desire for the MBA. Is it wrong or illegal to use this technique? No not at all. It’s not like you’ll be rejected for it! It just may be a misallocation of the limited space available to you.
Everything matters in MBA essays!