What we’re going to cover today is what we cover over and over again on this here snarkolicious blahg – and it’s one of the slipperiest techniques to master. It’s also perhaps the most sophisticated, and while we cannot say that if you write your essays using this technique, that you’re guaranteed to be accepted,…
Writing good MBA admissions essays is an acquired skill. That means that you will go through the Four Stages of Learning in your process of developing your applications this year. This model is also referred to as The Hierarchy of Competence and we’ve seen it depicted in a number of ways:
Or our personal fave:
However there’s a problem with learning skills for your apps which is unique to this domain and which is wholly unappreciated by most.
The problem is this: You think you already know how to write an essay.
The Hierarchy and Four Stages models are all totally understandable and easy to accept when considered as part of learning a new skill. You decide you want to learn how to play golf, you know it’s going to be new and different and challenging. You KNOW that you don’t know it, and you know it’s a process to learn.
With writing essays, most people THINK they already know how to do it.
That means, that they THINK they’re at Stage 4 – Unconsciously Competent.
(But they’re actually at Stage 1.)
“Write an essay? No prob. I got this. I just gotta figure out what I’m gonna write about and I’m golden.”
Write write write.
Write some more.
Maybe have a friend read it and say it’s good.
Wait wait wait….
and get rejected.
The only way that most people discover their essays are not good is when their apps are rejected.
And even then, many people will never understand that that was the problem.
They stay at Stage 1: Unconsciously Incompetent for-ev-er.
The part of it that makes EssaySnark cry is that many of the people who are rejected because their essays sucked are actually really strong applicants who could’ve made it in. Had they only known.
So please consider this a PSA: More likely than not, you do NOT know how to write a good essay.
It’s definitely possible to learn this skill on your own (we’ve created an entire blahg dedicated to helping you do so) or you might want to seek out assistance from a qualified admissions consultant (please note the qualifier of “qualified” in that phrase). Just recognize what you’re up against and know that you’re in Stage 1 right now.
The best way to learn new skill is to dive in!
Smart school administrators keep their mouths shut about their competition. Because like really, how could you know??
EssaySnark has trouble enough keeping track of all the changes and trends going on across the MBA landscape, and it’s OUR JOB to keep track of them.
How can you expect a school admissions person to know what all the other schools are doing with their curricula, research, and programs every year?
If you hear an admissions person or a school dean say that theirs is “the only” school that has such-and-such, well, they’re almost undoubtedly wrong.
The utter ridiculousestness part of this is: Many rankings systems rely on deans to rank their peers.
YES!! Some deans apparently have a hard enough time keeping track of what's going on in their own schools! How in heck do they have a clue what any other school is doing? TYFT https://t.co/9jwu55eLRZ
— Essay Snark (@EssaySnark) June 13, 2019
EssaySnark is not going to change that system — though we do think you should be aware of it! It’s just one of the many reasons we think rankings are stupid.
We are much more concerned, though, about the influence that we hope to have in the context it matters: What you say in your essays.
If you feel tempted to write in your essays that you want to go to some school because it’s “the only” school that has such-and-such — based on what you heard a dean or an admissions person say — then you’re probably only repeating a fallacy. And that seems kinda lame. Like, in this era, we should all be vigilant about not perpetuating fake news, right?
If you don’t see the problem with that, fine. You’re right. Repeating to the school what the school themselves said cannot be that much of a crime. But much more important to consider is the actual utility of such a statement on your chances of admission. Will it help you? That’s the lens through which to evaluate everything you say in your MBA app.
Even though the school themselves said that they’re “the only” school for blahbaddyblah1, for you to say it is not helping you to make your case for why you want to go to that school. It may seem like it’s making the case, but it’s not.
Because presumably, the thing-you’re-citing as so important is, sure, cool and maybe groovy and perhaps Top-100 level awesome. But if you don’t make it into the school you’re slathering all this praise on, you’ll go somewhere else, and that school will serve your professional development needs just dandy. Which kind of refutes the whole idea of pitching one school on being “the only one” for you. If schools are essentially interchangeable, then talking up one feature in an essay as being soooooo important can sort of come across as butt-kissing. Just a bit. You know?
We know where this comes from though, and it’s not an intentional evil. It’s just how stuff happens. Like a game of telephone.
(We won’t name names or anything but) we’ve heard bschool deans utter absolute nonsense in media interviews, probably in full innocence and not meaning to actually lie, but they end up totally misrepresenting what’s available in other schools when they do it. And you, innocent BSer, hear this dean say something, and you latch onto it as a Good Reason, and don’t investigate further. You take it at face value, but it turns out maybe not actually in the real world to be true.
It’s kinda like the thing about an MBA admissions consultant who advertises that they used to work as Admissions Director at Business School X, implying what an advantage that must be. That may sound very, very alluring — wouldn’t you want to get the help of someone who used to evaluate applicants? They must be the insider of all insiders! They will bring all of the secrets!
But there are some serious issues in moving from one side of the admissions table to the other, the biggest being that evaluating an end product to decide if it’s someone to accept is a totally different task than coaching a candidate on how to work through their raw material to construct that end product, that will then be accepted by the admissions person. Sure, they’re both about looking at you with a critical eye to see if you have those traits that the business schools want in their classes. But it’s a very different set of skills to help someone build a great application, versus saying, “Yes, no, waitlist” on the other end of that process.
It’s the same type of thing with a school bragging about its awesome initiatives, programs and opportunities. When an admissions person does their song and dance at an information session, they’re in sell-mode: They’re telling you all the great things about their school. It’s only natural to want to do some compare-and-contrast in how differentiated they are against their peers.
Because you know what? All the schools really start to sound the same if you’ve been listening to a few of these pitches.
The rep from the school isn’t intending to lie. They are just phrasing things that way to showcase their advantages and their benefits. Or, maybe, someone who did some competitive analysis of their new offering against the marketplace of their competitor schools came up with the conclusion that theirs is a new program, that no other school has it, and they’ve tagged that into their marketing ever since, believing it to be true.
It almost definitely isn’t.
If you hear something at School X and get all excited about it, then definitely take notes on that — it could be something that’s really powerful to talk about in your essays, when you can articulate the reason you get excited about it.
But if someone tells you their school is “the only” to do blah blah blah, then skip that part if you reference it in your apps, and also, don’t be deterred from researching the MBA marketplace for yourself, to see if that same feature exists at some other school, too. Ask around. See what your contacts say. It can be a little awkward to stumble into this for yourself. You hear that School X is “the only” school that has such-and-such, and then the next day you’re talking to a student at School Y who asks which other schools you’re considering, and you say, “School X, because they’re the only ones that have such-and-such” and she’s all, “We have such-and-such. We’ve had that for years.” And you’re like, “Oh.”
Of course, there’s exceptions to this statement, but on the whole, there aren’t that many new things out there in bschool-land. Schools tend to copy each other. Maybe School Y doesn’t have exactly the same thing but they have something really similar, or they’re calling it something different. One example is the major (or concentration, or whatever your school calls it) of Organizational Behavior. That’s an old standby that every school offers; most schools have a required course in the core curriculum, that all students take, in Organizational Behavior. Well guess what? Booth just renamed their version to “Behavioral Science” which ya gotta admit, sounds way sexier.
Most schools do have what the other schools offer.
Perhaps School Y school isn’t broadcasting its presence on campus so loudly, maybe because they’ve had it around a long time and it’s not the latest shiny object that’s being featured in their own PowerPoint, or they have so many other fabulous things that they aren’t making that a #1 priority in their marketing. This is another reason why your own school research can be so fruitful, since you can uncover those hidden gems — and if you are able to feature those in your essays and talk about why they’re important to you, it can go a long way to making a convincing argument.
Saying in an essay that they’re the only school to offer some certain program isn’t that compelling. It just says they have the program. Tying your statements into your own personal reasons is always a more powerful way to pitch your reader.
And basically: Critical thinking. Critical thinking is how to live in this world. Not being critical, but being a careful consumer of information you’re being told.
Including by us!
Think stuff through. Vet it for yourself. Make sure it makes sense before you adopt it for your worldview.
Or your essays. 😀
ETA 2 weeks later: Refreshingly, we just saw MIT Sloan admissions respond to a question in a chat with “I don’t know how we compare to other schools.” Yay Sloan!
1 Does anyone know how this should be spelled? Doesn’t look right. Suggestions? Leave ’em in the comments please!
This paragraph is stolen from our just-published 2019 MBA application guide for Kellogg in our discussion of Kellogg Essay 2: Please. Please. Do not use values like “collaboration” and “teamwork.” That would be pandering. In some very rare cases, yes, there is a Brave Supplicant out there who does truly care about such qualities. But…
So you want to go to Stanford. Well hmm. The thing with Stanford is that it’s pretty impossible for anyone to say if you have an honest-to-goodness chance to get in or not… except for Stanford. We often can tell when it’s likely a no-go — as in, someone has little to no hope at…
In case you don’t follow us on Twitter (we don’t tweet often but we do tweet good!):
Whelp it’s happening! Harvard HBS MBA Class of 2022 requirements are starting to come out! Deadlines have been announced … expecting to see lots of such news coming this week. https://t.co/8n4aReYz86 Watch the blahg for more!
— Essay Snark (@EssaySnark) May 6, 2019
Harvard has confirmed that they’re leaving their main application requirement the same this year. You’ll have an unlimited-length essay to write in answer to this question:
So how do you answer it?? What more would you like them to know? How in heck do you even figure that out???
There are two main aspects to learning how to deal with this question in the most effective manner possible: You need to know about Harvard, and you need to know about YOU! Seems obvious when we say it that way, right? And even then seeing it stated directly, you still may not know what to do with that as an instruction. These are both non-trivial exercises!
The best way to answer an open-ended question is to figure out what the asker of the question values. What does Harvard prioritize? What does Harvard care about? What can you do to convey to them that you have those qualities?
Pro Tip: The first place where people fall down in their essays to business school is that they try to figure out what they think the adcom wants them to say. That is NOT what we are suggesting you do.
Read what we wrote again.
We’re saying to figure out HARVARD.
And the second step is to figure out YOU.
Harvard does not care about “school fit” nearly the same way that other schools do — and again, that’s not what we are suggesting you do for your Harvard MBA essay writing assignment. You’re not trying to convince them that you love Harvard so much and that’s why they should let you in.
This essay is about pitching yourself.
How do you demonstrate the qualities that show you as “Harvard material”?
That’s a snapshot of your map to success with your Harvard essay. It’s also important to remember that the essay is just one piece of your application. They’re also going to have the entire app dataset, your resume, your full academic history including transcripts, your employment data, and two letters of recommendation (which should be from recent experiences, professional context vastly preferred).
This Harvard essay writing assignment is so complex that we’ve written a whole book on it — and hey lookee here! We’ve already updated it for the current year’s application! Our 2019 HBS MBA Application Guide has been refreshed for the Class of 2022 app, and is ready to roll in support of you and your essay-writing task!
But! Before you get too excited there, pardner:
Pro Tip: Please do not make Harvard Business School your first application!
While we would hate to squash the enthusiasm of some hot-to-trot Brave Supplicant who is chomping at the bit to get started, we strongly encourage you to slow the roll and make a plan.
Want even more support in the planning stuff? Or perhaps you’re a little nervous that you’re more a procrastinator than a planner?
The EssaySnark MBA Countdown to Round 1 can help with all of this too! The Countdown is accepting signups now and officially launches with the first weekly to-do list, sent via email on Monday, May 27th, and continuing with weekly support to keep you productive and focused all the way to the Round 1 deadline for Harvard in September. Of course, you can use The Countdown on any Round 1 applications; we just tie the scheduling to that HBS deadline since so many of you will be aiming for it. All the other schools will have their deadlines coming staggered thereafter for the month of September into early October, so making the HBS date your first target is standard, regardless of what other schools are on your short list.
Or, don’t know which ones should be short-listed? Our Comprehensive Profile Review can get you some input on that, too! Maybe you have some vague ideas of names of schools that might be worth trying for…. but you don’t really know. The Profile Review is a personalized review of your exact profile (thus the name!) against what you want to do and why. It will help you refine your list, and we usually can suggest some other schools to consider as well.
But back to Harvard.
Their application requirements have been published (“What more do you want us to know…”).
You know the date that it’s due (September 4).
So how do you get started?
Well, Shameless Self-Promotion: You really should pick up our guide. 🙂
We’re on Version 9.0 of our Harvard application guide. That’s nine years of revisions, updates, new insights, suggestions, ideas, and most importantly, exercises for you to unpack the prompt and do the investigation, inventory, and thinking that’s required to figure out a good way to answer it. There is not a single path to success with the Harvard essay, but you know what? There’s lots of paths that are total dead ends, and the vast majority of Harvard essays that we see from people who haven’t read our essay guide fall into all of those same traps. (Even people who’ve paid a bunch of money to some other consultant to help with their essay before coming to us; yes, unfortunately, that happens quite a bit.)
Last year, when a BSer who was invited to interview hit us up for help on preparing, they told us: “Also, your essay guide is amazing !” which was kinda cool to hear, given that we’d not interacted with this person at all and they were able to leverage this guide to make it to the interview stage. That’s always our hope, that you dive in and make the most of all the gobs of application goodies that we make available, you immerse yourself in this and figure out how to craft your own message, and then you pop out the other end of it and show us your successes. (Of course, we’re totally here to help with actually essay development and message crafting too! but it’s fun when someone is the do-it-yourself type who makes it happen on her own independently.)
We certainly cannot guarantee you’ll make it in to Harvard by reading this guide. But we can say you’re helping your chances immensely if you read it, and study it and do the work that we lay out that needs to be done.
If you’re reading this today, you are in the BEST POSSIBLE POSITION for success this year with applications. Don’t waste this opportunity! We’re doing all that we can to empower you with the tools, insights, and actionable information that you’ll need. We encourage you to take advantage of what we’re laying out. We’re here to help! Check out what we offer, let us know if you have questions, and no matter what, we hope you’ll be one of those who emails us excitedly in December with news of your admits.
None! Hahahaha that’s just a little EssaySnark humor. Of course you can reuse your essays from one school to another. . . . Or can you??? As you’ve discovered as you’ve dug into the essay questions, the schools are really asking different things. Even for some that are kinda sorta similar,…
In lieu of doing a half-baked update to our 2017 Darden MBA application guide, we’ve opted this month to post some guidance about the Darden essays directly here on the blahg — so, bonus, as a subscriber to the blahg, you’re already getting a leg up on the Darden app if you’re planning to try…
That may seem like an exceptionally obvious thing to say but bear with us on this. This is basically a continuation of this post from the ‘snarchives: Essays are not a writing test, they’re a thinking test. Here’s something to ponder: The entire purpose and opportunity of the Harvard essay is to demonstrate that you…
But please don’t write it in an MBA essay. We originally started this blahg because we saw too many earnest MBA applicants (aka BSers) saying earnest MBA applicant things in their essays. That was nine years ago (and we’d already been reading MBA essays for many years before then). Alas, not much has changed. :-(…