** DISCLAIMER: This post is not about one specific person. ** Why are we offering that statement? Because we suspect that multiples of you who will read what we are about to say will assume that we’ve written this about you. We have not. This is simply a pattern we’ve observed over the years. Everyone…
Can you believe we’re already in the middle of this whole application adventure?
Way back in May, when you thought you had all the time in the world and you were coming to the EssaySnark blahg casually for amusement, rather than searching through frantically to figure out how to write a last-minute admissions essay, we started a sort-of series we called The Strategy of Authenticity. If you missed it, here are the main posts:
- The Strategy of Authenticity
- What does authenticity mean… for Stanford?
- Authenticity means sharing who you are
- Authenticity and MBA career goals
- How to show your authenticity: Storytelling
- Authenticity Test
The thing with authenticity is — whether in life, or in your MBA apps — most of the time, when you’re not being fully authentic, you may not notice.
Being authentic is being honest with yourself.
It’s being real.
It’s listening to yourself, and how you sound when you talk to your boss (do you suck up with her? maybe even a little? it’s ok, we all do) and how you talk to your mother (are you sharp or short with her sometimes, because she irritates you, and because you know you can get away with it because she’s always going to be there for you?).
In the MBA application process, being authentic requires some real introspection. You have to figure out why you want this and go beyond the very basic and obvious answer.
We know you want to make more money, and do something different with your career. We understand if you’re feeling bored and a little restless, or that your life is at a dead end.
But what is REALLY driving it?
Is it because you have a friend who’s getting his MBA and you feel competitive with him, because he always gloats a tiny bit when he achieves something, and makes you feel bad about it?
Is it because you want to make your parents proud of you?
Is it because you know you didn’t do well in college, that you were somewhat of a slacker and just coasted, and you know that you’ve been coasting a bit ever since, and so part of you wants to prove to the world that you’re not a lazy bum and that you are worth something, and getting an MBA will establish that?
Is it because it’s just the next thing on the to-do list, and you’re running the rat race of college-job-marriage-MBA-buy-a-house-kids and you want to get to that next level so you can do the next thing that’s expected?
There is nothing wrong with any of those reasons. Most people will have some combination of them rattling around in the psyche or the soul. We’re not suggesting that any of that belongs in an MBA application, but it sure can be useful to know for yourself why you’re doing it.
If you don’t know, then it’s an awful lot of effort to put into all of this.
If you’re only interested in the MBA because somebody you know has an MBA, then by definition that’s not authentic. That’s copycat. What are the reasons for YOU? What do you expect to get out of it? Not just a better job and a higher salary. Those things count. But here we’re talking about the optimization of a life. Namely, yours.
Putting some thought to these questions may seem too difficult, or too useless. After all, no matter what you come up with as the answer for what’s driving you towards pursuit of the MBA, it’s not likely to change your push to get in. It’s not like you’ll go to the effort of doing some inquiry on your motivations, and then come out of that exercise and decide not to do it.
However, it just might help you to be more confident in how you articulate your plans. Such as in an interview context.
When your interviewer asks, “So, why do you want an MBA?” you’ll be incredibly convincing when you introduce your career goals by saying, “Actually, I’ve put a lot of thought into this, and the reason for an MBA for me right now is….”
For those of you planning for Round 2 and wondering what on earth any of this has to do with your essays, we will offer the very straightforward observation that the primary reason that most people’s essays to bschool are so sucktastic is because they are completely lacking in authenticity — and the crux of the problem is, the writer of said essay has no clue that they’ve fallen into the trap of fakeness. This is why starting early is important, and planning for many, many rounds of rewrite and revision. You need to plan for the near-inevitable experience that the first drafts you write will simply be awful vacuous fluffbombs of drivel. You will THINK that you answered the question, but anyone who’s got any experience reading MBA essays (which is everyone that matters, namely your adcom reviewers) will instantly see that you have not.
Or, that you’ve answered in a completely roundabout and milquetoast way that does not reveal anything of substance.
Or, you’ve simply said the same exact thing that is so automatic for people to say. Stuff about “the network” and the world-renowned program and oh I’m just falling over myself to tell you how great your school is.
None of that works in an essay.
But that’s almost guaranteed to be what you come up with on your first attempt.
It’s just what humans do.
This is why essays are so difficult to write. This is why the task is so ginormous.
It’s because you need to go beyond the automatic stuff that other people do; beyond the first-blush idea of an answer. You have to actually present meaning, and context, and clarity of thought.
Not a trivial exercise.
You also need to stop, and ask yourself “What are they asking?” The essay questions are across the board challenging. They may SEEM straightforward and simple, but they all are opportunities for you to go deep. Those who stay at the surface with their answers are those who miss out on a massive opportunity. It’s only when you investigate what’s being asked and you ponder it for a significant time that you are likely to come up with the most compelling way to respond.
That’s where the authentic is revealed.
Want to read more? Check out this article called If This Is How You’re Doing Authenticity You’re Doing It Wrong or, semi-related, is this one from Stanford Business, Authenticity’s Paradox: If You Flaunt It, You Lose It which is about the trend for authenticity in business (think craft beer, artisanal cheeses) yet has a nugget or two of useful insights about personal authenticity, too.
And, if you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and dive in, the Complete Essay Package can help you to do the digging required on core topics for your first set of essays, to give you a guided tour through the process of finding out what these important answers are for yourself — to the great benefit of you, and the adcom, in your apps.
h/t to this dude on Medium for this.
[T]he inventor of the first programmable computing device design, Charles Babbage, was asked about this on two different occasions:
“If you put wrong figures into the machine, will the right answers come out?”
His response is classic:
“I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.”
That’s kind of the deal with the MBA admissions process.
If you put the wrong inputs in, how are you going to expect to see the answer you want on the other side?
“Wrong inputs” might be:
- Inflating your achievements
- Hyping up what you have done in your career in an attempt to sound impressive
- Changing your job titles on the resume
- Shifting dates just real subtle-like to try and hide a small gap in employment
- Or the other thousand-and-one ways you could manipulate the facts of your background to try to hide what you perceive as a weakness
This, all in an attempt to fool or convince or in some way cajole the adcom reader to admit you.
The “system” in this case is a school that tells you over and over that they want you to be yourself, that they care about authenticity, that they want to meet you as an individual. And yet many BSers get all strung up into knots in trying to come across in a specific way.
It’s very rare that a BSer goes into the process PLANNING to do this. Those small decisions are usually made one at a time and they each probably seem like non-issues. But every time you sugarcoat, or obfuscate, or glaze over the facts, then you’re at risk of taking yourself further away from the goal.
Adcom readers develop this incredible Spidey sense. It’s pretty darned easy to tell if someone is totally full of it.
It’s also really easy to spot the ones that work hard, that have thought through all of their answers, that have written their drafts and then ripped them up and then written them all over again. Those aren’t always the ones that the tippy-top schools are able to admit all the time, but they definitely are the ones that get noticed, and that get pondered over, and that the adcom reader spends more time with before making a call.
Garbage in, garbage out is a pretty good rule for how life tends to work. It’s definitely one of the truisms of the application process as well.
When BSers get stuck on what they’re supposed to say in their essays, they frequently leave an exasperated comment asking for help. “Do you have a sample I can look at?” they ask plaintively, trying to keep the whine out of their words.
We cautioned against this recently when we talked about that “pizza essay” but it’s worth explaining again.
If you read other people’s essays – even “successful” ones that got into Harvard or wherever – you are running a huge risk.
If you claim that you don’t know what to write in your own essay, and you look at someone else’s essay as a way to figure it out, you won’t be learning what YOU should say. All you’ll be seeing is how someone else did it – and guess what? They may have gotten in even with crapload essays! It happens all the time, and the Stanford adcom warns about it.
If you feel stuck on what to write, then reading what someone else wrote will only give you an idea for how to copy them. It won’t let you express the facts of your own profile and history in any sort of authentic way. You won’t be able to help it; you’ll be influenced. It’s like walking down the street and you can’t get that Britney Spears song out of your head, and you don’t even know where you heard it. It’s just there. Maybe you picked it up in the elevator; maybe it was playing in the bodega where you bought your Red Bull. No idea. It just seeps in. You’re defenseless. Same with ideas from someone else’s essay. Once they’re there, they’re there. You won’t be able to help but to think that that’s how to write that particular type of essay.
And you’re also assuming that the person’s essay was halfway decent. Most essays aren’t. How can you tell the difference? If you don’t have a clue what you should write about, then won’t you think ANY essay is good? It has words on the page, and you don’t spot any typos. Must be a winner!!!!
You have to ask yourself: “Self, what is it I am hoping to gain by reading a sample essay?”
Can you answer that?
Are you looking for how they structured it?
Well, you don’t need a sample to tell you that – EssaySnark will tell you!
A well-structured essay has a clear intro, with the answer to the question in the first paragraph (or even the first sentence); it includes a body of a paragraph or two that backs up that answer; and then it ties everything up with a bow through a conclusion at the end. Voila. Now you have the answer to that question.
We suspect that that’s not what you are looking for, though.
You very innocently say, “No, ‘Snark, ya silly. I don’t care about essay structure.” (though you should!) “I care about what they wrote.”
OK, well, we got that covered too!
If it’s a career goals essay, start here.
If it’s a leadership and achievement essay, here.
If it’s any other type of essay, well, we’ve probably discussed those, too. Just wander over to the first page of the blahg and in the right panel you will see a dropdown that says Select Category. There are oodles of posts on most anything you dare to dream up, if it involves applying to bschool, that is.
We don’t post sample essays* and we won’t give you suggestions for what you should write for your goals. We pretend to give you a sample letter of recommendation in this post (but do we, really?). We don’t even give you a template in our Resume App Accelerator.
In our App Accelerators, we definitely do lay out a structured approach for how to present your background and stories, along with gobs of exercises you can go through to dig into your past and uncover the good stuff in your life experience and professional history that the adcom might be interested to learn about. Yes, it means rolling up your sleeves and figuring stuff out on your own, however in our experience, that heavy lifting of working through your own material is the only way to get there. If we could just tell you what to write, it would certainly make our job easier, wouldn’t it? But besides it being unethical, it’s also not in your best interest. If you want to be prepared and ready for the MBA, then one awesome way to make sure of it is going through this whole essay / introspection process. It may seem like an unnecessary hazing exercise that the adcom is putting you through, but it actually has benefits (beyond just serving as EssaySnark torture device).
Another huuuuuge risk with reading someone else’s essay is, you’re reading a finished product. You’re probably only interested in those “essays that got in!” right? Well, that’s going to represent the final version of what some applicant sweated over through round over round of revision last year. That’s what it takes to write a good essay, at least.
So you’re sitting here in No Essays Ever Written Land, feeling already overwhelmed and discouraged, and you decide to read a a Polished And Gleaming essay from the distant shore of I Got In! Hmm, yeah, we can see how useful that would be!
Reading someone’s essay who already finished the process is like looking at pictures of super models in bikinis or buff bodybuilder dudes when you have only just decided to go on a diet. It’s not likely to be very helpful. Instead, it’s more likely to make you feel even worse about the shape you’re in. But there’s nothing wrong with the shape you’re in. You’re just at one end of the process. They’re at another. With time and hard work, you’re going to get there, too. And then you will be able to explain to all your friends who are trying for bschool in a subsequent year why it’s not going to help them to look at your essays.
This isn’t entirely true. We do post essays but those are always ones with pretty significant flaws that are posted with the BSer’s permission in order to offer comments (submit yours to be considered for such treatment here!); we also have one HBS essay contributed by a long-ago BSer who got in that’s made available as a teaching tool with the purchase of the Essay Ideas App Accelerator.
— Carolina Williams (@justcarolina22) May 9, 2017
When seeing snippets of a successful app, PLEASE REMEMBER you're only getting (ahem) *a slice of the pie* – we will be discussing on blahg! https://t.co/QHK8sCC12H
— Essay Snark (@EssaySnark) June 6, 2017
This reminds us of the “tortilla essay” that made it into the Stanford GSB many (many) years ago.
You can read more about this current iteration of food in applicant essays at the Washington Post – including the news that this applicant chose Auburn instead of Yale. (wow, that’s pretty incredible right there)
Before you decide to write about pizza in any of your MBA essays this year, we wanted to break down a few things.
First, this is a college application. The rules are (somewhat) different. Applicants to college are like 17 years old. By definition, they have not yet gone to college. You have. The standards and expectations are different for them.
Second, any attempt to replicate another applicant’s success based on following some sort of formula is just so likely to backfire. This young woman was successful in writing about pizza because of the nature of her answer in the context of the question.
As a reminder, the question was “Write about something you love to do” and the space allotted was 200 words. It’s not all that dissimilar to what Columbia is asking in the two variations it’s given you for Essay 3.
One reason we feel this essay resonated with the Yale admissions peeps is because she didn’t overthink it. She loves ordering pizza. It’s meaningful for her, in multiple ways. The remark about how it made her feel like a grown-up when she was younger is particularly insightful; that alone shows some self-reflection took place before she wrote her answer.
However, what a 17-year-old can reveal about herself in a simple story about pizza is going to be different — we hope — from what you will be able to reveal about yourself in a similar short essay.
When most people are faced with the question of “what are you passionate about” they immediately go into I-must-impress-you mode. Many people will launch into stuff like “I am passionate about helping others” or “I am passionate about the environment” or whatever. Those are packaged responses; they may be true, but in many cases they’re more contrived than real. They don’t go very deep.
This young woman was able to show stuff about herself.
Note too how specific she got.
She didn’t say “I love pizza.” She said “I love ordering pizza” and then she described why, with examples. She took you into her world and how she gets excited by it.
It was a direct answer to the question.
It also tells us that probably this young lady did not have the help of an admissions consultant because that type of answer is often ixnayed by “the professionals” as being too meaningless. Instead, her true self came through.
Again, she didn’t overthink it…. but she did think it through. This was an essay she spent time on. She built in layers of her answer, and it reveals stuff to us about her as a person. Plus, it’s quirky; she opens with the bit about the doorbell before going into the true answer to the question. (That’s not necessarily a technique that we think works so great, but again, she’s a teenager; it’s fine.)
The last very important point that we will raise though: This was not the sole essay in her application package. This is what some schools call a “just for fun” question; it’s designed to be low-risk and sometimes high-payoff. You can answer ANYTHING for this type of question. There are no rules for how to handle it, as long as you give something concrete and specific. That’s also true for similar questions in an MBA app, like the aforementioned Columbia Essay 3.
Would this type of answer work for Yale’s single essay asking about a commitment?
Not only was that one essay as part of a set of essays, but the essays are just one part of the total application. We also know that this young lady is the first in her family to go to college. Yale and other elite colleges are actively recruiting from all socioeconomic backgrounds, and the “first in family” profile is particularly of interest to them in helping to increase specific elements of diversity.
Why did admissions officers comment on this essay?
Well, for one, it was memorable.
However, it’s quite likely that the reason that we even heard about this essay is not because of the essay, but because Yale was doing outreach and recruiting to this admit, trying to get her to enroll. Which is what ALL SCHOOLS do. And, in an effort to make that process as effective as possible, the admissions folks who reached out to her specifically commented on what she had submitted to them — in this case, the pizza essay, since it was distinctive and easy to relate to.
Admissions people at many schools do something similar. When they reach out to admits, they want to make a connection. It is, after all, recruiting at that stage; they’re trying to get you to choose them. (Yes, it’s an odd position to be in, when you have multiple offers come in and suddenly the SCHOOLS are courting YOU and wanting YOU to pick THEM; it can be a little surreal when it happens.)
We’d be willing to bet that lots and lots of Yale admits got very similar notes from these same admissions people. It is only because this enterprising young woman tweeted at Papa John’s Pizza to let them know that she wrote about them — and then Papa John’s did what any red-blooded American business would do, they instantly offered her free pizza and the whole thing went viral.
That’s why you heard about it. Because of standard 2017 marketing techniques.
Not because she got in with an essay about pizza.
We’re not knocking the young lady or her creativity. She earned a spot in Yale University, after all. That is not easy to do, whether it’s Yale SOM as an MBA or for undergrad. She deserves the attention.
But please don’t think that there’s a formula for success – or that it has anything to do with pizza.
You might also be interested in:
In our series on authenticity we posted a great video with co-speakers David Aaker and Jennifer Aaker which we hope you watched. No? Didn’t get a chance to? Here it is again: https://youtu.be/eq0SCz2Vncw The whole thing is absolutely worth viewing in its entirety — especially now that Haas has released its essay questions which focus…
We’ve been talking about authenticity as part of the MBA application process this week – in case you missed it, here’s the first post, and then one specific to Stanford but which offers an exercise that may prove interesting in general. Then we had another on sharing who you are with the adcoms, and finally…