Reviewing Whats Been Said Plus a Few New Points

Let's review some of the points we have presented up to now, as well as a few additional thoughts (and questions) for you to consider.

• Remember that, in a general sense, what's most important is what you say and how you say it.

• Whatever else you do, be sure to answer the question(s) the admissions committee is asking.

• Determine what you would tell an admissions committee member if you had five minutes to answer the question "What's most important for us to know about you?" This exercise will force you to do the type of thinking that must precede the preparation of an

Don't make the mistake of trying to guess what the admissions committee is looking for, and don't just write what you think the committee wants to hear. Such ploys are highly obvious to admissions people and can be detrimental to your cause.

effective personal statement. For help, refer to the list of questions you should ask yourself.

• When appropriate, find an angle and tell a story about yourself. If your life story has drama, use it.

• You are preparing a personal statement. Often it is appropriate and useful to include material that is quite personal in nature.

• Grab the reader's attention in your opening paragraph.

• Review your life carefully—with outside help, if necessary—to make certain you're including all relevant information. (See the Preparatory Questionnaire at the back of the book.)

Be selective. Don't introduce inappropriate material or get into so much detail that your judgment can be called into question.

Try to maintain a positive and upbeat tone. While it is often useful to deal candidly with aspects of your history that might be perceived negatively, overall you still want to project confidence and enthusiasm.

Be specific when appropriate. Avoid potentially controversial subjects. Express yourself clearly and concisely. Adhere to stated word limits.

Be meticulous (type and proofread your essay carefully).

A lot of the real superstars have failed miserably at times. We think the best candidates are ones who have failed and learned from it.

If a school wants to know why you're applying to it rather than another school, do a bit of research if necessary to find out what sets your choice apart from other universities or programs. If the school setting would provide an important geographical or cultural change for you, this might be a factor to mention.

Think about what you're saying. (Is it interesting, relevant, different, memorable?)

Be honest. Are you being yourself and revealing yourself? In many instances, admissions people are interested in finding out about who you are, and they appreciate honesty and candor. (One representative from a leading business school even told me that he likes to hear about applicants' setbacks because "through events like that, we see a lot of the qualities of rebounding. A lot of the real superstars have failed miserably at times. We think the best candidates are ones who have failed and learned from it.")

• Are you providing something more than a recitation of information available elsewhere in the application?

• Are you avoiding obvious cliches? For example, a medical school applicant who writes that he is good at science and wants to help other people is not exactly expressing an original thought. (One law school admissions representative told me, "When we discuss mistakes, we jokingly refer to the person who starts out a personal statement with a quote, either from de Tocqueville or from Shakespeare, such as the one that says, 'The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.' ")

• Use the Evaluative Questionnaire yourself (in addition to giving it to others) to assess the effectiveness of your rough draft.


Business school applications merit special attention because, unlike those for most medical and law schools, they tend to bypass the single, comprehensive personal statement in favor of a series of essays. Business schools typically require responses to a minimum of two to three questions, with some schools asking for considerably more. This is clear evidence of the great importance that business schools attach to this part of the application.

The application which for years has attracted particular attention due to its unusually high number of required essays is that of Harvard Business School. Formerly there was some speculation that this was partly a way of that institution's compensating for not requesting or accepting GMAT scores. However, even now that the GMAT requirement has been reinstated at Harvard, the school has still been opening eyes with a daunting seven mandatory essay questions. This circumstance would seem to underscore the substantial weight still given to the essays at Harvard—as well as other business schools—in determining those applicants who will gain a coveted spot in the entering class.

Confronted with so many different questionsTor which business schools expect impressive responses that are thoughtfully conceived, well-written, and reasonably sophisticated, MBA applicants find themselves with an enormous amount of work to do. Self-assessment is a big part of this process, as is a careful review of both your life and what you have done professionally. In my consulting practice. 1 often work with very successful individuals who have never before had to articulate in any substantive way exactly what they do. Now, in applying to business school, these clients for the first time must communicate this information in a very clear, concise, powerful manner that is immediately accessible to anyone, even without knowledge of the applicant's field. Being able to convey both the substance and significance of what one does (or has done) in one's work life is crucial for all applicants.

Keep in mind that the whole process of preparing these essays effectively will be of incalculable benefit to you later on, when your business school interviews take place. Candidates who do a good job with their essays invariably have learned more about how to explain and present themselves, and thus typically bring greater confidence and skill to the interview situation.

A positive trend in business school applications is the increasing availability of an optional essay for discussing important, relevant material which the other essays have not provided an opportunity to introduce. Used with discretion, this optional essay can, for some individuals, be invaluable.

While applying to a variety of MBA programs is always a time-consuming challenge, mitigating this problem sometimes, to a certain degree, is the fact that there often tends to be at least some overlap in questions posed by different business schools. (However, this observation comes with a qualifier and a caveat; see the Special Advice paragraph at the end of this section.) So while the phrasing of the question may vary from school to school an inquiry about why the applicant has decided to seek an MBA, for example, can appear on application after application. (The prevalence of this particular question, incidentally, would seem to suggest that the business schools are very interested not only in how applicants express themselves and defend the merits of their candidacy for an MBA program, but also in how they explain their educational and professional plans.)

Over the years several business schools have asked questions concerning ethical dilemmas the applicant may have faced, some wanting to know the applicant's choice of action, others not. Michigan and, more recently, the Fuqua School have posed complex situational ethics questions which seem to seek similar insights.

Wharton was in the vanguard of those business schools posing unusual questions, at one point in the 1980s even asking applicants what nine items they would choose to take along on a solo space flight and why. Recently, however, the school's questions have been somewhat more conventional.

Innovative, provocative, and challenging essay questions or requests still continue to appear on many business school applications, and the following represent some recent examples:

• Submit your own interview report providing us an assessment of the following attributes: maturity, creativity, problem-solving skills, interpersonal skills, leadership potential, sense of purpose, and your recommendation to the Admissions Committee. (Sloan School/MIT)

• "The unexamined life is not worth living."—Plato. In light of the above quotation, please discuss a decision you have made which, in retrospect, has had a profound influence on your present circumstances. In hindsight, would you have made a different decision? Please explain. (Haas School/Berkeley)

• Write a newspaper article you might read in the year 2020. (Chicago)

• It's August in the new century and you have three years of experience with the company that hired you after you earned your MBA. Layoffs, mergers, and acquisitions continue to define the business climate. You've just learned that your position will be eliminated. You don't have the seniority required for severance pay or outplacement services but will receive your salary through September 15. What is your plan of action? (Stern School/NYU)

• What do you believe to be the most important trend or pivotal event in your profession over the past five years? (Fuqua School/Duke)

• Describe a failure and howvou dealt wiih it. (Darden School/Virginia)

• Be your own career counselor. What aspects of your personality or background present the greatest obstacle(s) to achieving your goals? ( Kellogg/ Nor th western)

• Tell us about a risk you have taken (personal or professional). Whatwas your motivation behind taking it, and what was the ultimate outcome? What obstacles, if any, did you face? (The Anderson School/UCLA)

• Each of us has been influenced by the people, events, and situations of our lives. How have these influences shaped who you are today? (Our goal is to get a sense of who you are, rather than whatyou've done.) (Stanford)

• Imagine that through the marvels of technology, you have the ability to relive one day of your life. What day would you choose? Why? and Ten years after graduating from the Michigan MBA program you are the subject of a magazine article. In what magazine would the article appear and why? What would the article say aboutyour achievements and goals? (Michigan)

• How would you characterize the effect of your contributions to the groups or organizations in which you have participated? (Yale)

More common questions deal with the applicant's most significant accomplishments, professional progression to date, career goals, examples of leadership, and outside interests.

Special Advice: Some business schools' questions at first glance seem similar but are not really the same. Don't fall into the trap of 1) not noticing nuances that make a difference and affect the way the question must be answered; and 2) sending identical essays to different schools despite the fact that their questions are not actually exactly alike. Admissions officers at major business schools usually know what other top MBA programs are asking applicants, and they are unfavorably impressed when a candidate submits another school's essay to them.


What you will read on the following pages is a series of successful personal essays-ones that helped their writers gain acceptance to graduate school. Notice the way in which many of the applicants have used an angle and told a story about themselves. In some cases they have used drama in their presentations to catch the reader's interest and set themselves apart from other applicants. When there were obstacles they had to overcome in their lives, these were clearly delineated in the personal statement. There is something in almost all of these essays that distinguishes the applicant and stands out in the reader's mind afterward. The applicants reveal themselves as reflective, analytical, self-knowing, and articulate.

In presenting these examples of successful essays, it is not our intention that you copy from this material in your own application.

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