Application #4: Essays

The most time-consuming part of writing the essays for me came before and after the act of writing. Jotting down an answer to the questions took me a few hours at most. By then I had already selected some stories fit for the purpose, after building my profile and doing my research on the schools. However, after the page was filled up with words, I spent even more trimming down, editing, refining and getting feedback on the first draft. With hindsight I believe that this exercise helped me turn a good draft into a much better essay.  [Side note: how you should interpret this series of posts on the application process.]

One last bit of research

Before I faced the blinking cursor on a blank Word page, I spent a few days reading some useful advice on the specific essay questions and on writing style in general.

Stanford provides a thorough “official guide” on how to answer effectively their two questions. Regardless of the school, you will find plenty of free essay topic analysis from MBA Prep services (e.g. ClearAdmit’s review of Stanford essays). After I visited my target schools and I started grasping their culture and program features, everything started making sense. I further re-assessed whether the stories I had selected tackled each question at its core.

MBAAdmissionStrategyI also felt the need to refresh my memory on writing techniques. Essays are not a writing competition, so I did not feel I had to take the style requirement to the extreme. However, I put myself in the shoes of the Admission Committee, who receive several thousand applications at each round. I therefore strived not only to include some interesting content, but also to make the narrative style crispy and concise.

An excellent book on both of these matters is “MBA Admissions Strategy” by Avi Gordon. It includes a section on “essay question archetypes” and another one on “writing tools and techniques”. Highly recommended!

Let it all out, then refined it

Putting together the first draft was a pleasant experience. After accumulating stories and data points for weeks, it felt good to let it all out! I began by laying down a clear structure, dividing the essay in paragraphs with a logical order. I then completed each paragraph in the most natural way. At this stage, I did not pay any attention to the word count, nor did I make too many considerations on style, although I implicitly applied what I had read in the previous weeks.

I started with Stanford (as I said in a previous post, I couldn’t wait to answer the “What matters most to you, and why?” question), and after perhaps 4 hours I had a first draft. It was way too long, clunky in some passages, unclear in others. However, if I compare this draft to what I submitted, the two versions are closely related. This first attempt slowly evolved and improved, but all the content was there from the beginning.

A few days later, I got back to the draft with a fresh pair of eyes. The next step was to trim down the essay into the right word-count ballpark. This was pretty painful instead! I had to find the right balance between including all the stories vs respecting the limit vs making each point clear. I found out that the best way to reduce the number of words is to use action verbs and take out adverbs (which I love, unfortunately!). I also had to remove whole sentences as well, as I realized that they were not adding valuable details to the story. In any case, it took me a few days and headaches, but in the end I felt that the heart of each story was still there, and the essay was much punchier.

Lastly, I refined the style and the word choice, and I brought the draft to a stage that I felt comfortable sharing with some friends. I decided to work on the essays for each school separately, so to have my mind in one place at one time. Once I had a set of final essays for Columbia, Harvard and Stanford, I attached those PDFs to a few emails.

Get selected feedback and evaluate it critically

Receiving feedback on the first draft was very important for me. It served two purposes: 1) making sure that the essays reflect my true voice, i.e. did it sound like me speaking from the heart, or pretending to be someone I thought AdCom might like?; 2) assessing whether any key trait of my profile was missing, e.g. stories demonstrating my intellectual vitality, teamwork ability, etc.

I selected four people to read the drafts in its most preliminary version: my sister and my best friend (predominantly for purpose #1, as they know me like the back of their hand), and two close friends who pursued an MBA at Harvard and Wharton (mainly for purpose #2, as they have been through the process).

Their feedback was priceless. My sister and my best friend confirmed that it really was me speaking, and they were also able to advise on the narrative flow. My MBA friends recommended some critical improvements to the content. In particular, a great suggestion was to flesh out in more detail the impact on society of my intended long-term goals. Considering the motto of each school I was applying to, he was absolutely right. The addition of just a few sentences made the essay more powerful.

My friend from Harvard had another great point. To express it, he started playing an imaginary piano for ten seconds, then asked me “which song am I playing?”. I looked at him somewhat puzzled and said I had no idea. He replied “you can play the piano, pay more attention!”, and started again. Still no clue. He then explained that it’s very easy to (wrongly) assume that other people can “read our mind”, i.e. interpret our melody without hearing it. It would be really helpful to clarify some non-trivial concepts which might be trivial to me. The person reading my essay would have a completely different background: how could I assume he/she knows what “licensing of a D2C subscription” means?

However, I evaluated critically all the advice I received, and I didn’t take every suggestion on board. All of my friends made their best to contribute, but at the end of the day it was my essay. So I made sure to include only those suggestions that I truly agreed with or saw the value of, without altering my own voice.

Another decision I made was to use a professional essay service. I selected EssayEdge for the last stage of editing, and found their service (proofreading + expert critique) very valuable. They were able to help me with final touches, especially from a language point of view. They corrected minuscule mistakes, which I couldn’t spot since English is not my first language, and suggested some precious improvements to the narrative flow.

Make the essay beautiful and flawless

Once the substance was there, I thought of the form as well. I knew I would be competing with several thousands super qualified applicants, so every little might help. I am not sure if it truly did, but I did not leave this aspect uncovered. Indeed, I have always thought that if the container looks beautiful (e.g. the sleeve/booklet of a CD, or a webpage layout), our mind shifts into a better mindset to receive the content (e.g. the songs in the CD, or the product that the webpage is selling).

This is why I paid attention to three elements, both in the resume, which I will discuss in the next post, and in the essays.

  • Font choice: the application instructions recommend Arial or Times New Roman, which are ok but undeniably overused. I picked a beautiful and professional font, Myriad, which Apple have used for the last decade in all their commercials, and is in a way part of the collective conscience of this generation.
  • Color coding and layout: I used the same colors, black and two shades of grey (I didn’t need 48 more!), in a consistent way across all essays and the resume. I also made sure that the paragraph distribution did not have any widows and orphans (read here if you don’t know what these are).
  • Spelling and grammar mistakes: the Stanford guide on writing effectively states that “the essays are not a marketing, but an accounting exercise”. I do agree with this statement. But either way, mistakes are simply not allowed in an advertisement or in a financial statement! So make sure there are NONE. The feedback from my friends and the consultant gave me confidence that my essays were flawless. However, before attaching the final version to the application, I printed them once more and triple checked until I was sure beyond any doubt.

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