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Be sure to read my Key Posts on the admissions process. Topics include essay analysis, resumes, recommendations, rankings, and more.

December 13, 2008

Should I be simple or complex?

One thing that frequently arises when I work with my clients on MBA essays is the extent to which they should provide a simple or a complex portrait of themselves. My general strategy is to always say that I am greedy and therefore I want to learn as much about them as possible. Admissions committees, to a greater or lesser extent based on the questions that they ask, are trying to learn about you as a person. Tell them those best stories about you that will show you in all of your remarkable complexity. That said, the realities of page and word limits and the need to have a clear focus require some simplification.

While some schools like Columbia give very little space for the articulation of personality stories, even they are trying to find out about who you are and not merely what you have done. Your resume is a record of what you have done, the essays reveal who you are. Of course, recommendations will provide other people's perspectives on that, but until an interview takes place, the only way an admissions committee can learn about how you think about yourself, your own story, and your future is to read your essays.

Now telling stories about yourself is not an invitation to engage in mere self-indulgent confessions because good taste, discretion, and the necessity to market yourself effectively require that you exercise great judgment about what you write. That is especially why hastily written essays are so often bad. Such rushed content may have energy, but the assumption of "first thought, best thought" is often not only wrong, it is often fatal.

An effective approach to essay writing requires an initial brainstorming phase followed by reflection, revision, and some real serious consideration of overall strategy. Essays are read as a set and as part of a whole application, so it is best to see them as part of that holistic process.

I notice some applicants who think they need to continually repeat the same content from essay to essay within a single essay set. My assumption is if admissions read a story once, reading it again or reading one that is just like it in structure and theme is not likely to have much impact. Use each essay to tell focused stories that reveal a different aspect of who you are, how you think, and/or who you want to become.

Unless you are trying to create the impression that are there is little to you, presenting different aspects of who you are is important. People are complex, contradictory, imperfect and if you want to come across as a person you need to tap into that complexity. Being real, something I have heard admissions officers from such schools as Berkeley, Duke Fuqua, Stanford, Tuck, Chicago, and MIT say, is a core aspect of writing effective essays. Being real means presenting presenting different aspects of who you are.

You most certainly have to sell yourself, but do it authentically, and give admissions sufficient stories to connect to you as a person so that they decide that they want you as part of their community. These stories about your leadership, teamwork, communication skills, innovation, creativity, future vision, and accomplishments need to be in sufficient detail to have an impact on the reader. Merely sprinkling bits of detail will not be sufficient. You will need to choose between stories and can't possibly include everything.

You certainly have to think about your audience and ask what can you tell them that will most likely appeal to them? Don't do this at the expense of eliminating core positive aspects of who you are, but think strategically about what to focus on. For instance, at MIT, as I have suggested in my analysis of their behavioral questions, the ability to think and act differently depending on the kind of situation you encounter is certainly a net positive. In general, the ability to write differently and provide analysis of situations in different ways is an important way to communicate intelligence. This is something of value when applying to any school, but certainly even more so with essay questions like MIT's (or Stanford Essay C) that are specifically designed to gauge your emotional and analytical intelligence.

So back to original question: Simple or complex? Well, some of both actually. The art is all in the combination of the two and one of the core things that separates great essays from the rest.

Questions? Write comments, but do not send me emails asking me to advise you on your application strategy unless you are interested in my consulting services. Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to. Before emailing me questions about your chances for admission or personal profile, please see my recent post on "Why I don't analyze profiles without consulting with the applicant." If you are interested in my graduate admission consulting services, please click here.
-Adam Markus
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