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

July 23, 2012

Brevity is the soul of MBA Application Essays in 2012-2013

Given the decreases in total word count and number of essays at HBS, Columbia, Stanford, MIT, etc, clearly brevity is the soul of the MBA application for 2012-2013. Applicants to top US MBA programs in 2012-2013 will surely find themselves experiencing both the benefits and limitations of having very short essays to write. While applicants will find that they are likely to be able to get through each essay set faster than in past years, they are likely to be frustrated by the lack of available word count to present themselves comprehensively. 
This makes me think of a famous quote by a great dead writer:
Brevity is the soul of lingerie.
-Dorothy Parker
Perhaps you thought I would mention someone else? Well maybe brevity is the soul of wit, but various proponents of long form humor would argue otherwise. On the other hand, I am convinced that Dorothy Parker got it right about lingerie. I will not make an extended comparison between lingerie and MBA application essays, but Kellogg's "What one interesting or fun fact would you want your future Kellogg classmates to know about you? (25 words or less)" surely takes the t-back prize. Brief indeed.

Now that I have amused myself, I wanted to provide some general suggestions for effectively presenting yourself in MBA application essays when you have only limited word count:

Don't be redundant. Here is an example of what I meanThere is no space for writing the same thing over and over again when you have very tight word counts. Given limited word count, you really have to make effective use of your word count. Even if you don't, if you you repeat what you have written over and over again, you will simply be repeating yourself. It will get annoying to read the same idea expressed in multiple sentences when one sentence would doYou must make the most of every word you have. While what I just wrote contains good advice, was it not annoying to read? Therefore intensively edit what you have written to get in as much as you can in the limited space that you have available.

Answer the question directly. Given the amount of internal administrative time that was involved in formulating these lovely questions, assume the admissions office is actually asking for a specific answer to the question being asked. Especially when questions are being formulated in a very direct way, it should not be challenging to stay on topic. Questions such as Wharton's "How will Wharton MBA help you achieve your professional objectives? (400 words)," are very focused questions.  Compare it to what Wharton asked back for the Class of 2012: 
"Essay 1 – (750-1000 words) As a leader in global business, Wharton is committed to sustaining “a truly global presence through its engagement in the world.” What goals are you committed to and why? How do you envision the Wharton MBA contributing to the attainment of those goals?"
Clearly, you can't possible cover the range of topics that applicants back in 2009-2010 could. Instead you most provide a focused answer that shows the clear expected relationship between your professional goals and Wharton. You can briefly describe what your professional objectives are, provide a brief explanation of your motivation for said objectives, and then go on to explain how Wharton will help you achieve your goals. You don't have space for your life story. If they wanted it, they would ask for it.

Only write about the best stuff. The great thing about smaller application essay sets is that they make secondary and tertiary topics unnecessary for essays. Instead just focus on your best stuff. The means you should spend a sufficient amount of time figuring out what that is. If you read my analysis of HBS essays, you will see how I suggest even comparing possible topics to each other in order to determine what really is best.  It has always been the case that applicants need to focus on their best stuff, but it becomes even more important when you get no second chances. Less essays and shorter word counts means you have fewer chances to positively impact your reader. 

Know exactly what you really want your audience to understand about you. You will not have nearly the same number of opportunities per application to present yourself as applicants did in the past.  You can only provide them with a limited number of selling points in your essays, so make the most of each point. Don't spread yourself too thin. You might have identified six-ten key selling points about yourself, but chances are you might only have room for 3-5 of them if you want to have space so that what you write actually has impact. 

Keep your professional objectives simple. The more complicated and non-intuitive your post-MBA objectives are, the harder it will be to communicate them in really short essays. You might be a career changer or an entrepreneur with elaborate plans, but you will have exactly the same space as the career enhancer who intends to keep on their present career path. Even if what you want to do is complex, keep your goals simple because you will not have the space for anything complicated or very detailed. 

Make sure that what you can't get into your essays is being communicated elsewhere. The resume, recommendations, and application form provide valuable opportunities for getting in what you can't cover elsewhere. If there is a story you want your recommender to tell that you don't have space for in your essays, ask them to include it. Make sure your resume really fully accounts for the full range of your academic, professional, and extracurricular accomplishments.  Make full use of the application form. 

Now back to reviewing clients' files. First round is coming early this year. 

-Adam Markus

I am a graduate admissions consultant who works with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form. Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.
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