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Richard Macauley asks MBA admissions directors how best to navigate the admissions process, avoiding unnecessary errors along the way.
“I once read an application saying, ‘I am determined to join the Guanghua Management School at Tsinghua University’," recounts Jia Ma, IMBA marketing and admissions director at Beijing’s School of Economics and Management, Tsinghua University. "Obviously the applicant had used the same essay [for] both schools. We didn’t invite him for an interview.”
The lesson here is not to avoid reusing essays when applying to several schools, but rather that time should be taken to check that the details. “Such careless behavior is a very bad indicator of an applicant’s accountability in other important work,” says Ma. This was fatal for the candidate’s application in this case.
There are plenty of ways to slip up when applying to business school, but the consistent advice from admissions directors is to be sincere and accurate, and to keep things simple. Follow that advice, and the scope for embarrassment should be thoroughly narrowed.
Understanding the purpose of each part of the application process, and why business schools are requesting particular information, is an important way for to ensure that you best utilize each part of the process. Think of the different parts of the application as tools to put to positive effect rather than hurdles to clear. This way, a prospective student can transform the application process into a series of opportunities rather than inconveniences.
“The admissions committee rely upon application essays to develop a complete and more comprehensive candidate profile,” says Gopika Spaenle, associate director of admissions, marketing and financial aid for INSEAD’s MBA program. “In essence, [its purpose] is to add color and depth to the information derived from other areas of the application process such as GMAT and GPA scores,” she continues. “Application essays give the candidate a unique opportunity to introduce themselves and their achievements. They also provide valuable information to the admissions team on the candidate’s motivations and overall fit for the program.”
The essay should act as a primer for the discussion that takes place in the interview, which is the best platform for a candidate to sell themselves, so highlighting the fit between the applicant and the school is more valuable here than overemphasizing achievements.
Nick Barniville, MBA director at ESMT European School of Management and Technology, emphasizes the equal importance of both a fit for the applicant and for the university itself. “The first [question] is whether the applicant’s expectations are likely to be met by our program,” he says. “The second is whether the experience of fellow students in the cohort would be enhanced by having this particular applicant in their class, [and] the third is whether the applicant is likely to enhance the reputation of the program and the school as an alumnus.”
The essays, Ma explains, offers universities multiple opportunities to examine candidates’ personal qualities. “We usually ask the candidates to write four or five essays in their applications, [and] we will read each essay to understand the candidates as much as possible in terms of their standard of ethics, maturity and motivation. Logical thinking, leadership, and communication style, as well as their written capability, [are also valued highly].”
More important than the essays, however, says Barniville, is the CV. “It is the first knock out criteria for our program. If the candidate does not have enough experience to be able to contribute to the discussion, then he or she will not be accepted on to the program, regardless of what sort of essay they write.”
Lindsay Duke, postgraduate student recruitment manager at Durham Business School, says that for her, “managerial work experience demonstrated on the CV, followed by academic qualifications,” count most. But essays contain the largest margin for error. “Stating that they need a full-fee scholarship and stipend in order to study,” she reflects, “is not the best way to win over an admissions committee. We expect students to look for their own funding, be it self-funded or looking for external sponsorship.”
A great essay should contain, says Barniville, “clarity of expression, honesty, openness and some examples of achievement.” Formulaic essays which say nothing about candidates’ relationships to people in their circles, he adds, give no extra weight to applications.
One of the main mistakes, says Ma, is focusing too much on discussing previous study. “Tell stories from your work experience, no matter whether it is from a full-time job or an internship,” she says. “Some students mention how the failure of a college entrance exam or some similar exam makes them mature. Although it might be true, it may give the reviewers the impression that you lack real work experience – otherwise you shouldn’t be bothered by an exam from so many years ago.”
The tendency of many applicants to second-guess the admissions committee is another common bugbear. “The admissions committee is not looking for a standard template; candidates need to avoid writing what they think the admissions committee would like to hear,” says Barniville.
“Candidates always impress me most by [delivering] quick and genuine answers with great wisdom or humor,” says Ma - a standardized essay format with little personal information will fail to elicit such a reaction. Introducing personal information as well as professional, therefore, does not mean wandering off-topic.
“[Other] common mistakes are not actually responding to the question,” says Spaenle. “We know candidates frequently juggle work while applying to the program and are stretched for time. However, it is important for applicants to plan appropriately and to take sufficient time to write, review and edit essays in order to ensure that the image they are projecting is not skewed by inaccuracies, unclear sentences or technical jargon and acronyms. Respecting the word limit is also very important.”
And the final word from Barniville at ESMT? “Spell every word like it means life or death. There is no excuse for misspelling words; it’s a sign of laziness.”