Your MBA application essay mastered

Writing in prose or presenting a video, the best applicants show clarity and purpose

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

Writing the perfect MBA application essay involves brevity, a degree of literary panache, and total honesty. It also helps if you mention you were South Korea’s first astronaut.

It is not a dean’s duty to sift through the thousands of student applications that the world’s most prestigious schools receive each year — they have admissions teams to do that. But they are often asked to pass judgment on the written essays — and increasingly videos and other multimedia applications — from notable candidates, so their opinions on style and content count

Rich Lyons, dean of Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, spotted Yi So-yeon, the first Korean to fly in space, in 2010 from the 15 candidates he was handed. Every year, he receives a sample in each selection round, picked for the exceptional qualities displayed from a pool of about 4,000 applicants.

“I don’t even remember what score she got in the GMAT [admission test], I just knew she would add value,” he says. “You have got to have something special to get through that stage.”

The Shanghai-based China Europe International Business School last year made offers to one in every four of its applicants to fill 180 places on its full-time MBA programme.

Each essay is read and scored by the admissions team — but this is just one element of the selection process, alongside GMAT scores and proven work experience, Yuan Ding, the dean, notes.

“[The essay] is where we learn about applicants’ career aspiration, understanding of China, and writing skills.” He adds that they also look for exaggeration or an economy with the truth. 

Applicants to UCLA Anderson School of Management are given a 500-word limit for their essays. They must explain their short and long-term career goals and what their time at the business school would add to their professional development. 

The essays are then assessed by at least two admissions team members, each of whom are looking for elements that make them want to accept an applicant, such as unusual work experience, rather than deny them a place, according to Rob Weiler, associate dean for the MBA programme. 

From left: Rich Lyons of UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business; Peter Henry of NYU's Stern School of Business; and Giuseppe Soda of SDA Bocconi School of Management in Milan © FT montage
It pays to be concise, he adds. “If an applicant attempts to add too much supplemental information, chances are they are trying too hard.”

New York University’s Stern School of Business, this year “Instagrammed” its essay format by asking candidates to pick six visual items — photographs, charts and even emojis — and give each a caption, rather than writing a piece of prose. The school’s admissions team, which has assessed about 50,000 essays over the past 15 years, likes innovation, according to Peter Henry, NYU Stern dean. They were looking for creativity and an ability to be succinct and accurate. What makes any application “leap out from the pack” during the admissions process is that the writers can explain their career goals and how NYU Stern would help them achieve these, Prof Henry says.

Barcelona’s IESE business school does not set a format for applications. One applicant recently produced a video as his cover letter — a method of application increasingly common in US schools. But content trumps format, according to Franz Heukamp, the dean.

“The ones that grab our attention do so not because they say something we have never heard before, are wild or outrageous,” he says. “What makes a cover letter special is when it is very clear that the candidate knows what he or she wants to achieve professionally.” 

The most important element of an essay is a “clear and concise” message, according to Winfried Ruigrok, the dean at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland

“An MBA application stands out if the applicant knows our specific programme strengths, structure and culture,” he says. 

SDA Bocconi School of Management was the first European school to add mandatory video interviews to its application process, says its dean, Giuseppe Soda, with candidates required to answer a series of random questions on camera. 

Those applying to its 16-month MBA course must also submit two reference letters and attend a face-to-face interview at the school’s Milan campus, as well as performing well in the GMAT exam — its average test score is 665 out of a possible 800, compared with a sector average of about 550.

The video format complements the wider objective of Bocconi’s admissions team, to get to know each candidate by name, according to Prof Soda. 

This level of detail is possible at Bocconi — which last year received 375 applications for 132 places — but not feasible for larger institutions. “We want to focus on each candidate’s personal development,” Prof Soda says. “We want to know the students by name.”

Before becoming dean, Prof Soda’s job included reading every essay from the PhD applicants. “The problem was that they were always the same sort of essay,” he says. “Written pieces can be faked so a video seems a better way.”

He anticipates a day when the video test replaces the written elements of the MBA application.

“When you write you have more time to prepare,” he says. “With our video test there is the element of the unexpected. It is not just what they say but how they say it, and there is the pressure of being in front of a camera.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.