Avoid These 10 Pitfalls in MBA Application Essays

taking notes2

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com

The essay component of the MBA application is a chance to really wow the admissions committee and stand out from potentially thousands of other candidates with similar GMAT scores or GPAs.

There are many ways to craft a stellar essay that will give the reader a better sense of who you are, but there are also several mistakes to avoid as you’re answering these required prompts. Make sure you sidestep the following pitfalls at all costs.

1. Neglecting to answer the question: Applicants often become so determined to drive home a particular point, or worse, drift off into a tangent, that they fail to succinctly answer the question. Don’t answer with “what” when the question asks “how?” or “why?” Business schools create their essays with the goal of finding out how you fit their program, and not answering the question immediately indicates poor fit.

2. Using industry jargon or pretentious language: Never assume the admissions committee member reviewing your application is intimately familiar with your particular industry. Write for a lay audience, and avoid flowery or stuffy language – use familiar words instead.

With hundreds of applications on their desks, the admissions staff has only a few minutes to review each essay. It should be immediately digestible.

3. Basing essays on what you think the admissions committee is looking for: Even if you have a pretty good idea of what a particular business school looks for in MBA candidates, this isn’t the time to remake yourself into what you think their ideal student would be.

This is a major pet peeve of the admissions committee, which is why they have gone to great lengths recently to come up with creative essay prompts. Stay true to yourself and your professional goals.

4. Using a negative tone, or sounding whiny or complaining: As you come up with those great anecdotes to illustrate your leadership, problem-solving or team-building skills, make sure the examples in your essay don’t include criticizing a co-worker or complaints about your supervisor, even in a subtle way. Always keep the tone positive, or it will end up reflecting poorly on you.

5. Lying or exaggerating about your experience: For some applicants, it can be tempting to fudge a few details or embellish a bit in the hopes of making a memorable impression. Just ask news anchor Brian Williams.

But aside from being bad form, the admissions committee has various ways to fact-check a candidate’s claims, and discovering fabricated information would trigger an automatic rejection, even if the mistake was innocent. Be accurate in how you represent yourself.

6. Failing to demonstrate passion: Most MBA applicants aren’t professional writers, and sometimes make the mistake of writing essays that are informative, logical, well-organized and, inadvertently, a snooze fest. This is not the time to repeat your resume in prose form.

You must connect with the person evaluating your application on an emotional level if you hope to stand out. As the University of Texas—Austin McCombs School of Business‘ MBA program recently noted on its admissions blog, “Convince us that you are not only capable, but that you are special and that we will be lacking something without your presence.”

7. Discussing inappropriate topics: While you do want to open up and allow the admissions committee to get to know the person behind the paper, certain subjects do not belong in an essay for business school.

Leave out any mention of religious or political views; avoid the subject of money and how you want to make loads of it after you get your MBA; and steer clear of overt humor in general, unless you are a comedian by profession.

8. Disregarding word count: In almost all instances, the admissions committee has specified a word limit to the essays. With thousands of applications to read each round, they don’t have time to review essays that read like epic tomes.

You can sometimes go over the limit a smidge, but flagrant disregard for the prescribed word count is a red flag that you either have trouble following directions or cannot express yourself concisely.

9. Referencing high school experiences: Unless you did something amazing in your teenage years – started a business, raised an insane amount of money for a fundraiser, built houses for Habitat for Humanity in Kyrgyzstan – stick to anecdotes from your career from the past three years.

Candidates applying straight out of college or with only one year of work experience can mention university accomplishments. But for those with more than two years in the workforce, focus on current career developments instead. Recent examples give the admissions committee a better sense of where you are today, both personally and professionally.

10. Making apologies or excuses: Whether the issue is poor academic performance in the past, being fired from a job or even having a criminal record, applicants feel terrified they will be rejected out of hand if they admit to these kinds of mistakes.

Address the matter directly, take ownership and explain what you learned or how you improved. No excuses or apologies needed – or desired.

MBA essays are a wonderful opportunity to share what makes you a dynamic, multidimensional person. If you can avoid inadvertently committing these mistakes, you’ll stand an excellent chance of creating a positive impression on the admissions committee.

Image credit: Daniel Foster (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


(323) 934-3936

Latest Blog Post

Breaking Down 5 MBA Admissions Myths

Business school hopefuls, particularly those targeting elite programs, often fall prey to certain admissions myths circulating the interwebs. Today, we’re going to do a little myth-busting of five common misconceptions about the MBA application ...