Striking the Perfect Tone in MBA Essays

 This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA blog on

Finding the right balance between confidence and humility is one of the critical challenges you will face in crafting your b-school essays and in delivering answers to admissions interviewers.

No one likes a blowhard, but at the same time, no one else is going to “toot your horn” in your MBA application either. It’s all about your attitude, which will permeate your essays and set the tone for the way the admissions committee views you.

One of the key questions applicants often have is how confident they should try to appear. When you tell a story lauding your achievements to the admissions official across the table, that person’s visual cues can help you know when to scale back the confidence by one or two levels.

With b-school essays, you have one shot to craft your message, and admissions committee members with diverse personality types and differing levels of acceptance and patience for bravado will read your prose.

Likewise, some applicants face the dilemma of how much of an “expert” to paint themselves as in their field. It is critical to portray yourself as someone from whom your classmates can learn.

Many business schools are case study-oriented; the quality of the education is essentially determined by the content the students contribute in the classroom. Additionally, offline conversations are a huge part of the learning process for both academic subjects as well as issues related to career choices.

However, the “I’ve seen it all” attitude is definitely not something b-schools are looking for from their typical 25-to-30-year-old applicant. Even as you highlight the fascinating experiences you’ve had and the cutting-edge knowledge you possess, make sure you take careful stock of what you want to learn, both from your professors and your fellow students.

The people who take the best advantage of business school are those who come in with a high level of curiosity and a willingness to absorb new information like a sponge. In short, the appropriate balance is struck when you have a developed a detailed awareness of what you have to teach and what you have to learn.

So, how can you highlight your business and leadership achievements without sounding like you think you are God’s gift to commerce? Here are three pointers:

1. Acknowledge the team: NASCAR drivers use the “we” technique to a fault. “We were running great today. When we took that first turn, our car was running perfectly.”

You don’t want to sound like a cliché, but positioning your achievements as team achievements works wonders. Plus, your abilities as a business leader will ultimately be more dependent on your abilities to achieve in a team format than in an individual setting.

[Learn how to convince MBA admissions officials you’ve done your research.]

2. Balance your portfolio of essays: You will probably have more license to emphasize your impressive achievements in some of your essays if you gain credibility in others by being honest and open about failures, weaknesses, and doubts.

If you just highlight how the incredible amount of work you pitched into an entrepreneurial venture led to its success, you shouldn’t half-heartedly chime in with “sometimes I work too hard” as a personal or professional weakness in another essay.

3. Highlight mentors: If you are shining the spotlight on your leadership capabilities, make sure you also acknowledge people in your academic, extracurricular, or work settings from whom you learned some of these skills. This works equally well for hard skills””such as finance and negotiation””and for “soft” skills, such as leadership, communication, and mentoring abilities. Doing so shows you are good at recognizing the strengths in others and know how to learn from them.

It’s also important that folks who come from positions and industries lacking that “glamour” factor don’t downplay their accomplishments. Certain high-profile investment banks and consulting firms are definitely the main feeder companies to American business schools, but it is often the people who come from less well-represented areas that have the most to teach the section or study group.

You may have run a T-shirt shack. Or conducted accounting audits for sketchy firms. Or monitored quality control at a Senegalese ball bearing plant. Rest assured, you do have valuable things to teach your classmates. The trick comes in thinking through what those lessons are and showing you have an unusual perspective on them.

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