If you know anyone who is applying to business school for the class of 2014, you may have heard them muttering to themselves, “What does matter most to me and why?” (Stanford GSB) or “Have I ever learned anything from a setback?” (Harvard Business School). They may be victims of an energy-draining syndrome that shows itself every year about this time called MBA essay nightmare. It’s a regular sinkhole of drafting, pondering, redrafting, questioning, redrafting, wondering if it is getting better or worse, redrafting, and whining.
The essays matter. Of course the GMAT does too, and, but the real differentiator is the answer to the question behind all those questions, “Why should we admit you to our business school?”
Your answer is going to be as unique as your own DNA. But getting there is quite the chore. You could watch this MBA Podcaster video on YouTube regarding MBA essays (in which I feature with admissions reps from Wharton and Columbia Business School), or you could read on.
I’m going to tell you a secret. Writing isn’t easy for anyone. Oh, every so often, someone will tell you that they whipped up their essays the night before the deadline and were accepted everywhere they applied. Fine. That person is in the minority.
If you are finding that you are writing and rewriting, and rewriting again, and then stumbling, and rewriting, you are not alone. Ernest Hemingway was said to have rewritten the ending of For Whom the Bell Tolls 39 times. That’s just the ending. That means he already struggled with getting words down on paper for the first time. Remember the movie “Adaptation,” where the character played by Nicholas Cage nearly drives himself crazy from writers block? That should remind you that lots of people have faced down a blank page.
To write those essays, you have to start somewhere, and believe me, your first try doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, it can be terrible. Annie Lamott, author of Bird by Bird, a wonderful book on the writing process, life, and everything else, says it is ok to write whatever comes into your mind. “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous,” she says. “In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”
Death by Rewriting
Or what if you are looking at an essay that you’ve rewritten two or three times, and it still isn’t going anywhere? It feels like it is getting worse word by word. Don’t be afraid to stop writing. Read it first thing in the morning if you are an early person, or right before you go to bed if you are a late person. Or both. Keep your computer or a pen and a printout of the draft by your bed. Print it out, walk around with it.
If you hate it, talk the essay over with a friend, confidant, or advisor. Tell them the story without worrying about the words on the paper. Does it makes sense? Are you excited by it? If not, go back and forth with this other person: have them tell you when they feel your energy. If they don’t feel your energy at all when you tell them your story, believe me, the admissions officer won’t feel it either. You may have to start all over.
These are just some quick ideas to remind you that it is perfectly OK for you to feel stuck. This is really, really normal. Just don’t be afraid to rewrite, revise, and reconsider your own assumptions. You probably don’t have to go around 39 times, but give yourself permission to work it until its right.
Don't forget to check out the Betsy Massar's book Admitted: An Interactive Workbook for Getting Into a Top MBA Program, published by 85 Broads.
Contact Betsy Massar at Betsy@masteradmissions.com for a consultation on potential school choices. Betsy is one of the original 85 Broads. She graduated from Harvard Business School and worked at Goldman Sachs on 85 Broad Street in her first post-MBA job. She has since worked in London, Asia, and in Silicon Valley on the investment banking, institutional sales, and investment management marketing businesses. An award-winning business writer, Betsy can help you on business school applications, resume/cover letter writing, and test anxiety. Betsy is also a communications coach at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.