Beyond Perfection: How Authenticity is Reshaping MBA Essays

As AI tools like ChatGPT grow in appeal, the ability to craft essays that resonate with authenticity has become a powerful differentiator for applicants seeking to stand out from the crowd.

The role of MBA application essays has undergone a shift. What was once a pursuit of perfection in crafting polished narratives has now shifted towards a quest for authenticity, driven by the increasing use of generative artificial intelligence (GenAI) tools such as ChatGPT. 

As would-be MBA candidates vie for coveted spots in top business schools, the ability to convey genuine experiences, values and aspirations has become paramount. This shift reflects a broader acknowledgment within the admissions community of the risks posed by GenAI. 

Tools like ChatGPT can help applicants meticulously tailor their essays to align with perceived expectations, striving to present themselves as flawless candidates with impeccable credentials. However, this approach can lead to generic, formulaic narratives that fail to resonate with admissions committees. Recognizing the limitations of this approach, MBA candidates are now being urged to embrace authenticity as a differentiator.

“While ChatGPT is great at creating very general content that can be found on websites, it doesn’t offer the specific examples you’ve experienced in your personal and professional life. So, our admissions essays now ask for details that are specific to your personal life experiences, which requires information that only you can answer,” says Shelly Heinrich, the associate dean of MBA admissions at Georgetown University McDonough School of Business, in Washington D.C. 

The integral role of MBA essays

Essays are an integral part of the application process for MBA programs. These essays typically require applicants to articulate their career goals, motivations for pursuing an MBA, relevant work experience, leadership abilities, and personal qualities. They serve as a way for the admissions committee to gain insights into applicants beyond their academic and professional credentials.

By sharing genuine experiences and perspectives, MBA applicants can forge deeper connections with the admissions committee and stand out in a competitive applicant pool.

“The point of an application is to help the admissions team understand who you are as a person and to demonstrate what makes you a competitive candidate,” Heinrich says. “Using ChatGPT for your essays won’t help us understand your unique attributes; instead, it will make you more similar to other applicants and make it more difficult for us to discover who you are and why you’re interested in our program.” 

The temptation of AI tools

And yet, many applicants may face the temptation to use AI tools to enhance their essays. While GenAI can assist in generating ideas and refining language, it also poses potential disadvantages if relied upon too heavily. The risk lies in sacrificing authenticity for the sake of convenience or perceived improvement in writing quality, business schools say. 

“There is no doubt that our MBA applicants use it for their essays, but ultimately it comes down to how it is used. If it has been copied and pasted with no proof reading, editing or personalization then it’s very obvious to us – we can spot it a mile off,” says Charlotte Russell-Green, head of MBA recruitment and admissions at the UK’s Cambridge Judge Business School.

“However, if used correctly, it can provide a solid format for your essay and assist you in bringing together what you’d like to say in a clear and concise way,” she adds. 

One concern is the loss of personal voice and perspective when essays are heavily influenced by AI-generated content. Admissions officers are adept at detecting when an essay lacks sincerity or reflects a disjointed narrative that does not align with the applicant’s background or experiences. Moreover, over-reliance on AI tools may undermine the applicant’s ability to articulate their unique story and value proposition effectively.

Russell-Green says: “If a candidate only uses AI to produce a piece of text then it is very obvious. We still want the essays to come from the candidate – the essays are the opportunity for you to showcase yourself and who you are, and what you’re capable of. If you rely solely on AI then you lose that opportunity and put yourself at a major disadvantage.” 

The value of genuine storytelling

MBA admissions are highly competitive, especially at top-ranked business schools. The essays will sit alongside other elements, such as standardized tests like the GMAT or GRE, as well as through interviews and letters of recommendation. 

By embracing genuine storytelling and avoiding the pitfalls of overreliance on AI tools, MBA candidates can craft compelling narratives that resonate with admissions committees and increase their chances of success in the competitive business school admissions process. 

“For the applicant creating essays, we caution against using AI,” explains Stacy Blackman, an admissions consultant based in the US. “MBA essays are based on personal experience, including talking to current students and learning about components of a given asset or engagement at a given school, information that isn’t necessarily available online.” 

She adds that her admissions firm is constantly advising MBA applicants to avoid sounding generic in their essays. “We recommend that applicants write from their hearts or guts and with passion – not rely on AI.” 

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