Crafting the Perfect MBA Application Essay

Whether written or on video, we offer expert advice on how to create a great essay

The MBA application essay is a vital component of the overall application. If you want to get into a top business school, it’s likely that you’ll need to compile a stunning essay. They come in a variety of forms, whether classic written prose or video pitches.

And while the emergence of artificial intelligence chatbots has ignited concerns over cheating, schools insist that essays still have a place in the MBA application. So how to craft the perfect MBA essay?

“The best essays are a balanced combination of a lot of different things,” says admissions consultant Stacy Blackman in Los Angeles. “You’ll see personal stories. You’ll see specific accomplishments and experiences. You’ll get insights into what people have learned and how they’ve grown.

“You want to ensure that you’re building a package that tells your unique story. It should showcase you as a complete human and differentiate you from others within the application pool,” she adds.

In recent years, business schools have placed more emphasis on evaluating students’ behavioral skills in essays, on top of quantitative or technical skills when making admissions decisions.

“The so-called ‘soft skills’ surrounding communication, the ability to motivate others, and leadership are attractive qualities to the admissions committee,” Blackman says. 

“While your ability to handle the rigors of an MBA program is still a significant consideration, your emotional intelligence counts for an outsized amount these days. If you can demonstrate soft skills in your essays, the school is much more likely to take a chance on you.”

Video essays: ready for show time?

IESE Business School, based in Barcelona, is piloting video essays for younger applicants and is offering MBA waitlist candidates the opportunity to submit additional information via video. 

“We are considering adding the video essay component to our general application in the future, to give us an indicator of an applicant’s communication skills,” reveals Camille Chow, IESE’s associate director for global marketing and admissions.

IESE considers applications holistically and uses the essays to get a sense of who you are, your values, your motivators and your goals. 

“While the [GMAT or GRE] test scores can be one indicator of academic aptitude and attitude, the essays can give the admissions committee more insight into what an applicant can bring to a classroom discussion,” Chow explains.

She adds that the essays can also be an indicator of an applicant’s level of engagement and commitment to the program, “as it usually shows us how much research or preparation the applicant has done”.

IESE asks for one personal essay, to get an understanding of your background and experiences beyond your CV; and one career-focused essay, to gauge your professional goals and assess your fit with the school’s MBA. “Here we look for clear and concise answers,” says Chow.

Reflection and introspection: keys to MBA essay success

Additionally, she says that it’s important to research and reflect before sitting down to compile your essays. “In your essay, you should be able to tell us why you are particularly interested in our program and what you hope to achieve through your MBA.” On top of that, Chow says the application is your story to tell.

“This is your chance to share your commitment, enthusiasm and motivation,” Chow adds. “The most compelling essays are ones that help admissions officers understand who you are, and are usually honest reflections of your personal experiences, how they have shaped you and your goals for the future.”

Other schools say the same thing. “We believe in the introspection work that applicants start doing when considering applying,” says Virginie Fougea, global director of admissions, financial aid and scholarships at INSEAD. “Our essays are an opportunity to reflect on one's career, achievements and learnings.”

The business school in France and Singapore says that the purpose of the essays are for the admissions committee to get to know the applicant, to understand the thinking pattern of the person behind the resume.

“Crafting the perfect essay means spending some time reflecting over the unique life experiences and perspectives that an individual can have,” Fougea says. “Sharing a vision or a passion requires taking the time to consider what those are and why they matter to you.”

Could ChatGPT kill the MBA application essay? 

Looking ahead, schools are also assessing what generative AI tools such as ChatGPT mean for MBA application essays. There are concerns among some academics that students could use them to cheat in their essays.

“These AI tools could offer the possibility for people to get started on their essays,” admits Fougea. “However, very quickly applicants will realize that AI-generated content is usually very generic, lacks the personal dimensions, and misses the human touch that we traditionally see in essays.”

Because INSEAD takes a holistic approach to every application, the school cross-checks information contained in all the items supporting the candidacy. “This is where AI reaches its limit since it cannot include personal information shared in all the supporting materials,” adds Fougea. 

“We prefer to read a slightly grammatically clunky essay written by the applicant, rather than a supposedly ‘perfect’ essay generated by AI that brings limited insights on the candidate.”

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