At the heart of a winning personal statement is an MBA applicant’s career goals and objectives. “What is important is that you are able to explain why [you want an MBA], and link your past experience to support your goal,” says Nicole Tee, director of graduate studies at NUS Business School in Singapore.
“Saying that you want to be a management consultant without any relevant skills, just because that is what MBAs do, is not convincing enough to get you a spot in the program.”
The personal statement is just one part of the application, alongside admissions tests and interviews. But the statement, usually a short piece of text that details a would-be MBA’s achievements and aspirations, is an important component.
“The personal narrative really is a make or break for MBA admit success,” says a former Harvard Business School admissions officer. “It is the essay execution that sets the overall application apart and earns it the interview.”
Some business schools invite applicants to write an open-ended personal statement with little guidance.
Not all schools require one, but many have essay questions that resemble a personal statement, such as Stanford’s “what matters most to you?” prompt, or Harvard’s “tell us anything” about you question.
Admissions consultant Stacy Blackman singles out one client’s response to Stanford’s question, saying she wanted to make her mother proud, as exemplar: the client was admitted to Stanford and Harvard.
“It seemed so banal, until she told her story, one of those ‘single mothers fleeing tyranny barefoot on a raft, working two jobs to raise her child’ kind of stories,” says Blackman.
“By the end of it, you knew why this mattered, and it seemed totally natural.”
Common personal statement mistakes
Blackman bemoans statements that are simply a chronological recap of the resume, and those that lack emotion, personality or self-disclosure. “Get personal. Make sure the reader feels genuineness and authenticity,” she says.
Antoinette Molino, assistant director for MBA admissions at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management, is still shocked to see that some candidates forget to change the name of the school when pasting information from an application to a rival institution.
“Some write the same statements for all schools,” she says.
Prospective students should tailor their statements to the specific needs and wants of the MBA program. For example, Cambridge Judge states that it is seeking candidates who “are highly motivated and ambitious, thrive under pressure, and have already exhibited clear progression within their career”.
“Successful personal statements show that the applicant understands the program and most show that they are a fit,” says Chioma Isiadinso, chief executive of admissions agency Expartus in New York.
“A common mistake is not taking time to understand the program and failing to align your story to what the program is looking for.”
This requires in-depth research, she adds, and includes finding out about the school’s strategic focus, faculty research and alumni career destinations.
“Applicants who invest in such thorough diligence can tailor their story in a positive way that makes them stand out to the admissions committee,” Isiadinso says.
This requires examples or anecdotes — she highlights one candidate who wrote about volunteering on a ship that provided medical aid to the poor, which aligned with the school’s emphasis on social impact.
“Differentiated experience goes a long way too, especially when driven by a genuine passion,” says Isiadinso.
However, Tee at NUS warns against arrogance or boastfulness. “It is not likely that you pulled off a multi-million dollar deal on your own, aged 26,” she says.
“Talk about the valuable role you played in it, but acknowledge the contribution of your team members — for admissions directors are looking for candidates who show humility and are able to work in teams.”
Don’t be boring
That said, she does add that prose needs to be well-written and engaging. “Have a powerful, compelling, and sometimes shocking opening; it lures the reader to want to find out more,” she says.
“Admissions directors go through thousands of essays, and the last thing they want to read is another boring one.”
Of course, it must also be free from grammatical or spelling mistakes. “Take your time to work through multiple drafts of the essay,” says Tee. “Get trusted friends to vet them.”
Molino says prose submitted to Desautels, a Canadian school, should be concise and respect the stated word count: 500 characters. “Do not veer off topic,” she says. However, there are times when responses are short and lack substance. “It has to have the right amount of effort.”
This could ultimately be critical to your MBA application. As Tee from NUS says: “While the personal statement does not replace a bad exam score, it gives us additional insight into the applicant. Someone with excellent exam scores, but who submits an appalling personal statement will raise alarm bells.”