minimizing MBA application essay agony

It’s that wonderful time of year when most applicants have finished their battles with the GMAT, and are now suffering through the long process of writing a bunch of MBA application essays.  And for most of you, this part of the MBA application process really isn’t much fun.

I’m not going to give you another one of those “how to write a good MBA application essay” lectures.  There are hundreds of (often very good) blogs and books and articles that cover that ground, and I don’t think that this is a good time to add to the cacophony.

Instead, I just want to give you some advice on how to minimize the pain involved in writing the essays.  Every year, I watch several dozen applicants descend into writer’s hell, and it’s never fun to see deserving MBA applicants suffer from a hideous case of writer’s block right before their deadlines.

So in honor of the upcoming second-round MBA application deadlines, here are few tips to help you avoid MBA essay paralysis:

tip #1: don’t “binge-write” your MBA essays

So you’re trying to write inspired MBA application essays, huh?  The type with some nice, creative flourishes that will help the adcom realize how brilliant and fun you are, right?

If so, don’t even think about trying to write your MBA essays in one sitting.  Or in two or three sittings.  The best essays are the result of small amounts of writing and revision, completed over the course of several weeks or months.

I discussed this in a crusty old blog post a few years ago, but the idea is that you’re likely to come up with your best ideas when you least expect it:  at work, at the gym, in the shower, or on the subway.  If you spend, say, a few minutes a day on each of your MBA application essays over the course of several weeks, you’ll give your subconscious mind plenty of time to come up with brilliant phrases, ideas, and flourishes for your essays.

The only way this can happen is if you stretch out your preparations for each MBA application.  Plan to spend at least a month on each application, working for a few minutes each day, letting your subconscious and semiconscious mind do at least some of the heavy lifting.

Trust me, the slow, five-minutes-at-a-time approach beats the heck out of staring at a computer for 12 hours on the day before the application deadline, while your hairline quickly recedes.

tip #2:  simplify your language

Far too often, MBA applicants write insanely dense essays that are almost impossible to read.  They contain pretentious vocabulary and ridiculously long sentences, and they sound like an overwrought academic discourse on philosophy.

There are two problems with this.  First of all, if you decide to write in the most “sophisticated” style you can muster, you’re probably torturing yourself in the process.  It takes a lot of time and brainpower to cram your essays with GRE vocabulary words.  Why torture yourself by trying to write in such an unnatural style?

Secondly, very few people actually enjoy reading dense, academic text.  Simple, clear language is an infinitely more effective way to communicate with suffering MBA admissions committee members who read literally thousands of essays each year.

So don’t overdo it.  Keep the language clear and unpretentious, and don’t make your essay sound like a GMAT reading comprehension passage.  Try to write as if you’re having a chat with your best friend.  You’ll be able to write faster, and your essays will be far more appealing to the poor adcom members who have to read them.

tip #3:  play with your friends

This is a simple—and probably obvious—piece of advice:  don’t try to write your MBA essays in complete isolation.  If your budget and preferences allow you to hire an MBA admissions consultant, that’s great.  If not, call a friend or a family member, even if none of them know anything about the MBA admissions process.

Here’s the thing:  sometimes, you get brain-locked when you try to write about how awesome you are.  And sometimes, even a relatively clueless advisor can help you get unstuck; simply babbling to a good friend can help to relieve your essay-writing paralysis.

This might seem like a ridiculously uninteresting piece of advice, but you might be surprised by the number of inquiries I receive from miserable, frustrated writers… who have literally never told a soul about their MBA essays.  Don’t make that mistake.

tip #4:  don’t worry about the word count… yet

Another refrain that I hear constantly from MBA applicants:  “Writing this crap is so hard with the word count and everything!”

That’s completely true.  Writing your first draft is hard, and the word count is a pain in the ass.  But your first objective is to get your ideas onto the page, and then you can worry about the word count later.  If you worry about the word count prematurely, you’ll be paralyzed and miserable.  So when you start writing, ignore the word count completely at first.

If your goal is to write the most perfect essays you’re capable of, then you’ll inevitably spend plenty of time editing and rewriting parts of the essays.  If you want to avoid unnecessary pain, spew your ideas onto the page as quickly as you can on the first draft—and worry about trimming the essay later.  Don’t let the word count disrupt the flow of your writing, or else you may never finish the first draft.

tip #5: be honest with yourself:  writing is hard, and your first draft will probably suck

Whenever I take on a challenging writing project (and in case you don’t know me personally:  I’m nearly finished with my third full-length book, and I used to do lots of strange freelance writing work), my first step is to write the words SH*TTY FIRST DRAFT at the top of the page.

Why do I do that?  Well, because I like to swear.  And also because I need to remind myself that writing is hard, and that I’ll never finish my first draft if I try to make it perfect.  My first draft will mostly suck.  Pieces of it will hopefully be brilliant.  I’ll spend tons of time revising it.  And that’s OK, because it’s much easier to polish a crappy draft than to create a brand new one from scratch.

So accept your imperfections as a writer, and just get the words onto the page.  Don’t edit while you’re writing—again, you’ll have plenty of time to edit later.

Let’s face it:  it takes a lot of time to write great essays for MBA applications.  But if you let go of some of your inhibitions and “anal-ness” on the first draft—and if you work slowly and steadily on your application—you won’t suffer nearly as much as the last-minute binge-writers.  You’ll be happier, and your odds of admission will hopefully be a little bit better.

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