Last spring, I spoke with an MBA applicant who had been wildly disappointed during the 2012-13 admissions season, despite the fact that he had a reasonably successful career, an outstanding academic record, and a 700+ GMAT score. The applicant—let’s call him Mr. D, since there were way too many dings in his life earlier this year—had also spent roughly $10,000 on MBA admissions consulting services. And he wasn’t too happy.
I asked Mr. D to send me his MBA application essays, so I could try to figure out exactly why things didn’t work out for him. And the essays were generic as all hell. The essays were soulless, passionless, and filled with vapid buzzwords. The essays weren’t bad, exactly, but they certainly weren’t attention-grabbing.
Mr. D’s career vision essay was particularly lifeless, and I immediately knew that his admissions consultants had pretty much rammed the essay topic down Mr. D’s throat. It was clear that the career vision didn’t come from Mr. D’s heart, and it was equally clear that MBA admissions committees noticed.
I’m not here to bash MBA admissions consultants; many of them do excellent work. But I am 100% convinced that the incredible growth of the MBA admissions consulting industry has created an unintended consequence: in the quest for perfect applications, many MBA applicants have created punchless, over-processed, sanitized essays that say almost nothing about them.
And nobody wants to read that crap.
If you don’t believe me, check out this 2010 Poets & Quants interview with J.J. Cutler, Wharton’s then-deputy dean of admissions. My favorite chunk of the interview appears on page 3 of the article:
People write what they think we want to hear. They get over coached and over prepared. Some people make excuses. They are not genuine. We just want people to be authentic and let us make the decisions from there. You just see a lot of people who have been over-managed in the process. It’s hard to see or hear their voice. Again, a lot of people who think there is a right answer, but we’re not looking for a single right answer.
People have their essays read by too many people and before you know it, the essays don’t say a whole lot. You feel like you are being sold as opposed to being told. Sometimes, coaches inhibit a real voice from coming through.
I couldn’t agree more.
I’ve worked with MBA applicants for roughly a dozen years, and I’ve watched the MBA admissions consulting industry grow exponentially during that time. A decade ago, only a very tiny percentage of MBA applicants hired admissions consultants, and most applicants didn’t even know that admissions consultants existed. But the MBA admissions world has changed radically, for better and worse: by some estimates, 30-50% of domestic applicants and 80% of international applicants now use MBA admissions consulting services of some sort.
Again, I think that many MBA admissions consultants do an outstanding job of helping applicants present a clear, charismatic vision of their past and future. But whenever you invite a friend or stranger to examine your MBA essays, they’ll inevitably encourage you to iron out the rough edges, polish your language until it’s silky smooth, and eliminate any overly-ballsy phrases. If you’ve written a raw, passionate essay about your career vision, the editing process might suck all of the emotion and energy out of your writing.
Unfortunately, many MBA admissions consultants simply don’t want their clients to take risks. Experienced admissions consultants have seen plenty of applicants with certain profiles gain admission to top MBA programs; if the consultant has never seen an application like yours succeed in the MBA admissions game, the consultant might—very understandably—try to change your message so that it more closely resembles that of other successful applicants. And in the process, your essays become less unique, and less “you”.
Nearly every MBA admissions officer in the world will insist that they want to see the “real you” in your essays, and for the most part, adcoms are being genuine when they ask you to be genuine. Sure, if you’re a lousy MBA candidate, no amount of honesty will help—but then again, neither will the help of the best MBA admissions consultant on the planet. And if you truly are a deserving candidate, admissions consultants might “over-manage” the honesty out of your essays—and that definitely won’t help, either.
So be as blunt, genuine, and passionate as you can in your essays, and don’t let friends, strangers, or MBA admissions consultants suck the soul out of your business school applications.