nobody reads your essays, part I

If you've ever attempted to write a really good essay for an MBA application (or for any other graduate or undergraduate program), you know how hard it is.  It's not like crapping out a financial report or a blog post or an essay on the use of soliloquys in Hamlet.  These essays take a whole lot of thought and effort, especially if you're trying to flatter yourself in 400 words without sounding like a raging egomaniac. And guess what?  Much of the time, nobody cares.

Imagine that you're the guy who gets to read every single application that rolls into, say, HBS.  You would read roughly 6700 applications, each of which contains at least four essays.  That's 26,800 essays, most of which come flooding in within 72 hours of one of the deadline dates.

For a little bit of perspective, here's a completely random story about essays...  once upon a time, I was part of a small team of "scorers" for an international academic competition.  Along with one other scorer, I was asked to rate 160 essays, giving each one a score from 1-100, and ranking the top three essays in each of two age groups.

And it was absolutely excruciating.  Not because the essays were bad, but because it took forever to read each one.  After about five essays, we figured out that it was best to just skim the introduction and the conclusion; if the essay looked good in the introduction, we would read the first sentence of each paragraph to determine whether the essay merited consideration for an award.  After skimming about 80 introductions and conclusions, we stopped even bothering with the conclusions, and started slapping on scores based on the introduction and (embarrassingly) the handwriting in each essay.

So no, we didn't really read anything.  And we only had 160 essays.  Imagine if we were asked to read 26,800 essays, as our poor, hypothetical HBS guy does.

My point is that even the most well-intentioned reader of MBA applications will inevitably skim most of your essays.  If you're unlucky, the reader won't even bother to read anything beyond your introduction.  No adcom member in their right minds would ever admit to it, but it's simply human nature to skim essays when you have a massive pile of them in front of you--especially when the essays don't exactly start with a bang.

So what can you do about this?  Write essays that start with a bang, and write essays that are easy to read.  If you write long, verbose paragraphs, virtually any human being will be inclined to start skimming... or put the essay down entirely.  No matter how wonderful your work experiences or extracurriculars are, there's always the risk that the reader won't actually read your carefully crafted comments if you don't make them seem interesting, gripping, and unique from the start.

We all know that MBA programs are looking for great potential business leaders, not great potential poets or novelists or journalists.  But they still love a good, well-written story, and a little bit of writing flair might be exactly what you need to have them notice your potential as a business leader.  If you keep your paragraphs short and write with at least a modicum of humor, it will help your essays to be worth the effort that you pour into them.