five-minute rule for MBA essays

When I was a teenager, I worked in a crappy chain diner in the Midwest, where I received my first introduction to the "30-second rule." Over the following decade or so, I heard varying versions of the 30-second rule in bars and restaurants: there was the 5-second rule, the 10-second rule, and--for the slowest and most unethical restaurant staff--the five-minute rule. If you have to ask: whenever an employee drops something in a restaurant, somebody is likely to shout "30-second rule," meaning that whatever fell on the floor is still "good" if you pick it up within 30 seconds. (Assuming, of course, that no customers or managers are watching.) Silverware? No problem, it can go out to the customer's table if it's picked up within 30 seconds. A hamburger fell on the ground? No worries, we have 30 seconds to pick it up and put it back together. A slice of pie? Trickier, but definitely doable if you scoop it up, put it in the microwave, and top it with some ice cream.

You'll never eat out again, right?

And does this have anything to do with MBA admissions?

Yeah, sort of. It's midsummer, which means that the most ambitious MBA applicants are beginning to throw all of their spare time into the GMAT. The earliest first-round deadlines are less than three months away, and this is the time of year when you might be thinking, "okay, I'll spend two months studying for the GMAT, and once that's done, I'll focus on my essays."

I tell everybody the same thing: don't wait until the last minute to start your MBA application essays. Many of you probably know this, but writing these essays is exponentially more time-consuming than you might think. A set of four, 400-word essays might not sound like much, but it can be unbelievably tough to put your entire life in a flattering, readable, 1600-word package, especially if you're trying to avoid sounding like an egomaniac. Almost every applicant (and this goes for non-MBA applicants, too) underestimates the amount of time needed for MBA applications, especially if your energy is simultaneously sapped by the GMAT.

If you're still doing battle with the GMAT and your MBA application deadlines are getting close, I strongly recommend employing the five-minute rule. (Every time you drop food on the floor, wait five minutes before picking it up. It'll taste great, and build your immune system! Oops, sorry, wrong industry...) Every day, spend about five minutes on your essays, even if it just means brainstorming a little bit, writing a phrase here or there, taking a couple of notes, or crossing something out. Sometimes, you'll be inspired to do some serious writing, and that's great. At the very least, you'll keep yourself engaged in your MBA essays, and they'll always be somewhere in the back of your head.

This might sound silly, but many professional writers will tell you that they come up with their most brilliant ideas and phrases at the most random times--in the shower, at the gym, walking the dog, or whatever. Their "ghost writer" (i.e. their own subconscious) is doing most of their work, but they have to make sure that they "tell" the ghost writer what to work on.

I'm not going to tell you that you'll be able to completely finish your essays in five minutes a day, but I guarantee that you'll make some great conceptual progress if you're 100% disciplined about looking at your MBA applications for a few minutes every day. By the time you're finished with the GMAT after (hopefully) a month or two of studying, you'll at least have a great set of notes and outlines, studded with brilliant phrases. At that point, the task of turning your MBA essays into something truly spectacular will be much, much easier.