nobody reads your essays, part II

Most GMAT students I've met really don't worry all that much about the Analytical Writing (AWA) portion of the test, but I occasionally meet somebody who is absolutely neurotic about this part of the GMAT. In my opinion, there's rarely any need to spend more than a token amount of time on AWA. First of all, one of the main reasons why MBA programs care about the GMAT is because of rankings. Unfortunately, US News & World Reports will look less favorably on a b-school if the program has low average GMAT score, so admissions committees are forced to obsess over your GMAT composite results. (Of course, there are plenty of other reasons for admissions committees to care about your GMAT score, but that's a story for another day.)

Of course, the AWA section has absolutely nothing to do with your composite score, and it therefore has no impact on MBA rankings. You don't want to completely screw it up, but there's no reason to believe that your AWA score of 5.0 would keep you out of Stanford or HBS. The adcom might start to wonder if your AWA score is, say, 2.5, but I see no reason to worry if your score is reasonably high. They're looking for business leaders with decent communication skills, not novelists.

So what does it take to earn a "reasonably high" score? Not much, really. I've seen some really, really bad writers earn scores of 5.0 or 5.5. They took advantage of the fact that nobody really reads your GMAT AWA essay.

As you probably know, GMAT essays are graded by a computer and by a human; if there's a discrepancy between the two scores, then an additional human reads the essay. Obviously, the computer's exact scoring system is a closely guarded secret, but I'm convinced that the program primarily looks for structure using basic keyword algorithms. From there, it probably counts things like the average number of words per sentence and the average number of letters per word, and then it checks for grammar, usage, variety of words used, and perhaps spelling. I suspect very strongly that structure is the most important part of the AWA scoring system; spelling might not even count at all. (Again, I've seen some horrid spellers get really good scores.)

The "human," for his part, is ultimately looking for the same things as the computer when he grades the GMAT AWA: structure, clarity, correctness, richness of language, etc. But this human probably doesn't actually read your GMAT essays any more closely than the computer.

Again, imagine that you're the poor slob who gets paid $20/hour (as of a year or two ago, GRE and TOEFL graders earned $20/hour; I don't know whether the rate is similar for GMAT) to read bazillions of these AWA essays, most of which are tragically bereft of interesting content. Are you going to read every single word? Hell, no. You'll skim the introduction, maybe read the first sentence of each paragraph, and then maybe skim the conclusion. (And if anybody asks, you'll tell her that you read every single word with great care.)

When I wrote about the people who read (or skim) your MBA essays, I claimed that you should strive to make your essay interesting--you want them to read it carefully, right? For the AWA, you don't necessarily care if the human grader (or the GMAT computer) actually reads your essay. You just want to earn a decent score, with a minimum amount of exertion. If you can conserve energy during the GMAT AWA section, you'll be much sharper when you battle the (far more important) quant and verbal sections.

So focus on structure on the AWA, even if that means that you produce an essay that would, under normal circumstances, seem like a crappy, contrived piece of writing. Don't beat around the bush: every paragraph should start by clearly stating the main point of the paragraph. The entire AWA essay should start with a crystal-clear thesis statement. Somebody should be able to read the first sentences of each paragraph, and still basically understand the entire essay. Just make sure that you leave a few minutes to proofread your AWA essay, simply to avoid committing any egregious grammar, usage, and spelling errors. (If this means that you don't write a terribly long essay, that's fine--quality matters more than quantity.)

Honestly, it's almost that simple. If you lay out your argument in a completely clear, five-paragraph format, you'll be in good shape, especially if your writing mechanics (grammar, usage, etc.) are basically solid. You might ultimately write an essay that is about as much fun to read as a phone book... but fun isn't really the point of the GMAT, is it?

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.