So you’ve taken the GMAT, you’ve lined up your recommendations, and you’re sitting down to write your business school application essays. Dreaded as they are, they’re also supremely important.
Just a few years ago, I was there too, and I remember it being a bit daunting. I wanted to go to Harvard—but no one I knew well had gone there before. I didn’t go to a prestigious private high school or Ivy League college. I also wasn’t an investment banker or a management consultant (I was an engineer). I did have good undergraduate grades and a great GMAT score—but I strongly suspect it was my essays that landed me my acceptances to both Harvard and Stanford.
There were a few key principles that helped me when I was writing my essays. And no matter what school you’re hoping for, the same strategies can help you get there, too. Here’s what to consider before you start typing.
1. Line up Your Critics
You don’t have to go through the process entirely alone. In fact, you’ll need outside perspectives—after drafting, revising, re-revising and re-re-revising, you will lose your ability to be objective. From the beginning brainstorming stages to the final read-through, you need people to sanity check what you’re writing to make sure it makes sense and is interesting.
Line up one person to be a consistent primary feedback-giver, and plan to touch base with him or her fairly regularly. You should also have two or three other people review your essays to get some different perspectives, but be careful adding more than that—getting too many differing opinions may give you feedback whiplash.
The best feedback-givers are people who have been accepted to the schools you’re applying to—they’re most familiar with the application process (and they obviously did something right). In the absence of a B-school alum, someone with good business sense and writing skills will work just fine, too.
2. Share Your Passions
In 2005, I heard Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi, speak, and she said something that has stayed with me ever since: “Success is what happens when the passion for what you do outweighs the fatigue of doing it.”
Top programs are looking for passionate people—they’re more likely to be successful and, frankly, more interesting to be around. Schools want to know that you understand yourself and what you’re passionate about, that you have interesting examples of how that passion has surfaced in your life, and that you want to channel your passion to do big things after business school. (There you go, beginning, middle, and end to the “what matters most to you and why?” essay question from Stanford.)
So, tell a story about your passions. Be consistent, and be genuine. Admissions officers read thousands of essays and if you’re not authentic, they will sniff you out—if not on first read, then during the interview process.
3. Show Upward Trajectory
Like a good story, your essay should build. One strategy to do this effectively is to talk about something small that becomes bigger and better over time. (Even better if you can show that you’ve overcome obstacles to reach the bigger and better state—everyone loves an underdog.)
It’s a given that you need to illustrate how you’ve progressed professionally, but you should also show growth in your extracurricular endeavors. For example, did your weekend volunteering at a non-profit turn into you landing a board seat? If you’re passionate about mountain climbing, did you start with Mt. Rainier and then rise to the challenge of climbing Mt. Everest?
4. Illustrate Your Ability to Give Back
Business schools aren’t completely altruistic—they want to know that you’ll make their campus richer by participating in community events and taking on leadership roles in campus organizations. And because the best predictor of future behavior is past performance, it’s smart to use at least one essay to illustrate how you’ve previously given back to a community.
The best examples of charity hit on two points: they demonstrate your benevolence and also reinforce your stated passion. If you’re passionate about environmental sustainability, have you volunteered to speak to high school students on the topic? Did you lead a fundraising campaign for a preservation organization?
5. Be Concise (and Correct)
There’s absolutely no excuse for going over a word limit or making grammatical errors. Both are just plain lazy—and in some cases, might get your essay tossed in the trash without a second thought.
So, once you’re done with your applications, go back with a critical eye. Cut out all unnecessary words by using contractions (doesn’t vs. does not) and eliminating excessive adjectives (“successful” is just as effective as “very successful” and “a long, dangerous, windy path” can be shortened to “a path”). Leverage your feedback-giver to help you figure out all the places where adjectives and adverbs aren’t adding anything to your story.
And please, proofread. Multiple times. Have someone else proofread, too.
Beyond that, don’t overthink it. Pick up 65 Successful Harvard Business School Application Essays—I was impressed (and reassured) by how straightforward the essays were. After all, it’s not about showing schools something that’s never been seen before—it’s about showing them that you’re a good fit.
Want more? Ask your essay and admissions questions on Twitter @ssahney. Good luck!
Photo courtesy of Patricia Drury.
What everyone writes for the AMCAS application
- Personal statement (5300 characters, spaces count)
- Activities descriptions (700 characters, up to 15 allowed)
- Three descriptions of most meaningful activities (an additional 1325 characters for each activity)
What some people write on the AMCAS application
- Institutional action explanation (1325 characters)
- Disadvantaged status explanation (1325 characters)
- MD/PhD essay—Why MD/PhD? (3000 characters)
- MD/PhD essay—Significant Research (10,000 characters)
What you write beyond AMCAS--Secondary applications
WHAT EVERYONE WRITES FOR THE AMCAS APPLICATION
- 1. Personal statement - The prompt for this is “Use the space provided to explain why you want to go to medical school.” Keep in mind that for the average applicant who might apply to 20 schools, this essay will likely be read by somewhere between 40 and 200 people. In general you are trying to hit many singles with your personal statement rather than focusing on hitting a home run. Memorable personal statements can be great. Risky ones are not so great.
First, good editing is good writing. Be prepared to go through a lot of drafts. Do not worry if your first draft is too long. There will always be things to cut. Do not get too attached to your first idea. Often you will not be able to figure out how something will sound until you write it first. You can always change it if it does not seem quite right.
Get feedback, but not too much feedback. Asking 10 people to read it may leave you confused. In the end, it needs to be your voice coming through. Listen to advice when a trusted reader tells you that something seems off. It will hit some medical school admissions committee members the same way.
Your main resource for feedback on your personal statement will be your assigned premedical tutor (non-resident or resident) in your house. If you are feeling stuck with the writing process or just want more general feedback, the writing center at Harvard can also be a valuable resource.
Here are some general issues to think about as you start to write:
- How do you know that you want to be a doctor? How have you demonstrated this interest?
- How has your interest in medicine changed and developed over time?
- How did you overcome your doubts?
- Why medicine and not other career fields, such as teaching, science, public health, nursing, etc.?
- Have you faced any obstacles in your life (for example, economic, familial, or physical)? How did you handle these?
- How have you been influenced by certain events and people?
- Recall a time when you had a positive impact on another person. How did you and the person change as a result?
- What were major turning points in your life?
- What do you want the committee to know that is not apparent elsewhere?
- Use a concrete anecdote or experience to draw the reader in; perhaps circle back to it at the end to create bookends.
- Approach the essay as a chance to share the arc of your journey to this point.
- Consider whether to discuss fluctuations in performance, hardship affecting academic record, and/or a personal or medical situation.
- Remember that if you write something in your personal statement, you may be asked about it in an interview. If you do not wish to speak about it in an interview, do not write it here.
Here are some specific “Do’s” for writing the personal statement.
- Tell a story.
- Keep it interesting by using specific examples and anecdotes.
- Provide information, insight, or a perspective that cannot be found elsewhere in your application.
- Describe experiences in terms of what they mean to you and what you learned.
- Make sure the reader learns about you, not just what you did.
- Use strong action verbs and vivid images; paint a picture.
- Be concise. Make sure every sentence needs to be there.
- Describe what you learned in your research, not the details of the specific research project (unless writing the MD/PhD essay).
- Allow plenty of time to write, revise, reflect, and revise some more. Step away often so you can revisit your essay with fresh eyes.
- Proofread. Spell checking will not catch everything! Then, proofread again and get someone else to do the same. Read the essay out loud to catch typos your eyes may have missed.
Here are some “Don’ts” for the essay.
- Just list or summarize your activities. This is not a resume (and your activities are included in their own section).
- Try to impress the reader with the use of overly flowery or erudite language.
- Directly tellthe reader that you are compassionate, motivated, intelligent, curious, dedicated, unique, or different than most candidates (“Show don’t tell”).
- Focus only on childhood or high school experiences.
- Use slang or forced analogies.
- Lecture the reader, e.g., on what’s wrong with medicine, what doctors should be like.
- Make excuses for poor grades.
- Begin every sentence or paragraph with “I”.
- Overwork the essay to the point where you lose your own voice.
- Use generalizations and clichés.
- Follow the advice of too many people.
- Try to share everything there is to know about you.
- 2. Activity descriptions—You are allowed up to 15 activities in this section and for each activity you are allowed 700 characters to describe the experience. This amounts to about 5 or 6 sentences. Some activities will not require that much description. From the AMCAS 2018 manual (accessed via aamc.org): “Medical schools receive all text entry responses as plain text. This means that formatting options such as bulleted lists, indented paragraphs, and bold/italic fonts do not appear for reviewers.” Because of this formatting issue and just for the ease of the reader, it is preferable to write these descriptions in sentences rather than using a resume style of writing.
- 3. Most meaningful activity—You are allowed to designate three of your activities as “most meaningful.” For these three, you will write the 700 character description, but then are allowed to write an additional 1325 characters to discuss why it was most meaningful. Again, this should be in sentences and should be error free. This may give you an opportunity to speak about an experience in detail that is not part of your personal statement.
WHAT SOME PEOPLE WRITE FOR THE AMCAS APPLICATION
We will first focus very briefly on the parts that only some people write.
- 1. Institutional Action explanation—You are required to disclose certain kinds of institutional action that may have occurred in your academic career. If this has been the case for you, we strongly advise you to make an appointment with your Academic Dean and with an OCS Premedical/Health Careers Adviser to discuss the situation and strongly advise you to ask for advice regarding this explanation. Others will answer “no” and write nothing here.
- 2. Disadvantaged status explanation—If you believe you grew up in a situation that could be described as disadvantaged, you are allowed to explain this. If you are unsure if you qualify, this is also a good topic for an advising conversation. Again, we suggest letting someone at OCS or in your house team review this explanation.
- 3. MD/PhD essays—Candidates for combined MD/PhD programs are required to write two additional essays. You can get advice from OCS, your house tutor team or your research mentors as you write these essays. The first focuses on why you want to get the combined degree. The second, much longer essay, focuses on your research experiences, including your supervisor, the nature of the problem studied, and your contribution to the project. These essays are sent only to the schools where you select the MD/PhD option.
BEYOND THE AMCAS SECONDARY APPLICATIONS
Some schools screen applicants prior to sending secondary applications but most do not. Secondary applications will begin coming as soon as your AMCAS application is verified and sent to schools. A few may come even earlier. You should make sure you set aside time to do these applications promptly and efficiently in the summer. Ideally, plan to turn each one around within 10-14 days. They pile up otherwise. Error free documents are critical, so if you have to hold on to it an extra day to check it, then you should do so. You need to be able to check your email virtually every day in the summer. Check your spam folder every day.