The Personal Statement for Business School: 6 Tips for Writing a Stand-Out Essay
The personal statement for business school is the most important part of your application. By the time you are applying, you probably cannot significantly alter your GPA or GMAT/GRE score. Thus, if your numbers make you a “borderline candidate” – someone who could be admitted but could just as easily be rejected – your personal statement for business school is your greatest opportunity to swing the decision in your favor. In this case, you should also make sure to pay close attention to the MBA application timeline – apply in the first two rounds. As one Director of Admissions put it: “If someone with your numbers has a possibility of being admitted to a particular school, but not everyone with your numbers is admitted to that school, the major deciding factor is the personal statement.”
On the other hand, even if you seem like a shoo-in – you have, for example, a perfect GPA and a 750 on the GMAT – a weak personal statement for business school is damning. Indeed, nothing looks worse than a candidate with perfect numbers and no personality – or, worse, who exhibits a lack of effort on their application.
In short, your personal statement for business school is what makes you a person, rather than simply a set of numbers and achievements. It is your chance to introduce yourself to the admissions officers, and one of the only opportunities you will have to make an admissions officer like you,rather than simply liking your achievements.
Like most written assignments, the personal statement for business school is more of an art than a science. Although there are no formulas for success, your chances of acceptance improve greatly if you are willing to put in the time and effort necessary to produce a masterful essay. This is no small task – it will involve dozens of revisions and hours of re-writing and re-organizing. However, by committing yourself to producing an essay that far exceeds adequacy, you can help swing the admissions fortunes in your favor.
6 Key Tips for Writing the Best Personal Statement for Business school
1. Tell YOUR story.
Everyone has their own story to tell. You may have the same test scores or GPA or even work experience as the application sitting on top of yours in the admissions office. But not everyone has your individual stories. Tell them in a way that nobody else can replicate.
In addition to that point, your essay needs to be about you. Admissions officers from nearly every elite business school – Wharton, Harvard, and Stanford, to name a few – lament the number of essays written about a candidate’s parents and grandparents. Those relationships obviously affect your life, but writing about these individuals in an essay does not help a reader understand who you are as individual.
2. Your essay should coherently tie together the other parts of your application.
Most people enjoy participating in activities outside of only school and work. Maybe you play the harmonica in a folk band, maybe you were a track star in college. Maybe you do both. Whatever experiences and background you bring to your application, the personal statement for business school is your chance to tie them together in a meaningful way.
That being said, they should come together in a coherent manner as well. Don’t try to explain every experience you have ever had. Choose the ones that will be most relevant to business, to business schools, and to the person sitting in the admissions office reading your essay. There should be a cohesive narrative that ties together everything you have ever done.
3. Your essay needs to stand out.
Your essay needs to stand out. Applications are read on a comparative basis, which means that your personal statement for business school is read next to thousands of others. That is a lot of essays for an admissions officer to remember, so you need to make yours count.
This can be done in many ways. For example, by demonstrating your unique perspective or background, discussing a particularly interesting or unusual passion, or discussing any other experiences and characteristics that would be considered rare or special among your co-applicants. Remember: your excellence is not evaluated in a vacuum; you must show in your personal statement for business school that you are not only excellent, but you are better in some way(s) than your peers.
4. An admissions reader should be able to sum up your personal statement (and the rest of your application) using the same phrase you would use for yourself.
When you pick up your personal statement for business school, think to yourself: “If I were reading this application, how would I describe myself in 10 words or less?” If you can’t come up with a memorable and compelling answer in a few seconds, go back to the drawing board.
Most admissions officers remember essays that have a very clear persona about them. Think of your personal statement for business school as very similar to a business’s “30-second elevator speech”. Perhaps you are the “entrepreneur who launched her first company at age 10,” the “fitness expert,” the “orthodox rabbi,” or the “professional musician.” Remember: every admissions officer will look over hundreds of applications. If your pages aren’t readily distinguishable from the other 14,985 pages an admissions officer must read through, you simply cannot expect that an admissions officer will remember much about you, much less advocate that you be admitted.
5. Show your motivations for pursuing an MBA.
This tip might sound obvious, but many people neglect to address it in their personal statement for business school. One of the key questions that admissions officers ask as they are evaluating applications is: “Why does this applicant want to pursue an MBA…at our school?”
If the answer you suggest in your application is that you want an MBA in order to get a pay raise at your current job, then a school might be less inclined to admit you. Top MBA programs are looking for people who will leave their schools to become change-makers and leaders in the business world. Even if you are applying to business school as a more experienced applicant, you need to have a compelling answer for “Why an MBA now?”
Maybe you have been working your way up the ladder at an investment bank for the past few years, and you want an MBA so that you can take your managerial skills to the startup world. That example tells a more compelling story than “I want a better job.”
6. Show that you have the personal and professional qualifications to achieve your goals (which means you need to have goals!)
Your past work experiences and qualifications should in some way inform what your future goals are. To take the last example, if you have strong experience in managing a team, but would like to switch to the startup or nonprofit or other fields, you need to show – through your personal statement for business school – that an MBA is imperative to achieving your goals. These goals should be explicitly outlined in your essay.
MBA programs are looking for qualified, experienced, and motivated candidates. Your application – particularly the essay – is your only chance to display how you fit the bill. While your test scores and GPA may qualify you academically for certain schools, the personal statement for business school is where you have to opportunity to stand out.
Make it personal. Make it coherent. Make it goal-oriented. And you just might make it into your dream school.
The essay told an epic tale about a student who struggled to achieve passing grades – moving on and off of academic probation, and through a myriad of stops, shifts, and re-starts, from one college to another – for the better part of a decade following his graduation from high school. For a time, it appeared that he was destined to be a college drop-out. To make matters worse, as the student floundered academically, he bounced around from one retail job to another. Then, one day, he took a position as a grassroots worker on a local political campaign. He quickly realized that he had found something that he loved to do, but just as importantly, he was very good at it. His life soon changed in dramatic ways. He almost immediately became a star local operative for a major political party, and in a very short time period worked his way up and into state-wide and national campaigns. His confidence ultimately inspired his academic career. He transferred any grades that he could (i.e., not the bad ones) to a new university, changed his major to political science, and revamped his study habits. For his final two years of college credit (which were required to attain a degree from the institution to which he had transferred), he aced nearly every course that he took and set his sights on a career in law.
As compelling as the above storyline is, it is important to always keep in mind that an outstanding story counts for little without an effective organizational structure and proper literary execution. Toward that end, the applicant in this case sought to engage the reader by presenting a scene in the opening paragraph which depicted one of the happiest moments of his life – his triumphant college graduation. It was as he moved toward the end of the first paragraph and into the second that he added the engaging twist which showed that his academic success story was far from the norm: it had been ten years (and many failures) in the making. Most importantly, the applicant did not harp on the lengthy, negative period in his life that I described above. Rather, he took a straightforward and succinct approach in recounting the great challenges that had stymied him for so many years. From there, it was off to the heart of the essay – how the applicant overcame his struggle and succeeded, ultimately setting a clear and direct course for law school along the way.
Finally, in the concluding paragraph of the essay, the applicant brought the reader full circle – back to the opening story. There he was, still standing at graduation, but instead of thinking simply about his past and how he had made it to this point, he was now looking toward the future and thinking about how he was fully prepared to conquer the challenges that lay ahead in law school and beyond.
I will never forget the excitement that this applicant felt when he received three acceptance letters from top law schools over three consecutive days. One of these letters came with a handwritten note from a law school dean who praised him for doing such an outstanding job on the personal statement. I should mention that this applicant ultimately ended up declining each of those three offers in favor of an offer from one of the most renowned and oldest law schools in the United States. While these successful results certainly help to keep this applicant’s memory in my mind, it is the personal statement that he wrote which most stirs my recollection.
Like many of my colleagues, I’ve advised on thousands of application essays over the years and been a part of success stories that are far too numerous to mention, but this was one of my most special cases because it showed not only how an applicant can overcome years of struggle, but also how in two double-spaced pages, he can demonstrate his success in a powerful way.
Every once in a while, somewhere out there, a law school applicant does something in the application process that can be described as a real game changer. The personal statement that this particular applicant wrote would probably best be described as a life changer.