3 Tips to Make Your Admissions Essay Stand Out

Click here to read the intro to this blog series! Send your admissions questions to timeout[at]veritasprep[dot]com!

Dear Trav,
Do you have any tips for writing admissions essays about myself?

If I may take some liberties in translating this question, I suspect you’re probably asking one of two questions:

  1. “I’m uncomfortable bragging about myself, but I know that I need to stand out from the crowd of amazing applicants to be accepted. How I am supposed to do that?” or…
  2. “Let’s be honest: I’m pretty dang awesome and I love bragging about myself. However, I don’t want to seem like a complete a****le to the admissions committee, so how can I showcase my strengths without seeming like I’m completely full of myself.”

Honestly, it doesn’t really matter to me which question you’re really asking. Either question is completely legitimate. Whether it’s applying for a job, seeking for a promotion or a raise from your boss, or applying to b-school, praising yourself is always an awkward balance of presenting facts favorable to yourself and showcasing some true humility.

While everyone’s essays will be different—and we specifically tell our clients NOT to force their essays into a specific cookie-cutter template—I can offer a few quick tips and principles that are generally applicable:

Show, Don’t Tell

This is a common piece of advice that certainly isn’t exclusive to Veritas Prep, but it’s still very powerful, nonetheless. Do not simply make claims about yourself in your essays, such as, “I have a strong work ethic.” Even the laziest of candidates can “tell” an admissions officer that they have a strong work ethic, so this does nothing to differentiate your candidacy.  Instead, if you think one of the key strengths of your candidacy is your strong work ethic, think of stories or examples to showcase this.  For example, “In 2011, I was awarded our companywide Employee of the Year award, and my supervisor specifically mentioned my unwavering work ethic as the primary reason she nominated me. I am relentless in pursuing my personal and team goals, and look forward to working with equally dedicated classmates on team projects at Wharton.” Tying the award to your personality trait enables you to “show” the admissions committee some evidence of that trait rather than just trying to “tell” them about it.

Use “Mini-stories”

Using “mini-stories” is a perfect way to “show” rather than “tell.”  As a former journalist, I highly encourage my consulting clients to tell stories from their past to make their points. However, when people think of telling a story, they often think about crafting a beginning, middle and end.  In fact, many of your essays will be structured this way (we call it the SAR method for Situation-Action-Result, but we’ll discuss that in another post).  However, crafting a multi-paragraph story that really only makes one point or showcases one of your strengths may not be the best use of your word count.  Instead, I encourage my clients to think of “mini stories” — quick, one or two line examples from their life that will make their point without the need for lots of context.

For example, a common type of admissions essay will ask you to write about your unique background, skills, experiences, etc. that you will bring to the MBA program. I have a very charismatic and enthusiastic personality, and I thought this would be something important to mention in my essay.  In my first draft, I started writing, “I bring enthusiasm to every organization.”  Then I realized that this was not particularly effective, since anyone can say they bring enthusiasm to an organization. I starting thinking about stories I could tell that would show this particular character trait. However, I wanted to include many other things in the essay, so I didn’t want to take up much space. I remembered a conversation that I had with a friend that worked perfectly.  I started my essay with the line: “I have a friend, Cheryl, who has posted a goal on her bathroom mirror that states, ‘Be the most enthusiastic person you know.’ Cheryl came to me and said, ‘Travis, I can’t accomplish my goal because you are the most enthusiastic person I know!’”

In just two and a half lines, I was able to show a completely unquantifiable trait like “enthusiasm” in a way that any admissions officer would understand and appreciate. After making this statement, I followed it up by saying that I bring a sense of optimism and enthusiasm to every project I undertake.  My personal philosophy is that pessimism harms team morale even more than failure. In a tiny “mini-story,” I was able to offer the admissions officer a little glimpse into how I think, my unique perspective and philosophy in life, and how I’m perceived by others in a genuine, honest and fairly humble way. Take a look at the stories you want to tell and determine whether they deserve a “full treatment” with a beginning, middle and end, or whether you can find a “mini-story” to say pretty much the same thing.

Don’t Try to Oversell Yourself

Since Job #1 in your application is to show the admissions officer that you’re a worthy candidate for their program, there’s always a temptation to write as if you’re some kind of unconquerable superhero without a single chink in your armor. To be perfectly honest, the most successful candidates I’ve seen at top-tier B-schools, especially at the highest ranked schools of Stanford GSB and Harvard Business School, have been those who were ridiculously down-to-earth, not afraid to talk about huge failures, and were 100% genuine in their applications. Admissions officers are not looking for over-wrought, over-crafted works of art in your application. They want to find out about the real you and what makes you tick.

The real key to writing about yourself is selecting the right stories. You need to find those stories that say a TON about who you are, how you think, how you react to less-than-ideal situations or solve problems in the fewest words possible. Don’t try to be a hero—just be your best self.

I hope those bits of advice are helpful in crafting your ideal applications. Of course, our Veritas Prep Admissions Consultants are the experts in helping you dive deep within yourself, see what’s there, and determine how to express the depths of your soul in just 300-500 words!

Trav 

If you’re thinking about applying to business school, call us at 1-800-925-7737 and speak with an MBA admissions expert today. And, as always, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter! If you have any admissions questions for the blog, please send them to timeout[at]veritasprep[dot]com.

Travis Morgan is the Director of Admissions Consulting for Veritas Prep and earned his MBA with distinction from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He served in the Kellogg Student Admissions Office, Alumni Admissions Organization and Diversity & Inclusion Council, among several other posts. Travis joined Veritas Prep as an admissions consultant and GMAT instructor, and he was named Worldwide Instructor of the Year in 2011.

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