Common Application Essay Writing Pitfalls

Introduction

Many pitfalls are embedded in the seemingly straightforward essay questions that business schools pose.

Here we discuss several of the most common applicant essays.

Pitfalls concerning all essays

“I just need to fill the space” approach

One of the most common mistakes made by applicants first sitting down to write their essays is to believe that it will be easy to ‘fill the space’ given the length constraints specified by business schools. Since most applicants have had enough professional experience to enable them to exceed the word limits, such a belief can be very tempting.

However, this misses the whole purpose of the application essays, which is to market yourself distinctively. To be successful, you must view your essays as marketing tool in which positioning, impact and economy of expression count heavily. Every essay should make maximum use of the space allowed to impress and capture the reader’s attention on as many dimensions as possible. Be forewarned: your strongest competitors’ essays surely will.

When you view your essays from this standpoint, two or three thousand words may suddenly not seem like a lot of space in which to market yourself effectively. This places a high premium on efficiency: you must include as much relevant and interesting information as possible while creating a themed and consistent story.

Creating such a story across all your essays – and at a higher level, throughout your application – requires considerable planning, preferably before you even sit down to write. While in theory each essay for a particular school focuses on a different topic, in practice it should complement and reinforce the themes you have chosen to emphasize in other essays.

The “gimmicky” essay

There is a popular myth that “gimmicky” essays stick in readers’ minds and are therefore effective tools for gaining admission. Unfortunately, most essays that try to be really creative succeed in being remembered only for how ridiculous they were. Unless you want to be the story the admissions officer tells at his dinner table (“Can you believe some wacko wrote an ‘Ode to Spaghetti’ to get into Harvard?”), limit your creativity to things within the realm of good taste.

The boring essay

The opposite of the “gimmicky” essay, the “dry-as-a-desert” essay, is also the kiss of death to most applications. If your friends and family members frequently doze off in the middle of your four-page discussion of the laudable attributes of your brilliant puppet show adaptation of the complete works of Sophocles, you may have a problem. This type of fault is often difficult to recognize in your own work.

Pitfalls concerning specific essay types

Career history and goals

Stating poorly conceived career goals and/or poorly explained career decisions

Why this school (part of “Why MBA?” essay)

Demonstrating little or no knowledge about the differences between schools (hint: often not discernible enough from promotional literature)

Accomplishments

Speaking too generally about you have achieved, or giving evidence that only supports one theme when more efficient, multiple-purpose examples are available

Failures/weaknesses

Showing a lack of objectivity
Using failures/weaknesses that are actually thinly veiled successes/strengths

Contribution/diversity

Failing to demonstrate passion or commitment to anything outside work
Persuading the reader only of the value you would get out of their program, while failing to demonstrate what you would contribute

Optional essay

Complaining unduly about grades or low GMAT score.