Why Essay-Writing Is Difficult


Business school essays have variously been described as a:

Statement of purpose, qualifications and achievements (the perspective of most applicants, at least initially)
Personal expository essay (how an academic might describe it)
Human interest story (how a journalist might describe it)
Personal branding/marketing exercise (how a marketer might describe it)

All of the above perspectives are correct. We believe that the reason why most applicants underestimate the task of writing their application essays because they don’t fully appreciate the latter three perspectives.

Let’s try to break down exactly why writing strong application essays proves so difficult for most applicants.

1. It’s strange/awkward

Most people simply do not have much experience in writing expository or narrative essays on personal topics.

Writing about oneself, especially self-promotionally, can be an uncomfortable exercise. Even natural self-promoters can fail to execute — in writing — in a way that would be judged balanced and appropriate to a neutral outside reader.

2. Quality reflection on your career and objectives is imperative

While some business school applicants can express clearly all the career choices they’ve made in the context of their long term career vision — for the majority the application essays require a big “step back” to present themselves coherently.

That can be hard to do well in a short time frame, particularly if you legitimately have multiple potential post-MBA options you want to consider (interestingly a large proportion of business school graduates pursue a different post-MBA path than what they indicated in their essays).

For most applicants, answering these questions requires a good deal of reflection and quite a few revisions. It is very unlikely that your final version, if it is good, will closely resemble your first draft.

3. The central topic is subjective, with great potential for bias

Writing well about oneself is not easy, even for accomplished writers. The central topic (“you”) is inherently subjective, and what you think about your skills and accomplishments is fundamentally filtered by self-concept. It is therefore considerably more difficult to be objective and strike the right tone than if you were writing a business report or an academic essay about an arms-length topic.

4. The audience isn’t well understood

While at first it may seem obvious what the Admissions Committee is looking for, it turns out not to be for a few main reasons:

There’s important sub-text underlying most questions, which candidates often miss
Certain themes resonate with admissions committees generally, and to get into the best schools a candidate’s essays really need to address all of those themes
Candidates often don’t know the distinct qualities of particular schools well enough to target their essay content optimally.

5. The true competition isn’t obvious

Most candidates mistakenly believe they are competing against all the other candidates for places, when in fact they are competing against all other candidates possessing a similar profile. Not knowing who the true competition is causes many candidates to emphasise the wrong things in their essays, in an otherwise intelligent attempt to “stand out”.

Even knowing who the true competition is doesn’t assure success, because applicants with similar profiles tend to write about similar things. While this is especially true with respect to essays on career goals and professional accomplishments, it can also be true of more personal essays, given some degree of correlation between career choice and personality.

6. The task’s true nature may not be obvious

As hinted at the beginning of the section, many candidates first consider essay-writing to be a mainly genuine, but ultimately trivial exercise of “filling the space” about their accomplishments, personality and ambitions.

Such a view critically mis-appraises the true nature of the task, however. Given all the marketing themes candidates must get across in an engaging, distinctive and personal way — in order to stand out from all the other talented candidates with similar profiles — those essay word limits should more properly be seen as a challenging constraint.

7. Applicant time and motivation are limited

Applicants tend to underestimate significantly the time and difficulty involved in writing outstanding essays. This is unfortunate, especially given that applicants tend to tackle the essays at the end of the process, when they are exhausted by the effort already expended in researching suitable programmes and preparing for the grueling GMAT exam.

8. Many of your competitors are getting professional help

As the value of a top MBA has become more apparent over time, admissions consulting has become a mainstream method for applicants to gain an admissions edge.

Although admissions officers do not officially condone the use of consultants, many have unofficially acknowledged that by now it has become a near necessity, and they privately expect most applicants to take advantage of that opportunity.

The AdmissionCritical view is that the rise of admissions consulting is inevitable given the value an MBA represents, and that, as long as it is done ethically, helping applicants present themselves professionally is in essence no different than a business hiring a marketing agency to boost its brand or product.