Some Introspection in Advance of Your Application Essays

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The business school essays can be intimidating. The questions, ranging from open ended –Stanford’s “What is

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most important to you, and why?” to specific “What are your short and long term goals?”  These essays are hard because admissions officers are looking for the story behind your story. They are looking for ways to determine your character and your personal leadership style – stuff that isn’t quite so obvious from your transcript or your GMAT scores.

I’m writing this blog post at the end of May, when the spring is full of warm weather promise and lengthening days.  Many deadlines for business school applications aren’t even released yet, not to mention essays.  To be honest, with three months until the first school’s first round (HBS, Sept 7, 2016), you really want to do some brainstorming with yourself.

This introspection and brainstorming will help reveal the real you. Not the person you think admissions officers want to see. I recently worked with a student, let’s call her Dora, who had a very strong profile, and in her first drafts of essays, presented a perfect, business oriented go-getter.  I had a long question-and-answer session with her before this draft, and I felt like there was a really interesting person inside.  She made me laugh, made me think about things in a different way, and impressed me with her knowledge of arcane subjects.  But guess what? None of those characteristics showed up in her essays. She was all business in her essays. Miss Perfect Applicant. But no.

Be Authentic. Not Perfect.

Fortunately, she changed it up so that she talked about choices she had made in her life – some easy, and some harder. Admissions committee members want you to understand what makes you tick, which does require going back into your personal history.  Harvard Business School professor and leadership guru Bill George has written at length about authentic leadership, which is based on your own life story. According to George, authentic leaders incorporate their own personal stories. That means talking about where you come from and showing some vulnerability. It doesn’t mean that you need to hang out all your personal secrets, but it does mean that you don’t want to be bulletproof.

It does mean doing the work to get to the honest part, which entails answering tough questions. Those questions are daunting because they ask what makes you tick – for example: What are some of the most challenging choices you have had to make in your life so far? Or, What was one of the biggest things that happened that was out of your control?  These are questions you want to brainstorm on that will help you peel away the layers of who you “should be” to who you are.

It’s hard to be objective about ourselves. Ask friends and family to help you explore your patterns. It’s a process from which most of us shy away; we don’t really want to know the deep dark secrets and we may fear reaching too high.

It’s a risk. But so what? In the words of Talal Khan, HBS 2016, don’t let self-doubt get the better of you.

This is that gnawing feeling inside you, saying ‘But I’m not good enough for this..’ This is all those times when you tried extremely hard and failed miserably, in plain public view. ..On an emotional level, think of the inverse situations – where you had major doubts about your ability to do well, but you went ahead and aced whatever it was you were doing. That arts class. That debating competition. That heroic on sports day. That eternally-un-impressable boss. And add to that, testimony from countless successful candidates, saying that they’ve all felt something similar, at many points, in the application process. So have faith and take the leap!

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