Crafting a Brilliant MBA Personal Statement
When I work with my Vietnamese clients at VietAccepted for their MBA essays, I have repeatedly emphasized the importance of using the essays to help the candidates stand out from the pack. This is even more important for Southeast Asian candidates because the local culture encourages some to stay humble and not boast about themselves. In this post, I hope to give you some tips to help you personalize your essays and make them memorable.
First, understand the values of the programs. The admissions committee (adcom) looks for candidates who can reflect the school DNAs and by researching the website or conversing with current students or alumni, you can get a sense of the core values of your desired schools. For example, while Kellogg might focus more on teamwork, Chicago Booth loves those who are intellectually curious. Therefore, in your essays to Booth, do not forget to add elements or evidence that demonstrate your analytical skills and prove to the adcom that you are an inquisitive person who loves to challenge the status quo.
For instance, here is a quote from the MIT Admissions Team that can help you better understand what MIT Sloan is looking for when evaluating applicants:
“Like MIT itself, MIT Sloan is a place for visionary pragmatists and for people with the determination to change the world and with the passion to make it happen.”
Think of a time when you took initiative or devised innovative solutions to drive impact to the organization. Instead of using examples in which you were assigned to do something, use stories in which you have proactively taken initiatives or stepped forward to overcome obstacles from other team members to address a long-standing problem.
Second, be more specific. This sounds like a cliché, but Asian candidates tend to write in a more generic and broader way. However, this is a serious pitfall as you will not be able to stand out from others and after reading the stories, my bet is that the admissions committee will not be able to remember anything about you. For example, instead of writing “I led my team in addressing the problem and getting things done,” you should write, “I worked directly with a 5-8 person ‘rapid results team,’ coaching them on how to think about operational improvement, motivating them to sprint towards it, and leading them through the analysis required to capture it” (excerpt from Harvard Business School admitted essay).
Another important point here is to refrain from using grand and unsupported claims in your personal statement. Saying “I am a team-driven person” or “I am a responsible leader” do not add any value to your profile if it is not supported by concrete evidence. Instead, it’s better to craft a compelling story about when you supported a struggling team member to complete a project, or a time when you held yourself accountable for a failing project. Share your lessons with the admissions committee, how you applied those lessons in later projects, or how these experiences influenced your outlook.
Finally, do not forget to add your personal story. Ultimately, administrative members are people, which means they are moved by emotions. You are advised to conduct a thorough review of your stories and experiences to identify elements that could help your essays become more engaging to the readers.
Top MBA programs have increasingly focused on understanding yourself and your life experiences. Here are some examples:
- Harvard Business School: As we review your application, what else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program?
- Stanford GSB: What matters most to you, and why?
- Yale SOM: Describe the biggest commitment you have ever made.
- Kellogg Northwestern: Values are what guide you in your life and work. What values are important to you, and how have they influenced you?
Clearly, these essays require the candidates to deeply reflect upon their experiences and write from their heart and soul. My advice is that you should think about your morals, values, and lessons that have shaped your life and your drive. Do not hesitate to write about your failures because sometimes, being vulnerable helps. However, what matters more is that you should never make any excuse for your failures – it’s better to own the mistake and what you learned from it that improved your ownership or your maturity.
I have consistently applied this strategy to nearly all the essays for my clients. Even when the school asks some generic questions about your short-term and long-term goals, I would start the essay with a hook that defines their career visions. This helps my clients stand apart from other candidates, and some even get into top 10 or top 15 programs with scholarships despite their humble GMAT scores.