Do: Have a Clear Vision

Essay questions asked on MBA applications are usually broad and open ended. These questions allow you to approach the essay in any way you choose—provided you can successfully describe your specific education and career goals. Demonstrate clearly why you’re taking this step now. That’s what Duncan McCampbell, MBA program director at Bethel University in St. Paul, wants to know. “We want to see that there’s a clear vision,” he says. “The most inspiring essays for me are ones where the applicant has arrived at a place in their life where the stars have kind of lined up . . . and the time is right,” McCampbell says. Showing that you have a clear vision will go far in convincing MBA directors that you’re ready for their program.

Metropolitan State University asks students, “Why would an MBA help you achieve your professional goals?” Within the answer to the question, students are directed to discuss professional achievements, career objectives, and what they can bring to the MBA program at Metro State. The essay question for admission to the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, asks: “Why do you want to pursue an MBA and why do you want to pursue it at Carlson?” Dan Bursch, director of admissions and recruiting at the Carlson School in Minneapolis says the application is modeled after a job application, so the essay question is simple and straightforward. What do admissions directors hope to learn about you? At the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business in Minneapolis, Dustin Cornwell, director of the full-time MBA program, says he’s trying to learn more about the student as a whole person. “[It’s] a chance for students to tell us in their own voice about themselves, about their goals, about who they are as a businessperson,” he says.

Bursch says, “It’s a chance for someone to sell [himself] as a leader to us.” He wants to learn what a prospective student’s “personal brand” is through a story. “Within the timeline of their career, what have they done to separate themselves or stand out in the field that they are in?"

Do: Know the Program to Which You Are Applying

Admissions directors want essays that show a student has researched different MBA options and has identified the strong points of a program. There are several MBA options in Minnesota, so McCampbell wants to know why a a candidtate is applying at Bethel. Its MBA program puts emphasis on ethical business management and leadership, so McCampbell wants to read essays that discuss how this approach is right for a student’s career evolution.

To find out if you and a school are a good match, do your research just as you would for a job interview. Plumb the depths of the school’s Web site. Know what a school is good at and what it offers that other schools don’t. If you have questions about the program, call the admissions office and ask. If you have the time, visit the campus and take a tour. 

“Part of the evaluation process—the whole process, not just the essay—is to help the student get a realistic preview of our program to ensure the program is a good fit for the student and also to ensure the student is a good fit for our program and our current students,” says Michele Mumm, MBA director at the Herberger School of Business at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud. Nancy Nentl, director of the MBA program at Metro State, suggests that you write about the benefits you expect from a particular MBA program and how you see the degree enhancing your professional aspirations. The bottom line: Indicate that you’re familiar with the program to show a genuine interest in the school.
Do: Be Consistent

The information contained in your MBA application essay should mirror the information you provide in your cover letter, other application materials, and interview, Bursch says. Inconsistencies cast a shadow, so don’t leave admissions directors questioning if what you say is true or happened the way you described. 

In interviews, Cornwell sometimes asks follow-up questions about the essay. He says this adds to his baseline information about the candidate, and he gains additional insight. If a student says in her interview that she cut department expenses by 10 percent in six months, but her essay says she cut them by 15 percent, her credibility could be called into question.

Matt Nowakowski, MBA program director and professor at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, compares essays to transcripts to make sure a student took the necessary finance, economics, and accounting courses that provide a good foundation for the school’s MBA program. He wants to read essays that reflect an understanding of such topics as statistics and stock valuations and that indicate an aptitude for finance.

Do: Use Standard Essay Structure, and Proofread

In the age of spell-checking software and online dictionaries, MBA program directors still find simple errors in essays. Not taking the time to reread and polish an essay can result in easy-to-avoid errors and come off as lackadaisical. Nentl thinks poor grammar and punctuation “indicates that [a prospective student] might not be ready for grad school.”

“You can tell if someone has taken the extra step to write drafts, have it proofread, and have another set of eyes look at it versus someone who did an all-nighter and just turned it in,” Nowakowski says. Evidence of the latter includes sloppy, lazy mistakes that would normally be caught by a good proofreader, such as using “affect” when you mean “effect.” 

Give yourself adequate time to do the writing, revising, and proofreading. Although most MBA programs limit essays to one to three pages (they typically don’t provide a word count), the essay is the part of the application that takes the longest to complete, program directors say.

What you learned in your high school English class still holds true. Essays need a provocative thesis statement that hooks the reader, and strong topic sentences should start every paragraph. McCampbell suggests avoiding “mushy” language, such as sentences beginning with “I feel” or “it seems,” because it doesn’t convey confidence. Opt for active language (“I began a training program”) versus passive language (“a training program was begun”). Did you spell the admission director’s name correctly? Did you say Carlson School of Business instead of its correct name, Carlson School of Management? 
Do: Be Yourself

“The thing I’ve noticed—and I’m not originally from Minnesota—is the humbleness. The unwillingness to brag about themselves is very apparent in our Minnesota applicants,” Bursch says. “In this essay, you have two pages to wow us. So don’t be afraid to tell us why you’re great.” 

“Essays that show students have engaged in a deep level of personal reflection stand out to me,” Mumm says. “It indicates they are ready to make the sacrifices—financial and time—necessary to participate actively in a graduate degree program.”

Heartfelt essays that are a little offbeat or outside the box are welcome, Cornwell says. You don’t have to act like anybody you’re not. There’s no need to “see how many current buzzwords we can fit on a couple pages,” Nowakowski says. He says a lingo-filled essay gives the impression the candidate is “being cute”—not what he wants from the serious scholars and business leaders he hopes will apply to his program.

Take as much time as you need to make your essay sparkle. Give it time to percolate, and then go back and polish. And have someone you trust proofread it. Be yourself and don’t worry about impressing the admissions crew with your shop talk. They’ll learn more about you from a nicely crafted, customized essay than they will an essay that just attempts to say what they want to hear. 

If there’s one thing to keep in mind, it’s that admissions directors actually read the essays and take them seriously. If you take the essay seriously, too, you won’t have a problem sharing your desire for an MBA—and getting accepted to the school of your dreams.