Writing Essays | Apphelp blog - Part 2

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Apphelp MBA admissions video series

Here are some videos from Apphelp ( India’s # 1 MBA admission consultancy) to help you in your MBA admission process

Apphelp Services – B school shortlisting, Essay review & Interview preparation


How to prepare for MBA admission Interview


Applying to Asian B schools – ISB, NUS, Nanyang, HKUST, AIM Manila, IIMA PGPX


How to choose B schools


The 3rd Dimension of an MBA Applicant’s Profile – Extracurricular Activities

Something commonly seen at B-schools is that most applicants are fairly accomplished at work as well as academics. They would have received multiple promotions, commendations, etc., would have been in the top 5%-10% of their undergraduate class, and would have good scores on standardized tests. So how do B-schools choose one applicant over another when they all seem equally competent? They select those students who contribute to the diversity of the student body and also show a high level of maturity. A reliable indicator of these two is a student’s interest and participation in extracurricular activities.

An extracurricular activity is something that goes above and beyond one’s daily tasks, whether it is going to office or attending classes at school. The activity could be sports, music, theater, arts, photography, learning a new language, organizing events, volunteering for a cause, teaching, building expertise on a specific topic of interest, traveling, something unique or quirky, or hundreds more. Done over a sustained period of time in earnest, these activities help develop a well-rounded, mature personality. They often help build leadership, teamwork and organization skills and open up a whole new world of perspectives for the individual. Which B-school wouldn’t appreciate that in an applicant?

While writing your essays, it is important to understand which activities are truly application-worthy and which deserve only a passing mention. Activities to which very little time and effort have been dedicated are not impressive. “Learned guitar for 3 months” does not show dedication. Similarly, highlighting your participation in stray company events or volunteering with an NGO just to put it on your CV will not help your case. The duration of your involvement with an activity shows your dedication to it and gives a sense of stability. These are personality traits of importance to B-schools.

Another important facet of extracurricular activities is accomplishments. If you have excelled at these activities and have formal recognition to show for it, apart from doing well in your main responsibilities at work or school, it speaks volumes about your abilities as an individual. It also shows that you have tremendous passion for anything that you take up, a passion that you will also bring to the MBA program that you plan to take up at this particular school. So make sure you flaunt your awards and certificates in your essays. This doesn’t mean you should be cocky and arrogant about it, but a B-school application is not the place to be humble either.

To summarize, if you have a unique interest, hobby or activity outside of work and school, if you have put a substantial amount of time and effort into it, and if you are very good at it, write essays that leverage it well and bring out the 3rd dimension of your personality. This will substantially boost your chances of getting (and converting) an interview ca

Making up for low work experience while applying to a B-school

Ideally, an MBA program should be taken up only after the applicant has gotten a certain amount of quality work experience. The MBA curriculum is designed assuming that the candidate has a basic familiarity with the workplace environment – dynamics that exist there, working in team settings and dealing with business issues. Being able to relate to these results in a richer appreciation of lectures, project work and class discussions. Of course, there is no single “right amount of work experience” that can be prescribed. Each school has its own “minimum work experience required” criterion as well as an “average work experience” statistic and these should play a role in your choice of schools.

One option is to postpone your MBA plans for a year or two, till you rack up more experience and exposure. However, if you have already decided to go ahead with an MBA at this time, you have to convince the school that you are ready for it in terms of ability as well as maturity. Your application should clearly show the benefits of doing an MBA at this time and should also demonstrate to the Adcom that the quality of your work experience makes up for the lack of quantity, and that you are in no way less competitive than someone else with significantly more work experience.

To do this, in addition to your formal work experience, think about what you have learned through other life experiences:

  1. Internships and group projects in college – These often provide students with an industry interface very early in their careers and hence can be influential in shaping their thoughts, outlook and potential for future success.
  2. Extracurricular activities and interests – Opportunities to explore your teamwork, leadership or organizational abilities abound in extracurricular activities, whether it was putting together a large-scale event or representing your college/company in sports, cultural events and other competitions.
  3. Volunteer activity – Working with NGOs or volunteering for other activities that you are passionate about is a great way to boost your work experience while getting personal satisfaction. It can be done in parallel with your day job or college, so even if you have less years of work experience, you will have a more to show for them.
  4. Entrepreneurship – Starting something on your own, irrespective of whether it is full-time or part-time and whether it is ultimately successful or not, provides a wealth of experience over a short period of time. This is something that you can talk about in your application.
  5. Family business – If you have put in sufficient time and effort into your family business apart from your own job or college work, you would have invariably learned the basics of business – and much more! Showcase this expertise and learning in your essays.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Think about all those experiences (in the not-too-distant past) that have had an impact on you. Then talk about them in your essays to showcase a maturity level beyond your years. A well-written application should be compelling enough to get you an interview call at the very least, irrespective of the amount (or number of years) of work experience.

How to write an effective essay: Analyze the questions asked

A strong profile is often weakened by poorly-written essays which don’t provide the requisite information.

We have seen, year after year, that B-school Adcoms put a lot of thought into framing their essay questions. Many schools often modify their essay topics, either by rewording existing questions or by choosing new topics altogether. This is done to elicit relevant information, which the Adcom needs to carefully consider before making an offer of admission. So it is critical for applicants to analyze the questions, understand what is being sought, give the right weight to each part of a multipart question and provide precise answers.

Consider this example from a premier B-school’s application package: “Describe a challenging assignment you have handled (at work or outside) to date. What were the challenges and how did you handle them? What were the personal learnings you derived from this assignment?”

Most often, applicants will write a great deal about the enormity of the challenge and everything that was going wrong before they were called in to deal with it. They will then spend a small amount of time talking about the things they did right. Finally, they will mention their key takeaways in the last line of the essay. This is the wrong way to answer this question as it provides a lot of useless data at the cost of relevant information.

A good, organized way to approach this essay is with the help of the STAR framework: Situation, Tasks, Actions, Results. Very briefly describe the Situation and outline the Tasks that lay ahead. Describe in detail the Actions you took. Finally, discuss the Results and learning. If you look at the way the question is framed, this is exactly what they are looking for. “Describe a challenging assignment” (Situation), “What were the challenges (Tasks) and how did you handle them (Actions)”, “What were the personal learnings (Results)”. The Adcom knows what it wants from you, but do you know what that is?

Think about it. The Adcom doesn’t really care about the Situation and Tasks – they are required just to set the context for the rest of the essay. So keep these descriptions brief. What the Adcom actually wants to know is more about the applicant: how did he/she react to the assignment, what was the thought process used in identifying a solution, what actions were taken in executing the solution, etc. This tells them of the abilities and maturity level of the applicant. Most important: what did the applicant learn from this experience, how did he/she improve, what does that say about him/her, etc. Actions and Results need to be described in greater detail, so allocate more space and time to describe them. These are the applicant-centric aspects of the essay and the answers to these questions will help the Adcom decide whether to extend an offer of admission or not.

Analyzing essay questions helps you understand what information is being sought. Provide that information and make it easy for the B-school to send you your admission letter!

10 Common mistakes in MBA application and essay writing that must be avoided

Writing the MBA application essays is an art which may not be that easy to learn and implement. However, knowing what not to do during MBA application process is definitely a science. Here is an attempt to translate this into 10 simple tips on what one must avoid while selecting the b-schools and writing the essays, which form a critical parameter for selection.

1) Not researching the schools well –

MBA is big decision and perhaps a life changing event. One must do a good amount of introspection regarding short term and long term goals, interests, individual personality before identifying the schools to apply to. MBA schools are very particular about fit and one must do research on culture, specializations, activities and student profiles of various b-schools while short-listing.

Also, do not forget parameters such as location, duration and your budget while taking the call.

2) Not being yourself –

A very common mistake applicants make is faking either what they have done or what they are as a person. This does not help at all. Even if a candidate manages to get an interview call, adcoms are smart enough to identify what you have made up.

Self reflection should tell you what the strengths you actually possess are and what are your weaknesses. Writing what you are in essays will give you confidence to face interviews well.

3) Being flamboyant or demeaning others –

This is a complete NO. Do not ever try to boast too much about yourself. You do need to sell your profile to the adcom but never give a feeling of being arrogant.

While you are free to appreciate your qualities, you are not supposed to demean others. For example – you can’t say, “I often took initiative in my team while other team members never did so”.

4) Usage of heavy English –

The MBA selection board wants to know you and this may not necessarily need heavy English. A good usage of vocabulary is advised. However, one should not expect the adcom to read the essays with a dictionary in hand.

Write the way you are comfortable. Do not insert heavy words just for the sake of it.

5) Using the abused words and buzzwords

Sometimes applicants feel that usage of hot words such as globalization, e-commerce, synergy, diversity etc will put some more weight to their application. On the contrary, it reduces the quality of your essays. An occasional or relevant usage is fine but please do not overuse these.

Also try to highlight your traits indirectly rather than using the abused words like ‘Leadership’, ‘Team player” etc which have become cliché. Instead you could use traits that reflect leadership. Eg – “Standing for the team in hour of need” or “creating examples for others to follow”

6) Inconsistency –

If you have written taking initiative as strength at one place, you can not indicate the same as an improvement area somewhere else in your application.

Contradictions of any kind should be eliminated during the essay reviews.

7) Not being specific –

Details do matter. You have to support your points with examples. Demonstrated qualities add more value to your profile than just saying, I have been excellent at a particular skill.

8) Problem of plenty –

An essay should not contain too many points. In order to leave a mark on the admissions committee when it reads your essay, it is imperative that story is built around a few points and a coherent theme emerges.

This also applies to overall application. Hence you cannot bring out 10 strength areas in different essays. Just focus on say 3-4 traits and highlight them in different ways throughout the application.

9) Excess of ornamentation –

Creativity is good but one should note that you are not writing a poem. Refrain from excessive mentions of quotations or using too much of rhyme or artistic language

10) Only explaining ‘What’, not explaining ‘How’ and ‘Why’ –

It does not suffice to write that you got business worth USD 20 million for your organization, you must briefly mention how (i.e. what specific steps you took to get this).

Similarly if you say you like social service, do mention why do you do this (what motivates you)

Low GMAT score? Make up for it with your essays.

Very often, B-school aspirants get de-motivated or discouraged by a GMAT score that is below their expectations. They let their application efforts get sidetracked, do a half-hearted job or decide not to apply at all. Well, this may come as a surprise to some, but the GMAT score is not the most important criterion in the evaluation of B-school applications!

The GMAT Official Score Report states that you will “most likely earn a Total score within about 30 points of a score reflecting your true ability”. So one could argue that a person who got 570, 30 points less than his “true” score, is just as good as another person who got 630, 30 points more than his “true” score, “true” scores for both being 600. Similarly, someone who gets 690 may be just as good as someone who gets 750. Extreme cases, no doubt, but they demonstrate an underlying inaccuracy in the standardized test scores. B-schools recognize this inaccuracy. That is why they use the GMAT score as one of several approximate indicators of an individual’s academic ability and not as an exact measurement of his or her potential for success in life.

What schools say they care about (and this is what they actually do care about!) is the overall strength of the candidate. Schools evaluate candidates, through essays and interviews, on 4 key factors (or a variation of these):

  1. Purpose and value proposition – Articulation of short term and long term goals, need for business education, role of the school in the achievement of the goals, strengths the applicant brings to the table, diversity, a mutually beneficial relationship, etc.
  2. Work experience – quality, quantity, leadership skills, teamwork, international and cross-cultural exposure, in-depth domain knowledge, contacts and networks in the industry, etc.
  3. Personality – Well-rounded and multi-dimensional personality, good communication skills, extra-curricular activities outside of work and school, travel and variety of experiences, fit with the school, diversity w.r.t. the rest of the applicant pool, contributions to society, ethical values, etc.
  4. Academic ability – Performance in undergraduate classes, results of standardized tests (this includes GMAT), certifications, courses, workshops, etc.

As can be seen, the decision to make an offer of admission depends on one’s ability to showcase various strengths and facets of your personality – mainly through essays and interviews. The GMAT score, in that sense, plays a rather diminished role in the decision-making process.

So if you are an MBA aspirant with a not-so-great GMAT score, don’t worry. Instead, put in the effort to craft an application that can’t be ignored! Clearly state your goals and value proposition, showcase your personality, and write powerful, compelling essays to make a strong case for why you should be admitted. Then wait for your interview call.

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How to bring out the “diversity factor” in MBA essays

B-School essays can be broadly categorized into three types

a) The diversity essay

b) The why MBA-why this school-goals essay

c) The general personality questions – leadership, ethical dilemma, challenges.

I am going to elaborate on the diversity essay here.

The diversity essay is the most crucial one and usually the toughest one to write. The schools do not necessarily expect to see things such as “I was a national level dancer”, in this essay. Two points that should be kept in mind while writing this essay are – what is it that makes you different from your comparable group and secondly, what was your learning from this experience and how is that going to help you/your peers at the B-School.

By “comparable group”, I mean people who are coming from similar backgrounds. So, if you are a doctor, you would be compared with other applicants from the medical background. By “different”, I mean something that you did better than others in your regular responsibilities or something that you did apart from your regular responsibilities. By “learning”, I mean something that will take you closer to your goals or help you contribute to the MBA class, in terms of soft skills, knowledge sharing or domain expertise.

The next thing is – structure of this essay. Most people, when asked to write this essay in 500 words, tend to put down as many as 5 diversity points. Ideally, if not asked for a certain number of points, this essay should be woven around one central theme or, at the maximum, three diversity points. Every diversity point should have the following components

  • Explicit statement of the point you are trying to make
  • Some data from your professional life/ academics/ extra activities to support this point
  • The learning from this experience and the contribution that you are going to make to the peer group with the help of this experience.

The “learning/contribution” is the most important component, which most of the applicants tend to ignore. Research more about the school, the clubs and other activities, class size and experience and think more about your goals, this will help you in writing this component.

Lastly, one common mistake that I have seen across applications – people write things such as “I have a positive attitude”, “I am a quick learner”. These are great adjectives but these never count as diversity points. Who would ever say that he doesn’t have positive attitude. Think deeper about your life and I am sure you’ll get better points for this essay.

Life cycle of a B school essay

Application essays are very often an aspect of B school admissions that puts the best of students into first gear mode. The whole prospect of sitting with pen and paper (this reference is metaphorical, for we know that the pen and paper age is well left behind and forgotten. Sigh!!!) and writing where you came from and where you intend to go is not like watching Megan Fox in the Transformers. And strangely enough the belief that writing essays begin with putting pen onto paper is probably the farthest away from the truth as you can get. The life cycle of an essay has many stages. And while I do agree that you can write great essays without following this approach to the tee, if truth be told it is very much the recommended approach.

The first stage and the most important one of them all is the Brainstorming stage. This is the thinking cap phase. It would do the applicant a world of good if he/she can introspect and identify career goals and how they tie in with his/her profile. An exercise to also spare thought on a string of significant personal milestones that made a difference to the applicant either professionally and personally will also be of great use.

The next stage is the ‘Creating a career sketch’ phase. This is basically putting your thoughts from the earlier phase into plain text. Since you are not guided by any questions per se, please feel free to highlight all that you think is significant. Based on the comfort of the applicant, this can be put down in free prose, bulleted lists or even verse (ok if you can do this, you should probably attempt writing your own version of ‘The Golden Gate’).

It is only after finishing the above two stages that you should get down to the brick and mortar writing the essay exercise. You can now cull out details from your career sketch to answer the essay question for the B school of your choice. You will be pleasantly surprised how easy finding a plot for your essays get with this approach. This will also hold you in good stead if you are making multiple applications.

The essay now in hand, you can subject it to a review process. It might be a good idea to run this past an unbiased, trained third eye and once the semantics and the content are whetted; your essays are pretty much good to go.

Click submit or post the essay transcripts as the case may be and keep your fingers crossed.

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Best advise from experts for b school applicants

Writing an Application for B-SCHOOL is the hardest part of the application process. To make it a bit simpler we have some advice from the B-School experts, on what do they expect in an application.

A.keith Vaighn of Marshall School of Business, University of South California, says “The applicants should just be their selves and follow directions. Schools are not trying to trick them, but are trying to know who they are.”

Monika Gray, University of Georgetown advises applicants to be true to who they are. She says “The biggest mistake the candidates make when preparing an application is to try to figure out who we are trying to preview and who we think is the best candidate and leave out lots of important things about themselves.”

According to her, most students fail to understand that B-schools are looking for all-rounded people who are interesting and that doesn’t have to relate to something that seems business school related. “When we ask students about their hobbies and interests , they say following the stock market. It is fine to have such a hobby, if it really is, but if your hobby is playing socker, jogging or mountain climbing that’s perfectly fine to admit, because most people find their creative solutions outside their work space. So it’s important to us that we have students who do interesting things and not solely focus on whatever they are interested in doing professionally, as it helps them balance themselves. So , be honest about who you are and develop that personal profile and not just assume that everything has to go specifically matching your career.”

According to Richard G . Miller, Carey Business School, John Hopkins University. “Make sure you turn the interview into you being the interviewer. Ask the right question.”

Gaynor Jones, Freeman school of Business, Tulane University says “Keep it simple. It is important for the candidate to put across basics about themselves. When we look at an applicant or an application comes in , we try to get an idea about who the applicant is . We don’t want to read the same thing and boring stuff. Make it different and interesting, yet complete and simple.”
Alice Hiang, Hult International Business school agrees and says,” Try to use application to let yourself come through. We get hundreds of applications , those who let their personal story and unique characteristics come through, are the ones who are selected”.
Glenns Burman, Rutger Business school, comments ” When it comes to an application, you have to treat it as an opportunity to get in through the door. It has to represent you to the best of your abilities. Understand that you have one shot to make 1st impression. Make sure its complete, make sure its on time or even early, especially when applying for some finantial aid or scholarship. One should understand that its more than just a piece of paper, it is you. I do not know the person, I can come to who you are at that point is through that application.

What to write in an Application?

An application is all about showcasing yourself. Just like a presentation to a client highlighting features and USP of product or service, an application highlights your achievements and career goals etc and tells the school why you can be the right student they are looking for.

In a nutshell, though it might appear a little blunt but you have to sell yourself to the school and application plays an important role in that.

According to us the best way of writing application essays for schools like Harvard, Stanford, Duke, Ross, Oxford , ISB, Insead etc is to start with a laundry list of whatever you have done in your life right from schooling, to college to all companies you have joined. Don’t forget extra curriculars. After that think which ones are good and will be valued by the B school. This is where B school alumni’s experience comes handy and can make the difference. Make sure that you are selling right thing packaged rightly to the right school.

Complete your drafts and get it reviewed by people who have applied to schools, current students or alumni. Don’t be fussy about stuffing good words because that’s not what adcom wants to judge.

In the end, don’t forget that the story line should be strong and should look distinct and not like any other application.


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