When you first read the essay questions in your application, it can be hard to figure out which topics to cover or which stories to tell. This unit will help you by providing a step-by-step process you can use to discover your best topics and stories. The steps in this process are to:
- Review the Valued Qualities and Fit Qualities
- Categorize the Question
- Brainstorm Topic/Stories
- Choose a Topic or Story
Review the Valued Qualities and Fit Qualities
First, you need to have the qualities that MBA programs value top of mind. The work you did for your resume, assembling the evidence of your most important achievements. As with your resume, you want your essays to provide convincing evidence of your general management potential, career readiness, leadership, fit, and difference. Speaking of fit, you want to be sure that the Fit Qualities for the school are top of mind before you start your essay brainstorming.
Now is the time to make some strategic choices about which qualities you will put front and center. Remember the mosaic analogy we described in earlier units. You need to select the Content Building Blocks that provide admissions officers with the most complete and most impressive picture of you. If you try to feature every one of your strengths, you run the risk that admissions officers won’t finish your essays with a clear idea of any of your strengths. Instead, select three or four of your best qualities to emphasize; the qualities that you know from careful research that this school values most of all.
Categorize the Question
Second, you want to read the essay question very carefully. Determine which of the eight categories it falls into – is it a leadership question, a career goals question, a contributions question, etc.?
By categorizing each question you’ll have a better idea of what the admissions committee is going to be looking for in your response and you’ll have the criteria for scoring top marks in mind when you start outlining.
Third, it’s time to start brainstorming potential topics and stories. Remember that your goal is to highlight the Valued Qualities and Fit Qualities that you know admissions officers are looking for.
You can analyze the topics and stories on your short list of essay contenders in the same way that you analyzed the achievements for your resume. You need to choose the content that will pack the most punch. Logically, the achievements that emerged as the strongest ones in your resume analysis will often also make the best essays.
Case Study: Choose Your Topics and Stories – Mark
Mark, the junior brand manager we introduced in the Create Your Resume Unit, returned to his analysis and decided his resume bullet-point about launching the baby-cologne product would make an excellent Leadership Essay. In essay form, he could share the experience in detail, providing evidence of general management potential, career readiness, leadership, fit, and difference.
Choose a Topic or Story
The real test of your topics and stories comes at the outlining and rough draft stage. The following exercise will help you to do so.
Exercise: Evaluate the Quality of Your Outlines and Rough Drafts
Below, we have listed a series of questions you should ask yourself to evaluate the quality of your outlines and rough drafts.
Central Player or Supporting Cast?
For essays that ask you to tell a story, are you the central player in the story you have in mind or are you a member of the supporting cast? With very few exceptions, you need to write stories where you play the starring role, as those are the stories that will help the admissions officers get to know you better.
Did the experience occur recently?
It is usually best if the stories happened within the last there years. There is some leeway on this criterion if an older story is especially powerful. Just bear in mind, that the longer ago it happened, the more impact the story needs to have to warrant its inclusion in your essay set.
Does the essay feature Valued Qualities and Fit Qualities?
Review your essay drafts objectively and ask yourself if they will do a great job of demonstrating the Valued Qualities and Fit Qualities in action.
Will the essay score top marks?
Review our discussion of the eight essay types and determine if this essay content (as imagined in it’s completed form) would score top marks for this essay type. For example, if this is a leadership essay, did you rally other people and motivate them to work together to achieve an important shared vision or goal? You would cross off any stories where you were working on your own, and focus on the stories in which you made an impact by leading others.
Does the story hold together?
Another important test is if you think the essay can be written with a clear beginning, middle, and end within the word count provided. You need to choose stories that can be told in a succinct way. For example, instead of writing about a trip around the world, perhaps you can focus on a portion of the trip that was particularly meaningful.
Will admissions officers be able to understand the story easily?
A related question to ask is will the story be easy for admissions officers to understand without a great deal of background or technical knowledge. Keep in mind that you will not have the space to tell a story that requires an elaborate set-up in 500 words or less.
Unit Review: How to Choose Your Topics and Stories
- To choose your best essay material begin with Valued Qualities, identify the purpose of the question asked, brainstorm possibilities and then choose the top stories that supply the kind of evidence that admissions officers are looking for.
- Don’t start writing until you understand what the question is asking and how to score top marks. Be sure the Valued Qualities and Fit Qualities are top of mind.
- The achievements that emerged as the strongest ones in your resume preparation work will often also make the best essays.
- Select essay topics and stories that: 1) feature you as the hero; 2) occurred recently; 3) show off your Fit Qualities; 4) satisfy the criteria for top marks; 5) hang together well; and 6) can be easily understood within the word count provided.