My buddy Texaswannabecali was asking the blogosphere about how to approach the daunting task of writing essays for b-school apps and I thought I’d make an entire post of it instead. I will put in a disclaimer here – I absolutely love writing and I do it on a regular basis i.e I probably churn out about 800 words per day on average, so it was probably easier for me than it was for most people. With that said, some essay topics were definitely easier than others. For instance, Fuqua was a joy to write but Yale, not so much.
I started with my Yale essays first, I figured get a good round of practice in before pulling the big guns for Duke. It’s a good idea to work on your number one choices after you’ve had some experience with schools that aren’t as high on your list of priorities. By then you should have a good sense of what works and what doesn’t, and also a better sense of clarity about your career goals.
Before you start writing, make sure you read the essay analyses that all the admissions consultants have put out there. Grantmeadmission has an amazing resource where he’s compiled all those links and which I’ve personally bookmarked. Whether or not you use these guidelines, I found them tremendously useful just to align my thoughts in the right direction. I started off on my essays by jotting down points that I knew I had to put in there. Nothing fancy, just bullets in my text editor of choice. I didn’t sit down actively in one session and do this because my brain tends to wander when I do that, but I kept adding to the list at random times when I was bored at work, or right before I went to sleep, I’d quickly type out those points on my phone and sync it up later. So by about the end of a week, I had a list of about 15 – 20 odd points that I wanted to expand on for each essay. Then I got down to writing my first draft.
I wasn’t really concerned about structure or brevity at this point. I just wanted to get my content down. I just expanded on every point that I had written down so depending on the essay topic I had a bunch of stories from work, some from volunteering, some stuff that I liked about the school and basically a few lines or more about every aspect of my profile that I wanted to cover. At the end of this exercise, I had a full two pages of text with random paragraphs and no flow whatsoever. I let that sit for a while, about 3 or 4 days and I didn’t look at it at all. In the mean time, I had some more ideas which I made sure to document lest I forget.
So after the requisite 3 to 4 days, I came back to my essay with a clearer head. The time gap in the middle helped lessen my attachment to the words I’d written, so I could easily get rid of stuff I knew wasn’t relevant or important. Looking at the essay with a fresher pair of eyes also helped me spot grammatical flaws that I might have missed otherwise. I put in the new points and I started arranging the essay structurally by moving paragraphs around in a way that made sense to the reader i.e gave it a logical flow. So I had a pretty rough second draft at this point, with the content and a decent structure.
I let it rest for a few days again before going back to it. This time I focussed on starting and ending with a bang and ensuring smooth transitions from one paragraph to the next. The last thing I wanted was to have a clunky set of unrelated stories shoved together in my essay. Up until this point, I hadn’t really bothered with the word count specifically, although I always kept it at the back of my mind. I knew I overshot the limit by about 200 words or so but that’s about it. I wouldn’t advice going over by more than 400 words because cutting it down can be a herculean task. I know because getting the word count down by 200 words was a major pain. But I did it in this iteration. So now I had the beginnings of a pretty good essay, but up until now I hadn’t taken any external opinions so I sent it off to about 7 – 8 friends and advisors for their inputs. None of my friends have MBAs so it was more of an exercise about making sure there were no dumb mistakes (repeating words, missing letters and commas) and also so to see if they could tell that the essay could have been written only by me and no one else. I think that’s a good way of judging to see whether you’ve really poured your heart and soul into the essay. Trust me, this makes a massive difference.
My friends took a few days to get back to me and they were super helpful. Some of the feedback I implemented and some I just ignored. Stick to your guns on this. At this point my essays were looking great! I went over them, polished them up, made sure the formatting was right and I saved them all ready to submit. But of course, I didn’t actually submit it right then and I spent a good 3 days reading it once every 3 hours and scouring my eyes out trying to find any errors I’d missed. Then about two days before the deadline, I hit submit and that was it!
The whole thing took about 20 odd days, I think you should probably budget at least that much or you’ll find yourself scrambling towards the end. Unless of course, you’re one of those people who writes the entire thing in one shot and that’s that. Well, this was long and rambling but I hope it helps anyone who’s confused about how to start.
Best of luck with essays!