Guest Posts

MBA Applicants: How to Tell a Story

March 8 2016 By The MBA Exchange
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Guest post by Seth Gilmore, Tuck MBA and Senior Admissions Consultant, The MBA Exchange

When in a business school interview and asked by the admissions officer to talk about your leadership skills, you probably shouldn’t say anything like, “trust me, I’m a great leader; in fact, I’m probably the greatest leader you’ve ever interviewed.” That sort of response may work if you’re running for political office, but this is serious business, folks — you will need to have a better response than that to get into the business school of your dreams.

The art of applying to top MBA programs is largely about storytelling. If, for example, you’re asked about your leadership skills, and you will be, it is far more effective to respond not with a simple declarative statement but instead with a story that neatly illustrates your leadership prowess. If the reader or listener can easily divine your meaning from your succinct, entertaining anecdote, you will have done a skillful job of convincing him or her that what you’ve said is actually true.

But how does an MBA applicant tell a story? Having reviewed hundreds of business school application essays over the years, I can confidently tell you that for many candidates the answer to that question is: “Not very well.” That won’t be you, though.

Here are the five crucial components to telling a story in the context of applying to business school. My best advice is to include each component in the following order:

1. Problem — “Here’s the problem or opportunity I encountered…” This is where you lay the groundwork for your story. You invite the reader in and make sure he or she is properly oriented in order to fully appreciate the rest of your story. Having worked with a lot of highly intelligent and extremely accomplished clients over the years at The MBA Exchange, I’m nonetheless amazed to find, year after year, that nearly every single one of them begins their work with me whilst suffering from the same pervasive affliction – “occupational myopia.” That is, they are unable to clearly explain to others what it is that they do for a living. Instead, they simply assume that the reader already understands their professional world, the insider lingo, etc. Yuuuuuuge mistake. The likelihood is that the reader does not understand your world; and your essay, which assumes that they do, winds up confusing if not insulting them. If there’s a more direct route to the “application denied” pile, I haven’t seen it.

2. Analysis — “Here is how I tackled the problem, who I spoke to, the strategy I devised.” This is where you demonstrate your ability to think strategically, like an MBA student. What was the thought process that led you to act the way you did? What alternatives did you consider? How did you choose the best one?

3. Action — “Here is the action I took based on my analysis.” Having said how you decided to do it, here’s where you actually do, do it. Keep it short. Keep it sweet. Most applicants spend the bulk of their essays here, boring the reader to death with their turgid exploits. You should spend the least amount of time here — it’s purely functionary.

4. Result — “Here is what happened as a result of the action that I took.” Pretty simple, right? I did X, and Y was the astonishing result. Don’t feel like you always need to be the hero, though. The adcom will have read thousands of stories, the vast majority of which A) end on this step and B) tend toward boastfulness. It gets dull. Once in a while, consider failure. Don’t be afraid to tell a story in which you, with the best of intentions, screwed up. If you convey it just right, this story element can demonstrate your humility, your maturity and your capacity to learn.

5. Lesson/Insight — “Here is what I learned from this experience, here’s what I now think, here’s why this was important.” This is by far the most important component of your story but amazingly, many applicants leave it out entirely! Ideally this will take up a full third of your word count because this is where you truly demonstrate your management potential. Done well, this is where you’ll make a strong, positive impression upon the reader about your true potential as a student, classmate and future leader.

Now granted, that’s a lot of stuff to cram into a short essay, say one with a 500-word limit. But this is where a professional admissions consultant can be especially helpful to you, by ensuring that you include all of the required components, that you keep them in order and that you do so authentically and economically. Why not begin the process of planning and crafting your own story today, with a free, expert analysis of your MBA candidacy?