4 Common Mistakes in the MBA Personal Statement

At Menlo Coaching, we think it is vitally important to understand the general approach to writing your MBA essays both in terms of what you should do and in terms of what you shouldn’t do. In this article we will look at some of the common mistakes that people make when writing their personal statement essays for MBA applications as well as some solutions to those mistakes. 

It might be helpful to look at our guide to application essays to get a better understanding of what is expected of you in general when applying for an MBA. School-specific resources are also very useful for writing your essays, as each school (and essay prompt!) have different aims; we have MBA essay guides for the HBS essay, Stanford’s essay A, and the two Wharton MBA essays.

And now, on to the mistakes!

Mistake 1: Talking about Your Job Too Much

This might seem counterintuitive. After all, your career is a big part of your life and it is also a big part of what MBA AdComs look at when judging applications. And it is true that you will want to discuss your job at some point in the application process. But the essay for your personal statement is not the place to say too much about your job.

This is especially important if you are a traditional MBA applicant. If you work in private equity or consulting, you should keep in mind that MBA programs already know the ins and outs of those jobs very well—after all, they wouldn’t be particularly good business schools if they didn’t. Describing your job to them will waste valuable words that could be spent better differentiating yourself. You should also remember that some schools have a separate career goals essay where talking about your current job makes more sense. Beyond that, there is ample space to discuss your job on the application form and any top MBA program will be able to get everything they need to know about your job from that. 

It is occasionally relevant to discuss the softer emotional side of your work experiences, but in most cases you should spend the time talking about yourself as a person. Putting on your student cap as opposed to your employee cap will benefit you greatly in giving the committee a sense of what you will be like when you join their class. 

Mistake 2: Stylistic Mismatches

A lot of people want to turn the personal statement into a creative writing endeavor. They (mistakenly) believe that flowery prose or a novel storytelling structure will look impressive to the admissions committee. It is something to avoid.

Alice van Harten, one of Menlo Coaching’s founding partners, has some samples of this sort of excessively stylized writing which we will reproduce here:

As we walked into the lab on a clear summer morning, Dave turned to me and smiled, “That would be nice John, except we haven’t developed a drug at this site in over 15 years.” I stood still, letting his words sink in. I didn’t understand why the director of pharmacology appeared—so willingly—to accept this failed outcome as though it were an immutable truth. Something wasn’t right, and I made it my goal to offer an explanation.

Here is another example:

I was a little intimidated when I was asked to counsel the senator on a global trade vote: a feeling that was magnified as I sat with the chief of staff and legislative director and told them why the senator should change his long-standing view on the issue. I had only been an aid to the senator for four months, but I knew this vote had implications for his future and the future of global trade.

Neither of the above examples is badly written or uninteresting. They both have a certain dramatic flair and beginning in medias res lends them some natural tension. And nothing is wrong with being inspired by the fiction writing of your favorite author. But trying to add this creative, complicated dynamic to your essay will both eat up valuable word space and could also backfire if the stylistic flourish you’ve chosen puts the AdCom off.

The remedy for this mistake–and a method we’ve integrated into our process at Menlo Coaching–is to use classic style in your personal statement essay; approach the subject matter as though you are a journalist writing in first person. That will let you free up the space to be maximally efficient and will also give you a chance to put the facts of your personal story ahead of the way in which you relay them.

Mistake 3: Trying to Impress the AdCom

This is very closely related to the previous mistake. Just as trying to write too creatively may make you seem as though you are showing off your writing skills rather than answering the prompt, trying too hard to impress the admissions committee in your essay can make it seem as though you are self-satisfied–or worse, arrogant–which could severely impact your chances of getting an offer. 

Here is another example from Alice van Harten. It was written, oddly enough, not by the applicant, but by the applicant’s aunt who felt his essay was not impressive enough for the HBS AdCom. This was how it opened:

Every morning, I wake up with two goals in mind; first, I want to learn just one thing that I didn’t know the day before. Whether it’s the economic implications of the Affordable Care Act or what the state bird of Zimbabwe is, I have a thirst for information—important or trivial. Second, I try to make at least one person smile from something interesting, witty or entertaining that I say. If I am the originator of that person’s smile, I know that I’ve made an impact, however big or small on her. 

This was the ending:

Academic distinction, check. Exceptional GMAT score, check. Noteworthy extracurriculars, check. Outstanding recommendations, check. Impressive resume, check. On paper, I emerge as the ideal candidate for the Harvard Business School class of 2018. But I hope that the preceding words give you a deeper sense of my personality and character, which reveal that the above accomplishments do not define me, rather they inspire and propel me to do even more, reach even higher, be even better.

This sort of essay should, obviously, read as quite cringeworthy. Even worse, the applicant’s GMAT score was below average so it had the distinction of being incorrect as well as coming off as extremely smug.

The solution here is, again, to use classic style. The factual, straightforward, journalistic approach allows you state your accomplishments without sounding as though you are narcissistic or delusional. 

Mistake 4: Being Dishonest

Honesty is paramount in your MBA application essay. In your personal statement there are two basic ways that people end up being dishonest, both of which are essential to curb. 

The first form of dishonesty is a lack of openness about your failures. People don’t like to dwell on their failures and, in a high pressure situation like your MBA application, you may feel like your past failures are going to obliterate your chances of admission. It is easy to forget that your rough edges are part of what makes you who you are. 

Let’s take a metaphorical approach here: if you look at ads for plastic surgery results on billboards, you might, in looking at an individual, see someone quite beautiful with flawless skin and perfect teeth. But, if you look at a bunch of those models together, they will all start to look the same. The same is true for an AdCom that is looking at an endless stream of applications with the same credentials, GMAT scores, and extracurriculars. Without something that makes you stand out—some sort of rough edge—you may well fade into the background of qualified applicants who just don’t have a memorable essay and whose application is discarded when the tough admission decisions are made.

Being open about your failures and mistakes is also a great way to demonstrate how you deal with difficult situations. Endlessly discussing your successes won’t give the AdCom much to go on with regard to your character and maturity during the difficulties you’ll encounter in business school and beyond. What might look like a string of successes to you can also look like untested good luck to the MBA admissions committee. Making yourself appear human in your personal statement—prone to disappointments, setbacks, and frustrations—will let the AdCom know that you struggle and are still able to overcome.

The second form of dishonesty is more subtle than the first: being unable to talk about sensitive and delicate topics. Writing about the death of a loved one, your coming out experience, or the impact of your parent’s criminal activity might seem like a disastrous thing to include in your personal MBA essay. And it is true that you don’t want to come off as though you are milking these traumatic experiences for points with the AdCom. But it is also the case that they might well be important parts of your story which deserve to be told.

Being upfront about a crisis or a trauma in your life, in a way that is honest and succinct, can have a very positive impact on the way your personal essay is read. As with admitting your failures and setbacks, it humanizes and differentiates you in a way that makes you both memorable and relatable. 

All of these mistakes are somewhat natural inclinations that you may be guilty of when writing the MBA essay on your personal statement. What might put you over the top is addressing them directly, employing a classic style, and being thorough and thoughtful enough to redraft your essay if you find yourself making them.