Thursday, October 22, 2009

What makes a good essay, quantified

In "The Essay Package that Stood Apart," I explained how one of my essay packages went a lot further than the others in explaining why that school was a good fit for me and how I would contribute to that school. In this post, I'm going to quantify the extent to which that essay package stood apart.

How can we quantify an essay package? First, let's establish the basic goals of a business school essay package. I see four things that need to be explained in any essay package:
  • What are your qualifications?
  • Why do you want/need an MBA?
  • Why do you want to go to this school?
  • What are your future goals?
In some cases the essay questions don't come right out and ask you to address all of these issues, but I don't think that means you should ignore them. There should be a way to work this material into your essay package.

If these are the goals, then a sensible metric is the number of words devoted to each goal in your essays. Last night I read through all of my essays and color-coded each sentence according to which of these four goals it addressed. Then I counted the number of words I spent addressing each goal and put together some graphs. Here are the results.

School 1

I dedicated 90% of the words in my essay package for School 1 to discussing my background; just under 10% talking about my future goals; and only a few sentences spent discussing why I wanted to obtain an MBA or why I wanted to go to this school.

Result: Denied.

School 2

In my essay package for School 2, I dedicated more space to discussing my future goals and focused a little more on explaining why I thought this school was a good fit for me. I dedicated a full 20% to explaining my future goals.

Result: Denied.

School 3

About 20% of my essay package for School 3 was devoted to explaining my future goals, with the remainder talking about my background. I didn't spend a single sentence explaining why I wanted an MBA or why this school was a good fit for me.

Result: Denied.

School 4

My essay package for School 4 was much more balanced by this analysis. Although I didn't spend many words talking about why I wanted to pursue an MBA, I put significant effort into explaining why this school was a good fit. About 15% of this package was spent explaining my future goals.

Result: Admitted.

If you want to talk about yourself, start a blog
Obviously this analysis ignores the questions of quality and effectiveness - so I don't want to imply that the only problem with the first three essay packages was how I addressed the goals above. There may have been other problems with those essays, or maybe the essays were fine and the admissions committees just weren't impressed by my background. After all - they're essays, not fiction.

Still, one mistake a lot of people make in their writing (not just b-school essays) is they spend too much time talking about themselves or what they did, rather than just getting to the point. I see this in technical presentations and documents all the time - the author spends half their time talking about all of the obstacles they had to overcome without explaining how these experiences are relevant to the audience.

It's a lot easier to talk about what you've done than what you're going to do, and I think this may naturally bias b-school applicants to blabbing on about their past. The other topics are much more difficult to write about, so I probably shied away from them... resulting in three unbalanced essay packages -- and three rejections.


  1. I am with you on that one. In one of my essay packages, all these aspects form a part of one question. Of the 15 sentences that I wrote, 2 were on my background, 4 on goals, 3 on MBA and 6 on why Ross.
    Result: I have an interview call.
    I am not saying its bcoz of this essay, but I knew I had written it well.

  2. The use of graphs was very helpful.

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