Essays are the heart of your application
Disclaimer: if you want to be admitted to your dream school you will need to spend many hours on your essays. They are the main way of demonstrating the majority of what admission committees are looking for (if you haven’t read our article on Application Strategy, best to start with that – link – as we’ll be referring to it throughout this page!). All the other elements of your application act as supporting documents.
The golden rules of Application Essays
Too lazy / busy to read the whole page? Focus on this paragraph!
- Make your points, but always answer the question. So many people make the mistake of going off-topic to impress the committees, but end up doing more harm than good. Make sure you read the question carefully – every single word has been specifically chosen for a reason by the admissions committee!
- The content of your essays should include specific examples of your professional / personal life, and non-cliché reflections and personal learnings.
- The style of your essays should be authentic, positive and passionate. It should almost feel like you’re speaking to an old friend or a member of your family. Don’t be afraid to use humor but keep it professional and of course grammatically and orthographically correct!
- Be memorable, but don’t contradict the rest or your application You have limited room for creativity in your CV and other parts of the application. Therefore your essays are your main chance to stand out from those that you are competing with. However, always be sure to check that anything you write does not seem incompatible with the rest of your application.
- Draft each essay with a structured bullet point summary of the points you want to make and the examples you intend to use (more on that below). This will dramatically increase the level of your first written draft when you create it.
- Be creative in your brainstorming. Good ideas for your essays may come at any time of the day or night, so make sure you note them down. Involve friends and family in the thought process. Use frameworks or mind-mapping tools to explore all potential ideas. Go through your whole life in steps and try to explain each major decision and what you learnt from it. See a shrink if it helps (just kidding, save that money for your MBA!). All these techniques should vastly increase the quantity and quality of material at your disposal for your essays.
- Iterate, iterate and iterate – no matter how good you think you are at writing. A great essay requires strategy, structure, creativity and self-reflection, on top of writing eloquence. Your essays will always improve drastically between your first and final iteration. Every single word should have a legitimate reason for being included! There is no time shortcut to a good set of essays, unless you use a good applications coach (link).
- Be bipolar! Alternate between creativity and quality control. Most people can’t be creative and passionate whilst at the same time be structured and focused. The easiest way to succeed is to alternate between with sufficient break time in between (e.g. one session focused on being creative and writing, then pausing for a day before doing a second session focused on making sure the question is answered, that the examples are good etc.).
Follow a structure that helps the reader get your points while staying engaged
Each essay should follow the following structure:
- Hooks the reader’s attention.
- Announces the main theme(s) of the essay.
- Content paragraphs (3-4 of them per essay)
- Starts by defining the point you will make in this paragraph and ideally with a transition from the previous paragraph / point.
- Then provides supporting evidence with examples from your professional or personal life along with your personal insights on what you learnt.
- Summarizes your key points and key learnings.
- Leaves the reader with a positive, upbeat impression.
Our recommended step by step approach for essay writing
We recommend following the below method for writing your essays
- Brainstorming – Identify examples you could use in your essays based on the prompts provided in our Application Strategy guide (link).
- Build the core structure of your 1st essay – Using bullet points, list the 2-3 points you’d like to make in each paragraph (including Introduction and Conclusion), specifying when relevant the life or career example you’ll use and the criteria you’ll be demonstrating (e.g. what Career Visions or Employability Skill point you’ll be making).
- Write your first written draft – Now turn your bullet points into an actual essay. Force yourself to do it in 2-3h, even if the result is terrible and you go way beyond the word count.You should very much be in a “creative” mindset rather than a “quality control” one (see our tips above – link). This is important to break the initial “writer’s block”. If you have any doubts on whether you should include a point, just include anyway – remember that this is just the first attempt!
- Review your first draft 2-3 days afterwards – This time you should focus on “quality control”. It’s often hard to have an objective opinion on something you’ve just written. Once you’ve gone through the pain of the first draft give yourself a rest and come back to it another day. Focus on the high-level points such as: Am I answering the question? Am I making all the points I want to make? Am I using the best examples to make these points? Am I contradicting myself between different parts? Does the whole essay flow well and is it easy to read?
- Create the structure of the other essays. Still focusing on the same school, make your bullet point lists for the other essays. Make sure your set of essays covers all the key points you want to make in your application. This may require you to move one example from an essay to another, if it helps better illustrate some of the points. Some applicants like to do this in step 2, but we believe that there is a benefit in doing a first written draft before creating all your structures.
- Iterate. Do 1-2 iterations on each essay. Do not treat them as separate elements. They should be both coherent and complementary. This means that they should cover all key points but not repeat things. You can refer to the same example in different essays but avoid doing this too much otherwise the admissions committee may think you are lacking the evidence to support your claims.
- Share the essays with people. There is a bit of debate around when the best moment to start sharing your essays for feedback is. We think it’s after a couple of written iterations (except if you’re using admissions consultants, who can already provide valuable feedback on your bullet points outlines too).
- Iterate and share more. Seriously, it can take many many hours to put together a good set of essays. We recommend having at least 3-4 passes on each and it’s not uncommon to double that!
- Involve your recommenders. Send a few sample essays to the people who will be writing your recommendation / referral letters. If time permits, get them involved in your iterations. This will increase the chances of their letters being coherent with the rest of your application, which will add a lot of value and authenticity to your whole application!
- Focus on one school at a time. Writing your essays for school X will certainly help you when you get to school Y, but it’s essential to not write them in parallel otherwise you will start to mix up the two applications. You can of course make notes of ideas you may have for other schools, but your writing should be focused on one school at a time. If you’re good enough at planning, we would certainly recommend reviewing your first school once you’ve done schools 2-4 (for example).
- We cannot stress how important it is to involve other people. They will provide an external perspective (after all the essays will be about your life and you may be omitting details or steps that are obvious to you but not to other people!) and potentially also help you refine your understanding of your personal skills and weaknesses. For this reason it’s best to share them with both people who know you well and people who know you little or not at all. We know it can be hard for some people to share such personal stories with connections. This is one of the reasons why people use external consultants (link).
- Use your essays to address weaknesses in your application. If you have a major weakness such as a low GPA score, it is often a good idea to address it in one of your essays. This is not about making excuses! You should be honest about it and explain how you will cope with it.