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With round one MBA deadlines just around the corner, thousands of applicants again face crunch time with one of the favorite admissions essay topics, “Introduce Yourself.” Some of the top schools, like Harvard Business School, ask the question quite explicitly while some, such as Northwestern’s Kellogg School, ask the applicant to think about business school as a catalyst for professional and personal growth, reflecting on past growth and future potential for development. MIT Sloan has introduced a video question, which gives you one minute to introduce yourself, and one shot at the recording. This echoes approaches used previously by Kellogg and McCombs and is joined by NYU Stern asking for six images with captions to describe yourself to your future classmates.
As the former head of admissions at Wharton, I always wanted my team to really get to know the applicant, well beyond his or her GPA and test scores. Such a question achieves this, though not surprisingly, the seeming benign topic is usually the hardest to address. Many candidates shy away from tackling this in favor of more pragmatic questions such as “Why do you want to go to school x, and what do you want to achieve with your MBA?” They are more straightforward and don’t necessarily require the same level of introspection.
In our coaching work at Fortuna Admissions, we often begin with these questions to lay the groundwork for the next level of reflection. But as we move forward with clients we help them to see just how rewarding and enjoyable it is to step back and really think deeply about who they are, and how their values and decisions have shaped their experience.
IT’S DIFFERENT THAN INTRODUCING YOURSELF AT A PARTY
Introducing yourself to someone new at a party or professional meeting certainly requires a different approach from introducing yourself to an MBA admissions committee that has already read your resume, and has supporting documentation of letters of recommendation and your online application. Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School puts it on very friendly terms, for example, asking you to imagine being in an airport with an admissions officer and using this opportunity to make a memorable impression.
Think of these questions as the opportunity to provide color and context to the application, bringing to life the lines on your resume or adding depth to comments made from your recommenders. You can take these essays as a valuable opportunity to make a deeper connection with an admissions committee member who most likely will be reading anywhere from 25-30 such files each day during the busy application season.
Before you start writing, we firmly believe in the importance of self-reflection and understanding your own motivation for applying to business school. What strengths are you bringing with you? What are the weaknesses that you want to develop? What are the things that get you out of bed in the morning, or the things that you would do for free because you care about them so much? We recommend white boarding all of the topics and messages that you think may fit into this category so that you can see them all in one place. That way, you can then begin to see which ideas belong with which examples, and the themes that are the most important to your story will begin to emerge.
USE EXAMPLES TO BRING YOUR STORY TO LIFE
After you have been able to shake out the important thematic threads, you will want to use examples to really bring your story to life; you want to imagine that the reader is in your back pocket, so that you are sharing with them how it felt at a decisive moment in your development, or the impact of a certain individual… and give them a sense of the color and importance of these events and people. Your goal throughout this work is to pique the file reader’s interest so that they are intrigued and want to learn more about you – i.e. invite you to interview!
Be aware that a key question in the file reader’s mind as they read your application is “what will you bring to the school community?” You should be planning to address what the school gets if they admit you; by highlighting your abilities and your engagement, the goal is to demonstrate that you will give to the school as much as you get. Will it be in your classroom discussions? Your sense of humor? How you rally your teammates? How you can engage across cultures? What is it, essentially- that makes you “you” and how does that make the school a better place?
It is easy to fall into the trap of repeating the facts and figures that appear on your resume. You should seek to avoid this repetition and instead really focus on additional information that is not readily obvious to the reader. Your professional experiences are certainly important, but they are not the whole story. Caroline Diarte Edwards, my colleague and former Director of INSEAD’s MBA Admissions and Financial Aid says of the school’s long-standing ‘candid description’ essay: ”I advise candidates to focus more on their personal backstory rather than professional accomplishments; this is in the question title (it asks for “personal characteristics”) but candidates sometimes miss this and use the essay to retell their professional story. But what the school wants here is to understand who they are beyond the resume, what makes them tick, and what made them become the person they are today.”
BE THOUGHTFUL ABOUT HOW MUCH YOU PLAN TO SHARE
As previously mentioned, admissions officers are reading somewhere between 25-30 applications a day, and are seeking authenticity in their file reading. Repeating themes that you think that the school will want to read means that you are not being authentic to your true self and your own story. This is the reason that schools even have essay questions to begin with; if they wanted to admit based on GMAT, GPA and resume alone, they could certainly do that but the classes would suffer from lack of individualism and true character.
While it is also tempting to hold nothing back, you will want to be thoughtful about how much you are sharing within the context of the essay. Sometimes too many themes mean that you are covering each point at only a superficial level without any depth and reflection. Instead you need to hone in on a few topics that you feel that you can comfortably cover in the word count allotted (or in the case of HBS, no more than two pages) and go into greater depth. You will want to stand out in the admissions officer’s mind as someone who presented with depth and passion, rather than an applicant who spread him or herself too thin and tried to exhaustively (and exhaustingly!) cover their history.
So, “introducing yourself” may seem like a tall order, however it presents a strong foundation to ask yourself the important questions about the next steps in your professional growth. The prompt allows room for reflection about how you became the person you are now, and where you see yourself growing with your next exciting challenges.
Judith Silverman Hodara is the former acting admissions director of The Wharton School and a director at Fortuna Admissions, a leading MBA admissions consulting firm