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Fridays from the Frontline: Stop Wasting Your Time on Essays


The following is a guest post from Scott Duncan that was originally published on his blog. Scott is a medical device engineer who is going to Harvard Business School in the fall to transition from designing medical devices to leading medical device companies. You can follow his journey to a HBS acceptance on his blog


I’m still trying to figure out all of the things I did differently this year that earned me a spot at HBS. Since I had practice writing essays from my previous attempt at applying, and I had really worked hard at defining my core reasons for applying – writing went a lot easier this year.

There was no more staring out the window watching cars go by instead of writing…

There was no more feeling guilty on a Saturday night after setting the whole day aside for essays…and getting nothing done.

Instead, I wrote crisp and clear essays that said what I wanted them to say in just a few hours – no pain, no agonizing over perfection, and no wasted time.

But looking back, I realized I used a process for writing my essays. Last year, I wrote whatever I was feeling like writing, with no plan, structure, or goal in mind. I had no idea what I was trying to communicate!

Here are the steps I took to write better essays this year.

Step 1: Ideate – Come up with a whole bunch of ideas

Yep, that’s right. You’re not defining your “career vision”, making a dream catcher or connecting with your b-school spirit animal (mine is Charlie Munger). You’re starting this process by doing work. Good job!

The idea is to come up with 50-100 ideas from EVERY aspect of your life that you can tell. Pick ones that you would tell to people you don’t know that make you sound interesting (even if you aren’t). Good ideas, bad ideas, doesn’t matter. Write them all down on a piece of paper and when you hit 50-100, move to step 2.

Step 2: Eliminate – Get rid of all of the BAD ideas

Now your creative juices should be flowing. You’ll know by now which of your stories are stand-out options for b-school essays, and narrow them down to the top ten.

Wondering why you came up with 100 ideas just to throw 90 of them away? Well, it’s a lot easier to pick 10 GREAT ideas from 100 than is is to create 10 ideas from zero.

Step 3: Refine – Tell the story with a B-School point of view

Only now do you take a look at your essays and ask yourself, “Self, what does this story say about me to an admissions committee?”

Are you covering the holy trinity of b-schools characteristics that you need to demonstrate in your applications?

  • Leadership
  • Problem Solving/Innovation
  • Teamwork

Step 4: Outline – Build the structure of your essay

Outlining essays seemed so pointless – but it’s a smaller example of what this whole writing process accomplishes: Do the work up-front to save time, frustration, and disappointment in your final product. Your outline can by design fix transitional issues in your essays before you even start writing, and gives you the high level view of what you are trying to say with your essay. The outline also helps you plan how to communicate everything you want in the usually tight word limits of b-school essays. Do it, it’s worth it.

Step 5: Write

If you followed steps 1-4, writing is now the easy part! The best piece of advice I have for anyone writing application essays is this: write a fixed number of words every single day. Now that you have a plan, this will be a lot easier.

So there you have it. I had a much easier time writing essays by starting out with a lot of ideas rather than trying to come up with the perfect idea from the start.