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MBA Admissions Tip: Avoid the Comparison Trap

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In their desire to make their case to their target MBA programs, many applicants devote sentences and even paragraphs to explaining why the school in question is their “first choice” and arguing its superiority over other schools.

Though certainly understandable, this is actually not a very productive exercise. Let’s consider a few reasons why from the schools’ point of view:

Tell me something I don’t know.

A popular strategy – and not always bad one – for applicants seeking to demonstrate their fit with one school above any other is to study its website to understand the program’s self-determined selling points, and then profess an interest in those. The thing that essay writers don’t always consider is that while a school’s distinguishing characteristics might be the factors that set it apart from others, this is not necessarily what the admissions committee wants to read about in an applicant’s essays. The very admissions officer reading your file spends months every year pushing this marketing message out to prospective students. Members of Harvard’s and Darden’s admissions staff know all about the merits of the case method, Kellogg and Duke’s admissions committees are already up to their ears in team orientation, and Stanford and Yale could not be more aware of the benefits of a small class size. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t touch briefly on these key points (the schools highlight these for a reason), only to suggest that to put together a really compelling application, it’s important to push beyond high-level differentiators and immediate association and demonstrate that you’ve learned about the program on a deeper level. In making room for this level of detail within a restrictive word limit, cutting other schools out of the picture is a great starting point.

Enough about us, let’s talk about you.

It’s not uncommon for applicants to become so engrossed in explaining how their target program differs from other business schools that they neglect to really articulate how their own interests, personality and preferences fit into the picture. Very nearly every school requires that prospective students compose an essay explaining how the MBA program will help them accomplish their goals, but there’s not a single one that adds “better than any other MBA program.” Though several schools do explicitly inquire about other target programs if an applicant advances to an interview, or even in the data forms, in the essays the adcom is much more interested in hearing about the candidate and his or her fit with the school. It’s a bit premature to assure a school that it’s your number one pick when the adcom hasn’t even decided whether they’re interested. It’s better to use all the space at your disposal in the essays to cover your experiences and accomplishments, share your aspirations and showcase your research on the MBA program.

I bet you say that to everyone you meet.

Seriously, though, if an applicant goes out of his way to profess that Chicago Booth is the best school for him, is his first choice, etc., Booth really has no assurance that this applicant hasn’t written an equally passionate love letter to regional rival Kellogg. If a strategy seems likely to work in one place, might as well use it everyplace, right? Yes, it’s generally true that schools prefer to admit students who are excited about their program and seem likely to attend, but actions speak louder than words. The details of campus visits and conversations with students and alumni are far better topics to cover in your essays. To invoke a classic essay-writing maxim, “show, don’t tell” the adcom that you care. Further, the best way to convince the adcom that you “only have eyes for their school” is to not mention any other school at all.

We hope that this offers a number of helpful “do’s to offset this big essay “don’t.” It is very important to get an in-depth understanding of your target MBA programs and engage members of the community. Taking the time to learn about the school’s curriculum, special programs and extracurricular activities – whether through a visit to campus or conversations with members of the community – will pay dividends here. Happy applying!

MBA Admissions Academy

Episode 12: Essays I: The Basics

Lauren Wakal
Lauren Wakal has been covering the MBA admissions space for more than a decade, from in-depth business school profiles to weekly breaking news and more.