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
Here is a sample HBS application essay reviewed by our consultant Shana! To help you get the most out of it, she has added comments indicating the strongest areas of this essay for those who decide to apply to HBS. We made things easy for you: the gray boxes below contain the essay content, and all of the text in-between the boxes are Shana’s comments for the text.
It’s the first day of class at Harvard Business School. You are in Aldrich Hall meeting your “section.” This is the group of 90 classmates who will become your close companions in the first-year MBA classroom. Our signature case method participant-based learning model ensures that you will get to know each other very well. The bonds you collectively create throughout this charged experience will be lasting. Introduce yourself.
NOTE: This essay was written by one of our consultants—not an actual applicant. It’s meant as a demonstration of the kind of content we believe should go into the essay itself. This essay is copyrighted by The Art of Applying, and should not be copied. Plagiarism is when you present someone else’s work as your own. It is a serious issue; please don’t do it.
Here is the essay!
I’m thrilled to get to know each of you and hear your stories. But more than that, I’d like to publish them! As a writer at heart, I have a vision of how to market books in the rapidly changing landscape that is twenty-first century publishing.
Comments from Shana: Here, I can feel the applicant’s excitement jump off the page! I love how she is immediately showing interest in the other students. This is a good job explaining what her goal is in the very first paragraph.
My story begins in high school, where I served as editor of our school newspaper, The Green Light. Each week I had the opportunity to work side-by-side with the editor of our town’s newspaper, as he reviewed my work and offered suggestions to improve the articles written by my staff. When I got to college, not only did I join the newspaper, but I began to write fiction and poetry, and I was the only freshman admitted to an upperclassmen poetry seminar. Right after college, I moved to New York and took my first job as associate to the managing editor at Time Warner Books. My jaw dropped when I realized that the publication of a book requires so many more people than an author and an editor. I was amazed to discover the extensive team that included marketing staff, sales representatives, cover artists, publicists, and company executives.
Comments from Shana: She mentioned “story” in the first sentence in this paragraph. This is an interesting choice to extend the metaphor of writing stories/publishing throughout the essay.
I’ll never forget the day our CEO met with Madonna before he offered her a million dollar contract. Who knew that it wasn’t only the quality of the publication that determined its success, but like a tail wagging the dog, the decision of how profitable a title would be was often made in-house before the words were even written! In fact, I discovered that the marketing dollars were invested to yield the desired results. I was very curious about how the marketing and sales departments would ensure that Madonna’s book earned out the enormous author advance.
Comments from Shana: I’m glad that she going to tell us a fascinating story (the CEO meets Madonna!) that brings us into the action with her. In the beginning of the second sentence, she began with “Who knew.” When she uses this kind of unexpected sentence structure, she is really showing us her fun personality! Nice.
With the endorsement of the managing editor, I made a lateral move to work as a marketing assistant. Quickly I learned about how the marketing team plugged in metrics—such as comparable titles, an author’s following, and previous sales—in order to estimate likely revenue that would be generated by the new title. I gradually assumed responsibility for managing these estimation models for all book titles in the action-adventure genre. After a steep learning curve, my estimates routinely landed within 3 percent of actual sales, when the department average was 7 percent. People joked that I was psychic and should become a fortune teller. One day the VP of Marketing brought in a giant jar of jelly beans and announced that I was going to tell them exactly how many pieces of candy were in the jar. (I guessed 10,864 but was off by 231. I won the whole jar!)
Comments from Shana: So, I see that she wasn’t passively moved from one position to the other, but her questions and curiosity drove this move to become a marketing assistant. It’s good that she is showing us she is a person of action. In the last sentence, I can relate to her here as a human being. I can tell she has a good sense of humor along with excellent predictive skills. The writing paints her as very friendly, and relatable. That’s one thing that you want to accomplish through your essay—you want to come across as a likable person and not just deliver a list of achievements.
Two years later, I was thrilled to be offered a marketing position at Random House, but it was only six months later that Random House merged with Penguin, and in the process, there were hundreds of layoffs. There was more work for everyone, and we were scrambling to keep up with competition from new publishers like Amazon.com. In the middle of a marketing blitz for bestselling author TD Calhoun, the author’s agent informed us that Calhoun was going to go the nontraditional route and self-publish her next books; she felt she could market her own work through social media and keep a greater percentage of the process.
Comments from Shana: The admissions committee along with cohort peers are eager to hear about how you deal with adversity and make decisions in challenging situations. Here, the writer sounds like she is an innovator with a vision. When writing your essay, make sure to highlight your most valuable assets.
Employees in traditional publishing throughout New York were in despair. But as an avid user of social media, a passionate writer myself, and an experienced professional in the traditional publishing world, I was secretly excited about the possibilities. What if I could help merge the best of what the digital age offers authors with the best of what the big houses provided in order to create a new publishing format? Not only would I like to create a publishing house that is lean yet builds in marketing, sales, and editing, but I’d forgo the traditional advance for my authors and offer a commission-based model that would enable authors to keep at least forty percent of their profits. Although I have many ideas for how this new hybrid publishing model could work, I have even more questions, especially about the marketing and operations aspects. That’s why I’m so excited to be here at HBS. I hope to find answers by taking Marketing Segmentation with Professor Jones and E-commerce Productivity with Professor Allen.
Comments from Shana: This sentence is critical: “Although I have many ideas for how this new hybrid publishing model could work, I have even more questions, especially about the marketing and operations aspects.” She has to make it clear that although she has ideas for her career, there are absolutely missing pieces that can best be found at HBS. You never want the admissions committee or your peers to think you’re already a complete package and you’ve already got all the skills, knowledge, and experience you need.
Also, I’d like to start my own publishing industry club on campus. I know each of us has our own fascinating story to tell, so I hope you’ll join me as a marketer, sales rep, or business executive of our own HBS Publishing Club and turn everyone in our cohort into authors. I can’t wait to publish your titles and share your wise insights and experiences with a wide audience.
The Art of Applying team agrees that this is a great essay! One thing you may have noticed is that the essay writer didn’t include any information on her personal background or what family life was like growing up. This was a choice this particular author made, but it doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t include information on your personal background. It just depends how you want to tell your story. We hope that this sample essay guides and inspires you as you work on your HBS introduction essay.
If want us to help you tell your own story, reach out and contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Feel free to leave questions or comments below. Share this article with your friends if it helped you!