Five Ways to Ruin an Application Essay

Looking to write an application essay that will push you to the bottom of the applicant pool? Here are some good ways to do it

Admissions officers at top business schools like to say they've seen it all when it comes to B-school application essays. Still, they sometimes come across an essay that surprises them—and not in a good way. One of these landed on the desk of Isser Gallogly, the admissions director of New York University's Stern School of Business a few years back. The applicant used the school's essay question on creativity as a platform to explain his penchant for writing and posting fake ads on Craigslist, which included an excerpt of an ad he had written for Valentine's Day.

"You start reading it, and it gets worse and worse and worse," Gallogly said, referring to the post's derogatory tone toward women and dating. "You finish it and sort of ask yourself: 'What is this person thinking who writes something like this, thinks it is funny, and also thinks it is appropriate to send to a business school?"

Mistakes like this are not the type admissions officers tend to gloss over. The two or three admissions essays required by each business school tend to be the area where most applicants struggle and where they can make damaging mistakes, admissions officers say. Just one blunder in an application can ruin an applicant's chance of getting in. "If you don't get the essays right, they can definitely offset all of your hard work," Gallogly said.

Fortunately, there are ways to avoid some of the missteps applicants make while writing their essays. Here are five of the most common ways applicants can sabotage their essays, along with some tips on avoiding them.


The applicant who included the questionable Craigslist posting in his application to NYU's Stern School is a victim of what Gallogly refers to as the "too much information" syndrome. "An essay is not a confessional and an admissions committee is not a group of therapists," Gallogly said. Carrie Marcinkevage, the MBA program admissions director at Penn State University's Smeal College of Business, has also come across this problem while reviewing applications. She said she sometimes reads essays where people put in too many details about a former relationship or family trauma. The excess of personal information in the essay frequently has little or nothing to do with what makes the applicant a good MBA candidate. "I do recall reading those and saying: 'Wow, I wouldn't put that in an essay," she said. "There is a little bit of the cringing and a little bit of the 'How could you possibly be that self-involved that you don't get this?'" She recommends applicants only share those details of their personal lives that resonate with the message they are trying to convey in their application about their potential as a business leader.


Mae Jennifer Shores, director of MBA admissions and financial aid at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, will never forget the essay from an applicant that ran 27 pages. Single-spaced. It was when she worked at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and the applicant had blatantly disregarded the school's word limit, which was 1,000 words or the equivalent of three double-spaced pages. Exacerbating matters, the applicant used five of the 27 pages to explain a decision to submit three times the suggested number of recommendation letters. "My reaction was: This is very sad because this is an incredibly accomplished individual, but I would have some concerns about this person's suitability on a team."

Another rule-bending move that irks admissions officers is when applicants decide to submit an additional essay with their application without getting permission from the school. Sometimes applicants will feel so passionately about an essay they wrote for another business school they will want to submit that essay to all of the schools they are applying to. Fight the temptation, said NYU's Gallogly. "Even if you love the essay you wrote on Socrates for another school, don't send it along as well," Gallogly said. "It won't help."


Business school applicants tend to go overboard when talking about their accomplishments, Rather than reflecting on their experiences, they will name-drop or roll off a list of their accomplishments—information that is already included in other parts of their application. When this happens, "the reader is put off and doesn't get a sense of who the applicant really is," said Boston-based admissions consultant Sanford Kreisberg. For example, a typical B-school application essay will ask applicants to talk about their leadership skills or what leadership means to them. One trap applicants fall into is rolling off a list of their accomplishments, boasting about everything from how they won an award at work to how they were the youngest person on their team to be promoted to the executive level. While it's useful to mention these accomplishments, it is up to the applicant to put this information into context. A smart move is to use the essay as a vehicle to explain what their accomplishments mean in the progress of their careers and how they have changed them as individuals, Kreisberg said.


B-school applicants who are career changers like to use the essays to explain why they want to move into a different field. In the process, applicants can make harsh judgments about their former employers and workplace. The criticism can backfire. Penn State's Marcinkevage remembers one essay where an applicant wrote about a former colleague who seemed like a poor leader and then tried to explain how to avoid that person's mistakes. "Instead of sounding like they learned from that individual, it seemed like they had inherited scar tissue," Marcinkevage said. "They were just complaining and sounded really negative and poisonous." Admissions officers said applicants should keep in mind that schools use essays to judge how applicants will interact with recruiters and work on teams. An applicant who goes overboard tearing into a former employer doesn't come across as a team player.


Applicants are eager to have their essays sound sophisticated and polished, full of lively prose and witty observations about their careers. That's fine. Yet a common trap applicants fall into is being verbose, losing sight of the main points they want to communicate. "Keep in mind, we are assessing your communication skills, not assessing your ability to write prose in the style of William Faulkner," said Anderson's Shores. She added that many applicants are prone to using business school jargon in their essay, using vague phrases such as "I'm a socially responsible businessman" or "I want to work in the technology space." If applicants don't back this up with real-life examples of what they want to do, it comes off as sounding vague and purposeless.

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