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MBA Application Essay Editing

When clients seek my help in writing essays, the first thing I observe after evaluating their strengths and weaknesses is the jargon-filled language they use to communicate what they do.

I always start with, "I am a beginner trying to learn about your industry".

Teach me what you do.

The questions I ask are frustrating. Some might think that I am playing Kubrick, prodding the applicant to quit, but we are so immersed in our world that we forget that there is a general public that doesn't understand a word we say.

You might argue that an MBA Admissions team is not the general public. I agree, but simplicity in language has higher recall and potential for persuasion.

Without recall and ability to touch the eight markers of persuasive writing, it is tough to differentiate from the military applicant or the hedge-fund guy who built homes in Haiti.

Stop using one-liners like these:

"Sold highly-leveraged financial products."
"Developed the messaging architecture for a Global Fashion Giant."
"Designed and developed a communication solution for one of the Fortune 500 companies"

The unlearning is tough.

One way to...

Searching for a job function that you enjoy and get paid well requires a lot of trial and error. I started F1GMAT with the goal of helping applicants with GMAT preparation. Hence the name. Soon, I realized that although I am a good teacher, I didn’t enjoy the process.

What I really liked was writing. Teaching through Writing was appealing to me as I could have an impact on thousands of MBA Applicants from over 180+ countries. There is some element of ‘God Complex’ there. If you are planning to do anything worthwhile that will change people’s lives – expect to see the world through what you can do instead of what the world can do for you.

Schools don’t hesitate to ask about IMPACT. The word by definition is a little narcissistic. But would schools accept you if you cite an increase in salary by 120%, and 'Buying a Yacht' as motivations?

How customizing curriculum gives value in MBA

Professionals who are delusional write long-term goals with ‘IMPACT.' You work in a Fortune 500 company and with a few Global Experiential learning trips with an MBA; you are going to acquire the skills to change the world?

The truth is you just might.

How you customize the curriculum and what you believe is the only thing that matters when you are solving a complex problem. Don’t use your...

I have a deadline before 8 pm.

I have to guide over 10,000 readers on how to write freely.

Would I be able to transfer at least one valuable advice to my readers?

Am I wasting my reader's time?

Would I be just another MBA Admissions Consultant polluting the inbox with clichéd advice?

********* End of Worry Audit *************************

See - these are my thoughts and worries when I began writing the post.

An extreme technique to avoid procrastination and write freely is to do a 'worry audit' and write it down before your draft essay.

The emotional outburst is in the paper.

Now, what is the excuse?

Keep adding the worries above the 'End of Worry Audit' space if you can't address the question in the essay.

Don't stare at a blank screen.

Stare at the worry Audit.

Keep adding questions until you have nothing to worry.

MBA Application Essay Question: What is your greatest weakness?

The applicant began the story of how his father would require the brothers to fill the to-do list - right to a 30-minute interval, every night before sleep. He didn't address the essay on weakness. The story seemed interesting and was the anchor for evaluating his personality....

The opening line for Franklin D Roosevelt's Dec 1941 speech that led the United States to World War II, didn’t start in the form that we know now.

Roosevelt began his draft in a formal written format, "Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 - a date which will live in world history, the United States of America was simultaneously and deliberately attacked by Naval and Air forces of the Empire of Japan without warning."

First drafts of essays are littered with phrases that look good on paper but don’t capture emotions to get attention or motivate the admission team to act.

The fear that most applicants have is that the opener will be clichéd or too fancy or wouldn’t get the attention of the admission team.

The fear is so strong that they stop writing or creating variations.

I encourage my clients to exaggerate the opening -  in expression or the use of ‘fancy words’ or adjectives. Facing the fear of exaggeration by writing the exaggerated version of the openers helps them understand the worst versions they can create.

So how can we go crazy and exaggerate Roosevelt’s speech?

"Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 - a date which will live in world history <forever in history>, the United...

Storytelling is an outline of your relationship with time, world, future, and yourself. The inner conflict between your ego and the challenge put forward by the outside world is similar to the turmoil that the reviewers go through on a daily basis while reviewing your essays or pondering over their future.

Two things are common in master storytelling: interesting characters and believable life events.

Interesting Characters

Since the story is about your life journey, the essay should demonstrate why you are interesting.

Here is how you do it:

1. Differentiate Just Enough

The background information that you capture should strip out the clichés and break away from the expectation of your profile. But don’t veer too far away from what reviewers expect from an applicant from your nationality and profession.

Take the example of the cult-classic track “Hey Ya!.” The 2003 song was unlike what early 2000s pop/hip hop/rap or rock songs were. Radio stations hesitated to play the song. The André 3000 song was tough to categorize in a Genre or even interpret. But once an obscure Radio jockey gave the green signal, the song caught on and remained in Billboard Top 100 for 32 weeks.

You might not be as lucky as Outkast.

Processing fluency -- the ease with which...

Writing is not your full-time gig. It is mine. I create books, blogs, analysis, articles, newsletters, sales pitch, advertising, and rants to my wife and close friends through email in what I call, “Atul’s Weekly rants.”

You are multitasking through projects, worrying about choosing the wrong school, keeping a low profile on your MBA plan, managing the politics in your team, coordinating with recommenders, preparing for the GMAT, collecting your transcripts, developing a plan to address your profile weakness, arranging funds and writing and rewriting essays.

I know – it is tough for, you.

You can’t suddenly develop the skills to create engaging prose, but there were even greater multitaskers – Doctors, Engineers, Politicians, Administrators, and Scientists, who went on to create some of the best collection of letters, books, and journals.

All you have to do – is write freely.

I had clients, who in their first draft didn’t convey their grasp of writing ‘hooks’ and ‘page-turners.' At best, their version was average.

A little nudge and guidance on ‘storytelling’ tips can do wonders for the applicant’s writing style.

Clients who went on to create memorable 2nd drafts absorbed everything I said. There is a point in the Essay Review and Consulting service where I and...

1 to 2 weeks before the deadline is a nervous time for most applicants. Rightly so. You have crossed numerous hurdles, most notably GMAT & Shortlisting the right MBA program, before starting your essays.

If you have gone through the methodology we have suggested, you might have ruthlessly listed your weaknesses. With strategic storytelling, your story will justify the weaknesses, not hide it beneath Jargons or excuses.

All the hard work on the narrative can be undone with last minute edits. I am not talking about edits on sentence structure but changes in story and motivations. Even unnecessary edits on the carefully chosen phrase can affect the flow of the narrative and eventually the cumulative impact.

In our review service, we go back and forth with the clients to uncover their weakness and then use the most relevant weakness for each school. There are no universal weaknesses that are...

After editing and reviewing over 300 Essays, I noticed a pattern for Winning MBA Essay. I wouldn't recommend that you force yourself to include the 7 Characters for all your essays, but while editing, review for the narrative structure and presences of:

1) Protagonist

Amateur writing doesn't establish the protagonist early on. In Essays, the word count is in the 250-500 range. Starting with you, and then building context necessary for the essay is the first step in your essay unless the question is about failure, setback or weaknesses. In such scenarios, context and narrative for the event should be the starting point.

Remember that your resume is the reference material for the admission team. Editing the resume to include the most prominent and relevant achievements in your life is as important as editing your essay. The resume should include achievements that demonstrate your leadership skills, communication, and expertise as an individual contributor - in that order. If you need help, choose our...

Two assumptions stand in the way of rewriting an essay. One - storytelling is a mash up of flowery phrases. Two - complex sentences and narratives with jargons are required to prove your expertise.

When you combine flowery phrases with jargon-filled complex sentences, the results can be an eyesore for a reviewer.

First Step - Simplify

While recruiting writers for F1GMAT, I ask candidates (Technologists, Consultants, Finance Professionals, Journalists, and Marketing majors) to write an article on a random subject. Specialization limits a candidate's breadth of reading and inevitably, the quality of the writing, but interestingly candidates with Journalism had the worst writing skills.

Engineers and Finance professionals rose above the initial hiccup and understood the requirement. Their first draft was mediocre and in some cases worse than the journalist, but their attitude towards learning a new skill made them easy to work with. Marketing majors were the best at writing. Memorable opening came naturally to them, but they dipped in the middle where the meat of the subject was addressed. For technologists/finance professionals, the opening and the conclusion were poor, but they dug deep into the subject at the middle. I know it is an oversimplification to categorize writing skills by profession, but the trend continued with my clients as well....

The first draft of the essay should be a free flow of your inner thoughts, beliefs, and narrative excesses (blog-like). The real work starts at the Second draft.  One common mistake that I have seen applicants make is taking the shortcut and directly writing with a tone that is similar to a second draft. They all sound the same with no uniquely identifiable attributes.

I hope you are ready with the first draft of essays with words that are double or triple the recommended limit. It doesn’t matter. The idea is to write freely and capture unique phrases that a consultant or a typical applicant might not use. If you are still not ready with the First Draft, subscribe to our Essay Review Service. We will help you shortlist the most impactful stories from your career and personal life. After that, we will guide you with narrative tips on making your essay engaging and unique.

Second Draft

The real work starts in the second draft where you have to structure the essay into:

1) A memorable opening
2) An interesting opening paragraph
3) An engaging middle
4) A concluding paragraph
5) A conclusion that captures the essence of the answer...

After a 3-minute monologue, I invited the dog to a boxing match. Hamish wagged his fake tail and barked onto the stage. My boxing gloves were filled with flour. The punches connected and covered the stage with a smog-like aftermath. I heard a clap or two from the audience. My elder brother was in the crowd and later told me that the mic was off, I talked too fast, and no one could understand the plot. Brothers are brutally honest. Being a shy kid, I didn't emote for the audience. Hamish, my friend and the dog in the rabbit vs. dog fable, would have been a better fit for the role, but my English Teacher thought it was time for me take the stage.

Any form of public performance needs courage, concentration and the resilience to accept failure. I didn't take corrective actions. I quit. I never acted again, not in a lead role.

I saw the Harvard MBA Admissions Director asking applicants to be genuine and the INSEAD MBA Managing Director recommending not to polish the Essay too much; hints that the edited version of the essays tends to be devoid of any personality or genuineness.

Polished vs. Genuine Essay

If I share my first attempt at acting and the subsequent realization that I was not good at it, would my narrative sound genuine?


So what is the polished version of the narrative?

As you might have experienced by now, switching styles is not easy in MBA Application Essays. We tend to overdo the blog part with self-references, slangs, or try our hand at humor. Essays have no place for any. But with recent edits in our review service, one part that has helped my clients is the Art of Pillaring. I have included a chapter on it in Winning MBA Essay Guide. The idea is to break the expected series of events. Do parallel storytelling or jumble the sequence to such a degree that you find the perfect balance in narrative and a standard essay.

Example: Project Manager Assigns a task --> I find the task challenging --> Spot talent --> Assembles a team --> Communicates the Goal --> Setbacks --> Eventually a Winning Team

Anyone who is reading a narrative about team building is expecting this sequence. Don't go crazy and do a Nolan, starting with the end or go deep into a sequence that is tough to interpret. Processing fluency impacts the first impression. The tougher it is to read your sentence or interpret the event, the harder it is to influence the admission team. The attention allocated for each candidate is limited (10 minutes). So don't force the reviewer to abandon your essay. Instead, start with an acknowledgment of your weakness.

I have found this to be the most difficult part of my job as an Editor and a Reviewer -...

Not everybody needs an outline to write the essay. If you have a blog or your professional work requires regular written communication, writing might have become second nature to you, but even the seasoned professional need a crutch to navigate essays where the subject is not a client or a news release or a newsletter, but themselves.

Use outline if you have:

1. Low Motivation to Write: Allocate a schedule where you can write 200 words per day, but the reality is that after a long working day, the writing sessions might not go as planned. Outlining is a great disciplining tool. You will meet the daily quota even if the first draft is not the version that you would eventually upload.

2. Too Many Ideas: Sometimes the dilemma is not a lack of inspiration, but too many narratives trying hard to translate into words. An over-caffeinated mind can give the impression that you are raring to go, but an outline tames the unbound energy and forces you to work on the core of the essay question.

3. No Opening Line: One of the most cited reasons for procrastination in essays is the lack of an opening line. Outline beats this tendency by encouraging the applicant to ignore the catchy openers for the moment and focus on other parts of the essay. Most applicants modify the opening line by the second draft. Many wait until they reach the halfway mark.


One thing that INSEAD MBA Managing Director shared in a recent interview with me was that he discourages any editing of essays that destroys the original voice of the applicants.

In his words, "with thousands of essays reviewed every year, the MBA Admission Committee can tell to the point as to which top consultant has edited the essay."

Wow! I thought.

I didn't contest his point of view as when we edit, that is the exact idea I convey to our clients - "Our editing will maintain your original voice"

Bland Narrative

But there is a genuine challenge that I see with essays written by technologists, bankers, and consultants. The phrasing is too..how you say it - bland. The uniqueness of their personality is never captured. But the moment I talk to the person on the phone, the personality always shines through.

On a few occasions, when I felt that the applicant is sticking to some pre-conceived notion of writing an essay and creating a cookie-cutter narrative, I...

From the hundreds of essays we have edited, only a few had unique phrases and expressions. Most of them were a rehash of sample essays or modified memos with no personal touch. A few that tried, changed the essay to narrative filled with dialogues. Maintaining a unique voice is tough but with these six guidelines, translating your uniqueness to words will be much easier.

1) Start Early

Applicants underestimate the time required to write, rewrite, and edit the essays. Each process requires a different mindset, skill, and quality control. Plan at least three weeks (21 days) for the entire writing process: 10 days for writing, 7 for rewriting and 4 for editing.

2) Write for Self-Expression

While writing the first draft, stop pre-judging every word that comes to the paper. Let your subconscious take control of the process. This advice might seem weird for someone working in a Quant heavy environment where brevity is rewarded over comprehensiveness, but if you self-censor your expression, the phrases are not your original thought. It is the version that you feel the admission team should hear. When you do that, the essay becomes just like hundreds of other essays in the Reviewer’s desk. It will lack any ingredients for long-term recall. Read the question. Start from an event in your life that reveals the answer....

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