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Switching Distance: An Interesting MBA Essay Narrative Style

Switching Point of Views MBA EssaysWhen we started reviewing MBA Application Essays for 2014-15, we saw a pattern - the distance from the point of action was close in almost all essays. The narration was from the first person's point of view, but rarely have we seen the applicant distancing herself, and including a third person's perspective, except while citing facts, narrating an individual, an influential event or passing on information that pushes the narrative forward. Roughly, 20% of an essay is narrated from a third person's point of view. While rewriting, we asked the applicant to think about ways to include context, before narrating action. What we received in most cases is observation that did not contribute much to the essays, but just increased the word count.

Switching Distance - A better Approach

The first rewrite involved writing from the first person's point of view in the first line, and then immediately distancing the applicant from the narrative, and including a context that would contribute towards what the applicant did next.

For example, “What event changed your life?” was a question common in one of the top MBA programs.

The applicant was the oldest of five siblings. She was from a relatively modest family background and as her culture expects she had to take care of the siblings - the ones who were completing their undergraduate courses.

The honest raw emotion was captured beautifully in the opening lines of the essay without any filter, and if I were a reviewer, the statements would simultaneously evoke helplessness, and sheer ability to take responsibility in one sentence. Most MBA Application Essays are filled with hyperbole about small achievements, the applicant often taking credit of key team members. We had to warn an applicant that his chances of impressing the reviewer are low if he keeps hogging the credit on every other line. He replied, "I was the smartest of them. I made sure that the team performed.” We tried to put some sense into the self-obsessed applicant, but it did not work.

She was not portraying herself as a superhero, but was honestly capturing what is rare in most essays - "There was no grand vision, but her accidental first-born position in the family was responsible for her natural ability to take the lead." Most application essays starts how the event unfolded, or goes directly into the summary of the event. Although we prefer the first approach where the reviewer is directly taken to the event, there is a charm in starting the essay with a universal truth narrated from the first person's point of view - an experience that is too personal that you can't deny the veracity of the statement. If I analyzed the statement as a critical thinker, I can argue that it is not always true that the first-born are natural leaders. The gap in the age between the first and the second child dictates more or less on how the dynamics of the sibling relationship would be in the future and how each of them lead in life, but the applicant successfully switched off the reviewer's critical thinking when she started the narration with an “I.” Following the universal truth, she went on to offer context about the event from a third party's point of view including facts, interesting characters, the restrictions, and the goal that they have to achieve.

The life altering event was a surprise in the narrative that pushed her to bring all her game to one moment - an exhilarating narrative made irresistible with the constant switch between the "I,” and "They/Her/His".

Before Switching the Points of views, let us look at an example:

“The Olympic opening ceremony decided the future viability of Olympic games in our country. I was selected the junior lead for the first 5 minutes of the segment that involved a whirling motion of flowers coordinated by over 500 school children between the ages of 13 and 15. A study by Professor Kent showed that it takes 50 sessions to master any move, and 100 sessions to make the move into muscle memory. The task was simple – I had to motivate and lead the 500 students to practice the routine 100 times, practicing the routine myself 100 times, before teaching each move to 500 students.”

1) Don't force the switch

The paragraph is a perfect example of the constant switch.

“Our” - The Olympic opening ceremony decided the future viability of Olympic games in our country

“I” - I was selected the junior lead for the first 5 minutes of the segment that involved a whirling motion of flowers coordinated by over 500 school children between the ages of 13 and 15

“A Study” - A study by Professor Kent showed that it takes 50 sessions to master any move, and 100 sessions to make the move into muscle memory

“I” - The task was simple – I had to motivate and lead the 500 students to practice the routine 100 times, practicing the routine myself 100 times, before teaching each move to the 500 students.”

2) It is better to include third person's point of views in multiple lines than the constant sound of "I"s. Avoid consecutive use of ”I"s.

The first draft looked like this:

The Olympic opening ceremony decided the future viability of Olympic Games in our country. I was selected the junior lead for the first 5 minutes of the segment that involved a whirling motion of flowers coordinated by over 500 school children between the ages of 13 and 15. The task was simple – I had to motivate and lead the 500 students to practice the routine 100 times, practicing the routine myself 100 times, before teaching each move to the 500 students.”

Apart from the opening sentence, the narration is completely from a first person’s point of view. The repeated use of “I” in two sentences might not seem distracting, but the next paragraph, brought several instances of “I” into the essays, diluting the unique experience that the applicant is trying to capture.

3) Use the Third person's point of view to offer context

“A study by Professor Kent showed that it takes 50 sessions to master any move, and 100 sessions to make the move into muscle memory” is an example how the applicant is trying to bring in third person’s point of view by citing a study to support the next statement, “I had to motivate and lead the 500 students to practice the routine 100 times, practicing the routine myself 100 times, before teaching each move to the 500 students.”

4) Switching points of view allows you to include opinions that would not be attributed to your biases.

Let us assume that you are a perfectionist who believes in the virtue of practice. That is your personal bias. All third-party points of views are rephrased version of your biases – even the way you detail an individual will have biases. To support a bias, you cited an independent study. By removing “I” from the statement, “I have learned that it takes 50 sessions to master any move, and 100 sessions to make the move into muscle memory”, to  “A study by Professor Kent showed that it takes 50 sessions to master any move, and 100 sessions to make the move into muscle memory”, you have switched the narrative from you to a fact; something that makes your narrative more believable.

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