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Avoid “Achievement Soup”

By Avi Gordon, Excerpt from MBA Admissions Strategy: From Profile Building to Essay Writing (McGraw Hill Professional/ Open University Press, 2005, 2010)

The first thing to understand in moving to the profile-definition stage of your MBA admissions application is that you cannot and should not try to say everything important about yourself, not even all the positive things. You will just overwhelm and con- fuse your reader, and demonstrate your lack of judgment about what is central and what is peripheral. You don’t need your reader to know everything about you; you just need her to know the key things of value about you. Yes, you have loads of leadership examples, extra-curricular activities, accomplishments, etc., but you don’t want to dilute or cloud these main points with a jostling mass of competing information. Simplicity and focus are your best weapons. You want to isolate what are the most important things about you that Adcom simply must know, and build a compelling, detailed, persuasive admissions argument around this.

If you are able to extract your key points and focus on them, you will avoid one of the standard mistakes in business school applications. Applicants routinely jam their essays with every positive point they have, for fear that whichever one they omit will be some secret key that turns the lock in the gates of admission. There is no such key. Don’t go down a track that sounds like:

“After college in Madison Wisconsin I worked for CNN in Atlanta, and then for the Georgia State Legislature, while taking evening classes in economics at City College, and followed this with a year in Taiwan, before coming back to work on my school applications, which I postponed for a year because my father had bypass surgery...“

Not only does a listing of activities and accomplishments dampen the reader’s interest, but all you are really saying is that you have no idea what is important in your profile, or you can’t be bothered to extract it, focus it, and package it.

Such “essay stuffing” hurts you because it does not allow you to develop a clear portrait of yourself, or a memorable message, or to make a cogent argument for your admission, or to demonstrate any real self-understanding. It does not allow you to differentiate yourself from the next applicant—whose record will also be full of good points. So the real skill is prioritizing, and then having the stomach to let go of the rest of the also-good stuff (or relegate it to a brief mention somewhere in your resume, data sheet, or short questions).

Serve the reader
It’s helpful to think of creating the kind of experience for your reader that you would if you were having her to dinner in your home. You would consider all the possible food you could buy, and all the things you could cook, and exclude most of it. You would settle on one starter, one soup, one main course, and one dessert. Your menu might have a few common elements or spices running through it (an Indonesian theme, for example). You would then shop, chop, cook, and present the meal in three or four elegant courses. You wouldn’t take everything out of the refrigerator, empty the larder and take down from the shelves all your condiments, and put everything onto the dinner table and ask her to figure out what goes with what and how it all comes together.

It takes guts to leave out parts of your story. But to nourish your reader prop- erly you have to pick a meal plan and stick with it. You have to be ruthless in leaving out some interesting tidbits because it is your job—not the reader’s job—to select, prepare, and present a coherent informational “meal.” You must make the call as to the one best meal you can create with your available ingredients, and you must prepare it to be attractive to consume and easy to digest. Each essay in your set then becomes like a course in a fine dinner, expanding one, or at most two, of the ideas that contributes to and is thematically integrated into the whole.

Applying marketing principles
If you recognize the construction of a clear, themed, goal-oriented message tar- geted to the needs and interests of a particular audience as classic marketing—you are right. You are positioning yourself as attractively as possible in the eyes of your consumer, fitting with their needs while differentiating yourself from your competition; and finding the clearest and most compelling way to express this differentiated value.

Note that excluding extraneous data is also a basic marketing technique. When General Motors launches a car, they could tell you a hundred things about it, but they don’t. They may create a marketing message for “Car A” using the interweaving themes of safety, comfort, and style. “Car B” might be positioned as a youthful, active, performance car. “Car C” may be framed with the themes of enviro-friendliness, hybrid-based low fuel consumption, and advanced engineer- ing. In each case, marketing professionals are choosing and expressing themes to organize the transfer of a clear, swift, compelling message that will resonate with a chosen target segment. Everything else is excluded.

In the case of MBA admissions, your target segment is known and fixed. With small exceptions, admissions officers need and want to see the same things in candidates (as defined in the attributes section in Chapter 2). Knowing who they are and what they are looking for, your job is to find the parts of your profile that correlate with these requirements and preferences. You then need to construct a themed message that expresses your differentiated and superior value in these desirable areas—just like marketing anywhere. You will repeat your message in various different and subtle ways throughout your essays and interviews, and indeed throughout the whole application “campaign.”

The alternative communications metaphor, as mentioned earlier, is thinking of yourself as the politician campaigning for election: you simplify your candidacy by creating themes (causes) that interweave to become an overall message (a elec- tion platform). You research the needs of your “electorate,” devising a position closer to those needs than your competing campaigners do, and therein become electable because of differentiated and superior value. You repeat your message on every podium, at every speaking engagement, judiciously adapting it to different circumstances. When answering questions, you credibly tackle the question—but you always look for ways to insert your campaign platform message.

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