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Common mistakes to avoid in MBA application essays

MBA application essays - Common mistakes to avoid

When writing an MBA essay, you want to convince the admission committee that you are an ideal match for their business school. The last thing you want when writing an MBA essay is to leave evaluators wondering about your intended message.

If your writing isn’t self-explanatory and you leave the interpretation to the admissions committee, it can work against you. Therefore, it is incumbent on you to make it your overarching principle to scrutinize your writing from the perspective of the reader.

You want them to get the facts, rather than guessing what you’re trying to convey. Take a look at some of the most common mistakes MBA applicants make when they put together their essays. Treat them as pitfalls you want to avoid at all costs.

10 common MBA essay mistakes business school applicants should avoid


1. Lack of clarity

First things first. You ought to be able to express your thoughts clearly. As John Searle, a celebrated American philosopher, once put it, “If you can’t say it clearly, you don’t understand it yourself.”

Confusing sentences, incoherent paragraphs, non-sequiturs, redundancies, and poor causal linkages are all going to do harm to your efforts. Not only does the lack of clarity puzzle admission officers, but it also decreases your chances of success.

Follow best practices in structuring your essay by having a compelling introduction, a rigorous main body, and a punchy conclusion. The use of flowery language does not aid your cause either. While you try to make the impression of a well-educated erudite, you should not do this at the expense of comprehensibility.

2. Lack of focus

This resonates with the above point about clarity. But the lack of focus is not only about the lack of clarity. You can write a perfectly clear essay that fails to explain what makes you an ideal candidate. Hence, this is more about substance and the way in which you link different parts of your essay to create a sense of coherence.

There are three essential components that need to be addressed. First, you need to put your application essay in the context of your aspirations and career goals. Second, you should explain how your goals fit the priorities and values of the business school and the ways in which the MBA program helps you attain them. Third, you have to point out what makes you unique!

The last part is perhaps the most important pitch you make to tilt the balance in your favor. Make sure you illustrate your points with specific examples. But avoid the mistake made by numerous applicants who focus on their college experience instead of their work experience.

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3. Failure to address specific questions

No matter how well-structured and compelling your essay is, if you fail to understand the essay prompt or do not answer every aspect of the question asked, your application will be considered a non-starter.

Your answers need to be specific. Use the word count judiciously limiting unrelated discussions or long explanations giving context or background.

Do not copy-paste the same essay for each school. Though there can be some overlap in the essay questions across schools, you need to craft your essays according to the question asked.

You are doomed to fail if you simply ignore the questions or go astray with your responses.

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4. Writing what you think the school would love to hear

If you’re authentic, it would show in your application and that’s what the admissions committee is looking for. Do not fabricate stories just for the sake of showing that you’re the right fit with the school.

The school is interested in knowing the real you. It’s only when you’re genuine, you’d be able to go in-depth and create an interesting essay.

Instead of trying to prove you’re the ideal candidate they’re looking for, use your application effectively so that the admissions committee can gain valuable insights into your personality and your aspirations.

5. Word limit

This looks like a no-brainer, but more applicants are guilty of exceeding the required word count than you might think. It seems this is a likely blunder one can commit on the spur of the moment, especially if the fast-approaching submission deadline hangs over you like the sword of Damocles.

Remember that admission committees have the tough job of managing thousands of applications each year. So, it’s important to respect the word count. By starting early on the MBA application essays, you’d have sufficient wiggle room for multiple edit rounds.

Trying to stick to the word count as far as possible though a ±5% margin would still be acceptable.

Again, let your essays not fall short of the word count below the limit of 5%. This would create an impression that you do not have much to convey about your achievements and past experience. It would also indicate lack of effort on your part.

6. Not acknowledging past mistakes

While you want to showcase your strengths, skills, and aspirations, it is myopic to present yourself as an infallible saint. You cannot fool admission committees into thinking that you simply never fail.

Instead, you should focus on your ability to learn from mistakes and your willingness and capacity to adapt to a fast-changing environment. With change being the only constant in our volatile world, resilience and learning-based development beat any shot at perfectionism.

7. Jargon, colloquialisms, and abbreviations

Jargon obscures meaning. Think twice before using unconventional words and expressions that are specific to a particular industry or profession.

It is always a bad idea to use slang or colloquialisms in academic writing unless it is clear you use them deliberately to explain a point.

Abbreviations are fine to use, although too many abbreviations impart a sense of carelessness on the part of the author. Always spell out the abbreviations the first time you use them in the essay.

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8. Wrong style

Make sure you use the right style guide for your essay. If nothing else, it may seem ignorant to stick to American English if you are applying to a business school in the United Kingdom.

There are a host of differences in terms of formatting, referencing, punctuation, capitalization, and many other factors you need to be aware of. Be sure to verify the preferred style guide of the business school you are applying to.

9. Plagiarism and cheating

Needless to say, plagiarism does not fly with any academic institution. Always go for original content even if you feel you are falling short of the expected high standards. And copying a ChatGPT generated MBA essay is plagiarism. Find out how to use to the tool ethically, here.

It is tempting to copy templates or spin others’ content to improve the quality of your essay, but, more often than not, these efforts throw you into the mire, tarnishing your reputation irreversibly.

Admission committees are adept at detecting plagiarism and fake claims, and they have the right tools to do it.

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10. Error-strewn essay

Last but not least, you can simply kill your essay by failing to get rid of typos, spelling and grammatical mistakes, redundancies, or factual errors. There are numerous online tools to help you with editing and proofreading your essay, but it is best practice to have a go at it yourself.

Edit and proofread your essays multiple times. Ideally, ask a friend or family member or your mentor to review it with a fresh pair of eyes.

If you can afford it, hire a good, capable admissions consultant (from an established team like MBA Crystal Ball!) who has the experience of spotting errors and helping you stay a step ahead of the competition.

Even when you feel confident it’s done and dusted, give it the once-over to put the finishing touches.


Tips from a top MBA admissions officer

We got in touch with Shelly Heinrich, associate dean of MBA Admissions at Georgetown McDonough, to get official perspectives on the topic.

MCB: Do you expect AI tools such as ChatGPT to pose new challenges in the admissions process? How do you plan to tackle them?

MBA essay mistakesShelly: This is certainly something we are considering. However, a good application and profile is one in which students take personal and professional stories and examples and explain them in detail.

It has never been the case that general language, like that produced by ChatGPT, without personal examples produces strong essays. In the case that ChatGPT creates stereotypical examples, applicants should know that we may ask students to further describe anything in the application in the interview.

One of the unique things that we do in our process are video essays where students answer a question in front of the camera for one minute. Through this video essay, the interview, recommendations, and the rest of the application, we will look for consistency in the answers provided.

MCB: On that last point, what are the mistakes unique to video essays (as opposed to regular MBA essays) that applicants should avoid?

Shelly: In the video essay, it’s important that people are speaking to the camera for one minute, with very little distractions and video editing. We want to learn more about the applicant as a person, and videos are a great opportunity to capture this information in an authentic, conversational manner.

What we don’t like to see is video b-roll and still photos cut in and out with no focus on the applicant. The background should be clean and professional and the applicant should remember that they’re applying to business school and not a graduate degree in entertainment.

MCB: What should applicants avoid mentioning in the optional essays?

Shelly: They should avoid writing another essay. The optional essay is only meant to explain gaps or weaknesses in the application. When we see another essay, we assume you copied and pasted something from another school’s application.

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If you’re looking for a good MBA admissions consultant in India, send us an email: info [at] mbacrystalball [dot] com

References: 1, 2, 3 | Image credit: Ospan Ali (Unsplash)

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