A few years ago, Megan Lynam Overbay, then Director of Admissions at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, revealed some of the challenges her team faced when selecting candidates at the top-tier North Carolina school. Specifically, she confessed on a Fuqua-sponsored blog that her department had been struggling to find satisfactory essay prompts, ones to showcase effectively their candidates’ uniqueness.
While grade point averages and GMAT scores provide an objective assessment of an applicant, essays are far more subjective. Overbay states explicitly that, for Duke, the essay serves as a stopgap measure, a piece that “will fill any gaps in the application, tie the application’s story together, and shed light on what truly makes the person who they are—beyond what is stated in the resume, test scores, and transcripts.” This is essay as color commentary.
But as Overbay reflects on her time as Director and considers what the Admissions Department was getting for the most part, one senses a trace of disappointment: “Despite our best intentions, it can be difficult to convey what we are seeking through our essay questions, and we sometimes receive submissions that are regurgitations of information found elsewhere in the application, overly manufactured versions of what applicants think we want to hear, or in some cases, plagiarism of content found online.”
This is an extraordinary concession for such a person to make, especially if we read between the lines a bit. The implication is that Overbay and her team were failing, failing in too many cases to get meaningful essays from their candidates. As is often the case, bad prompts generate poor (even plagiarized) writing. The admissions team learned from this ostensible failure, however. They made sweeping changes to the essay prompts, which have been incredibly popular in addition to yielding great results.
The first key insight as you start working on your essay is to start doing the heavy lifting that comes in the form of the Socratic imperative to “know thyself.” This is what the best programs, like Fuqua, are clearly asking for. This is the light they want shed on your portfolio. And it is an incredibly difficult question to answer unless you stop, tune out the world and all its distractions, and focus on your true identity. The question is, “Who are you, really?” Beyond the GPA? Beyond the GMAT? Beyond the extra-curriculars? What makes you an interesting person? In the talk of the business world, what would make someone want to share a beer with you? Almost as if to say we value these nuggets of uniqueness, these bullet points, more than felicitous prose, Duke scrapped one essay and required candidates to submit a list of 25 random things, a sort of character pastiche in order to “fill the gaps.” Candidates have eaten it up, supposedly. But you have to know yourself, in order to do this, and you have to be genuine in your reporting of your identity. Whether you are giving bullet factoids, as Duke now allows you to do, or shaping this information into a prose narrative, the common trait (what admissions departments are crying out for) is that you are presenting yourself as an authentic you, not as a you that you think other people want to see or read about.
The second key insight has to do with the manner in which you present yourself, and it will require you to take a bit of a risk. You cannot embellish your GPA or your GMAT score or your personal recommendations. They’re set in stone, unalterable. If you are applying to a top-tier school, you will undoubtedly be in the company of people who are all equally excellent. It stands to reason, then, that you will need an essay that further establishes your excellence. But, ironically, you may do this not by outlining all the incredibly excellent things you do or have done in the past. If you read the random things that Overbay and other members of her team list on the blog, you may be surprised at how seemingly mundane the items appear. Overbay has a passion for baking and talks about how this differs from cooking. One of her team members has asthma. Another knows how to juggle. Not every person who applies to top schools has to have started his/her own business as a middle school student, to have worked as a medical missionary in Africa, or to have sold three non-profits. Remember: if you needed to be a fully polished product in order to gain admittance into business school, there would be little need for the education one gets there.
Perhaps it sounds like a long con once you learn that Overbay had an undergraduate degree from an Ivy League School (Cornell) when she applied to Duke and is only divulging her random things from a comfortable Director position. She wouldn’t have dared to write an essay about something as dull and ordinary as baking when she was going through the admissions process herself, you say. Maybe, maybe not. You have to go off the strength of her revelations about what one school is looking for now. That more and more schools are going out of their way to retool their essay prompts because they want more access to the terms ‘unique’ and ‘individual’ as they apply to the candidate should make you feel comfortable taking a chance. Do not succumb to the false belief that a superficially common topic such as baking or asthma must inevitably lead to simplistic or boring writing. With proper coaching and the correct narrative template, these themes, along with a host of others that candidates might otherwise deem boring, can lead to supremely highly personable and highly engaging essays.
These two insights represent a clarion call to think about your admission essay in a new way. It is possible to introduce yourself effectively using seemingly ordinary experiences, and provided you have spent time reflecting on what is that really motivates you (outside of getting into school) your writing will most likely be more genuine than if you try to focus on experiences you think will impress your readers. Don’t forget that healthy reflection is part of the writing process, and the sooner you get a handle on this essential step, the easier the words will flow.