If you've taken the time to subject yourself to the intense brainstorming and self-reflection described above, you should have several pages of potential topics. But not all of these are going to be winners. To help you narrow down your list, you need to see how each potential topic or idea will contribute to the overall message of your essay and application.
Through your application—and especially in your essays—you are creating a picture of yourself for the admission officers. Generally, you want to convey to the business schools that you are prepared for the academic rigors, that you have a plan for using your education and that you will be a leader who contributes to the class and the business community at large. For each experience or idea that you have listed, think about the greater message it conveys. Struggling with a learning disability as a child may be an early example of the tenacity that you now show at work. Being able to work in a foreign country and deal with business practices that are different from your own may reveal how adaptable you can be.
You will discover that some ideas don't have a strong message or that they convey something that you don't necessarily want to share with an admissions officer. Now is the time to cross out these ideas. Keep only those that will help you make your point. This means you may have to axe a great, funny story that just doesn't contribute to your overall message. Do it. Nothing ruins an essay faster than reading a paragraph that—no matter how interesting—contributes no substance to the rest of the essay.
There's a reason that there is a thriving industry built around therapy. It actually helps to talk things through. This is especially true for essay writing. If you are stuck on a topic, not sure if it's a good one or just want to make sure you've thought of everything, talk it out with a friend, family member or colleague. Ask these people if it sounds like an interesting topic and if it conveys an important part of your background or personality. You will be surprised by how much discussing your ideas with someone—even before you've written a single word—can help shape your essay.
One of the most important traits of a good essay is that—like a snowflake—it is one of a kind. You don't want to write an essay that someone else could also write. This is hard to do since every applicant is answering the same questions. Plus, if you come from a popular business field such as consulting or investment banking, your business experience may be similar to that of hundreds of other applicants from the same profession.
The adventurous spirit that makes a person want to start his or her own business seems to pervade the lifestyles of business school applicants in general. Even when it comes to outside activities, many business school applicants share a love of such things as travel, outdoor activities like snowboarding and even a desire to push themselves through extreme sports like triathlons and rock climbing. So with all of these potential similarities, how do you write an essay that is different? It goes back to your ability to analyze your experiences and to be self-reflective about what you have learned from them. Like the classic Kurosawa movie Rashomon where various witnesses describe the same crime, each character interprets the same event differently. This is what you must do with your essay.
One of the best ways to determine if an essay is original and unique is to use the "thumb test." It's easy to do and highly effective. When you have a rough draft of your essay or even a detailed outline, read it over completely and then take your thumb and cover your name at the top. If you can imagine putting someone else's name at the top of the essay (such as a college buddy or co-worker) and the essay would still work, then you might not have an original essay. However, if only your name can be at the top because the essay is unique to you, then it passes the "thumb test" and it is original.
Gen and Kelly Tanabe
Founders of SuperCollege and authors of 13 books on college planning.
By: Gen & Kelly Tanabe
With fierce competition to get into business school, your admission essays are one of the most important factors in whether or not you are accepted. This book helps you craft essays that market your strengths to b-schools while avoiding the most common mistakes.