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“Just be yourself,” the admissions office says.
What does that even mean? “Just be yourself?” Which “self” do you pick? Easier said than done, right?
We’ve read a lot of advice on this issue, but the best has to be from the former Dean of Stanford GSB, Derrick Bolton:
…tell a story — and tell a story that only you can tell. Tell this essay in a straightforward and sincere way. This probably sounds strange, since these are essays for business school, but we really don’t expect to hear about your business experience in this essay (though, of course, you are free to write about whatever you would like).
As it happens, you’ll find storytelling at the heart of all sorts of pursuits– whether it’s in the boardroom, marketing products, or, in this case, marketing people. When done well, it’s invisible, seamless, and elicits an emotional reaction from your audience on an almost subconscious level.
The connection between neuroscience and storytelling is already well documented. Great narratives turn on and engage parts of our brain that would otherwise be left untouched.
And believe it or not, you can use the exact same techniques that Hollywood’s best screenwriters use to cast spells on their audiences.
Like a Hollywood screenwriter, when you tell the right stories in the right way, you can create a captive audience that feels, behaves, reacts and acts in exactly the way you’d like them to.
Your story aligns each of the different aspects of your application, from your short-answer questions to the things you’ll say in your interview. But telling your story and making it resonate doesn’t stop at your essays. Although you can’t personalize your GMAT score, you’re in complete control of how you present your last job on your CV, for example. Were you a spreadsheet superhero? Or a managerial maestro? How about your origin story that helped inspire the big, bold and disruptive idea for your post-MBA startup goal?
Surprise & suspense: the Don’ts & Dos
In a perfect world, your applications and personal statements would get as much time, care and attention from adcom readers as you’ve spent crafting them. However, this is rarely the case.
Top MBA programs are flooded with thousands of applicants each admissions cycle, and if you’ve committed the cardinal sin of boring, confusing or alienating a reader, your application runs the risk of getting tossed aside. That’s why you immediately want to pull the reader into your story.
You can do this by utilizing the sibling techniques of surprise and suspense. These techniques can be game-changers when used effectively, but they can just as easily torpedo your application if you don’t know what you’re doing, so we’re going to cover the right and the wrong ways to use them.
Surprise can take the form of throwing the reader a curveball right at the start – something totally unpredictable about you that gets them curious and holds their attention. Yet, the surprise should not just take the form of shock value or be a single isolated episode that has no connection to your overall essay. The surprise should help illustrate a larger theme, or be used as a springboard to explore the rest of your story.
Don’t: Overdo it
The wrong way to use surprise is by sharing too much information - the dreaded TMI. Business school essays often encourage a blend of both personal and professional stories, and many applicants get way too personal and alienate readers.
For example, let’s say your parents’ messy divorce was a pivotal moment in your youth. You might think of surprising the reader with a bold and visceral moment to illustrate this, like a plate being thrown against the wall and shattering, or agonized screaming.
Yes, this could be used in a surprising way - but it’s also uncomfortable. Once you’ve made a reader feel uncomfortable, you’ve practically lost them. Deciding what to share and what not to share can be a delicate tightrope to walk. Our goal, however, is to attract the reader, not repel them.
Do: Contrast your scenes & themes
As for the right way to use surprise, let’s say you played on your high school or college football team, and in preparation for each game, you’d arrive early and sit alone in the locker room knitting. Yes, knitting. Scarves, sweaters, and mittens.
You can see how these two clashing elements of football and knitting are completely surprising and instantly lure the reader in. Who is this person?
You immediately want to know.
However, these two seemingly clashing elements also illustrate the applicant’s appreciation for a strong competitive work ethic combined with a focus on detail, nuance and artistry.
Everyone has clashing and contrasting elements like these in their background. And by pairing them in a surprising way, you pop off the page, appear more human, and most importantly, become an interesting applicant that adcoms really wants to meet.
So, the trick is to use the technique of surprise to first pull the reader in, and then use it to explore your passions, experiences, personal ethos, or professional goals.
Suspense is sharing a story that creates a sense of mystery, and as the words suggests, leaves the reader suspended with anticipation and curiosity.
The effective use of suspense hinges on two things: the amount of information you share and the timing of when you stop and suspend the story. Ideally, you leave the reader hanging, yearning for more information or a resolution, and then return to pick up the hanging story later in the essay.
Don’t: use trivial examples
The wrong way to use suspense would be to try to hook the reader in with a story about a super competitive internship, job offer, or promotion that was so incredibly important to you - you were waiting on the edge of your seat to hear back if you got it.
Your goal is to keep the reader in suspense, dangling this question over them before making the big reveal, but here’s the reality of stories like this: nobody cares. While this may have been a pivotal moment for you - it’s inconsequential for anybody else. Not only that, but it could raise a red flag that you have no real perspective on what actually matters in life beyond your own professional advancement.
Just about all MBA applicants have stories like this in their past, so you’re not differentiating yourself or getting anyone curious about you by telling them a story they’ve heard thousands of times before.
Do: put the reader in your shoes (or slippers)
As for the right way to use suspense, let’s say you’ve been obsessed with becoming a ballerina since childhood. From studying endless amounts of footage of the most famous prima ballerinas, to practicing hours everyday without fail, to gradually working your way up to an audition with one of the top ballet companies in the country. You’re a shoo-in. You know it. The reader knows it.
You’ve hit every last move of your audition and when you finish with your final multiple fouetté on pointe, your ankle twists and you crash to the floor. Everyone in the room gasps.
STOP. What happens next? Don’t tell us about the immediate aftermath. At least, not yet. Yes, it’s a rather dramatic example, but it perfectly illustrates the build-up of active story details, paints a vivid picture of the decisive event, and then: it just STOPS.
Flip 180-degrees and take us somewhere else. College, your family, or the inner-city ballet academy you taught at years after the event. Give it some time and then pick up where you left the reader suspended. Finish the story and use it as a springboard to discuss how this moment played a decisive role in influencing your perspective and experiences onward.
Using a moment so suspenseful and inciting allows you to explore the corresponding lesson or theme through a number of other progressive stories and experiences, letting you show-off a diverse set of traits & experiences. And, most importantly, creating that suspense at the very beginning hooks the reader in and makes them truly curious about you.