One of the biggest traps that most MBA applicants fall into while telling their story is using language that attempts to prove that they’re serious MBA-level candidates. And, too often, they try really hard. We’re talking smart-sounding, wordy, fancy, jargon-filled language and phrasing that screams, “Look at me! I’m MBA-quality material! I’m serious!”
Whatever these applicants are trying to achieve, it usually works against them. Instead of professional, articulate, and commanding, this sort of writing often just comes across as desperate, over-the-top, and lacking in self-awareness. It reads coldly, making the writer sound like some sort of off-kilter robot in the uncanny valley, rather than a warm person adcoms might actually like to get to know.
To combat this, over the last few years top schools like Harvard and Columbia have gone as far as asking applicants to speak directly to their section mates.
While these essay prompts are, in some cases, quite different than the class business school application essay questions, your end goal as the applicant remains the same: make them like you. Likeability matters a lot when it comes to getting that elusive invite to interview. So how do you get adcoms to like you?
Use your own voice - your real voice.
Ah, but how do I use my own voice, you ask? Simple. Rather than attacking your keyboard and typing out a sentence, try saying it out loud in your natural voice first -- then type it out. If this seems unnatural to you after years of writing term papers, where the long unwieldy sentences of formal academic language are the norm,, you’re not alone.
But let’s face it: academic writing is as much fun to read as they are to write, so why subject MBA adcoms to that? You’re not trying to impress a professor here, you’re trying to connect with a complete stranger who holds your business school fate in their hands. And the most powerful way to connect with them is through your real voice.
First: read out-loud in your robot voice
Let’s take a look at the following two examples to better illustrate the difference between your robot voice and your real voice. Read each of these two examples out loud and pay attention to which sounds more natural in your spoken voice and which requires you to move your mouth more often in uncomfortable ways:
Example 1: After working in Kenya, I saw the manifest opportunities for all the people in similarly developing countries with nascent economies.
Example 2: After working in Kenya, I focused on creating more economic opportunities for people in developing countries.
Example 1 is just a hodgepodge of big fancy words strung together that don’t immediately make sense. Did you notice how it took more work for your mouth to say the words? You could never imagine a person actually speaking this way. Moreover, if the writer did speak this way, you probably wouldn’t want to meet them.
Example 2 is what we’re aiming for here. Did you notice how the words were cleaner, simpler, and actually felt more natural for you to speak out loud? Even more importantly, if you tested both sentences on someone else, they’d surely find Example 1 confusing, while immediately understanding Example 2.
Although there’s nothing flashy about this transition sentence, we can still sense the passion behind the writer’s words and we can see an actual person in front of us, instead of some weird automaton.
Next: discover your real voice by reading interviews
The easiest way to discover your real voice is to first pay attention to other people’s voices. Try reading as many interviews as you can, like this one in Business Insider with serial entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group, Richard Branson:
Heilpern: What are people most surprised about when they get to know you for the first time?
Branson: I'd probably say the fact I have always been naturally shy. When I was a young boy, I would often refuse to talk to adults and cling to the back of my mother's skirt. As an introverted kid, my mother worried my shyness would become debilitating as I got older — to help try and tackle my shyness my mother always challenged me.
My shyness has never disappeared completely; believe me I still get nervous from time to time. However I am also the first to say yes and tackle my fears head on. This approach to challenges has allowed me to chart an exciting path in life and in business, so I will be eternally grateful to my mother for that!
Notice how in the transcript of Branson’s spoken voice, he uses contractions (I’d), short and easy-to-grasp sentences, or sentence fragments with a dash or semicolon--constructs typically forbidden in academic writing--that mimic his voice in written form. He even implores the interviewer (“believe me”) and uses playful emphasis at the end by paying tribute to his mother with an exclamation mark!
Now, you might be thinking: “that sort of language doesn’t sound professional enough for an MBA-level personal statement!” Good. This is how people actually speak in real life, so writing this way is a surefire way to help your voice pop off the page and truly engage the reader. The litmus test is: if you wouldn’t say it out loud to someone, don’t write it in your MBA essay. The goal here is not to impress. The goal is to connect.
There is nothing showy or smart in Branson’s brief response. Instead, we get someone humble yet confident, who also expresses his vulnerability in a thoughtful and candid way.
Finally: test your real voice out loud
When you sit down to write your essays, read each line out loud to yourself as you write it. Would you speak these same words to someone in front of you? Is your language big and wordy? Simplify it. Are you using an excessive amount of work jargon or corporate-BS-speak that only your close associates would understand? Cut some of it out. Leave most of it for your resume.
The real test is bringing your writing (and your real voice) to life for an audience -- and that audience could be just you. After you complete your first draft, read it out loud and record it into your smartphone. However, don’t play it back immediately! Wait a day, and then listen. You’ll be more far more objective and truly be able to hear when things flow naturally and when awkward and wordy trouble spots appear.
Or, you can recruit a loved one, family member, friend, or colleague. Read it to them as if you’re simply telling them a story. Glance up occasionally and make eye contact. If anything you say sounds awkward, instruct your audience member to groan, laugh or react with displeasure somehow. Then, simplify your language and start again.
We’ve all built up these awkward and wordy writing habits, whether at school or work, but now it’s time to break them and retool your writing and storytelling arsenal. Although the 3 steps above may take a bit of time, the investment will pay off tenfold, elevating your MBA essays and personal statements above all of the stiff competition.
Doing this exercise will not only make your writing warmer, more relatable, and easier to understand, but it will also get your MBA admissions audience to really like you, getting you that much closer to that elusive interview.