We’ve all had these transformative experiences that have shaped our destiny thus far. Whether it was personal lows or professional highs, even you embarking on this endeavor shows you’re “Still Standing” “After the Storm” (Don’t worry. The quotations are there to highlight I’ve named three Monica albums thus far. See how the prose just flows!) You stand firmly on a foundation of faith, family, and fortitude. I think acknowledging these moments that shaped your character is what we should reflect on before we start this journey. Not necessarily because it’s the story we need to tell, but because it transports us to a reflective path—a prerequisite for navigating a successful process. Only once we acknowledge our past can we answer the question, “Why do I need this degree again?”
Depending on the type of person you are, you may find this part of the process extremely invigorating or ridiculously daunting. Of course, I’m talking about the essay or the statement of purpose or the personal statement. It doesn’t matter what you call it, or how you internalize it. But it gives you about 750 words, if that many, to persuasively convey to an admissions committee (AdCom) that you are an exceptional candidate. Not an easy task to judiciously use so few words to secure the next chapter.
I do think the essay is probably the most underrated or undervalued part of the application. Applicants subconsciously under allocate time towards these qualitative components, especially relative to the GPA and standardized exam. But consider this. Anyone can have a 4.0 GPA, or achieve a 95th percentile score on the exam, but not everyone can put together a stellar essay. And those people often find too much security in their scores. And it’s not everyone. But we often do think we are more secure than we actually are. The essay is such a great opportunity to differentiate yourself because it’s the most indicative of who you are, where you’ve been, and how that has shaped and prepared you for where you’re going. Especially for those who are greatly considering the trinity schools (HBS, GSB, Wharton or YLS/SLS/HLS). The additional ability to distinguish yourself could determine your fate.
How do we achieve this great essay? You know by now, my default answer is “I don’t know.” I don’t have a model essay to distribute. It’s funny because I was talking to my friends this past weekend and they talked about someone receiving an example essay from a current HBS student. And automatically, I was like “what the hell is an example essay?” They’re successful essays and unsuccessful ones. And my JD prospects, please take note because HLS publishes their “55 Successful Harvard Law School Application Essays” which showcases strong essays from a previous admission cycle. But note the difference between a model essay and a successful essay. For you, luckily that means there’s multiple approaches to getting the job done. There can only be a few models but many successes. Ok let’s start crafting this masterpiece.
First, let’s define what we’re writing. Now, I see the personal statement as different than a statement of purpose. A personal statement is a writing sample that may convey an experience or that indirectly illustrates why you would be a successful candidate for a degree program. A statement of purpose transparently conveys your past, your ambitions, and why the degree and particular institution are strong fits. I think for graduate programs, especially for JD and MBA programs, your writing should have both elements.
Second, what story are we trying to tell?
Well all of our pasts and paths are very different. And often, we have an inclination to deemphasize our experiences as regular when in fact, they’re remarkable. So rationally, the first goal is to find a way to unveil our “remarkable experiences” because, unfortunately, we are not the best judges of our transformative experiences. Understanding what story we tryna tell will help orient our mind in terms of what theme we want to convey and how the essay will be narrated.
Thirdly, we gotta choose an essay topic.
Now choosing an essay topic is also a difficult exercise. In an essay pile of an applicant pool, as you can imagine, there’s a lot of repetition. People want to talk about their tech incubator ambitions or transitioning into the consumer-package goods space. Also, us colored folk love to talk about our grandiose save the world aspirations (not to generalize, but I do get the sense we are now identifying the MBA as the appropriate weapon to tackle the loaded task), usually an international or domestic social impact initiative for Blacks. Or we discuss how we’ve elevated ourselves from nothing. Sometimes we do both. This begs to ask, are these topics played out? A little bit. But it’s really not what you say but how you say it. Those are broad traditional aspirations that come across AdCom’s desks all the time, but there’s nuances and a way to come off innovative especially if layered with a personal and genuine anecdote that catalyzed the interest. I’ve seen two essays that talked about the same career goal, but one was sufficiently stronger because it had specificity and passion behind it. Additionally, it better aligned with the thematic narrative of the entire applicants profile. Another key question we ask: does it make sense with your story? You talking about pursuing public interest law when you have been working in M&A at Morgan Stanley for five years doesn’t really fit. Talking about HIV/Malaria startup when you spent the past five years working at Ralph Lauren also is a little suspect. But people also go to b-school to transition careers and although the aforementioned examples are wide jumps, the essay is the opportunity to help those jumps make sense. Think of the essay as the missing piece to the puzzle.
Now before we even start writing, in my opinion, we need a team of people to call us on our bullshit. Because honestly, our usual first-topic essay choice sucks. And these people should know us well and can do a better job of objectively assessing our trials. We organically pick stories that are good at conveying an ability to prevail, but not the stories that really show what we truly are made of. And obviously, these “still standing” stories are not the only topic of choice, but it’s definitely a go-to theme when we craft our “diversity statements.” Pick people who you know will keep it a buck with you. If you don’t take criticism well, this is the time in your life to start. It’s definitely hard to sit there, disclose the details, and be picked apart by peers.
Then take a stab at the essay. When the first draft is complete, after you do a round of aggressive edits, have your peers edit it. More than often, it could be the same “call you on your bullshit” team. You want people who have great narrative flow and who are grammatical ringmasters. You want those people who know the technicals on why things are incorrect because they can offer phrases like “that’s a double comparative” or “you can’t have a nominative pronoun in a prepositional phrase.” These people should also be able to call you on your wordiness, syntax, and diction. Having your “no bullshit” team is a necessity because although it’s a free write, the word limits are strict. You can’t be wasting words trying to sound educated. I know this seems like a hard team to assemble, but just start with people you know and those English majors you went to undergrad with. Your essay should also pass the grandma test, meaning that while it should have an air of sophistication, it also needs to have an air of simplicity as well.
Lastly, prepare yourself for multiple drafts. No one said this is ever suppose to be easy. And unfortunately, different schools ask different questions, so that’s different drafts of multiple essays. There’s some overlap in questions and you can craft essays that answer different questions effectively. For example, GSB’s “What matters most?” question could maybe be used for HBS’s free-write question. But I highly caution you against reusing essays for different schools because it becomes very gruesome to communicate that “If you admit me, I will def enroll” quality. It can be done, because I’ve seen it done, but be cautious with that approach.
When you have compiled that first draft, you should send the essay to your “no bullshit” team and ask them what question does this essay answer or if they can hypothesize the goal from the essay. This is a good exercise to determine whether your writing is achieving what you intended.
And to my people applying to MLT, Forte, Consortium, SEO, and any “Help me, I’m black” program, you can think of your writing process the same way.
IF YOU REALLY BOUT THAT LIFE, aspire to be vulnerable. I’ve recently found that vulnerability highlights a degree of maturity. Achievements are a function of lessons learned from mistakes made in the past. Embrace your past in the writing, and I’ll think you’ll be surprised to see how you’re still standing. Continuously ask yourself, “does this story showcase the makings of me?” And remember your professional etiquette people. You should at minimum provide your editors a week to review. Also, please align your writing schedule to your editors’ vacancies. Don’t bug them after two days! If a week passes, just send them a very gentle reminder.