The Four Levels of B School Essays

What Level Is Yours?

Want to find out where you are and why?

Level One: Novice

Your essay could have been written by anyone, all it does is speak in generalities about such topics as consulting, or starting a company, or how good technology is, or why you want to run your future organization on a “win-win” model. Most of what you say is true–consultants do help people, “win-win” is good–but it has not been personalized, detailed, and developed to help your application.

Most first drafts, especially those written by people with quantitative and engineering backgrounds, are like this. Very often these drafts contain one or two hints in undeveloped form that can serve as the basis of a convincing and much better essay.

Level Two: Another Face In The Crowd

In this essay we see a little of you–there are details about your work, your goals, your background and interests that only you could have written–so you are not clueless. But you are still not focused, sparkling, and tactical. Level Two Essays frequently contain laundry lists of achievements, goals, influences etc. and often [but not always] contain the classic Level Two shortcomings:

  1. Listing Achievements Instead of Describing In Convincing Detail The Process By Which Achievements and Failure Happened: This is the mother of all flaws in the b-school application game.
  2. The “I-Told-Them-So” Bad Attitude: “And when my plan was implemented instead of the one proposed by my immediate supervisor . . .”
  3. Hitting Doubles Instead of Home Runs: Getting a lot of worthwhile material into the essay, but not fully exploiting it because 1. there is not enough detail, anecdote, quotation; and 2. you do not deeply understand the psychology of the interaction you are describing.

  4. Omissions: You have not really located the key events in your personal and work life, nor have you figured out what your real vision, dream etc. is.
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Level Three: A Sharper Face In The Crowd

This is a Level Two essay which has been improved, or which contains a minimum of the errors listed in the Classic Level Two Essay–sort of the B+ of essays.

Most business school essays are Level Two or Three essays of varying kinds and many candidates have been accepted to Stanford, Sloan, Wharton, Kellogg, Harvard etc. with Level Two or Three essays (despite each school’s protestations to the contrary) simply because these people were extraordinary applicants based on their academic and test records, their work history, their personality, interviews, and recommendations.

Of course, many, many more applicants have been rejected from Stanford, Sloan, Wharton, Kellogg, Harvard etc. with Level Two and Three Essays.

Could some of these rejected applicants have been accepted if their essays were better?

There is no scientific study which addresses this issue, but some schools–such as Sloan and Tuck–will tell you why you were rejected if you ask nicely in May or June. One piece of advice they often give to rejected candidates is to work harder on their essays. I have worked with candidates who were rejected by leading business schools one year and accepted by the same school a year later. Not much had really changed in that year–except their essays.

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Level Four: Winning Essays

Most winning essays are Level Two and Three essays which have been–by dint of blood, sweat, tears and help–worked into winning essays. The details are sharper and thicker and the maturity level is deeper. They have also been mercilessly edited.

The “tone” of most winning essays is concise, professional, and polished. The developed facts speak for themselves. What emerges is a candidate who is original, unexpected, engaged, self-knowing and ultra-qualified.

[Some books will tell you the winning essay presents a candidate who has developed a niche marketing position–if that helps you understand this, so be it.]

A Winning Essay usually means many rewrites, many false starts, much testing of your stamina. Thus, most Winning Essays are made, not born. There is no one magic moment of inspiration, insight, Muse intervention, or luck. It’s just hard work and proper guidance if you need it–and most people do.

There is no clear line separating a Level Three Essay from a Winning Essay, and expert opinion may differ as to when an essay crosses the line.

Your goal is to write a High Level Three Essay or a Winning Essay.

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The Platinum Standard:

There are some essays that are literary mini-masterpieces: not only are the details and maturity level rock solid, but the story the essay tells is inspirational, powerful, and affecting. [Many “merely” Winning Essays have short passages and incidents like this as well, but the tone or story-line is not sustained.] Don’t fixate on the platinum standard–just work, work, work, with what you have. Your goal is to write a Winning Essay, not a Prize Winning Essay. Let’s get you in to the best business school you can possibly achieve, the prizes will come later.

There’s more, but why not just e-mail over your essay and find out where you stand. The most profitable thing you can do is to begin a dialog about your essays–reading about the process is one thing, DOING the process is the REAL thing.

Working With Us — What Happens and FAQ

Hey, Sandy, I am not applying to HBS.

We of course work with candidates to other schools–esp. Stanford, Wharton, Sloan, Mich, Chicago, Kellogg, Columbia and NYU. Sorry, no free offer for those essays. We got too jammed up keeping our 24 hour “free offer” turnaround promise [99 percent on time, btw, for our free offer]–now aren’t you sorry you missed it. What to do?? Well, call us, get us in a good mood, and maybe read one of those over the phone, esp. a shorter one.

Harvard, Stanford, Wharton

We help many candidates gain admission to Harvard, Stanford and Wharton each year, and over the past 15 years and we know what it takes. If you are seriously in the running, working with us is the single best decision you can make. If you are a long shot and it is your dream to attend Harvard, Stanford or Wharton, and you want to throw a “Hail Mary” pass, we will help you do that too. We will do the same analysis for applicants to Sloan, Kellogg, Tuck, Anderson, Columbia or any of the 15 “Top 10” schools.

How much does this cost?

Check out our prices and services list

After that,

What happens if I want to go ahead?

We spend time on the phone in the early stages, doping out your career, mapping out a strategy, talking about the issues raised in your essays. We can also help you decide which business school is best for you and what your chances are, but most of clients already have a pretty good idea about that. So the early conversations are a cross between career counseling and therapy. Sometimes the draft essays are a good basis for the final essays, sometimes we start from scratch. At some point, we mostly deal with each other by e-mail, but some people prefer the phone.

How long does it take me [the applicant] to write a “maxed” out set of essays?

It depends of course–but figure on this being a BIG and MAJOR task. For the first set of essays, where you are mapping out the key approaches, and brainstorming, and discarding a lot of material, one set of essays can take YOU 15-25 hours of work, and frequently more.

One advantage of working with a writing coach is that the coach can DRIVE you to spend that amount of time. It is similar to having a personal trainer. In theory you could do those extra sit-ups yourself. But do you?

Don’t be fooled about how long this process takes from friends who are already in business school. Writers often “disremember” about the writing process. Your friends who got into A-level business school last year might tell you “Oh, I did the application while tipsy the night before it was due,” or “I don’t really remember writing the essays, I was preparing for my wedding.” Next year, you can tell the same story. For this year, however, I would advise working really hard and budgeting serious time for this task. The payoff per hour spent now over the course of your life for admission to the best business school you have “in” you is gigantic–in fact, there will be few times in your later career when hard work delivers a payoff with similar multiples.

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