Investment bankers. Consultants. Software Engineers. What do these three groups have in common? You may have answered, over-representation, and if you are among these groups, you probably groaned as well. Well, all is not lost for the over-represented. While you cannot change your work history, you can change the way you introduce yourself to the Admissions Committees. So, we, at MBA Mission, have compiled a few simple strategies for introductory paragraphs, as they pertain to personal statements (Questions like: Discuss your career history. How will an MBA help you achieve your goals?), which will help you standout.
Our first strategy is more of a don't than a do. We find that many candidates start with straightforward introductory lines, where they over-represent their over-representations immediately. For example, a candidate might write, When I started as an Analyst at Morgan Stanley in 2005, I was immersed in excel spreadsheets... Via this introduction, the writer has basically written: As one of many indistinguishable banking candidates that you will see, I have done what everyone else does....
Candidates should be mindful of their very first lines and might consider a non-introduction introduction, where the reader is immediately immersed in a career highlight, instead of a formal and typical chronology. For example: Touching down in Houston at 5 am, I immediately went to meet the CFO of ABC Healthcare. As an investment Banking Analyst, it was unusual to be seconded to an outside firm, but ABC was one of Morgan Stanley's most significant clients and our deal was hanging in the balance. By launching into a story and incorporating favorable facts, this analyst has put him/herself in action and created a story to follow, instead of facts to digest. Indeed, one of the distinct advantages of the non-introduction introduction is that, if executed properly, it also creates mystery. Because the reader is immersed in a situation, he/she wants to know what comes next.
Disrupting chronology is another important strategy that can be used. Even if an MBA program asks you to discuss your career history, it does not mean that you must offer a clear chronology of your career, from beginning to end (a method that can be a recipe for over-representing yourself). Consider the case of a programmer who rose to lead a team of thirty. Which of the following is more interesting to you? A) Joining InfoTech, I spent my first six months writing code... or B) Managing a team of thirty at Infotech, I have spent the last six months... If the candidate were to begin with A, he would risk losing the reader immediately. After all, what is so unusual about writing code? However, few manage thirty people prior to business school, so the opportunity to grab the reader with this fact - from the most current position in this fictional character's career - is too important to pass up. The writer wants the reader to understand his/her differences immediately and he accomplishes that with a disrupted chronology. (Of course, it will take some finesse to reconnect and reorder work experience that does not follow a chronology. You will need to be skilled at formulating creative transition ideas and writing interesting transition sentences).
Similar in spirit to disrupting chronology, candidates with unique career goals may also consider disrupting the typical pattern of a personal statement by leading with goals. Consider the following essay for Wharton: Describe your career progress to date and your future short-term and long-term career goals. How do you expect a Wharton MBA to help you achieve these goals, and why is now the best time for you to join our program? Many candidates assume that they must answer each sub-question, within the broader question, in the very order that it was asked. But, that is not the case - the question is quite flexible and by pursuing your own structure, you can truly engage the reader, who has read thousands of similarly structured essays. Still, while leading with your goals, you must have goals that truly standout. So, the Indian technologist who intends to start a software firm might be advised not to lead with goals, but the technologist who aspires to open a boutique hotel, might make the choice to use his goals to differentiate himself. Similarly, the consultant who aspires to start a competitive windsurfing circuit can use these bold goals to differentiate himself right from the start. We emphasize that such candidates need to have a compelling connection to their goals and do not suggest that over-represented candidates strive to imagine or create wild goals. If you have a profound connection to an unusual industry, then reordering the question and ensuring that your goals are out-front can make a difference.
Finally, regardless of the essay question, it is important to give profound thought to your opening lines. Few of us have read Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, but many of us have heard the famous words: It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. A powerful first line can stick with readers long after they have finished reading your essays. Consider the differences between these pairs of openers. Which one captures your attention? A) After I graduate with my MBA, I want to work in the wine industry. B) Blood runs in the veins of all humans, but wine runs in mine. There is no formula for opening lines. In fact, the possibilities are endless and each opener depends on the context of the story itself. Nonetheless, our point is that opening lines need to be carefully considered, because they set the tone and determine whether the reader will want to read more. Of course, as an over-represented candidate, you will need them to read more.