Essay Writing… It’s like a game of tangram!

Writing MBA essays is a bit like playing a game of tangram. Remember tangram? It’s a dissection puzzle where seven flat shapes are arranged to form different images.

Okay, bear with me here.

Every MBA application is, in itself, a dissection puzzle. It has various “pieces”, each dealing with a different aspect of you, the applicant. The way you put these together – by means of your application and, crucially, your essays – is what determines the image that the adcom gets of you as an applicant.

See where the tangram metaphor fits in?

Not a cat person?
No problem. Here’s a rabbit.

So how do we use this to write better MBA essays? Well… here are a few key lessons to glean from the rules of tangram:

  1. Use all the pieces. As in… make sure to capture each aspect of yourself. More on what these are below. This ensures that adcoms get a complete picture of you across all the metrics that matter to them.
  2. You can use every piece only once. As we’ve said before, essay real estate is scarce and precious, so you can’t afford to waste space repeating yourself. As you choose your essay topics, try to highlight a different side of yourself in each.
  3. Make sure the final picture properly describes you. Step back once you’re done and look at the image your creating. Does it look like you? Does it portray you in the most positive light? It’s helpful here to ask your friends, family and colleagues for a second opinion.

So what are these pieces?

Based on our tangram metaphor, we’ve come up with seven key dimensions that adcoms will be looking for as they evaluate your application – listed in no particular order.

  • Leadership: your potential as a business leader and manager
  • Teamwork: your ability to work in teams both in school and in your career
  • Accomplishments: the best indicator of your future success
  • Work experience: your career path to date
  • Goals: your short-term and long-term professional aspirations, and how they fit in with an MBA
  • Education: evidence that you will be able to succeed within a challenging MBA program
  • Values: personal integrity, as well as what motivates and drives you in your professional goals

So when you’re first starting to think about your essays, it’s useful, for each of your target schools, to lay out all the essay topics and think about which of the seven aspects above you want to highlight in each. I would almost recommend using flash-cards or post-it notes – one for each aspect – and then shuffling them around to see what fits best where.

In some cases, the decision will be made for you since some essay topics can be very specific: “Tell me about a time you worked in a team” or “What are your three greatest accomplishments”… This is actually helpful because it provides some tent poles to use as you strategize your essays. Knowing you’re already going to cover certain aspects of yourself in specific essays, the puzzle becomes figuring out how to best address the remaining ones across the remaining essays.

It’s a great system for choosing among alternate essay questions, and for determining whether there it’s worth submitting that final optional essay. You’ll find yourself thinking along the lines of “Okay… so I’ve already addressed leadership and teamwork in my first two essays, so I’ll pick topic B in my third essay because it gives me an opportunity to discuss my career path and goals, which I haven’t really covered anywhere else.”Adding some structure to these decisions really makes the process easier.

Of course, there may be times when the essay questions for a given school don’t provide enough space to fully cover all the aspects described above. In that case, it’s okay to break rule #1, opting in favor of depth over breadth since adcoms want your essays to be supported with real-life examples and introspection – hard to pull off if you’re trying to cover too much in a limited number of words. Just make sure to focus on the aspects that are most important to each school.

For additional help on how to address the more ambiguous essay questions, make sure to check out our guide to decoding 10 of the toughest MBA essay questions.

Happy writing!

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14 Responses to Essay Writing… It’s like a game of tangram!

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