Skip to main content



Kristen Walsh

By Kristen Walsh

Writing a graduate school or MBA essay for your application can be a big stumbling block for candidates. But if you’re willing to invest some time, identify your goals, reflect on your experiences and follow a few simple directions (the same philosophy that will help you get ahead at work), you’ll be set to write an essay that will help get your foot in the door of your top schools.

“Essays are a major part of the application, and it's the little details that can make the difference between accepting and not accepting someone,” says Gordon Berridge, associate director of graduate admission at Bentley University. “Are they putting in the effort and the energy?” 

Most schools will want to know why you’ve chosen to apply to their program and what you’re hoping to accomplish with your degree. No matter the question, the essay is a “get to know you” for admission officers. It serves as a written first impression. Who are you, and what do they need to know about you? (Learn more about the graduate application process at Bentley).

Sounds easy, right? But many master’s degree and MBA essays don’t always hit the correct note, according to Berridge. There’s a right way to tell your story.

Berridge, who has read thousands of essays during his career in admissions, shares his advice on tackling writer’s block and creating a standout essay:


1. Give Yourself Time

Start thinking about your essay long before you actually have to write it. Most schools require a few different essays, so research the topics/questions ahead of time and start brainstorming.

Keep two running lists:

  • One about you: Your passions and accomplishments (leader, team player, values).
  • One about the specific school(s) you’re applying to: What are they best known for? What is the culture? What excites you about the school or program?


2. Answer the Question

You may not like the essay question, but you need to answer what’s asked.

“I've had some applicants say, ‘Thank you for this question, but I really feel like this topic is more important instead,’” shares Berridge. “The problem with that is, it’s not what we’re looking for.”  


3. Get Personal

Not knowing what to write is perfectly normal. Berridge says that many prospective students ask him what to write — it’s the most common question he gets.

Keep it simple. Admissions officers want to know who you are.

Use real-life examples of career, educational and personal accomplishments. Don’t worry about the size of the accomplishment; share something that will provide a glimpse into your character and values. How did you tackle a tough situation and what made you successful? Put it in your own words, using specific stories and examples. Follow the common suggestion: Show, don’t tell.

For some inspiration, check out the personal story of Neil Chelo ’93, MSF ’00, who helped bring down Bernie Madoff.


“The best essay is one where I can really get a sense of who you are,” says Berridge. “Talk about why you’re excited to come here — and get me excited too.”


4. Share Your Achievements

In some cultures it’s considered poor etiquette to boast about yourself. But in these essays, you have to. You can’t be humble.

Don’t overdo it so that you sound like you’re bragging. Talk about the amazing things you’ve done and learned, and tell the university why they should accept you.


5. Know What You Want to Achieve

Where do you want to be in a month? In five years? This could include a combination of career goals and personal objectives. Do you plan on being a working mother running a business from home? Do you aspire to do international work? Are you going for a senior executive position?

“The best essay is one where I can really get a sense of who you are,” says Berridge. “Talk about why you’re excited to come here — and get me excited too.”

This is a great time for self-reflection. Then share it in your MBA essay.


6. Make it a Two-Way Street

How will this school help you achieve your goals, and what will you contribute to the program? Think of it as a job application where you need to demonstrate how your skills will help a company achieve their goals.

Find out how Bentley helped Lindsay Starner MBA '13 attain her goals and become vice president and director of analytics for Hill-Holliday.



7. Add the Extras

Many universities, like Bentley, let you submit an additional optional essay around the idea of “tell us anything else you think we should know.” But, according to Berridge, only about 80 percent of applicants complete that essay. This is another opportunity to tell the admissions department something important about you. Why should they accept you? What do they really need to know? What will help you stand apart from the crowd?

Some of those stories are so memorable that they stick with the committee years later. For example, Berridge remembers a student who wrote about how her grandfather worked hard every day as a bricklayer to provide for his family. When she was selling Girl Scout cookies, he went with her every single step of the way — even after he had worked all night. He guided her and made sure that she had a good work ethic. She talked about how that ethic has always influenced her decisions. 


8. Follow the Required Word Count

If the word count is 500, don’t submit a 2,000-word MBA essay. Question if you really need that much room. It throws a negative light on your written communication skills and ability to follow directions.

On the flip side, if you can answer the question in four sentences, you may need to put a little bit more thought into it. If it’s too short, the admissions committee may not take you seriously.


9. Find Another Set of Eyes

Have somebody (preferably a few people) review your essay and provide honest feedback. Do they feel you answered the question? Do your personality and talents shine through?



10. Check Spelling and Grammar

“The biggest mistake I see people make is the little details,” says Berridge.

Things like making sure the spelling of the admissions officer’s name is correct. (If you’re not sure, he suggests addressing the essay to “Dear Admissions Committee or Dear Sir/Madam.”) Do a spell check and have someone proofread your essay.


11. Get the Name of the School Right

This may seem like a no-brainer, but if you’re applying to multiple schools, be sure to change the name of the college on each essay. If you can’t even take the time to do that, what does it say about your attention to detail? Berridge sees this happen occasionally and it’s a big red flag for the admissions office.


12. Use Simple Formatting

The font should be professional, as opposed to artsy: Times New Roman, Courier New, Helvetica, Arial. (Your portfolio is a platform that allows for more creative formatting, if necessary.)



13. Relax

Yes, the essay is a very important part of your application, but it’s not the only part. Your transcript, interview, recommendation, etc. all impact the committee’s decision. If you’re not a great writer or your English isn’t perfect, you can still get into a graduate or MBA program. 

While Berridge understands that talking about yourself can be unnerving, he says that writing a solid MBA essay circles back to investing time and effort.

“It's a lot of work, but so is grad school,” he says. “And if you're not willing to put that work into your application, what does that tell me about the type of work you're going to put in if you’re accepted? 

“Just tell me what makes you special, what makes you passionate about our program. When I can feel who you are, your essay will stand out.”