MBA Admissions Essay Killer: Vagueness

I can’t count the number of times I’ve read answers to admissions essay questions such as, “Describe a significant accomplishment in your career” and embedded in the applicant’s response is a vague statement like, “I learned many things from this experience.”


This type of sentence kills me. And it will kill your admissions essay, too.


No business school wants to hear that you “learned many things.” Admissions officers want to know what you learned and how it affected you in your career. Where relevant, they want to know the who, the what, the when, the where, and the why. And they want to read that information in a concise way that shows you know how to say what’s absolutely relevant while leaving out the less important details.


Take, for example, the essay from Cambridge Judge MBA admissions: “What did you learn from your most spectacular failure?” (200 words).


This question is insanely difficult.


In only 200 words, you need to concisely summarise your failure and discuss how you grew professionally from that experience. Because the emphasis of the question is “what did you learn,” that means that the bulk of your words should be spent on your own reflective experiences rather than the failure itself. In this answer, “I learned many things” is an utter waste of 4 words. You must be specific! There’s no room for vagueness in this type of question.


The strategy for this type of question is:


  • Think of a specific event (in this case, a significant failure) that occurred in your career.
  • Describe this event concisely. For example, in the question above, you should only dedicate about 2-3 sentences to the failure itself (no more than 100 words!).  Most of the answer needs to be about what you learned, using concrete, real-life examples on how you grew as a professional.
  • Essay questions with restrictive word limits (250 words or less) do not require an introductory sentence or a conclusion. These are wasted words. Spend your words on telling your story rather than on summarising what you’ve already said. 

Here's a sample answer from the application of a Cambridge Judge MBA graduate:


What did you learn from your most spectacular failure?” (200 words)


During a critical point in my team’s business expansion in which we had secured a large deal with a new client, I was assigned two novice assistants. The project had an extremely limited timeframe, and although I had trained the assistants to perform their required tasks, I failed to notice that they had both committed fatal errors that would have caused us to lose the deal. Panicked, I hastily took over the work from the assistants and completed the transaction within the given deadline alone, which made my teammates feel incompetent. After being reprimanded by my supervisor, I realized I had allowed the prospect of a successful deal to overshadow a major management blunder. I learned it is paramount to recognize that business success is not only represented by sales figures, but also by the morale of the team that worked together to achieve results. Immediately following this incident, I realized I lacked leadership skills and made it a professional goal to focus not only on business, but also on my team’s interpersonal dynamics. It is my duty to provide my teammates with experiences that will allow for professional development, which will affect team performance in the long term. (199 words)


This essay is strong because it clearly and succinctly describes the failure in less than 100 words and shows how the applicant learned from the failure to become a better manager. She does not dwell on the failure; rather, she discusses the failure as a significant turning point in her career. The failure caused this applicant to reflect on her management style and focus more on interpersonal processes, leadership and teamwork. Showing this kind of insight communicates to me, the reader, that this person is driven and dedicated to her own personal and professional development (all important characteristics for an MBA candidate!).


Eliminating vague statements from your writing will make your admissions essay stronger and make you appear more competent and confident to the admissions committee.


Best of luck in your essay writing!





If you are looking on how to improve your writing skills, please check out this previous blog post, or send me an email to discuss your writing goals.


For more advice on how to get rid of vagueness and be more concise in your writing, check out these links: 


Conciseness by Purdue Owl

Eliminate Empty Words and Phrases

5 More Ways to Cut the Clutter in Writing

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