When you think about your “world,” any number of things might come to mind: your friends, your favorite TV show, your dog’s poop, the petrochemicals in your plastic water bottle, the bacteria in your gut — the list goes on. With an open-ended topic like this, it can be easy to get overwhelmed and slip into clichés. You might be tempted to start an essay saying, “My world was turned upside down when my grandmother died…” A good essay about the death of one’s grandmother can, of course, be written. But what you’ll want to do is focus on a more specific aspect of your world, that will be far less common, to share with your readers.
One way of approaching this essay is to ask how your own position in the world might help you see it differently. The trick is to take a step back and ask, what is distinctive about my world?
For example, maybe there’s a specific street corner where you play the violin for a few dollars on weekends. What’s it like to live alongside pedestrians, not as one body among many moving through the crowd, but rather as an observer and entertainer? What has your time as a street musician taught you about how urban planning succeeds (or fails) at moving bodies from one place to another? How does your position as a street musician help change the way you see the city? Maybe buildings are not just places of commerce, but rather part of a lively acoustic ecosystem.
Though you are supposed to talk about your “characteristics, beliefs, and values,” the story you tell need not include a sentence where you say, “I believe x, I exhibit characteristic y, and I value z.” Instead, by sharing a story about your own personal experience you should help your readers see how and why you see the world the way you do.
One particularly effective way of introducing your readers to your own distinctive self is to share something from your “Locker.” The Coalition App’s Locker system allows you to store different multimedia art projects in your application.
If you are a painter or a musician or a spoken-word poet or a video artist, this is your moment to shine. No matter what your intended major is, Pomona says that it is looking for students who have “an appreciation for the visual and/or the performing arts.” If you are majoring in engineering, maybe you can share something that shows how your interest in art and science are two halves of the same coin. Maybe you have a short video showcasing a marble machine that you’ve made?
No matter what innovative or strange project you share, you should include a short artist’s statement that shares with the admissions committee “what you hope they will learn from this submission.”
Ideally, this statement should not be more than 200 words. It can be as simple as telling the committee what inspired you to take up this project. The role of this statement should not just be to explain the work itself but to explain how the work says something about you and your values and experiences. In the marble machine example above, maybe it was playing miniature golf with your dad that first got you interested in mathematics and physics, and you thought this machine would be a fitting tribute to the role he played in your intellectual formation.
What if you cannot think of anything particularly distinctive about your life? What if you are not a particularly talented multi-media artist? Another tactic is to try writing an essay that helps us see a banal aspect of your life in a new way. Remember when I mentioned dog poop a few paragraphs ago? There might be a good essay in that. What do you learn by picking up your dog’s poop every day? How does that small ritual of care structure the rest of your day? There can be something deeply meditative about tending to an animal. When we care for our fellow creatures (be they human or animal) that means dealing, perhaps lovingly, with their filth.
The “dog poop” essay probably pushes the limits of acceptability. You should avoid being vulgar and provocative just for the sake of being vulgar and provocative. But Pomona’s website says the college is looking for students who are “risk-takers.” One way to demonstrate that is to take risks in your writing. In the stack of essays about dying grandmothers, a thoughtful essay on dog poop (or a similarly peculiar topic) can stand out.
Hemingway, by Lloyd Arnold, late 1939. Public Domain.
“The worst thing that you can do is be afraid and try to give the safe answer… Be courageous and tell us who you really are and what you want out of business school, and I think that you will find that strategy will take you all the way.” –Pete Johnson, Associate Dean of MBA Admissions, Berkeley Haas
Berkeley Haas showed some literary panache in posing a Hemingway-esque challenge to MBA candidates with this new essay for its 2017/18 cycle: “Tell us a six-word story that reflects a memorable experience in your life-to-date.”
Never someone to be intimidated by a challenge (literary or otherwise), it’s said that novelist Ernest Hemingway wrote the following when provoked by fellow writers to tell a full story in six words: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.” According to legend, Hemingway penned the story in a few minutes on a bar napkin and won $10 from each challenger in the wager.
It’s unclear whether you can submit your answer to Haas on a bar napkin. Though you do get 250 words to elaborate on why your six-word story is meaningful to you. The heart of the challenge, which replaces Berkeley’s “choose one song that expresses who you are,” is to distill an emblematic experience into something autobiographical and memorable.
So where to start? Berkeley Haas Associate Dean for the Full-time MBA Program and Admissions, Pete Johnson, offers this advice:
“Be courageous,” says Johnson, who spoke on the Admissions Director Panel at the CentreCourt MBA Festival in New York. “I think a lot of applicants say ‘well, you know, I’m an engineer but what I really want to do is work in digital music,’ and they write it out and they show it to their partner or whoever who says, ‘no don’t write that, they’ll think you’re crazy!’ When people do that, it goes flat. When somebody really tells us what they’re enthusiastic about it literally leaps off the screen.”
Haas’s six-word story is a pointed example of shorter not being simpler. Knowing that a good story conveys a beginning, middle and end, it’s a mighty feat in six words. To paraphrase a literary maxim oft attributed to Mark Twain, ‘If I had more time I’d have written a shorter letter.’ Morgan Bernstein, Executive Director of Full-Time MBA Admissions at Haas, supplies some great insight for the essays on the Haas website.
“There is no right story other than your own,” says my Fortuna Admissions colleague Sharon Joyce, former Associate Director of Admissions at Haas. “And this is not an exercise in grammar. So think first about what you want Haas to take away from the essay before you try to capture that experience in six words.”
In terms of strategy, Sharon advises to first think about a memorable experience and why it brought you great happiness, or proved to be a distinctly rewarding challenge. Then, allow yourself to play with possibilities. Allowing yourself to have a little fun and stay curious can go a long way toward replacing any feelings of dread (or, for the more quant-minded among you, terror). For some inspiration and amusement, view these clever submissions from a six-word memoir contestfeatured on NPR, which includes, “Met wife at her bachelorette party.”
“The six-word essay prompt allows the admissions team to understand ‘what makes you tick’ above and beyond what they’ve already gleaned from your academic record and work history,” says Joyce. “This might be an opportunity to share an experience where you went beyond yourself to succeed, or grew in confidence from a lesson in failure. Write not what you think sounds so very b-school, but rather share your sense of purpose and authentic self.”
If you’re ready to write like Hemingway, remember that he’s also credited with proclaiming, “The first draft of anything is sh@*.” It’s almost always true, even for the writer who knocked out one of his most memorable stories on a napkin.
Matt Symonds is a Director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions, a dream team of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 12 of the top 15 business schools. He is the author of “Getting the MBA Admissions Edge,” and co-organizer of the CentreCourt MBA Festival with Poets & Quants.