First of all, there are 2 ways to begin with the essays. You can complete your essays one school at a time or you can group together similar questions from various schools. The first approach is more holistic while the second, although seemingly more efficient, might produce a very haphazard result. It is still a personal choice you will need to make.
Here are a series of steps you can follow to answer a single school's essay questions successfully:
Create your story...
Sit back and take a good look at the essay questions. Make sure you understand what exactly they are asking for before you plunge into answering them. Then it is time to figure out what goes where. Before beginning to answer the questions, make up your mind about what are the examples you will use for each of the questions. There might be a few compromises you will need to make, especially if the school has lesser number of questions. It is better to make these compromises early than realizing you missed a very important example after you have finished all the essays. Hence fitting the pieces of your story into the questions makes for a tighter story and will also avoid redundancies.
While creating the content for your essays remember that there are some implicit questions to be answered for almost every school you apply to irrespective of whether they are stated or not:
1. Why School X? Why now?
2. How will you make a difference to the school
3. Career progress
4. Career goals
If not asked, the onus is on you to find a suitable place to fit in the answers for these questions.
Putting it down in writing really helps to clear out the fuzz in your mind. You may not yet know the stylistic aspects of how you are going to present each essay. Still, create a separate file for each of your essays and jot down an outline for each. You can then build on this outline to create bullet points, and then rearrange them to have a good sequence. This is the most visual way to make your story unfold before your eyes even before you write it.
Flesh it out...
Now your content is ready. It is now time to convert your essay into logical paragraphs. Paying attention to tense, grammar and voice (as elaborated below) convert your bullet points to complete sentences. When arranging your content in paragraphs make sure one flows into the next. You can use your introduction to set the stage for the essay, to inform the reader as to what to expect. Or you could begin with a bang like the opening of a dramatic scene. The same goes for the conclusion, you can use to summarize or to finish with a flourish. Simply use your imagination!
Embellish your essay...
The rest of the work is decorative. You can add quotations, sub-headings, conversations, citations et al. If the online application preserves the formatting then you can bold, italicize, use 5 different fonts, indent, subscript, superscript, whatever you please!
Mind the language in your essays. While it is important to write in your true voice, you simply cannot be completely colloquial or have sloppy grammar in your essays. It is not necessary to use flashy, flowery, exotic words in your essays. The primary aim is to get the point across. Impressing the reader with your linguistic genius is only a fringe benefit :D. A purely functional vocabulary is more than enough to write a good essay. The idea is to make the reader feel you are talking to him/her, to create this effect you need to take care of 2 things
a) Active voice
As far as possible use active voice in your essays. Essays in passive voice sound like technical specifications. I'm sure techies will understand what I mean here. Active voice is more personal and speech-like.
Take care to see that your essay has uniformity of tense and smooth transition between tenses when needed.
- Slang is blasphemous
- Passive voice is a little inhuman :D
- Grammar is important. Period.
- You are expected to know your spellings. Don't trust the spell checker in your word processor.
- Paragraphs make the reader's life easy.
- Shorter sentences improve readability and sustain the reader's attention
- Choose between British and American English and stick to it.
- Punctuate your essays!
You can be humorous, witty, poetic, prosaic, lyrical, formal, semi-formal, technical, didactic, narrative, conversational etc. etc. Take your pick. But make sure it works well. Don't allow your essay to become a bad joke or a tiresome monologue or a constipated technical document.
Keep your audience in mind
Remember that your reader need not be familiar with your industry/ your extracurriculars. So unexpanded abbreviations are a big no-no. While quoting examples remember to give some context to the reader. Explain the hierarchy of your team to demonstrate where you fit in. Do not ramble away technical details of your project. If you are saying something which is culturally very specific to your country, take a couple of lines to explain it to your reader. To cut it short, empathize with your readers. Do not bombard them with jargon and hence give them a chance to question your ability to be sensitive in a diverse cultural environment (namely, B-School).
When it comes to failure related questions, DO NOT rant, crib, whine, pass the blame or make lame excuses. Sob stories make the reader question your leadership skills, adaptability in a team and your maturity level. State the facts as they are and focus on what you are doing/did to overcome your setbacks/failures. Openly admit your weaknesses and describe how you are addressing them. Show the adcom you are mature and down to earth.
Being unclear about what you want to do post-MBA and hence speculating a little about your future is one thing. But fibbing about your past and cooking up achievements is another thing altogether. A "story" may sell, but is the dishonesty really worth it? This is a question of personal ethics and I will leave it at that.
So... Happy Writing!
PS: I will write a separate post on reviewing essays and deciding who reviews your essays.