The Role of Authenticity In Personal Statements

Colorful cartoon of a young Caucasian male and an Asian female MBA applicants seated at a cafe table, surrounded by open laptops and scattered papers. They are deep in conversation, brainstorming about their personal statements, with other cafe patrons visible in the background. The setting is lively and focused, ideal for depicting the strategic planning of MBA applications.
MBA AdComs consider a host of factors, but authenticity always rings true

Striking a Balance Between Authenticity and Cynicism

         In my eighteen years of helping people earn admission into their dream schools, two kinds of applicants are quite common. The first type sees their application as merely a means to an end. They want to know what the admissions committee wants, and they’ll then try to shoehorn their life into that mold. The second type treasures pure authenticity, and insists on featuring the most important moments of their lives in their personal statements, even if they’re not quite relevant.

         Neither of these approaches are quite right; the first is too cynical and the second focuses so much on “authenticity” that it forgets its purpose. The correct path is one that splits the difference, and this is what makes crafting a perfect personal statement so perplexing and difficult. On one hand, there’s a compelling need to present oneself in a way that resonates with the Admissions Committees (AdComs). On the other, there’s the inherent desire to remain authentic to one’s true self. With that in mind, how can you blend sincerity with strategic insight to unlock the gates to top-tier business schools?

 

Every Kind of Writing Has a Purpose

Let’s start with a fundamental truth: every kind of writing serves a specific purpose. The personal statement is one of the strangest kinds of writing in that it’s a blend of memoir, CV, and interview. For MBA application essays, the purpose is unequivocally to earn admission—not to bare your soul as you might on a dating app. Understanding this is pivotal. Your personal statement must be meticulously tailored to reflect the qualities, accomplishments, and experiences that AdComs value in prospective students… but not do so in a way that feels obviously manufactured. It’s about highlighting aspects of your life that align with the school’s ethos and expectations.

However, this does not mean fabricating stories or presenting an exaggerated version of yourself. The art lies in selecting genuine experiences from your life that best demonstrate these values. This approach ensures that your essay remains grounded in reality while strategically showcasing your compatibility with the school’s culture and objectives.

Okay… so HOW?

 

The Utility of Authenticity

Let’s begin by talking about authenticity within the context of a personal statement. Why is it crucial, especially when you’re consciously tailoring your essay? In short, authentic essays are better essays. Authenticity brings a certain richness to your writing. It makes your stories believable and relatable. An authentic essay does not feel forced; it flows naturally and engages the reader by weaving narratives that are both compelling and true to who you are.

This might sound like a contradiction—being authentic while also being strategic. However, think of authenticity in this context as being purpose-driven. You’re not just recounting your experiences; you’re strategically selecting stories that authentically illustrate your values and attributes that align with the school’s profile.

 

Two Keys to Balancing Authenticity and Strategy

 

  1. Align Your Stories with Core Values

Begin by identifying 3-5 core values or attributes that your target school holds in high esteem. These can be gleaned from the school’s website, promotional materials, and by engaging with alumni and current students. Note the words and ideas that they repeat often or that they lead with. Once you have this list of values, brainstorm real-life stories from your own experiences that reflect these qualities.

For instance, if leadership is a recurrent theme in the school’s ethos, reflect on instances where you demonstrated leadership. Perhaps you led a project at work that turned around an underperforming department, or maybe you spearheaded a volunteer initiative that made a significant impact. These stories are effective not just because they show you possess desirable traits, but because they are rooted in your real experiences, lending credibility and authenticity to your narrative.

 

  1. Don’t Overestimate the AdComs

A common mistake applicants make is overestimating the AdComs. It’s easy to imagine them as omniscient judges capable of seeing through any embellishment or strategic positioning in your essay. While it’s true that AdComs are adept at evaluating applications, they are not infallible. They are looking for well-crafted essays that are honest, forward-looking (that connect your intended past in a realistic way with what you’ve done and hope to learn in their school), and reflective of the candidate’s true potential and fit with the school.

As long as your essay is grounded in real stories that illustrate your claims, you shouldn’t worry too much about AdComs seeing through your strategy. The key is to be honest and thoughtful in your writing, ensuring that it is both reflective of your genuine self and strategically aligned with the school’s values.

 

Embrace Your Multifaceted Self

Remember: truthfulness is non-negotiable. When I tell you to be strategic, I AM NOT encouraging you to be in any way dishonest. An excellent essay is an ethical essay, and even if you don’t believe in ethics (which… wow, shame on you!) understand that there are many negative consequences to dishonesty, not least that your essay will often feel phony.

However, recognizing that every person embodies multiple facets of themselves is crucial. In your MBA application essay, you are simply choosing to highlight those aspects of your personality and experience that resonate most powerfully with the AdComs. This doesn’t mean you are being insincere; rather, you are showcasing the parts of your identity that best align with the academic and cultural milieu of the school you aspire to join.

Crafting an MBA application essay is a balancing act of authenticity, cynicism, and strategy. By aunderstanding the purpose of your writing, staying true to your stories, and strategically aligning them with the values of your target program, you can create a compelling narrative that is both sincere and persuasive. Remember, the goal is not just to tell a story, but to tell your story in a way that aligns with the expectations and values of the AdComs, opening the door to the next big step in your career and personal development.

For more help with your personal statement, check us out at Gurufi.com. Our personal statement editors and consultants have decades of experience helping clients get into top Masters and Ph.D. programs in STEM, humanities, fine arts, and social sciences. Our specialty is helping you craft compelling personal statements that move the needle in your admissions process! For questions, shoot us an email at service@gurufi.com. Check us out on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Storytelling Mistakes on Your Personal Statement (and how to avoid them!)

Cartoon of a young South Asian man, animatedly telling a story to a captivated, diverse audience in a modern conference room. He is dressed in a smart business suit, gesturing with his hands as he speaks. The audience, consisting of various ethnicities and genders, shows expressions of engagement—some are leaning forward, others are laughing, and a few are clapping. A projector screen displaying a presentation is visible in the background, adding to the lively atmosphere of the interaction.
Understanding how to tell your story is key to success!

In nearly 20 years of helping people get into their dream schools, I’ve made a point of working with clients to create essays that are both engaging and substantive. This balance is the key to a great essay for graduate or professional school. But, somewhere along the line, people got it in their heads that the only purpose of a personal statement was to let the reader get to know them. This is a mistake.

Over and over, I will read a personal statement for medical school or law school in which the author will tell a story that is highly personal to them, but in which they fail to link that story to their application’s core strengths and themes. When I try to explain that they need to focus on things germane to their application, they will tell me that they want to let the reader know who they are, as if this is a sufficient explanation for a medical school essay that focuses almost exclusively on their love of triathlons or a law school essay that does not ever use the word “law.”

Why does this happen?  Essentially, it happens because people get so fixated on writing an *interesting* essay that makes the applicant sound *unique.*  I hear these words –interesting and unique- all the time, and while they are important goals, and they will help an essay if used properly, they are a means to an end and not the end itself.  The end, the purpose, and your primary motivation in a personal statement are simple: convince the reader that you are prepared and qualified for admission.

Given this, as you write your personal statement, you should keep in mind a simple and well-worn maxim that every salesman has heard a million times: Always Be Closing (ABC).  In other words, at every point in the essay, you need to keep in mind whether or not what you are saying is moving the reader closer to believing that you have the requisite knowledge, experience, and understanding of the field you hope to enter.

For every story, for every paragraph, and for every sentence, you do need to ask yourself, “What does this say about the strength of my candidacy?”  If the best that you can come up with that it says something interesting or unique about you, it doesn’t pass the ABC test.  On the other hand, if it shows that you have an important and germane skill or perspective, then it passes the ABC test.

Now, what I am NOT saying is to be boring or rote, or to provide a straightforward rendering of your CV in essay form. If there is some aspect of your personality that is meaningful to you, then take the extra time to think about how it aligns with your application. For instance, if you’re a triathlete applying to medical school, can you create an overarching frame or metaphor and use the three phases of a triathlon to discuss the three pillars of your preparation for medical school? Or perhaps you’ve learned things from preparation and training that are germane? Did the discipline you found in the pool, track, and open road give you a framework for thinking about challenges? In other words, a great story is wonderful… so long as you connect it to what you’re doing and who you aspire to become.

The story is your way in, but it’s not the sale. Make them interested, then make the sale. Always be closing.

For more tips on how to build a story that moves the reader AND improves your application, check out these two videos we did:

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For more help with your personal statement, check us out at Gurufi.com. Our personal statement editors and consultants have decades of experience helping clients get into top Masters and Ph.D. programs in STEM, humanities, fine arts, and social sciences. Our specialty is helping you craft compelling personal statements that move the needle in your admissions process! For questions, shoot us an email at service@gurufi.com. Check us out on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Your MBA Application is About Your Future, Not Your Past

An MBA applicant in business attire standing at the start of a winding road leading to a bright horizon, with signposts labeled 'Leadership', 'Innovation', 'Global Impact', and 'Success' along the path, symbolizing the journey towards future achievements in business education and career.
Your Personal Statement is About the Road Ahead

Every year, Gurufi’s consultants help applicants build compelling personal statements that get them into their dream schools. There are many ways to write a great essay, but I’ve found that the best ones are always about the future.

         Unfortunately, when most people begin writing their personal statements, their first thought is what from their past they hope to highlight. After all, since you’re trying to prove that you’re qualified and prepared for an MBA, wouldn’t the natural inclination be to delve into the past, highlighting accomplishments and experiences that define your current professional identity? However, this approach, while important, only tells half the story. The key to a compelling MBA application lies not in the recollection of the past but in the clear vision of the future.

         In short, if you can provide a compelling, personal, and plausible vision for your future, your application will likely succeed.

 

  1. The Future as Your Guiding Star

This is why when I run workshops to help people write personal statements, our first activity is called “Envisioning Who You Want to Become.” That’s because the starting point of your MBA application should be a forward-looking vision. It’s essential to have a concrete understanding of what and who you aim to become. This future-oriented perspective isn’t just about setting goals; it’s about envisaging a version of yourself that is more skilled, more knowledgeable, and more impactful. The clarity of this vision will not only guide your application but also your career trajectory.

         Once you lay out your future in all of its specificity and ambitious glory, you need to reflect on how an MBA can bridge the gap between where you are now and where you hope to be. Understanding how an MBA will serve as a bridge from your current position to your future aspirations is crucial. It’s about recognizing the specific skills, networks, and knowledge that an MBA program can provide and how these elements are integral to achieving your long-term goals. This understanding demonstrates to the admissions committee that you have a clear purpose for pursuing an MBA, making your application more compelling.

 

  1. Contextualizing Your Past

At this point, you may be saying, “yeah, okay… but my personal statement is my past, though, right?” Yes… and no. Your future goals are central to your application, and your past experiences and achievements play a significant role in laying the groundwork. The key is to contextualize these experiences in terms of your future aspirations. Each accomplishment, challenge, and learning experience from your past should be a building block that supports your journey toward your future goals. If your past, present, and future don’t align in a way that makes sense, your essay will be incoherent. A simple question that I often ask is “does this feel like the same person?” If the events from your past that you choose to highlight don’t serve to show that you’re likely to achieve the dreams you present, that won’t make sense to the reader.

         A disjointed narrative that swings between past achievements and future aspirations without a connecting thread will weaken your application and undermine the sense of theme that any good essay has. The art lies in weaving your past experiences into a narrative that flows seamlessly into your future vision. This coherence in your story not only makes your application more compelling but also demonstrates your ability to strategize and plan for long-term objectives.

 

  1. Selecting and Emphasizing Stories

         When you take a future-directed mindset, the decision of which stories and accomplishments to include in your application will naturally be guided by their relevance to your future goals. Select experiences that showcase skills and qualities that are not only impressive in their own right but also pertinent to the future you envision. This selective approach ensures that every part of your application is working towards the same end goal – to showcase your potential as a future leader. Each story you include should be told with an emphasis on how it contributes to your future vision. It’s not just about what you achieved, but how those achievements have prepared you for future challenges and opportunities. A well-told story that connects your past success to your future potential can be a powerful tool in your application.

 

  1. Inspiring Confidence in Your Future

         Of course, the ultimate aim of your MBA application is to convince the admissions committee that you are not only a product of your past but a promise of the future. If your application can make the reader excited about what you are set to achieve and confident in your ability to do so, your chances of admission increase significantly. In fact, a future-focused application that effectively incorporates your past experiences positions you as a candidate with immense potential. When the admissions committee sees a candidate who not only has a clear vision for their future but also a solid foundation from their past to build upon, they tend to get excited about these applicants. In my experience, these are the ones who have success.

 

Starting with a clear vision of what you aspire to become, understanding how an MBA will help you get there, and then using your past experiences to reinforce this narrative, creates a compelling and coherent application. By focusing on the future, you not only align your application with your long-term goals but also present yourself as a candidate who is ready to embark on the transformative journey of an MBA program. The past is your foundation, but the future is your horizon – aim for it.

         If you are struggling to bring together your past and future, have the editors / consultants at Gurufi give you a hand. Our personal statement editors and consultants have decades of experience helping clients get into top MBA programs. Our specialty is helping you craft compelling personal statements that move the needle in your admissions process! For questions, shoot us an email at service@gurufi.com. Check us out on Facebook,Twitter, and LinkedIn.