The Truth vs. “Playing the Game” in MBA Admissions Essays

angelanddevilOver the past few weeks, I’ve spoken with a number of 2013-14 MBA applicants while helping them with their application strategies for this admissions season. A few days ago, one of them asked me a very candid question about his admissions apps for several top 10 schools. “While writing my essays, should I tell the truth, or should I just play the game and tell the adcoms what they want to hear?”, he said [in so many words].

Initially, I was taken aback by his question.   Then, I flashed back 12 months to when I was in the same position and had similar thoughts. “I really appreciate your honesty”, I replied. “That is a question that I believe everyone grapples with in a competitive climate like top MBA admissions”.

“The Truth”, “The Game” and Authenticity

In my opinion, the whole moral dialectic of being honest vs…well, basically lying and/or embellishing actually clouds the true issue at hand.  For starters, lying or embellishing what is true is a fool’s strategy. Adcom members have seen and heard it all; thus, they posses highly sensitive BS meters. I wouldn’t bother testing your luck in that department.

Additionally, my opinion is that the kinds of things that people lie about are rarely the things that either get  you “in” or keep you “out of” a program. Of course, only an adcom can tell you that for certain, but I”m about 99% sure that my assumption is a true fact.

Save yourself the energy of writing up that $2M deal as a $20M deal; and don’t bother saying that you won that award that you were really the runner up for. The adcoms are much more interested in the fact that your post MBA goal is entrepreneurship but you’ve never started your own company before; or that your primary recommender said that you’ve had challenges getting along with other people.

Furthermore, inflated stories almost never “sell” as well as the authentic ones. Even if the adcoms aren’t able to point out your foul play, they are likely to sense that something is “missing”.

The Truth Shall Set You Free

The truth can be liberating. The feeling of having “nothing to hide” not only takes a lot of pressure off, but infuses your words with an air of authenticity that can become a gold mine if played properly. Let’s take me for instance. My pre-MBA job was about a 25% pay cut from the job that I had immediately prior. That data point clearly threatened the narrative of upward movement in my career.

Rather than attempting to gloss over it, however, I simply attacked it head on in my application. I explained that while I was indeed making less money, I had taken on more responsibility, had more control over my new company’s strategic direction and   had also taken the next most logical step toward my goals. That was true. It was also true that I hated my previous job and had little respect for its leadership, but that wasn’t necessary to say.

There is a fine line between authenticity and TMI. Learning to walk this line skillfully will help you immensely not only in your essays but in life in general. It will also communicate to adcoms that you’ll be more likely to give a great interview and land a high paying job (which affects their reputation and rankings) upon graduation.

Look, no one’s past is perfect–no one’s; and the adcoms know this. Tell the truth, provide the proper context that shows what you learned or gained from the experience and how it aided in your development, avoid TMI and you should pretty much be good to go.

And if you end up getting dinged anyway, trust me when I tell you with confidence that it was probably not because you were overly candid in some anecdote in essay #2 for Columbia or Kellogg; either your profile just didn’t make the cut or there were already too many others who had been chosen whose profiles were too much like yours.

About mbaover30

Wharton MBA and admissions expert

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17 Comments on “The Truth vs. “Playing the Game” in MBA Admissions Essays”

  1. Pegases Says:

    Well said…i have a different approach now.


  2. Jaycee Says:

    So true… And chances are, if your telling them just what you think they want to hear, you’ll end up sounding like a big group of over-represented candidates whose stories are actually true and will ring more authentic. If anything, being true to yourself will make you stand out as a unique candidate, which could end up being in your favor in the long run


  3. bschool2013 Says:

    I was hoping to read about career goals in this topic, because that’s one where someone can “lie” about what their future plans are, but is it really a lie if that person isn’t 100% what he/she wants to do?

    This is something I grappled with as a military candidate since most military officers go into something completely unrelated to their past line of work and the audience typically has no exposure to the military other than the media and historically accurate movies like “Stripes.” If the change is too radical and the adcom can’t connect the dots, they may opt to go for stories that “make sense” like the Navy Supply officer who wants to get an MBA to go into Operations/Logistics or Army communications officer with a degree in computer science who says he wants to go into IT consulting.

    Ultimately I decided to be authentic in my essays despite having difficulty connecting my past professional experience to my future aspirations. I gambled and connected my personal interests and volunteer activities to show my interest in my post-MBA career goal. It wasn’t a rousing succes: I went 1-for-4 in R1, but you know what we in the biz say…good enough for government work. 😉

    I will say, for people who don’t have a solid idea of what they want to do, then picking out the most attractive parts of your professional history to write your career essay is what you have to work with – you have to write something. I would just discourage anyone who knows what they want to do but wants to write a phony career goals essay because it “makes more sense.” Is it worth it to have to get knowledgeable about an industry/function in order to make it through the essays/interview, or would you rather get ahead of the game by diving into what you REALLY want to do and let that passion shine through in your essays and interview?


  4. backinthebay2015 Says:

    I’ve been following your blog for a while and have really enjoyed reading your whole take on the MBA process. I’m also looking forward to hearing about your experiences next year at Wharton. I will be attending the Stanford GSB this fall and am very curious about just how different our experiences will be. I mean, we’ll both be taking similar classes with similar peers, so how much of an impact will the two schools’ different cultures have?
    Anyway, a few months ago I decided that I should start a blog about my bschool time, since there are so few blogs out there from current students and I haven’t been able to find anything from GSB students that’s less than 5 years old. Hopefully being able to read about the day-to-day life on campus will help prospective students make more educated decisions about whether or not the GSB is a good fit for them. I didn’t actually get a chance to start posting until a few days ago and now I’m hoping to get some feedback so that I can see what sort of posts are useful to others. Since your blog is so fantastic, I was wondering if you could mind checking out my new blog and letting me know what you think? And if you like it, maybe adding me to your blog roll so that I can get feedback from other students/applicants/etc?
    It should be at:


  5. HBS2015 Says:

    On top of everything that’s been said, the more you lie about your story in your essays, the more likely that detail is going to come up in your interview later. This is especially true at schools like HBS that read your entire package before interviewing you. My entire HBS interview focused on small details mentioned in my application. It’s much easier to nail that interview when you’re being yourself, not the made up essay version of yourself.


  6. Gaurav Says:

    Thanks Mr. Cole!


  7. Milisha Says:

    is it possible for you to share your email id???


  8. XYZ Says:

    I am in a Dilemma too. I have total 5 years of experience. 3.5 years in Corporate and last 1.5 years in entrepreneurship. I am facing issues in growing my business and feel the need to go back to corporate in order to gain more experience and networking. I know MBA should help me accomplish that. Now the problem is, should I be candid enough and tell them all these. They might feel that I failed in my business(which is not the case as I am doing fine but not growing as much as I would have liked). On the other hand, if I tell them everything is fine and I will join my business after MBA, I will be lying and it may also unnecessarily raise questions like who will take care of the business behind you and why don’t you work more in you business before deciding to do MBA as its just 1.5 years.
    Please help me out in going ahead with a right story!


    • mbaover30 Says:

      Business schools actually like stories of entrepreneurs who have failed. I should know, I was one. They know that if you have the initiative to start a business then that says something about you. Companies like it as well. The main thing is that you state clearly what you learned and what skills you need an MBA to help you build. Then to say that you want to go put all your entrepreneurial spirit to work for a big company afterwards could make you gold….especially for consulting.



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