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Finding Your Voice in Your Essays

Essays are often the hardest part of the application for international b-school applicants who don't speak English as their first language.

That's not surprising. Anyone who's studied a foreign language can tell you that it's much harder to learn to write an essay in another language than to learn to speak it, especially given each language's distinct formal writing style.

It's not just a question of knowing vocabulary and grammar. It's also understanding how to present information or make an argument effectively. You can't just translate something from your native language into English and expect that it will work.

Remember all those writing classes you took in high school and college about how to structure an essay? Well, imagine that you had been taught to structure ideas in a different way in your native language. Translate it into English, and it's difficult to read and decipher the bottom line.

I worked with one client who faced a big hurdle with this. She was Asian. She had learned English as an undergraduate at a U.S. college but had not written anything like an essay since graduating. She spoke English beautifully and had no trouble expressing herself verbally whatsoever. But her writing wasn't nearly that good.

I knew that the essays she showed me when we began working together would never win over an admissions committee. It's certainly not that application essays have to be Shakespearean, but they do have to be clear, to the point, and concise. (If the admissions committee asks you to write no more than 500 words, you cannot take 1,000 words to get to the point!)

Some of the problems I worked with her on were the same issues that many native English speakers have with essays. For example, she tended to respond to the essay questions without really answering them. She wrote about the general topic each question raised, but didn't provide the kind of specific information about her background, interests, and goals that an admissions committee would want to know.

I coached her on topic selection and encouraged her to be a little more introspective about the experiences she described and to give concrete examples that illustrated her point. After all, anyone would already know from her resume and educational history what she had done, and where. The essays were her chance to show the admissions committee the person behind those things.

I also worked with her on more technical aspects of her writing. The essays she started off with were very unstructured. They were kind of free-form, and very repetitive. If you knew the applicant and her background, you could read the essays and piece together the various bits into a coherent story. But, of course, an admissions committee would never be able to do that.

I offered her tips on how to structure an essay and showed where she could get rid of irrelevant information that only cluttered the message. I explained how changes like those could make a final product that was coherent and concise. With my guidance, she wound up with essays that were much more in line with her verbal self-presentation. I think I helped her understand that she didn't need to be fancy in her writing. To the contrary, by keeping things in the essays simple and focused, she would be able to communicate clearly.

I'm sure that our work together not only made a big difference in the client's admissions outcomes, but it also gave the client improved English writing skills that will serve her well in her MBA studies and her business career.

And she'll need those skills! She was accepted to her first-choice school. I'm sure she has a great future ahead of her.

- Contributed by Senior Consultant Cristina Freeman. Cristina holds a master's degree from New York University. She made thousands of accept/reject/waitlist decisions as an admissions officer for IESE.
 

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