Article by Mark Puner, photo by Martin Fisch

As Forster-Thomas’s Chief Editor, I spend a lot of my time thinking about my limits. Word limits, that is. Contrary to popular belief, a genie will not appear in order to grant your every wish when you submit your personal statement at the exact word count. (Two myths debunked: genies aren’t real, word counts are.) But I will be singing your praises, or whoever else is helping you edit your essays.

Word counts are not an attack, a punishment, a test or a deterrent. Believe it or not, they’re actually helpful, once you understand why they exist. They’re forcing you to focus, to be judicious and selective about what you choose to say, and what you choose to leave out.

Consider the Common App’s maximum word allotment of 650 in terms of time, either 6:50 a.m. or 6:50 p.m. A train leaves the station at 6:50…

For STEM students:

If a train leaves the station at 6:50, it’s best to arrive early. This is an approximation of the train’s departure time. It does not account for the time you will spend buying a ticket, figuring out which track the train arrives on, or pondering multi-differential equations in the meantime.

For non-STEM students:

Get there early

For everyone:

Leave some cushion

As someone who has read your essay at every stop along the way, I invariably like the express version—the passion of your first draft combined with spit and polish that takes time to cull. Yes, this is easier said than done. No, this will not exceed 630 words. At 6:30 everyone can comfortably enjoy the ride to the next destination. No genies needed.

Have questions about how to get your essay down to size?  Contact me!


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It has become a truism in contemporary America that college students believe they are more prepared for the workplace than they actually are, according to their employers.  Whatever you might feel about vanishing on-the-job training and outrageous demands for entry-level work experience, the fact is that employers, and not students, decide where to set the bar.  Therefore, it is extremely important, both for getting your first job and for getting into graduate school, that you demonstrate a track record of the qualities employers want to see.  Here are a few big ones.

Problem Solving.  Most college courses expect you to listen to a limited range of problems and apply prescribed solutions to them.  The working environment, as students quickly find out, is an altogether different animal.  Tasks are open-ended, not self-contained.  Measurements of job performance are unscientific and qualitative — does your boss ‘feel’ like you did a good job?  When applying to graduate school, it is very important to use your essays, particularly those with a leadership or accomplishment angle, to demonstrate your ability to proactively find solutions to entrenched problems.  No one is going to be impressed by you doing precisely what was expected of you.  They will, however, be impressed by you seeing a problem, taking the initiative and solving it, despite whatever obstacles stood in your way.

Perseverance.  In college, if you’re not doing well in a class, you can appeal to a professor, leave a class and not bother with it, or find any number of other ways around the problem.  In the workforce, when you’re presented with a problem, walking away is not an option.  They expect solutions.  In your essays, be prepared to write candidly about mistakes you have made, failed approaches to solving a particular problem.  Then explain how you were able to adapt and ultimately overcome the difficulties you faced.

Comfort with people. 
Another thing conventional colleges do not train students in is how to most effectively collaborate with peers, bosses and employees — since the approach for each is different.  Some students are naturally thoughtful, inquisitve and courteous, but others, especially those with STEM backgrounds, may not be.  Between college and graduate school, it is expected that you will pick up on some of the basics of ‘getting along’ with others.  To be a strong leader, of course, you need to be able to motivate others in pursuit of a shared goal.  This is another vital aspect of any great leadership essay.

Of course, these are only a few of the many qualities employers and graduate schools look for in students, but they are some of the most important.  So start thinking about how you can adapt your leadership essays to highlight one or more of these qualities!

Got more questions?  Email us!


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Looking for that coveted 'admit' from your top MBA program of choice?  You'll need great essays.  Here are the five most important tips to remember.

By Ben Feuer

So, we here at Forster-Thomas have useful info all over our site about prompts, deadlines and best practices for particular schools and MBA essays.  But what if you're looking for something more basic, like how to approach MBA essay writing in general?  Well, we did write a book.  But say you're impatient -- which considering you're reading this on the internet, is a safe bet.  Here's the Cliff Notes version -- what you really MUST remember when writing your MBA essays.

1.  Show leadership.

So simple to read, so complicated to pull off.  There are two components there.  The first is leadership -- which means getting people other than yourself to work in conjunction with you toward a shared goal that you came up with.  One specific time when you transformed an organization or created one, a time when you were the first or the best at something important.  It can be professional but it does not have to be.  What it does have to be is SHOWN.  Walk us through leadership experiences step by step.

2.  Assume you are worthy.

Too many candidates try to use their essays to make up for perceived weaknesses in their candidacy.  Don't bother.  Schools will reject you outright long before they read your essays if they deem you unworthy of attending -- in fact, that's how the first 30-50% of applicants get cut.  If they are bothering to read your essays, it means you're worthy.  So focus on differentiation.

3.  Speak plainly and concisely.

Don't try to impress people with your fancy words and 'smarty-pants' writing -- you will just end up annoying them.  This is not a business document, and it is not for your boss or your savvy client to read.  Write as you would to a 7th grader who knows nothing about what you do except the absolute basics.  Spell out all your acronyms and define all your unusual terms.  Avoid run-on sentences, weasel wording (google it) and irrelevant horn-tooting.

4.  Read and answer the question.

Another simple one that oh so many candidates whiff on.  Read the prompt, word for word, and then read it again until you are SURE you know exactly what it is asking of you.  Don't be a politician, twisting their words to fit your agenda.  Answer honestly and directly, then use that answer as a springboard to tell an interesting, relevant story.

5.  Proofread your essays -- out loud.

This is an awesome trick that almost nobody actually does.  Print your essays out, stand in front of a mirror and read them to yourself.  I guarantee you will catch at least 4 typos.  Plus, if you stumble over a sentence or a concept confuses you, rewrite it.  If you're having trouble saying it, it's because you're having trouble reading it.

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So there you go, essay writing 101!  For much much more information on this topic, including answers to specific questions and prompts, check out our blog or contact us directly!