I have a close friend who is applying to business school. We’ve been out of college for four years now, so it’s been almost a decade since she’s done the whole application thing. She reached out to me for advice on her essay, so advise I did (with some trepidation, since undergraduate admissions and business school admissions are very different beasts). Since giving my feedback, I have followed up with her many times about how the process is going. It has been eye-opening for me: I am always amazed at the stress and pressure associated with the college application process, and having a friend get wrapped up in the hype has only made this clearer… and more concerning. I decided to write down every piece of advice I gave my friend so I could tell you guys exactly what I would (and do) tell my best friend. Here is what I said:
Take out a blank piece of paper: I was constantly hearing my friend say things like: “This essay isn’t what they’re looking for.” You’re overthinking, I told her. Stop it. Your only job in this process is to convey what you care about, who you are, and why you want to go to Tufts (whoops, I mean X business school). You do not need to pick the “right” topic; you just need to pick one that’s meaningful to you. Take an hour break from overthinking and get a blank piece of paper. On it, write all the reasons you want to go to college (I told my friend to do the same with business school). Tune out the noise around you and get excited about all that awaits you; be reflective and ambitious when thinking about your future in college and beyond. Hopefully this inspires you to focus on a topic you are genuinely passionate about, and even allows you to realize which schools are the best fits for you. If nothing else, though, this blank piece of paper refocuses the process on you, where it belongs.
Answer the Question: Have you ever asked someone where they want to go to dinner and they tell you the square root of 9? OF COURSE NOT. So why, when presented with the prompt: “What do you care about and why?” did my friend think she needed to explain all the reasons she was applying to X business school? Because she’s over-analyzing, that’s why. We ask our supplement questions for a reason. Answer them. Don’t assume we have a hidden agenda in asking them.
Your story is good enough: My friend was getting so bogged down in what she thought other people had to offer that she actually started to believe what she had to say wasn’t enough. I sometimes feel this way when I look at other people’s Instagram or Facebook accounts: “Wow,” I think, “I’m not doing those things. Should I be?” The answer is “NO!” (The answer is also “YOU ARE BEING CRAZY, INSTAGRAM IS NOT REAL LIFE!” but that’s another blog post for another day.) Own your story, know that those around you are also just high school students, and focus your energy where it belongs: on the self-reflection this process requires.
Pick a couple people to talk to, and don’t talk to anyone else: My friend sought advice from her parents, an admissions consultant, me, coworkers fresh out of business school, and the internet. With conflicting advice coming from so many sources, she felt paralyzed. How do you make sure this doesn’t happen? Pick two people whom you trust: one who is a strong writer and the other who knows you in the truest, purest sense. This could be a teacher, mentor, family member, or friend. Brainstorm with these two people, have them look at your essays (to make sure you spelled everything correctly but also to assure that you are accurately represented in the content), and go to them when you are experiencing stress throughout this process. With everyone else (except your guidance counselor), college is a topic of conversation you should generally avoid for the sake of your sanity.
Breathe, please: I am a firm believer that we must all remember how great we are, all the time. You are smart, ambitious, and cool as hell, and a room full of admissions officers doesn’t need to tell you that. In fact, that is not their job. Their job is to create a class for their institution that meets their priorities, provides their faculty with classrooms full of diverse perspectives, and allows them to field a soccer team, complete a jazz ensemble, etc. etc. etc. Do not treat this process as if it defines your self-worth. Wherever you go, you will be smart, ambitious, and cool as hell. And when in doubt, look in the mirror and remember what Yul Brenner of Cool Runnings once said (and yes I said this to my friend over the phone): “I see pride! I see power!”