Why Your MBA Friends Are Not Always the Best People to Review Your Essays

Last year I had a client who called me panicking – “I showed my applications to several co-workers and they completely tore apart my essays! What do I do??” This applicant had a really amazing story (he got into everywhere he applied, by the way). However, each of his co-workers had

different recommendations including everything from new, creative ways that he should position himself to changes that he should make in his writing style. My first question was “I hate to ask, but are they MBAs?”

I know how this goes because it is me – hence why I work in this industry. In business school, you learn how to think “critically” and “questioning-ly” about every single thing – how the supply chain must have impacted the quality of food you received at a local restaurant to how “one tweak” in geolocating could really be the turning point of this new delivery food service in your area. I’m friends with MBAs from every top school, and seriously people sit around and discuss stuff like this (over drinks). We’re always thinking about new ideas – it’s nerdy but true 🙂
So, I’m telling you all of this because you need to know how to view your MBA friends’ comments and how to ensure that you stay true to what you want to present and who you are. When you asked them to review, they started viewing your application like a new strategy project – they aspired to give you amazing new ideas and points of creativity as well as be devil’s advocate for how you think you’re coming across. This is all fabulous and I tell all of my clients to seek this type of opinion, BUT to take it with a grain of salt. Do not let each opinion result in a complete rework or feeling like you need to accept each and every suggestion. The client I cited above – he ended-up keeping with his story but made subtle tweaks for each school based on the MBA alum advice he got – and as I mentioned, he did just fine. So keep in mind that your MBA friends are brainstorming – that’s what they do really well and that’s why they probably work in cool industries where they get to “A/B” test all day long. But this isn’t a strategy project – it’s you describing YOUR ideas, goals, aspirations and passions.
So, even though you have friends from HBS, Wharton, Columbia, Kellogg etc, my advice is that they shouldn’t be the only ones reviewing your applications.
On top of being hypercritical by nature and training, the other issue with taking too much stock in your MBA friends’ opinions is their potential bias. Unless your MBA friends are reviewing a lot of essays (and to be fair, some senior folks in consulting companies can fit this mold… so if you’re in consulting definitely ask your PLs and Principles), they are likely to have an anchor bias in what they did and what worked in their application (see our post on how the application process has changed since your coworker got his or her MBA).
But perhaps most importantly – they are not your audience. I will repeat – your boss, the head of your practice area, your friend’s billionaire uncle who runs a hedge fund…they are not your audience. Your audience is the admissions committee, which is typically not comprised of a majority MBAs and most often not comprised of people who have worked in a lot of post-MBA jobs (consulting, banking etc).Check-out our survey of adcom profiles for more info on that topic.
So, who else do you ask for feedback? Well, co-workers in general are great, but be careful because they might make your industry-specific jargon even worse (if you both know what a synthetic CDO is, then you might not notice it as jargon). I always tell people to start with your friends who work in other industries. They sort of know what you do, but they are far enough removed that they need the layman’s terms and your “story” will need some explanation – they won’t just connect the dots because they’re familiar with the career path. If they can understand what you do, how you’ve progressed, and what you want to do next, than you’re in good shape.
The one area where MBAs can give useful feedback is in evaluating your ‘fit’ for their alma mater. For example, does your Kellogg essay talk about how you like to work alone? Does your Wharton essay highlight your weakness in quant? Those are the types of high level red flags they can catch you for you. Leave the rest to someone else.
So in summary:
  • Ask for feedback from multiple different types of friends / family / co-workers who can give you varying perspectives (eg. the person who has no clue what you do every day, the person who knows you well, etc)
  • Don’t put too much stock in any one piece of feedback – you need to stay true to yourself (even if your best friend from your dream school is positive that she needs to re-write your essays)
  • Remember that MBAs are trained to be critical – most would never send you feedback without many suggestions. So, view those suggestions as ideas, not as something you need to do in order to succeed
  • Ask for MBA friends to read for “culture and fit” – this is where they are most helpful

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