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Authenticity – An undervalued asset

An English author once said “Truth is a hard master, and costly to serve, but it simplifies all problems.” This is good advice for applicants wanting to craft impactful essays for their MBA applications. ‘What matters most to you and why?’, ‘What is your most significant achievement?’, ‘Describe a recent failure and your learning from it’ – these are all difficult questions to answer at the best of times. What also makes these questions more difficult is the fact that there is no one right answer.
It’s no surprise therefore that most applicants undergo a certain level of struggle when it comes to crafting the right stories for their essays. But what if there is a secret mantra that could make this process simpler? Wouldn’t that be great? Almost all MBA programs stress on this secret in their advice to applicants making this a very open secret. But not too many applicants buy into or heed this advice. ‘Being authentic’ really does make sense and makes things much easier. It’s a real asset. Let’s see how.

1) The best essays are the ones that appeal to the rational and emotional side of the person evaluating them. When an applicant has done the hard work to represent their thoughts and actions more authentically, in most cases they will achieve a superior level of clarity in their essays. They come across as more rational and the admissions committee doesn’t have to second guess their intentions or their achievements. At the same time being authentic about one shortcomings and showing one’s vulnerability is no longer seen as a sign of weakness even for most powerful leaders. So authenticity helps in creating more effective and more emotionally appealing essays.

2) Authenticity is also a catalyst for an applicant in being more efficient in the admissions process. Most clients who work with us apply to an average of 3 to 4 MBA programs and it takes them 2 – 4 months of hard work to achieve this. Time is therefore at a real premium during this time. Its stands to reason that being authentic from the start saves an applicant a lot of time. They don’t have to unnecessarily worry at a later date about “aligning” their essays with their CV and they also don’t have to worry whether their recommendations will contradict something mentioned in the essays. Authenticity ensures that everyone is singing from the same song sheet all along.

3) There is a third and more subtle case to be made for authenticity. It not only makes one more confident when things are going well (you feel less of an imposter) but also helps you rationalize failure when things haven’t gone your way. In the unfortunate event of the school not offering you a place, you can rest assured that you at least gave it an honest shot.

Sometimes it takes an objective advisor to give an applicant the required confidence to be authentic. At the same time, an advisor can also help balance the authenticity with a certain degree of common sense and objective judgement. An example comes to mind. A client of ours was applying to a top 10 US MBA program a few years back and crafted a very authentic story around losing his way in his undergrad. As part of this story he also mentioned his brief experiment with recreational drugs. He kicked this habit in six months and wanted to highlight this victory to show how he dug deep to transform and refocus himself. We finally decided that this authentic detail didn’t add much to an already powerful story but carried with it a risk that his character could be questioned on basis of this one time transgression. We dropped this detail in his essay and he eventually made it to this program.

The most famous Bard sums it the best in his play Hamlet

This above all- to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”