MBA Candidates: Knives Down!

PSA time. 

To all MBA Candidates out there, especially those of you racing to hit the HBS deadline on September 9th ... please, for the love, know when to set your essay down, put your hands in the air, and say "time."  I borrow from Top Chef and call it "put your knives down!"  

It's that moment in the show when the buzzer has sounded and they have no choice but to put the chef's knife down, put their hands in the air, and accept that their dish is finished.  In our situation, there isn't a buzzer (yet), but we can still use the principle.  In fact, one of the great ironies of the Top Chef "quick fire" challenge that gave me this expression is that some of the best dishes on that show come because there IS a buzzer - it keeps the contestants from noodling and tweaking and, basically, ruining a great plate of food.  

So ... how can we use this for our MBA apps? 

When I think about telling a client, "Yo, knives down," it is usually because they are about to do more harm than good with that blade.  

Other times, it is because the blade is almost too sharp - cutting away the little imperfections that made it feel authentic.  Other times, it is because the blade is getting passed around to people who don't know how to use a knife.  In each case though, what we are starting with is a really good dish.  Meaning: a strong essay that displays a lot of thought, hits on the DNA of the school, and has an authentic voice.  

Is every single word perfect?  As in: would it win a writing contest?  Not relevant.  

In fact, you would not WANT that, because it will reflect a bad reality (usually either that you are so anal retentive that every single word has to be perfect, or that you had someone else rewrite it).  How do you know if you have a good essay?  Well, usually you will be somewhere between version three and version six and you will have a trusted expert telling you it's good.  You can also tell if the feedback you are getting is down to just a few points and that expert is saying things like "almost there!"  It is at this point that you want to put your knife down.  Do not keep slicing and dicing and chopping and searing and whatever it is your trying to do

My co-owner and company founder Paul Lanzillotti calls it the Wordsmithing Draft - it's that v5 or v6 of an essay that a client sends over that should be basically done ... and suddenly has like 60 changes tracked.  Once upon a time, we would go through and reconcile those; indicating which were good (rare), which were negligible and a matter of taste (probably the most common), and which were causing problems (more common than you would think).  Now?  We more or less just say "go back to the previous version."  It seems kind of harsh, but here is why we say that: 

1. Often, changes have overt negative effects.

This is the most obvious and important and you would think this alone would be enough to make people think twice.  Why swap out a vetted word or sentence for a replacement that has not been vetted?  The upside to finding a "better" word is so small, whereas the downside of messing something up is pretty big.  The risk-reward here says "do not make changes unless you have to." 

2. Some changes, while positive in a vacuum, have a negative overall impact on the essay.  

This is a harder thing to deal with, because it requires long, elaborate explanations for why a seemingly innocuous change has actually caused damage.  Sometimes it is because the change might (or will) alienate the reader.  Sometimes it is because the change starts to move away from that specific school's DNA.  Other times it is because the change just sort of sands away the voice that made the essay authentic to begin with.  In other words, you might get a sentence that is "better," but that no longer feels like you wrote it - that is where you get feedback like "this feels overwritten."  A good consultant or evaluator is constantly trying to help you achieve an essay that is A) personal, B) a fit with that school, C) structurally sound, and D) authentic.  It's not easy to coach someone on those first three points and still retain the last one.  Yet that is the job and we do it well.  However, it's also because we have a process that relies on knowing where to press and sculpt and shape - and when to leave well enough alone.  I've left plenty of clunky little phrases or odd word choices ... because it retains the voice of the essay's author.  I don't WANT it to to sound like it came out of an essay machine - you shouldn't want that and I know admissions officers sure don't want that.  Yet so often, after all that work, a client will swoop in at the last minute and do it to himself or herself - they will wordsmith the whole essay and it will sound like it was cut and paste from a "best 100 admissions essay" book.  This honestly has potentially disastrous consequences. 

3. Changes made by amateurs will almost always hurt you on the above two points.  

The thing that is most maddening of all is when a client hands a nearly-completed essay to someone who is a "good writer," be it a friend, spouse, parent, sibling, boss, alumni member, you name it.  That person will almost always spill a ton of red ink - especially if they are basically just rewriting it.  This is in part because people like to feel they are doing something (it takes a rare person who is confident enough to say, "thank you for asking me to review this; it looks great, I have nothing to add") and in part because people don't know what they are doing.  They might see a turn of phrase or a more clever way in or a different thing to emphasize - and that's the advice they give.  Nevermind that they are not qualified to do this, nor do they have any context as to where the content came from (meaning the previous 3-5 drafts).  And what happens, inevitably, is that all the changes land in one of the first two buckets - either causing errors, or just having an overall dulling of your voice and negative impact on your essay.  

Okay, so hopefully now you see the danger of taking something that is nearly done and opening it back up like a patient for surgery.  If you are someone who is in that situation, what I would implore you to do is put your knife down.  Pretend the buzzer just went off.  If you are working on this solo, have the confidence that you can complete the job (you obviously had enough confidence to go at it alone to begin with).  If you are working with a professional (and honestly, you should either use a pro or do it by yourself, as well-intentioned friends and family do more harm than good), trust that the person you are working with has a process designed to get you to "knives down."  I know I do.  

Good luck out there. 

If you are getting ready for the next admissions round, we want to hear from you at  If you are trying to hit the HBS Round 1 deadline, good luck - we are all going to need it!