Even for skilled writers, personal statements for MBA and Master's applications can feel frustrating and strange. Most of us grew up learning not to brag about ourselves. At the same time, it isn’t always clear what is most interesting about our lives and aspirations, and it’s hard figuring out what to emphasize. When applicants fail to navigate these challenges properly, their essays can feel more like a dry narrative version of their CV or otherwise fail to portray themselves in a unique and compelling way.
If you’re struggling with how to build your personal statement for business school, I have some basic advice: think of it as a movie.
Most of us love movies, and at the very least, we intuitively understand what makes a good one. Applying these same concepts to your personal statement can fix many of the most common problems applicants experience.
Here are three tips to get you started.
Tip #1: Have a hero
First, have a hero (you)! Whether we’re talking about Spiderman or Bridgerton, every movie or TV show has a protagonist whose actions and choices move the story forward and make the audience care. Remember, these essays – and indeed, your whole MBA or Master's application – are ultimately about you, so make sure that you are always the main character in them.
Don’t spend too much time talking abstractly about a problem or describing things that happened on the job or in school when you weren’t around. Instead, focus on what you did, your actions, and how you succeeded or failed in crucial moments. You’ll often hear people advise applicants to “show, don’t tell,” and while this is good advice, it’s a little opaque. One concrete way to think about it is that, for example, instead of writing at length about how you see artificial intelligence (AI) as the future of business, try talking about how you used AI on a project.
Tip #2: Have a villain
Second, have a villain. I don’t mean that you should spend a paragraph trashing your coworkers. Instead, in every movie, there is some big problem or impediment that the hero has to overcome. Think about your life and career, identify the most difficult moment (or even the biggest failure), and reflect on how you overcame it.
If you want the reader to think that you are smart, give them a story of how you had to solve a complex problem. If you want the reader to think you are tough and resourceful, tell them about the time you navigated your way through a huge problem despite long odds and few resources. The “villain” is just the way a storyteller highlights the best of their protagonist. So, think in terms of a challenging moment you experienced, and then be specific and thoughtful about describing how overcoming it highlights a particular strength or ability you want to be central to your university application.
Tip #3: Describe the hero’s two journeys
Lastly, think about “the hero’s two journeys”. In most movies, the hero does two things: they accomplish an essential task and undergo an important change along the way. When you describe your professional, academic, or personal accomplishments, don’t forget to clarify how overcoming a significant challenge changed you, altered your worldview, or provided you with skills, resources, or knowledge that will enable you to succeed going forward.
The best personal statements I’ve ever encountered read much more like movie scripts than CVs. They tell the applicant’s story, emphasize their strengths through personal examples, and show that they have the personal insight to learn, grow, and improve. It’s not just about cramming in every single accomplishment and award; it’s about providing the reader with a convincing narrative about who you are, what you value, and what you can achieve in an MBA or Master's program. In other words, you need to convince them that you’re the hero they’re looking for.
Gurufi was founded in 2008 by a group of Yale University entrepreneurs to help applicants improve their admissions writing by connecting them with expert editors. In the decade+ since, Gurufi has served over 9,500 clients with a satisfaction rate of over 99%.