Sports-as-life. Human agency. Filial heritage. Are these topics too familiar, corny, overreaching for an MBA admissions essay? This personal essay by Jeff Otis, who went from third-rate NFL malcontent to clear-eyed pragmatist at the Darden School of Business, is not actually an MBA essay, but it does possess many of the qualities of a great one. Though a large chunk of the piece reads like hollow brochure copy (swap "Darden" with any top-50 b-school and see how little it matters), the humdrum stuff is easy to spot and skip. Let's take a look at this thoughtful piece of writing and see what can be learned and applied to writing a personal statement.
Wasting no time, he begins his story with childhood and introduces, in the first sentence, what will be the cornerstones of his essay: "I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri with my mother and father, one older brother and two older sisters where I played high school football." Neighborhood, family and football—these are the three threads Otis will weave together to craft his argument for getting an MBA. With those three threads he will define his interests, his background, his experience, and do so in a narrative. And while the opening lacks flare and originality, it's straightforward and effective and it works.
Next, he rattles off his athletic resume, drops in an accomplishment, and cites an obstacle which he uses as a motive for going to business school. It makes for a nice segue into the Why an MBA? question, which he artfully addresses.
My dad has been a real estate entrepreneur for almost 35 years, so I grew up with business in my blood and I always knew I wanted to follow in his footsteps as a businessman. One of my sisters and brother-in-law lived in Virginia and that’s how I started looking into the business community here.
Otis unearths the seeds of interest in his past, tracks it to bloodlines, and plants it in the geography of a community. And he gets it done in two sentences—impressive, more so because he avoids rhetorically asking, as many do, Why am I getting an MBA? The most persuasive ideas are hidden, or hinted at obliquely, because they allow the reader to discover the connection himself (inception!).
Otis also employs an anecdote and the use of dialogue as a setup to his revelatory moment. In a scene where he asks his mentor QB Kurt Warner for advice, Otis realizes how his time on the sidelines prepared him for a moment of deep self-understanding.
Kurt: Can you control the opportunities that are given to you?
Me: I guess not.
Kurt: Can you control how you react when you don’t get the opportunities you’re looking for?
Kurt: Can you control how you play when you do get in?
Kurt: Quit worrying about things you can’t control and focus on what you can control. Once you realize your ability to react to the opportunities and challenges before you, you can either be positive or negative. But you always have a choice.
What a big, defining moment this is, and it's told straight, without being schmaltzy about it. In fact, the whole exchange is very stoic. Sentiment over sentimentality—that's the way to do it.
What's effective about this essay is that Otis took a simple idea—lessons learned on the gridiron are like lessons learned in b-school—and upon reflecting on it, discovered there was a narrative there. As narratives have the advantage of requiring character, scenes and conflict, they make for an engaging and emotionally authentic reading experience. Any admissions officer will appreciate a candidate who can accomplish such an impressive feat.
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