How to write a compelling MBA admissions essay

Harvard is home to a famous allegory often attributed to the late management guru Peter Drucker. The fable initially came to my attention from an address Harvard University President Drew Faust made in 2008 on the future of business education. It is The Parable of the Three Stone Cutters and while many versions of it exist, this one is mine:

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The Parable of the Three Stone Cutters

A rich nobleman was on a journey far away from home, when he encountered three laborers toiling away in the quarry by the side of the road. When his caravan stopped for a rest, he called out to them and asked each what he was doing.

The first rested his arm on his pick, wiped the sweat from his brow, and replied, 'I’m making a living – as honestly as I can.'

The second stood tall, puffed out his chest and replied, 'I’m working hard to become the best stone cutter in all these lands.'

The third barely looked up, instead pointing a finger skyward. 'I’m building a cathedral.'

The question that often follows this parable is which of the three stone cutters is the most compelling? Let’s put it another way. If you were an MBA admissions director and had one final spot in your class for a stone cutter, who would you admit? Are they all the same, or do their answers reveal something important about their work and motivations? Let’s examine them in turn.

The First Stone Cutter is transactional. He is providing for his family and the nature of his work is ancillary. He provides no reason as to why he is a stone cutter instead of some other profession. Maybe his true calling was to be a brick layer. He doesn’t bring any passion to his description of his work and so we’re not that excited about it either. If we were to consider his future, what would we expect his next career move to be? We really have no idea. His vision offers no roadmap of where he’s been and where he is going. We really know nothing about him.

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The Second Stone Cutter is professional. He is motivated to become the best version of himself. With confidence, we may assume that his current job is a necessary step on his path to become a better stone cutter. We can imagine a set of follow-on jobs – surveyor, foreman, architect – that he may pursue once he has learned everything he can at his current job. Sure, stone cutting may not be that interesting to us, but we can admire someone’s dedication to their chosen profession. Yet somehow his story is still lacking. His vision starts and ends with himself. He sounds like he is gliding through the world, not improving it. He offers no “cause” that we can be behind if we were inclined to support him, except perhaps a scholarship for stone cutter school.

The third stone cutter is aspirational. He tells us nothing about his specific work or how he came to pursue it, yet we understand him instinctively. We know why he is doing what he is doing and have a clear road map of where we think he will go. He offers a mission that is audacious, concrete, and larger than himself. It’s a vision we can root for and one large enough for us to imagine concrete ways of helping.

What makes the Third Stone Cutter so much more compelling than the other two is his narrative. Though he may be engaged in the small work of cutting a single stone, he vividly shows us how it fits into a greater mission. His purpose in life has shocking clarity. In our hearts, he is so much more than just a stone cutter. He is a “cathedral builder”.

Now, think about how you can apply this parable in your MBA application. How can you become the Third Stone Cutter?