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Learning From Lebron: 4 Ways to Write All-Star Essays

Photo Credit: Walter Iooss Jr., Sports Illustrated

Photo Credit: Walter Iooss Jr., Sports Illustrated

Today Lebron James announced he is returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Being a lifelong basketball fan, I was floored by his announcement. Being a former Admissions Director, I was more impressed by his “essay.”

B-school applicants can learn a lot from this piece. It’s not that different from an MBA statement of purpose.

First, some context for those of you who don’t follow basketball: Lebron James is widely considered the world’s best basketball player. He’s won 2 NBA championships and 4 MVP awards. And yes, he didn’t “write” this essay. That was done by Lee Jenkins, a Sports Illustrated journalist, who put Lebron’s words to paper.

Still, disclaimers aside, it was a gripping and revealing piece (please read it).

Here are 4 techniques you can learn from Lebron to make your MBA essays more powerful:

1. Get personal

Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart. People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”

Lebron gets personal from the start. The NBA equivalent of Superman is talking about “crying,” “bleeding,” and “his heart.” By talking about his childhood – and showing his vulnerability – he makes it easier for basketball fans to relate to him.

He doesn’t launch into his decision (what everyone wants to know) and use matter-of-fact logic to defend it. He first sets the tone. Why? To make readers care.

MBA applicants often feel like they have to portray themselves as Supermen/women in their applications. I don’t blame this gut instinct. With so much competition, don’t they have to be the best at X, Y, Z and have done X, Y, Z? This would make them the logical choice.

The problem is that a list of achievements doesn’t make readers remember you. But a personal story does.

As my mom said after reading the essay, “It’s from the heart.”

Writing from the heart is more memorable than a list of accomplishments.

2. Jump into Conflict

“Remember when I was sitting up there at the Boys & Girls Club in 2010? I was thinking, this is really tough. I could feel it. I was leaving something I had spent a long time creating. If I had to do it all over again, I’d obviously do things differently, but I’d still have left.”

After setting the tone in the first paragraph, Lebron takes readers into a scene that symbolizes the central conflict of the story – deciding which team to join.

He brings up the last time he switched teams in 2010. He doesn’t have to describe the scene in detail because so many basketball fans saw “The Decision” and remember it all too well: Lebron sitting nervously in a folding chair, biting his lip, finally breaking the suspense by saying he’s “taking his talents to South Beach [Miami].” He’s got us hooked. Now we want to know how this decision is different from the last one.

I talked about this in Episode 51: Stalking the Story. You want to do two things at the start of your essays: set the scene and introduce the central conflict.  By doing this, you add tension to your essay – and keep the reader reading.  350 words into a 950-word essay and Lebron still hasn’t mentioned his decision, and then only does so indirectly. Fittingly, Lebron ends the 950-word essay with “I’m coming home” – the resolution to the conflict. He’s kept us reading until the very end.

Resolving the conflict in your essays should mean the world to you. Then, the actions you take will reveal more about you then words ever could.

3. Reveal Yourself through Action

“To make the move I needed the support of my wife and my mom, who can be very tough. The letter from Dan Gilbert, the booing of the Cleveland fans, the jerseys being burned — seeing all that was hard for them. My emotions were more mixed. It was easy to say, “OK, I don’t want to deal with these people ever again.” But then you think about the other side. What if I were a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left? How would I react? I’ve met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man. We’ve talked it out. Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?”

And what do Lebron’s actions – the middle paragraphs of the essay – reveal?

That he’s thankful to his former teammates (“we are brothers for life”), grateful to his former team (“Miami, for me, has been like college”), and excited for his new teammates (“I think I can help Kyrie”).

That he’s conflicted (“my emotions were mixed”), self-reflective (“who am I to hold a grudge?”), mature (“but then you think about the other side”), and prepared for the challenges ahead (“it will be a long process”).

By taking us through his thought process we better understand Lebron James as a person. We know this is a very emotional decision for him and that he’s considered every angle. He’s shown his maturity without telling us he is mature. This is the exact impression he wants to make – and the exact opposite impression he made in 2010 the last time he made a decision.

Your actions say more about you than any declarative statement (i.e. I am mature). Lebron chose to return to a town that booed him and burned his jersey. Pick a story where your actions reveal your best qualities. Show, don’t tell.

4. Link Your Goals to a Larger Purpose

“But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.”

By linking his decision to a larger purpose, Lebron makes us root for him. It’s human nature to be selfish, but it’s also human nature to admire those dedicated to a cause bigger than themselves.

Was his choice about money? Perhaps. Winning? Likely.  But if Lebron wrote about money or winning more championships, we’d be a bit turned off.

Similarly, MBA applicants who link their career goals to a larger purpose are more likely to win admissions officers’ empathy, especially if the connection is genuine.

This doesn’t have to be about saving the world. The bigger purpose could be economic growth in your country, stability for your family, or being at the forefront of a new industry.

Lebron makes his decision about “more than basketball” and about hope and example.

How can you argue with that?  You can’t.

Final Thoughts

Lebron wrote: “I’m doing this essay because I want an opportunity to explain myself uninterrupted.” You have a similar opportunity with your MBA essays. You may never dunk like Lebron. But you can use the 4 essay techniques above to make your essays just as powerful.

Want more essay writing tips? Check out these podcast episodes or our comprehensive 33 min video on winning essays in our Admissions Edge Course.

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