There are a handful of business school essay questions that seem to capture the heart and imagination of many an MBA program.
It seems that, across the board, admissions committees feel these queries offer the best insight into the minds of their applicants. You are likely to see a version of one or more of these common MBA essay questions on your b-school application. These tips will help you craft the perfect answer.
1. Describe your specific career aspirations and your reason for pursuing an MBA.
This may be the most important essay question you tackle. You must convince the admissions committee that you deserve one of their few, cherished spots. Reference your background, skills, and career aspirations, demonstrating how this degree is a bridge to the next step in your professional life. Be sure to speak to how this particular program will help you realize your potential.
It's okay to present modest goals. Deepening your expertise and broadening your perspective are solid reasons for pursuing this degree. If you aspire to lofty goals, like becoming a CEO or starting your own company, be careful to detail a sensible (read: realistic), pragmatic plan.
2. What are your principal interests outside of work or school? What leisure and/or community activities do you particularly enjoy?
There's more to b-school than the library. The best programs buzz with the energy of a student body that is talented and creative and bursting with personality. These students are not just about case studies and careers. Describe how you will be a unique addition to the business school community.
B-school is also a very social experience. Much of the work is done in groups. Weekends are full of social gatherings or immersion experiences, and the networking you do here will impact the rest of your career. Communicate that people, not just your job, are an important part of your life.
3. Who do you most admire?
The admissions committee wants to know the qualities, attributes and strengths you value in others and hope to embrace. Drive, discipline and vision are fine examples but try and look beyond these conventional characteristics. Tell a story and provide specific examples. If you choose someone famous (which is fine), remember that you risk being one of many in the pile. Instead, consider a current boss, business associate, or friend. Know that your choice of person is less important than what you say about him or her.
4. Describe a situation in which you led a team. What challenges did you face, and how did you overcome them?
The committee isn't looking to see how you saved the team through your heroic efforts (so put yourself on ego alert). They want to see how you helped foster an environment in which everyone contributes, illustrating that the sum is greater than its parts. B-schools like leaders, but they like leaders who can help everyone get along and arrive at a collaborative solution.
You should shift gears for this question. Almost the entire application process thus far has asked you to showcase "me-me-me." Now the focus of your story needs to be on the "we" and how you made the "we" happen.
5. Our business school is a diverse environment. How will your experiences contribute to this?
This essay gets at two concerns for the admissions committee: (1) how will you enrich the student body at this school and (2) what is your attitude toward others' diverse backgrounds?
Diversity comes in many shapes. If a grandparent or relative is an immigrant to this country, you can discuss the impact of his or her values on your life. Perhaps you are the first individual in your family to attend college or graduate school. Maybe you are involved in a meaningful or unusual extracurricular activity. Whatever you choose to write, it's vital that you discuss how it contributes to your unique perspective.
6. Describe a personal achievement that has had a significant impact on your life.
Don't pull your hair out just because you haven't founded a successful start-up or swum across the English Channel. Smaller accomplishments with a lot of personal significance are just fine if they demonstrate character, sacrifice, humility, dedication, or perseverance. A good essay describes how you reached a personal objective and what that meant to you. Maybe you didn't lead a sports team to a victory. Maybe the victory was that you made it onto the team .
7. Discuss a non-academic personal failure. What did you learn from the experience?
Many applicants make the mistake of answering this question with a failure that is really a positive. Or they never really answer the question, fearful that any admission of failure will throw their whole candidacy into jeopardy. Don't get crafty. You should answer with a genuine mistake that the committee will recognize as authentic.
Write about a failure that had some high stakes for you. Demonstrate what you learned from your mistake and how it helped you mature. This is a chance to show b-schools your ability to be honest, show accountability, and face your failures head-on.
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Click here to read the intro to this blog series! Send your admissions questions to timeout[at]veritasprep[dot]com!
Do you have any tips for writing admissions essays about myself?
If I may take some liberties in translating this question, I suspect you’re probably asking one of two questions:
- “I’m uncomfortable bragging about myself, but I know that I need to stand out from the crowd of amazing applicants to be accepted. How I am supposed to do that?” or…
- “Let’s be honest: I’m pretty dang awesome and I love bragging about myself. However, I don’t want to seem like a complete a****le to the admissions committee, so how can I showcase my strengths without seeming like I’m completely full of myself.”
Honestly, it doesn’t really matter to me which question you’re really asking. Either question is completely legitimate. Whether it’s applying for a job, seeking for a promotion or a raise from your boss, or applying to b-school, praising yourself is always an awkward balance of presenting facts favorable to yourself and showcasing some true humility.
While everyone’s essays will be different—and we specifically tell our clients NOT to force their essays into a specific cookie-cutter template—I can offer a few quick tips and principles that are generally applicable:
Show, Don’t Tell
This is a common piece of advice that certainly isn’t exclusive to Veritas Prep, but it’s still very powerful, nonetheless. Do not simply make claims about yourself in your essays, such as, “I have a strong work ethic.” Even the laziest of candidates can “tell” an admissions officer that they have a strong work ethic, so this does nothing to differentiate your candidacy. Instead, if you think one of the key strengths of your candidacy is your strong work ethic, think of stories or examples to showcase this. For example, “In 2011, I was awarded our companywide Employee of the Year award, and my supervisor specifically mentioned my unwavering work ethic as the primary reason she nominated me. I am relentless in pursuing my personal and team goals, and look forward to working with equally dedicated classmates on team projects at Wharton.” Tying the award to your personality trait enables you to “show” the admissions committee some evidence of that trait rather than just trying to “tell” them about it.
Using “mini-stories” is a perfect way to “show” rather than “tell.” As a former journalist, I highly encourage my consulting clients to tell stories from their past to make their points. However, when people think of telling a story, they often think about crafting a beginning, middle and end. In fact, many of your essays will be structured this way (we call it the SAR method for Situation-Action-Result, but we’ll discuss that in another post). However, crafting a multi-paragraph story that really only makes one point or showcases one of your strengths may not be the best use of your word count. Instead, I encourage my clients to think of “mini stories” — quick, one or two line examples from their life that will make their point without the need for lots of context.
For example, a common type of admissions essay will ask you to write about your unique background, skills, experiences, etc. that you will bring to the MBA program. I have a very charismatic and enthusiastic personality, and I thought this would be something important to mention in my essay. In my first draft, I started writing, “I bring enthusiasm to every organization.” Then I realized that this was not particularly effective, since anyone can say they bring enthusiasm to an organization. I starting thinking about stories I could tell that would show this particular character trait. However, I wanted to include many other things in the essay, so I didn’t want to take up much space. I remembered a conversation that I had with a friend that worked perfectly. I started my essay with the line: “I have a friend, Cheryl, who has posted a goal on her bathroom mirror that states, ‘Be the most enthusiastic person you know.’ Cheryl came to me and said, ‘Travis, I can’t accomplish my goal because you are the most enthusiastic person I know!’”
In just two and a half lines, I was able to show a completely unquantifiable trait like “enthusiasm” in a way that any admissions officer would understand and appreciate. After making this statement, I followed it up by saying that I bring a sense of optimism and enthusiasm to every project I undertake. My personal philosophy is that pessimism harms team morale even more than failure. In a tiny “mini-story,” I was able to offer the admissions officer a little glimpse into how I think, my unique perspective and philosophy in life, and how I’m perceived by others in a genuine, honest and fairly humble way. Take a look at the stories you want to tell and determine whether they deserve a “full treatment” with a beginning, middle and end, or whether you can find a “mini-story” to say pretty much the same thing.
Don’t Try to Oversell Yourself
Since Job #1 in your application is to show the admissions officer that you’re a worthy candidate for their program, there’s always a temptation to write as if you’re some kind of unconquerable superhero without a single chink in your armor. To be perfectly honest, the most successful candidates I’ve seen at top-tier B-schools, especially at the highest ranked schools of Stanford GSB and Harvard Business School, have been those who were ridiculously down-to-earth, not afraid to talk about huge failures, and were 100% genuine in their applications. Admissions officers are not looking for over-wrought, over-crafted works of art in your application. They want to find out about the real you and what makes you tick.
The real key to writing about yourself is selecting the right stories. You need to find those stories that say a TON about who you are, how you think, how you react to less-than-ideal situations or solve problems in the fewest words possible. Don’t try to be a hero—just be your best self.
I hope those bits of advice are helpful in crafting your ideal applications. Of course, our Veritas Prep Admissions Consultants are the experts in helping you dive deep within yourself, see what’s there, and determine how to express the depths of your soul in just 300-500 words!
If you’re thinking about applying to business school, call us at 1-800-925-7737 and speak with an MBA admissions expert today. And, as always, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter! If you have any admissions questions for the blog, please send them to timeout[at]veritasprep[dot]com.
Travis Morgan is the Director of Admissions Consulting for Veritas Prep and earned his MBA with distinction from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He served in the Kellogg Student Admissions Office, Alumni Admissions Organization and Diversity & Inclusion Council, among several other posts. Travis joined Veritas Prep as an admissions consultant and GMAT instructor, and he was named Worldwide Instructor of the Year in 2011.