The Most Annoying MBA Essays Of 2014

studyingWith round two deadlines just about to pop and thousands of MBA applicants sweating over their essays, it might be a good time to ask a rather pointed question: Which application questions are the most annoying and unfair, the most incomprehensible and pointless?

So that’s exactly what we did. We asked ten highly prominent MBA admissions consultants to identify the business school essay prompts to hate in this 2014-2015 admissions cycle. We expected the consultants to name a wide variety of schools and questions. Sure enough, there was no shortage of essay prompts from a fairly large sample of top business schools. In all, nine different MBA programs were named.

The University of Virginia’s Darden School and IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, were singled out by a couple of consultants, while such institutions as UC-Berkeley’s Haas School, Duke, Kellogg, and Wharton also drew criticism.


But there also was a clear winner for the most annoying and pointless question of the year: MIT’s directive to applicants to write a recommendation letter on their behalf. More than 60% of the consultants who responded to our question named MIT as the school with the dumbest question. “It’s a classic case of people sitting in a room and dreaming up an idea, with no consideration of the actual value,” says Adam Hoff of Amerasia Consulting Group. “It is such an absurd question.”

Jeremy Shinewald, founder and president of mbaMission, piles on, saying his entire consulting crew thinks the MIT question is nothing less than bizarre. “The consultants on our team are nearly universal in their agreement,” he says. “The MIT ‘recommendation letter’ essay is an irritant to applicants and is almost bizarre from our admissions perspective. It gives applicants practice at doing exactly what admissions committees don’t want them to do – write their own letters! It forces applicants to ‘humble-brag’ which is unfair to them and it is a challenge to avoid redundancy, because an applicant doesn’t know what their boss has/will say. I would be surprised if this essay were back next year.”

Sandy Kreisberg of finds fault not only with that one question but with the entire MIT application this year. Opines Kreisberg: “Because the questions are both odd and nearly incomprehensible, it is Xmas for consultants, as confused internationals, head-scratching Americans, and even office managers at consulting firms call up to say, ‘Whaaaaaaa.’ There are two very odd essays and a recommendation form that is now non-standard (compared to H/S/W) and annoying.”


After stating that the mission of the MIT Sloan School of Management is to develop principled, innovative leaders who improve the world and to generate ideas that advance management practice, the school asks applicants to discuss how they will contribute toward advancing the mission based on examples of past work and activities.

“The first question is one I have to read over each time to remind myself of exactly what is being asked,” says Kreisberg. “Just a robot upchuck of generic business jargon and do-gooder banalities totally unrelated to what the really great things about Sloan are: that is cool, inventive, quirky, techy, smart, off-beat and fun. No, Santa, the mission of Sloan is NOT to ‘to develop principled, innovative leaders who improve the world and to generate ideas that advance management practice.’ No one but this question has ever said that is the mission of Sloan. That is the mission of the Harvard Philosophy Department and Boston College Divinity School. The mission of Sloan is to do cool stuff, invent great shit, and have fun doing it. The mission of Sloan is also to use semi-hard math to make a lot of money.

“I realize you cannot say that in an application, but you can ask a question which gets applicants to think in that general direction. And also find out more about Sloan, and get excited. But if you have not read the actual question in full, it is worth reprinting, because its like Snapchat, the actual directions, that is, the question the writer is supposed to answer, grammatically disappears every time you finish getting through it.”


Dan Bauer, founder and CEO of The MBA Exchange, has a similar point of view. “We call this as the ‘Back to the Future’ essay,” he says. ” That is, Sloan asks the applicant to revisit the past (work & activities) and tie it to Sloan’s vision for the future (improving the world and advancing management practice).  What about the present?  Preparing this essay requires poetic license that would challenge an experienced author let alone an MBA applicant who typically lacks access to a ‘flux capacitor.'”

Even so, Kreisberg really seems irritated by the MIT recommendation essay. As he puts it, “There is another question, a so-called “cool” question which is like no other in the catalog of B-school applications. You are supposed to write your own rec. And as bad and unoriginal and uninspiring as that is, the way the actually state the instructions makes it worse. If you are unfamilar with this one, as they say over there in Central Square, ‘brace yourself Waldo.'”

“It is more robo-jargon upchuck mixed in with actual down-to-earth confusion. I really appreciate how the subject of the question changes, without warning, from the first and second sentence, the first one addressed to the poor kid reading it, and the second one to the imaginary and oh-so-clever reviewer. This is made worse by the fact that most applicants will be getting a REAL recommendation from their most recent supervisor, the very person they are supposed to be imagining writing the rec below. Clever, crazy, fun, helpful, revealing–no, no, no, no and no. Stupid, lazy, dashed-off, confusing and annoying?”


Here is how MIT asks the second essay question:

We are interested in specific examples of intellectual and professional achievement and how they might relate to graduate study in management and in a career as a manager or business leader. In addition, we are very interested in the character of the applicant and will be helped by any information in that regard. Write a professional letter of recommendation on behalf of yourself. Answer the following questions as if you were your most recent supervisor recommending yourself for admission to the MIT Sloan MBA Program: (750 words or fewer)

How long and in what capacity have you known the applicant?
How does the applicant stand out from others in a similar capacity?
Please give an example of the applicant’s impact on a person, group, or organization.
Please give a representative example of how the applicant interacts with other people.
Which of the applicant’s personal or professional characteristics would you change?
Please tell us anything else you think we should know about this applicant.


  • hbsguru

    “Actually, that is the mission of Sloan. It’s carved into the f**king
    wall. We talk it about quite often, and it’s a major piece of how we
    think about the school. In fact, it’s often the guiding principle by
    which we discuss the school’s direction.”

    ???? seriously.

  • Keyser Soze

    I totally agree with what you said, but I think that companies carry most of the blame for this. The recruiters choose based on the names from the resume (because most of them don’t know anything else!), and schools end up feeding them with what they want…

  • Keyser Soze

    The fact that they have the right to ask whatever they want doesn’t mean that we cannot question their logic! It’s not a stretch to drop them because, if they’ve already made such a high impact blunder, chances are this won’t be the only one. Just to give an example, the bidding system for course registration is a blunder of the same caliber in my mind. If following directions is all that matters, as opposed to reasoning with our own minds, why don’t we accept robots in the MBA programs?

  • WriterDudeLA

    More rubbish. We’re becoming a grossly impersonal “form letter” society. They’re not asking for a letter of recommendation. They’re asking you to pigeon hole the candidate into a narrow range of options, not unlike automatic telephone answering systems. What if their questions have nothing to do with a candidate’s abilities or background? In short, they are just trying to make it easier on themselves. I don’t have a problem with personalized follow-up questionnaire that seeks clarification of a recommender’s comments or one that seeks information about something not touched upon in the letter of recommendation. But when they try to depersonalize a letter of recommendation, I have to draw the line.

  • roger

    I don’t see anything wrong with Duke’s question. And is certainly a stretch to drop an entire university because an admissions dude wrote a question you didn’t like. How far would you go to avoid a bad question? Would you drop a Harvard scholarship? Would you walk out at the last interview to be a director at Google?

    As for the question:
    If you list 24, you were not able to follow the directions.
    By your reasoning, you could ask any school why X letters of recommendation? Why not 29 or zero?
    And the overall idea of the essay is basically to show your strengths as bullet points or something like it, and have a lot of them – 25 things allow one to know more than one or two.

  • Ankita

    RE: MIT App. I agree that writing your own recommendation sucks, but if you look at it on the Admissions perspective I guess it makes sense. With it being so common for applicants to write their own recs in general for BSchool app, they want to make sure that the recommender actually wrote it by themselves. What better way to keep that in check than to write your own rec? Also, in my visit to MIT sloan – it sounds like they live and breathe their mission statement in and outside of the classroom. @John, I don’t know why you are beating Sloan up so much. Your applying the “build cool stuff” stereotype of the university onto the business school and it just isn’t so. Yes, there’s a lot of entrepreneurship — but majority of the school DOES NOT have a techie background.

  • WTF

    I’m sorry to say this, but the whole MBA app concept is severely fu%@ed up. There are millions of examples of people being accepted despite inability to speak/think/do basic math/etc. to top schools, and even more instances when people are rejected simply because the office of admissions does not have a clue about non-ordinary things that someone is trying to convey through their essays/answers.
    Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of smart people with good credentials who were not considered at all only because they had not worked at Bain, Google, etc., and hence their backgrounds were more unusual than people are used to.

    And despite what the shiny marketing booklets say, the admissions people don’t give a damn about one’s personality and abilities. It’s all about money and/or known names on the resume. :/

  • Keyser Soze

    I totally respect the fact that you found the essay useful. As far as I’m concerned, I found it easy to portray who I am even in more generic essays, so the prompt didn’t bring any additional value.

  • UmNoJustNo

    Such questions are a sign of lazy adcoms.

  • Keyser Soze

    As you can plainly see from the above conversation, it’s more than one consultant…:) When many people dislike an essay prompt, I cannot see how this can help the school in any way.

  • foookoooa

    I would agree with you there, however from all the interviews I went through, not all of them went in that direction. Along with Darden (which is a 20-30 minute narrative) and maybe one other school, was I able to paint the full picture. Otherwise, sometimes it was just bits and pieces. To each their own i guess. I quite enjoyed the 25 things. I will say however that it was MIT’s essay that put me off from even applying.

  • Hell_Biker

    Wouldn’t that be better revealed through a conversation during an interview? It’s not hard for interviewers to take the conversation in that direction.

  • Hell_Biker

    So any criticism of your alma mater is equivalent to being “lazy and arrogant”?

    Sorry, everyone’s school makes some stupid decisions now and then. Duke is no exception and neither is any school I’ve ever attended.

  • foookoooa

    Within the 25 things about you, you’re able to illustrate a wide variety of aspects of your life, things that you would’ve included in more generic essays. I quite liked it since it allowed me to be introspective about my entire life, and it allowed me to portray who I was, my likes and dislikes, and how i came to want an MBA. It’s just a different format. It just takes the copy and paste from another school out of it and asks candidates for a bit more thought.

  • Hell_Biker

    It was the exact opposite for me…..perks of being a combat vet.

  • Keyser Soze

    The only arrogant around here is you. I think everybody is entitled to have an opinion… Or maybe “Team Fuqua” should be translated as “Brain-washed Fuqua”!

  • Dukenonapplicant

    Soooo agree with this!!!

  • RandomeDude

    I don’t understand…how is it not up to the school, the institution asking for the recommendation? If the school wants to know about certain aspects of a candidate’s character, why is it that they are suddenly not allowed to ask them? They’re looking for a 3rd party perspective on the applicant, but since they each want different things from their applicants it’s reasonable to ask the 3rd party about different things.

    Asking specific questions doesn’t make the letter any less personal. It just says…we want your take on this person’s ability to X.

  • Duke Alumnus

    Believe me, it’ s a loss to Fuqua if a lazy and arrogant student like yourself were to join the program.

  • Keyser Soze

    For me, the lamest MBA essay is Duke’s “Tell us 25 random things about yourself”. First, what’s the relevance of the chosen number? Why not 14, 39, 61 or 87 random things? Second, how is this going to determine whether I’m a qualified candidate or not? If I can only list 24 random things, this means that I’m not MBA worthy? As far as I’m concerned, this is only a PR exercise meant to show off the school’s creativity, and I refuse to be a part of it. That’s why I dropped Duke from my list, and now I’m the happy student of a different school.

  • Tuk Tran

    Rod loves to say that we dont care about “why MIT” or your career goals because you will just give us something from the web or what we want to hear…but when you go to the Sloan youtube channel you get this woman saying you need to ask good questions at the end (which means you have to really research on the web why mit!) and answer why mit during the interview! which means you have to give them the BS that they say they dont want in the first place! –many of the interviewers ask why mit even though they say in the presentations they dont care why mit! Rod needs to get everyone on the same page

    also that weird extra essay,,,they need to explain it more!

  • 2cents

    This always bothered me… The only real question for essays to consider is some form of who are you (can be rolled into maybe why b-school, how will we help you to get there, what drives/motivates you, etc.), and in reality these essays often matter less than the rest of the application. They’re used to determine communication ability – the ability to influence and arouse emotion through words is certainly important, but that will also show most clearly through your recommenders (unless you force an awkward video application).

    Schools with more complex essay selection I always felt were using it to screen themselves from being a “backup” school. Also agreed on non-standard recommendations.

    Edit – looks like Adam Hoff said exactly what I wrote in the article. strong second

  • WriterDudeLA

    Rubbish. It’s not up to the Management School to determine what I put in my letters of recommendation or make me “jump through some hurdles” to prove anything. A letter of recommendation is a very personal undertaking and when schools tell people what to put in the letters, they cease to have any evaluative value.

  • RandomDude

    Not all schools want the same information from your recommenders–many of them consider recommendations among the most important aspects of your application.

    Not to mention, it’s another hurdle in and of itself. Have you inspired enough loyalty in your bosses that they are willing to jump through some hurdles for you.

  • Prospie

    So one consultant took objection to one of Fuqua’s essay prompts and the authors decided to include Fuqua in the title of the article? This is fair and unbiased reporting for you. What a farce!

  • DeeFan

    The really appalling aspect of the MIT essay question is not the question itself, but rather that the people that designed the question have a say in reviewing applicant credentials.

  • Liz

    Darden applicant here…the Knowledge & Skills “essay” criticized here was, on the application, clearly not an essay. I think it showed up at the end of the application page about my work experience. I saw this as an opportunity to succinctly tie things together from my work experience, and a bit to answer why I’d be a good fit. I approached it like I did the 250-word goal questions that most other schools I applied to asked. They clearly weren’t looking for engaging prose here, just for you to get to the point.

    That said, the “most courageous thing” was pretty difficult. For my fellow applicant friends and I, not even the top 10 or 20 most courageous decisions of our lives were professional decisions, so it was hard to find that professional example and make it seem truly transformative and important.

  • larryflynt

    My pet peeve is non-standard recommendation questions (I know some – H/S/W have taken steps to standardize) and random word limits. Why cant we have a standard guidance for a recommendation letter and leave it upto the recommenders to come up with a standard recommendation which can be uploaded across apps. It is not fair to expect recommenders to sit and tailor each recommendation for the various schools I am applying to. This understandably causes delays because in most cases recommenders are senior busy professionals. Applicants as a result go through unnecessary stress on aspects of the application which are beyond their control.

  • Duke Alumnus

    The people complaining above Fuqua’s essay prompt are either lazy or are applying to Duke for the wrong reasons. The prompt is simply trying to assess whether you’re applying to both business school and Fuqua in particular for the right reasons. Thats all.