What MBA Essays Tell You About The Schools

The essay question. Filling in those blanks on the business school application evokes agony and dread in aspiring MBA students. Essay questions tend to make applicants so anxious precisely because they explicitly invite self-expression. Perhaps it would offer some consolation, then, to consider that the questions provide a Rorschach not only for those seeking admission, but also for the schools themselves.

A look at the essay questions on the applications from some of the nation’s top business schools tell more of a story than you might imagine about the schools. We often communicate about ourselves deliberately, of course, but we also unintentionally reveal aspects of who we are all the time, without thinking about it, and without a trace of self-awareness. In the spirit of decoding what the best business schools are showing about themselves, here’s an admittedly subjective, highly impressionistic look at what they want you to write about.

When Harvard Business School opens its essay section inquiring about “your three most substantial accomplishments”, it’s not a leap to believe that Harvard – a bastion of higher overachievement – is signaling that “accomplishment”, past and future, is paramount. That Harvard people value getting things done comes through loud and clear. My favorite question on the Harvard application, though, is one of four optional essays, with a 400-word limit: “When you join the HBS Class of 2013, how will you introduce yourself to your new classmates?” This gets at the aspiring students’ sense of identity, and how they present themselves, and may shed light on how they might fit into a diverse group of students. The answer might also shed light on applicants’ anxiety about joining such a potent group.

Stanford Business School, on the other hand, starts by asking about values and aspirations: “What matters most to you, and why?” and then, more directly, “What are your career aspirations?” Hear, hear for directness. Not that Stanford is entirely focused on ideals; they also give applicants a choice among four other essay options, one of which inquires about experience on a high-performing team. As far as I could tell, Stanford was the only one of the top ten that didn’t specify the maximum number of words for their essays. It says something affirmative about the place that they trust applicants to use their own judgment about how much to write.

The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business starts by asking how the applicant’s most recent job or internship influenced their goals. Interesting question, but that’s diving down into the details rather than starting with a more open-ended question that gets a broader sense of the applicant’s motivations. Is this school more academic, or knee deep in the details of business, but less intent on producing leaders and entrepreneurs? I vaguely recall that when I applied to medical school nearly 30 years ago, the essay questions were more straightforward than some of these B-school specimens. “Why do you want to go to medical school?” is not a bad question, when you think about it, as it gets at motivation, commitment, thoughtfulness about one’s choices, and more. As someone who probably wasn’t cut out for a traditional medical career – training as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, but then veering off into starting a consulting firm advising CEOs and boards on leadership, succession, culture, investing and corporate crises – I wonder if any of my essays ever contained the seeds of doubt that gave rise to this transformation. Questions that stimulate applicants’ thinking would speak well of those schools.

Chicago, along with a few others, asks applicants to reflect on past mistakes or discuss a time when “you were surprised by feedback.” Seeking such candor is refreshing, although I wonder how many applicants will volunteer that they consistently demonstrate poor judgment or are managerially tone deaf. But then I got to the question that really surprised me: a request for a slide presentation! Chicago was the only one in the top ten to do this. Presumably the “four slides or less” on what “you would like your future classmates to know about you” tests the applicant’s written communications skills and ability to translate personal information into a visual modality. Again, PowerPoint skills can come in handy early in one’s career, but my travels through C-suites and boardrooms suggest that there is a gentle yet real tide turning against an over-reliance on “decks”, and more of a yearning for un-buffered conversation and interpersonal connectedness.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School application, like the school itself, gets right down to business. The mandatory essay asks about “professional objectives” while one of the optional questions engages the candidate’s imagination (what Wharton course would you want to design), giving as examples actual Wharton offerings on disaster response in Haiti and healthcare innovation in India. Clearly Wharton is signaling here that it values corporate social responsibility, as well as its global perspective. A few schools, including Wharton, were interested in lessons learned from failure, yet Wharton was the only one – to its great credit – to ask about how you “navigated a challenging experience in either a personal or professional relationship.” I loved this question, as it recognizes that success in business (and in life) often boils down to the quality of one’s relationships. No wonder Wharton produces so many successful people.

Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business rightly asks why it is the best MBA program for the applicant; they clearly don’t want to be seen as a back-up school. But in another question that signals its commitment to diversity, one essay question hints at its relative geographic isolation by stating outright, “Tuck seeks candidates of various backgrounds who can bring new perspectives to our community.” One of Tuck’s questions opens with what apparently is the school’s definition of leadership: “inspiring others to strive and enabling them to accomplish great things.” Hard to imagine a business school faculty agreeing on a unitary view of leadership, but there you have it. It’s not a bad definition, but Tuck’s application seems to assume that all applicants either agree with this definition, or want to be leaders themselves. In my view, not all MBAs are, nor should be, destined for leadership, as we need far more good followers than good leaders.

Columbia, like Wharton, focuses primarily on the person, asking about goals, and they use one of my favorites questions. I use some variation on this frequently, especially when meeting members of a management team for the first time. “The goal of this essay is to get a sense of who you are rather than what you have achieved professionally.” I’m always amused, and react somewhat negatively, when, in response to my question about “who are you as a person?” or “tell me about yourself”, a candidate for a CEO job tells me that they “have always been a marketing person, ever since getting their MBA and starting at GE (or some such place).” Really! As though life began after business school. Or their resume is what defines who they are as a person. When I’m helping a company assess a prospective CEO, I want to get a nuanced feel for their humanness, the quality of their relationships, their ability to tolerate anxiety and uncertainty, and their degree of self-awareness, not just their ability to get things done, or their work history, which I could just as easily have read on their CV.

At MIT’s Sloan School of Management, brevity is a virtue, at least judging by its essay questions. Three brief questions, seeking 500 words or less from the applicant. But MIT’s essay topics reveal what I suspect are some of the school’s core values: performing beyond the conventional or established ways of doing things; the importance of coaching and mentoring; and taking responsibility for achieving an objective. At the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, the essay questions open with this: “What are you most passionate about?” Good for them. Passion is essential for success in business (or in anything, for that matter), so I admire their putting it up front. Innovation and creativity are also emphasized in the Haas application.

And finally there is NYU’s Stern School of Business (full disclosure: I am a Professor of Psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine). What struck me about this rather conventional set of essay questions is that the first two – one on professional aspirations and another on the “Stern Experience” – not only specify how many words each essay should be (750 and 500), but that the essay should be double-spaced and the font should be 12-point. I assume this is to accommodate the fading eyesight of some of Stern’s teachers, but if it sounds like they’re also control freaks, take heart: the third and final essay on the NYU application is called “Personal Expression”, and asks applicants to “describe yourself to your MBA classmates” using any method to do so. But I especially love the last line: “Feel free to be creative.” Thanks for telling us that.

Kerry J. Sulkowicz, M.D., a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, is the founder of the Boswell Group LLC, a consulting firm focusing on the psychology of business. One of the nation’s leading corporate psychoanalysts, Dr. Sulkowicz advises CEOs, corporate directors and other business leaders on critical aspects of managing complex organizations.

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.