Handling Wharton’s Challenging Essays

What are the most challenging essay questions business schools ask applicants? That’s a question we hope to answer in the second feature in this new six-part series. Stacy Blackman, founder of the MBA admissions consulting firm that bears her name, is picking out what she considers to be the most challenging and then providing advice for how to approach each essay.

What constitutes a highly challenging essay? It may force you to be incredibly introspective, surprisingly creative or perhaps highly succinct. Some essays are not as straightforward as they seem, others are very straightforward, but it is tempting to stray off topic. Whatever the reason, we are here to help, with some tips taken straight from the Stacy Blackman Consulting series of school specific essay guides.

Most Challenging MBA Essay Question #2:

Wharton School of Business:


Answer one of these two questions:

Reflect on a time when you turned down an opportunity. What was the thought process behind your decision? Would you make the same decision today?

Discuss a time when you faced a challenging interpersonal experience. How did you navigate the situation and what did you learn from it?

A question that begins with “tell us about a time” is what is known as a behavioral essay question. The admissions committee wants you to describe and tell a story about what you thought, felt, said, and did during a specific time in your life. The behavioral question relies on a philosophy that the best predictor of future actions is what you have actually done in the past.  It is important to describe your past experiences in enough detail to allow the reader to understand your thoughts and motivations as well as your actions.  The behavioral question lets the reader draw the conclusions about you, it is a classic “show don’t tell” narrative.

These two new questions deal with two fairly different topics – opportunities vs. interpersonal difficulties.   Turning down an opportunity could be about a job, a project, moving to a different city or country, or a leadership offer for an extracurricular activity.  This question seeks to understand not only what you have done in your life, but those things you decided not to do.  It would be ideal to choose a topic that has global implications in your life.  Either this path not taken was an inflection point for you and changed your career or life afterwards, or you can demonstrate your larger goals and decision making process through this example.  What you choose to say “no” to demonstrates what you have decided to focus on and develop.  We all have limited bandwidth in our lives, and as careers grow they often lead to more and more requests for your time and interesting opportunities.  How will you decide which to pursue and which to decline?  This question seeks to understand the answer to that question through an example of past behavior.

Navigating a challenging relationship is an opportunity to demonstrate maturity and strong interpersonal skills.  While Wharton is an analytical program, it’s also a team based one.  You will be placed in a learning team with classmates who are deliberately very different from yourself, and it will be important to demonstrate you have the skills to manage any relationship – even one that was a challenge for you.

These questions both require applicants to narrate a story, sharing not just what they learned but what they actually did. You need to tell the admissions committee how you responded.  Certainly, sharing the universal lessons learned and how you grew and changed from the experience is still an important component of a complete essay.




Tip #1 Provide the setting of your story


For the first essay question the action of the story will focus on your thought process as you decided whether to take the opportunity or not.  For the interpersonal question the action is in how you navigated the relationship to ultimately reach your goals.  Before launching into the how of the question, the reader needs to understand the basic situation.  What was the opportunity?  Who was the difficult relationship with? You’ll want to be as concise as possible while still supplying enough information to orient your reader and to properly set up the story you are about to tell.

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