Handling Wharton’s Challenging Essays

Another important thing to include in the setup is why the opportunity arose or the relationship was challenging. In storytelling terms, these are the stakes of the story. The stakes, in this case, are what might be lost or what could be gained depending on the outcome of your efforts.

The stakes also explain why you were motivated to invest the effort into making your decision or changing the relationship rather than simply going with the flow.

Tip #2 Describe how you behaved and provide concrete examples of what you did

Once the situation, setting, and complication of the story have been set up, you are ready to move on to action. The action of the story is what you actually thought, felt, said, and did given the circumstances – the steps you took to resolve the problem or problems with which you were confronted.

The action section needs to achieve the right level of specificity without going overboard. Generally speaking the more concrete your actions were, the better. For these essays, an abstract statement such as, “I realized I needed to handle this difficult relationship” might work as an introductory sentence, but doesn’t provide the reader with any insight into your specific approach to the relationship. From a logical standpoint, you haven’t answered the admissions committee’s question.

What the admissions committee wants is real insight into what you did, why you did it, and how you did it. Extra points will be scored for a creative response to the problem.

Tip #3 Demonstrate personal growth and lessons learned

This essay is an excellent opportunity to round out the admissions committee’s picture of you and to share unique strengths that you haven’t had a chance to describe anywhere else in your application. Oftentimes, development and maturity come at unexpected moments and in unexpected ways.

Particularly the question on relationships allows you an opportunity to highlight interpersonal strengths that you possess that you haven’t had a chance to feature in the other essays. If you are stumped on essay topics, take another look at the attributes section of this guide and identify a quality or qualities that you’ve made progress in but haven’t touched upon in other essays. Think strategically when evaluating possible topics. If you’ve done a good job of emphasizing professional growth elsewhere in the essays, you should consider personal growth here to add another dimension to your application.

In the opening of the story, you hopefully made it clear to your reader why the story was critical to realizing an important goal – we referred to these as the “stakes” of the story.

In the body of the essay, you described what you did to accomplish your objective, so the reader already has some idea of the results of your efforts. Furthermore, if your essay includes real lessons learned, you will impress the admissions committee that you are prepared for similar challenges in the future. The word “real” is underlined because sometimes applicants try to sneak by with “fake” learning. A claim such as “I learned how to seek advice from others” is an example of fake learning.  Presumably, you already knew the value of acceptance from an early age; you didn’t actually learn it in this situation. Therefore, you won’t impress anyone if the lesson you conclude with equates to “seeking advice I learned the value of seeking advice.” A real lesson might cover how what you did in this situation might apply to similar challenges in the future.

An MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Stacy Blackman founded Stacy Blackman Consulting in 2001 and has helped thousands of MBA applicants gain admission to the most selective business schools in the world. The Stacy Blackman team, comprised of MBA graduates, former admissions officers and expert writers, editors and marketers, helps clients develop and implement a winning marketing strategy. For more in-depth analysis and tips, check out Stacy Blackman Consulting’s Harvard Business School Essay Guide.

Our Series On Business Schools’ Most Challenging Essay Questions

Part I: Smartly Handling Harvard’s Setbacks Essay

Part II: Smartly Handling Wharton’s Most Challenging Essays

Part III: Stanford’s Mind-Boggling Essay

Part IV: Kellogg’s Most Challenging MBA Essay Question