A Proposal For A Better MBA Application

Let’s start with a few basic assumptions:

  • Admissions committee members are professionals, dedicated gate-keepers striving to attract and fashion the best, most diverse class they can.
  • The purpose of application essays is to
  1. Provide a window into the real you.
  2. Add value to the other elements of the application.
  3. Demonstrate communications ability.

A bit of background. I have worked with applicants to college, business school, medical school, law school, and a variety of graduate specialties since 1994. Of the major professional school application processes, the medical school application process is by far the most demanding. The law school process is the easiest and most focused on grades and test score.  The MBA process is my favorite because I feel that it requires a reasonable amount of effort from the applicant and is still holistic.

The widespread shrinking of MBA applications this year is making the process less holistic and that saddens me.  As an Accepted.com consultant recently emailed me: “This shift of HBS to only 2 essays is killing me since I feel [my client is] leaving so much out!”

I admire the commitment to constantly improve reflected in Harvard Admissions Director Dee Leopold’s May 22 blog post where she announced this year’s app and wrote

Our process is the product of an admissions team that is always in design/development mode. All throughout the year we meet and dream up ways that will make it easier for you to feel “understood” and undertake assessment steps that map to what we do here in the classroom and what you will do in your careers. We’re always trying to tweak and improve, and this is what we’ve come up with for the Class of 2015.

I fear however that applicants, especially those not invited to interview at HBS or those struggling with less room in most MBA applications, are feeling “less understood.” After all, HBS is giving more room to the recommenders than to the applicant in its initial application. It’s like saying, “I really want to understand you, but don’t talk too much.”

So as someone who is seeing what’s being left out in this year’s MBA applications and who also has perspective from other admissions processes and 18 years of experience seeing different applications and essays, here’s my suggestion for next year’s MBA application.

MBA Application Requirements.

  • Undergrad transcript from accredited institutions
  • TOEFL, IELTS, or PTE if applicant did not graduate from a college or university where English is the language of instruction.
  • GMAT or GRE
  • Job and activity history. In addition, applicants to choose the three most significant jobs or activities and indicate why they consider these experiences noteworthy. (150 words maximum for each experience)
  • 4 Required Essay questions
  1. What do you want to do after business school? How did you develop this goal? How will attending our school help you do it? (500 words)
  2. Please tell us about a time when you demonstrated Quality X (Could be leadership, teamwork, humility, communications, initiative, innovation. Choose the attribute your school values most.) What did you learn? (300 words)
  3. Tell us about a time when you experienced a setback or failure. What happened? What did you do, feel, and learn? (300 words)
  4. If you have a free day to do anything you want, how do you spend it? (300 words)
  • Optional Information: Please provide context for information contained in your application that you feel needs explanation. If you don’t have anything to explain, don’t write anything. (Maximum 250 words.)

  • On some level we are in agreement. If all the schools want to know about is qualifications, then test scores, grades, and resume are enough. I agree.

    However, if they also value initiative, resilience, leadership, insight, and communications skill they need more. Additionally, writing and the ability to communicate are important skills in the business world, as well as on a learning team.


  • ChrisP

    These essays will make this a writing contest. This is an MBA not a masters in English Lit. This is ridiculous. As is, the MBA process is so skewed towards underrepresented minorities etc. The really smart kids from traditional backgrounds and whites and asians are already up against it. The MBA is just diluting itself if it does this. Pick the kids with good grades, good GMAT scores etc. Not the ones that claim cultural bias and this and that ..and use the essays to give excuses.

  • Dreamer

    Two essays are more than enough. if gives you enough room to talk about your accomplishments rather than making small things into bigger stuff. i think a small application forces people to be real.

  • haapi

    The point is, how can a school know if they are interested in you if they don’t have the chance to “get to know you” through your application? Do you really want the schools to only choose someone based on GMAT/stats/brand names?

  • Thanks for the excellent question:

    1. For those schools asking only 1-2 questions, it would give applicants more room to tell their story.

    2. The questions complement each other. Responses to this set of questions should do a better job of introducing the applicants because they are really different.

    3.) For those school asking more questions than above, this format will reduce applicant work and also the amount of time required to review applicants while still allowing applicants to tell their stories.

    4) This is a combination of behavioral questions and more general questions. Many schools do one or the other. I believe a combo is best.

    5) Asking to discuss what applicants consider most significant work and extra-curricular activities and why should be revealing. While this is done in med school and undergrad admissions, it is not done in MBA admissions or at least only happens infrequently.


  • MrPhysics

    This is very similar to the current application formats. How would this improve anything?

    The main problem is that people who hire consultants can produce essays that are superb but are not representative of their background and abilities. Relying purely on GMAT and GPA is probably more fair overall, but then those people who genuinely have a compelling story but low stats get left behind. If we could find an efficient method to have applicants complete their essays in a GMAT-style environment, then that would level the playing field, but that doesn’t seem practical.

  • Dreamer

    I am actually glad that applications are becoming smaller. it means your essays have to be meaningful. No longer can someone spent an entire essay about the one time they volunteer for 30 mins at a inner city high school.

  • LongHornJoe

    Duke’s essay was terrific. It’s a highly underrated school.

  • rd 1-er

    i like the interview-invite only idea. I don’t want an interview (wasting time and money ie Kellogg) if the school is not even really interested in me in the first place.

  • AIG_Quant

    I thought Duke’s 25 things essay was the best one this year. On the other hand Cornell’s write chapters for your book of life essay was a ‘me too!’ essay gone bad. I felt that they just tried to be creative but it was a failure that didn’t effectively bring out an applicants life story.