What I Wrote About In My Round One Essays This Year

essay-writing-2One of my biggest stumbling blocks last year was “What do I write my essays about?” Fortunately, a lot of that up-front work was already taken care of for me and made the process easier this time around. I thought it might be helpful to share my thoughts on what I wrote.


You’re applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your resume, school transcripts, extra-curricular activities, awards, post-MBA career goals, test scores and what your recommenders have to say about you. What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?

Woah…no word limit! Where do you even start? I was overwhelmed by this last year, for sure. So many of the other essays are straightforward, but the lack of constraint on this one makes it intimidating.

I started off with a detailed example of the moment I realized why I became an engineer, and closed the introduction by explaining how if I had never been exposed to the world of medical device product development, I would never feel compelled to get an MBA in the first place.

I then took a step back and explained how I ended up choosing engineering as a career path, and explaining how my very first internship in college made me realize that “Hey, I want to be the CEO of an innovative medical device company!”

I spent a couple of paragraphs detailing some of the experiences I have had in my career that have made my work so important to me and further reinforced why I am applying to HBS. With my history and background explained, I moved on to describing why I need an MBA, why HBS is the best place for me to get an MBA, and what I intend to do with my degree when I graduate.

All in, the essay amounted to 1,100 words – which I hope is not too long. I felt that if I cut anything out, the essay would be lacking.

MIT Sloan

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. Discuss how you will contribute toward advancing the mission based on examples of past work and activities. (500 words or fewer)

It might be obvious, but the way I interpreted this question was basically: “Show us how everything you have done so far, combined with an MBA from MIT Sloan, will make you an innovative and world-changing leader.”

Similar to the HBS essay (but more concisely) I started with explaining why I am in engineering and how that led me to pursuing an MBA. I then added some color to some of the experiences I have had at the two startups I have worked for after graduating, and answered why these experiences were formative and important to me. I also explained how these experiences were unique for someone in my position and experience level.

I didn’t want to drift too far off topic, but I also explained briefly what I intend to do post-Sloan, since I feel that I can’t talk about how I will advance their mission without discussing my goals.

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)

I’m not sure how I explain this one without copying it and pasting it…which I might choose to do once application decisions are in. This one required a good deal of self-reflection. I think I have a good understanding of how I am different from other applicants applying with an engineering background, and I am aware of what my weaknesses are, so those questions were not too difficult. For the “How has the applicant impacted a group/organization” question, I described how the medical device that I invented will be my legacy at the company I currently work for. For the “works with other people” question, I described a situation where I had to train a doctor how to use that device.

Northwestern Kellogg

I LOVED these questions! They were very straightforward, and the short word count really makes you think about what is important to the story. I think that the adcom knew that this will make the essays much more revealing.

Resilience. Perseverance. Grit. Call it what you will…. Challenges can build character. Describe a challenging experience you’ve had. How were you tested? What did you learn? (450 words)

For this essay, I discussed a situation where I had to overcome a technical challenge with the medical device I designed. The story started off in the CEO’s office, with me nervously telling him that …um…I failed. As a result of this failure, the company’s entire timeline as at risk. The pressure was very, very real.

The next part of the essay described the damage control. How did I lead the team? How did we find the solution? How did we convince everyone to adopt it?

The last half of the essay was dedicated to what I learned – it’s important to take the blame in a high-tension situation like this, and to effectively unite everyone around the solution rather than pointing fingers and creating confusion.

Leadership requires an ability to collaborate with and motivate others. Describe a professional experience that required you to influence people. What did this experience teach you about working with others, and how will it make you a better leader? (450 words)

Again, very straightforward. For this one, I described a time where I had to convince management to adopt my design concept over the concept that my manager was suggesting. I explained the background of the conflict, explained how I steered the discussion with management, and discussed how I ultimately persuaded the team to take the path that I was suggesting. The last half of the essay described what I learned from this experience – it was highly political, and I didn’t want to overstep my bounds. I also explained how pushing my limits in this situation helped me grow as a leader.

Time to relax?

Kind of. Once I finish the video essays, I’ll take about a week and a half to clear my head before attacking the UCLA, Wharton, UC Berkeley and Tuck apps. And my fingers will be crossed the whole time, hoping for interview invitations.

Scott Duncan is a medical device engineer in his late twenties looking to transition from designing medical devices to starting and running the companies that develop them. He is sharing his MBA application journey at a blog under his own name at ScottDuncan.com.

ScottDuncanHis previous post on Poets&Quants:

Why I’m Adding Four More Schools To My Target List

The Seven Biggest Mistakes That Got Me Four Dings

The MIT Essay That Landed Me On The Waitlist


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