More open-ended essay topics/prompts: You could include what you do for fun in HBS’s “What else would you like us to know about you?” essay, Stanford’s “What matters most, and why?” essay, Chicago’s “Who are you?” essay/presentation (formerly “The PowerPoint”), and other such blank-canvas invitations to introduce yourself.
For example, Kate wanted to strengthen her case for being an entrepreneur, so one way she supported this was including a vignette about building and learning how to fly a remote-controlled helicopter. When she started, the helicopter crashed repeatedly, but she was so passionate about her hobby, she’d find ways to patch it back together and retool it, plus she found someone to help her master flying it. Through this story, she demonstrated her capacity to tolerate failure, ability to tinker and pivot, and resourcefulness in terms of getting mentorship.
While he worked in private equity, Greg was obsessed with food—from learning traditional Italian recipes at his grandmother’s knee to apprenticing in haute cuisine restaurants during his college summers to writing a senior thesis about the economics of sustainable agriculture to blogging about his recent experiments in molecular gastronomy. Using food as the through-line for an open-ended essay, we were able to convey his sense of creativity, craftsmanship, experimentation, intellectual curiosity, societal concern, and social-media savvy. In taking this tack, he shared a vital part of who he was and he didn’t come across as the typical finance applicant.
As with anything you might write about in an application or talk about in an interview, make sure there’s some depth to it. If you did something once or really don’t care about it that much, don’t waste time and space talking about it just because it might make you look more colorful. Imagine being cornered in an interview having to talk about foraging for mushrooms when you’ve gone only once and had to have your stomach pumped because you ate a poisonous one!
My parting thought: the application process is quite arduous and often depleting. If you get stuck or worn out, see if you can find a way to take a break to have some fun. You’ll be glad you did.
*I’ve changed clients’ names, and in some cases some details, to maintain their anonymity.
Deborah Knox is founder and CEO of Insight Admissions. While she works extensively with traditional MBA applicants, she loves the challenge of assisting qualified nontraditional candidates. Devoted to the study of leadership excellence, Deborah has also served as a researcher and editor on numerous book projects for best-selling management author Jim Collins. To increase her FQ, she has recently taken up the hula hoop.
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