The Verdict On This Year’s Business School MBA Essays


Harvard Business School also won kudos from the consultants for its new “Introduce Yourself” to your classmates question. And, interestingly enough, INSEAD’s battery of seven essay questions, including a trio of job description essays, was thought to be among the most insightful as well. Adam Hoff on INSEAD: “By virtue of asking a robust set of essay questions and having candidates go through two interviews, INSEAD gets better candidates by asking them to complete a tough application process,” thinks Adam Hoff, a co-founder of Amerasia Consulting Group.

“You get what you pay for,” insists Hoff. “U.S. schools would be wise to stop pandering to this supposed Twitter generation and go back to tougher apps. They will not only get a better sense of what they have, but they will be signaling that getting into their school is no joke. I know for a fact that some of my clients come through this process thinking of INSEAD as more legitimate than counterpart schools simply because it was such a robust application process.”


One of the biggest surprises of the survey was that several of the essays thought to be among the more insightful also were assumed to be the most challenging to answer. “Harvard presents two of the most difficult essays of any business school,” believes Bauer of The MBA Exchange. “The first essay requires both substance and style. The applicant is expected to prioritize aspects of his or her past, present and/or future that are meaningful, and then to present this content in a style and tone that will encourage bonding with 89 strangers who will become allies, rivals and friends for the rest of their lives.”

Bauer notes that the audience for this essay goes beyond the admissions board as admits will be sharing their story with actual classmates upon matriculation. Now that’s pressure! Then, there’s a second essay for applicants who are interviewed. They have only 24 hours to draft introspective, post-interview impressions — with the caveat that ‘any indication they were produced BEFORE the interview will raise a flag.’ Gulp!”

Of course, when it comes down to actually writing responses to these prompts, what might be challenging for one applicant could be an easy no-brainer for another. “I think the most difficult questions will vary based on an applicant’s background, clarity of goals and degree of introspection,” explains Michael Cohan, founder of MBAPrepAdvantage. “To some unfocused candidates, a simple goals question will be the most difficult. To candidates lacking in leadership, Northwestern Kellogg’s “What challenges did you face (as a leader), and what did you learn?” will be tough. While for other candidates, open-ended questions like Chicago Booth’s new question, HBS’ optional question and Stanford GSB’s “What matters most to you and why?” will be the most difficult.”


While there was some consensus on the most insightful and difficult questions, consultants named a wide variety of essays. Cohan, for example, finds a number of compelling questions being asked of applicants by business schools this year. “Berkeley Haas’ prompt of ‘Describe an experience that has fundamentally changed the way you see the world and how it transformed you,’ and Carnegie Mellon’s ‘Describe a defining moment in your life and explain how it shaped you as a person’ allows an applicant discuss a key inflection point in his or her life. I also like failure questions so Cambridge Judge’s ‘What did you learn from your most spectacular failure?’ will test an applicant’s resiliency and perseverance.”

Karen Marks, founder of North Star Admissions Consulting, says she finds the most insightful questions to be the somewhat “esoteric ones, like what is your favorite food. HBS and Wharton are alas tricky – Wharton because it is hard to answer holistically in 500 words and they don’t really tell you what they are looking for in a good response, and HBS because people have a really tough time figuring out the right balance of personal and professional.”

And some consultants aren’t all that keen on the originality of this year’s essays. “None of them are earth shattering,” says Deborah Knox, founder and president of Insight Admissions, an MBA admissions consulting firm. “The Booth fit question with photo prompts could lead to interesting results. I do like Kellogg’s question about how you’ve grown and plan to grow at Kellogg.”

And Linda Abraham thinks there are times when schools toss out better questions and substitute others that aren’t nearly as good. “One of the best questions, in my opinion, actually was dropped this year, and that is the question HBS asked for the last couple of years,” she says. “I’ll paraphrase the beginning of it, but it’s ‘Given what we already know about you,what else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?’ I think this question should be at the back of every applicant’s mind as they draft their essays.”

The P&Q Admission Consulting Series:

Business Schools Putting Greater Weight On GMAT In Admission Decisions

The Business Schools Winning The MBA Student Talent Wars

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