Most & Least Challenging MBA Applications This Year

MIT Sloan School of Management - Ethan Baron photo

MIT Sloan School of Management – Ethan Baron photo

As business school admissions hunker down to make the admit-and-deny decisions that will tumble out next month, Poets&Quants asked the world’s leading MBA consultants to name the most and least challenging applications for their clients this year—along with a host of other provocative questions, from who should succeed outgoing Harvard Business School Admissions Chief Dee Leopold to the quality of this year’s overall MBA applicant pool.

With as much as 90% of the 2015-2016 admission cycle behind them, the majority of consultants told P&Q that the quality of this year’s applicant pool was similar to last year. Some 58% of the responding consultants said the pool was the same, while 25% said it was better than a year earlier, and 4% believing it their clients were the best qualified ever. Some 13% said the applicant pool wasn’t as solid as last year.

Whatever the quality, the usual frantic game of getting an application done often played out. Consultants described frantic last-minute efforts to satisfy an application deadline. Nearly half of the consultants—exactly 48%—said their clients submitted their applications only 36 hours before a school’s deadline. Nearly one in five—or 19%—said their clients turned in their application files within four hours of a deadline.


“Oy, so many candidates I work with are procrastinators!,” exclaims Betsy Massar, founder of Master Admissions. “Maybe I’m not a strict enough taskmaster, but even if I impose deadlines, everyone just ends up working until the very last minute. It’s natural, and I admit that I did the same when I applied – racing to the FedEx office to drop off paper copies of my applications. I guess it’s like doing your taxes, only with a (hopefully) better outcome.”

It was not unheard of for candidates to change their minds and trash completed essays after many drafts just hours before a deadline. “While applying to HBS, my client and I were not satisfied with the essay until 48 hours before the submission deadline,” recalls one consultant. “He had a very strong profile but was appearing to be flaky if one read his essay. Suddenly he had a flash of brilliance and wrote a fresh essay altogether in 2 hours. It was something we had not been able to do in a week was achieved in hours.”

Those last-minute turnarounds didn’t always go well, though. Another consultant said a client decided to re-write her entire self-introduction essay for HBS an hour before the deadline. Her new version was so boring and uninspiring.”


Which business school applications were the most challenging this year? Consulting firms overwhelming chose Harvard Business School and Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business (see below). Some 75% of them named HBS’ simple one essay requirement to introduce oneself to their classmates as the toughest essay. About 63% singled out Stanford’s two questions with a 1,150-word limit the most challenging. Stanford asks applicants to answer two questions: “What matters most to you, and why?,” an essay that requires deep self-examination on how an applicant came to be the person he or she is. The second question, “Why Stanford?,” demands that candidates explain how the school will help them realize their ambitions.

Of course, there’s another reason why HBS and Stanford are thought to have the most challenging applications. They are among the most selective schools in the world, with acceptance rates of 11% and 7%, respectively. “I think that part of the reason both of these questions are deemed hard, is that for so many clients, these two schools are their “dream choices” and so there is more self-inflicted pressure,” believes Alex Leventhal, founder of Prep MBA Admissions Consulting. “The HBS intro question is actually not that hard, but applicants have trouble taking the question at face value, and second guess themselves on whether they should be also adding tons of leadership accomplishments and case method fit examples. Overdoing this often creates a heavy-handed, corny personal introduction.

“For GSB, people don’t often have an everyday answer for what matters most to them,” he adds. “Family does for most candidates, but that alone is not a distinguishing answer so the search begins for a topic that is true and allows them to include some telling life examples. I think GSB is always the hardest question and clients often have to see that one or two topics don’t really work because they’ve forced it, before we settle on the right path.”

Consultants said that Chicago Booth, Northwestern Kellogg, and INSEAD also were among the toughest for their clients. Though Booth has only one question—Pick a photo out of several provided and tell the school “how it resonates with your own viewpoint on why the Booth community is the right fit for you”—but there is no word limit defined. Moreover, Booth throws something of a curve ball at applicants because it allows them to respond to the prompt by a traditional essay or a slide presentation.

Kellogg tosses applicants two questions, each with 450-world limits, but also two short video essay questions meant to bring to life the applicant’s written submissions. The written essays ask candidates to describe “a recent and meaningful time you were a leader. What challenges did you face, and what did you learn?” The second query asks, “How have you grown in the past? How do you intend to grow at Kellogg?”

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