The Fundamental MBA Question That Many Applicants Mess Up – And How To Get It Right

Emma Bond, LBS

Emma Bond, Director at Fortuna Admissions

In recent years, business schools have turned to increasingly unconventional essay topics for MBA admission. Berkeley-Haas, for example, asks you to choose a song that expresses who you are; Chicago Booth directs applicants to a collection of photos – “shared Booth moments” – and to choose the one that best resonates with them; and Cornell Johnson requests a Table of Contents annotating a candidate’s life story. But alongside the desire to innovate, some schools are sticking resolutely to the tried and true.

The Wharton School asks ‘What do you hope to gain professionally from the Wharton MBA?’ London Business School asks candidates to detail post-MBA goals, explaining how their prior experience and the LBS MBA will contribute. Stanford’s second essay asks simply, ‘Why Stanford?’. These seemingly innocuous questions that are also at the heart of many MBA interviews can be the most difficult to answer – so just how should you approach them, and how do you convince each admissions committee that their school is your one and only?

Self-reflection is the best starting point from which to really crack these essays. Spend time thinking deeply about your professional and personal journey to date, about what you want to take away from your MBA program, and about where you want to end up. In doing so you’ll gain a better understanding of yourself, both as a person, and as an MBA candidate. You’ll know which b-schools are the right fit for you, and crucially, you’ll be in a better position to share your insights with an admissions committee.

Secondly, steer clear of lists. Some of the weakest answers to these questions come from applicants who simply list the classes they want to take but make no attempt to link them to future goals. Heidi Hillis, Fortuna Expert Coach and former Stanford GSB admissions interviewer, advocates a holistic approach that also recognizes other areas of the b-school experience: ‘Try starting with something like, “I want to learn how to create (for example) a corporate culture conducive to creativity.” Go on to identify which classes will help you, and how. You can then finish with something like “I intend to participate in X club to understand how the mind of engineers work, and hope to do work closely with X prof, who is an expert in this field.”’

Another way applicants fall short is to scour a school’s website and parrot some key points they find there. But the world’s top business schools all offer a strong curriculum, top-class faculty, and a high-caliber student body, so your essay can end up sounding extremely generic. Be specific. Does your school have an incubator program that really appeals to you? Is this because you already have a fledgling start-up, or an idea for one? Has someone recently spoken on campus that really resonates with your goals? Does he/she have strong links with a company you want to work for? If you’re excited about particular aspects of a program, be bold in saying so.

It’s important to visit your school, or if that’s not possible, to attend as many local information sessions and web events as possible, and interact with alumni of the school. Judith Silverman Hodara, Fortuna Director and former Wharton Director of Admissions believes applicants must immerse themselves in a school’s culture and really ‘learn its vocabulary’. She also encourages people to be emotive in their writing. ‘How did you feel standing in Wharton’s Huntsman Hall? What have your interactions with alumni and students been like? Try opening your essay with a values statement, something like “I believe that…”, then insert what it is you think about your role in business, or a problem you want to solve. From there, the rest of your discussion and how a specific program relates to your beliefs will have much more impact.’

Lastly, your essay may be perfectly crafted and beautifully written, but unless you show drive and enthusiasm for your program of choice, it’s never going to truly sing to the admissions committee. My top tip is to show passion – for your career, for the school and MBA experience you’re applying to, and for the impact you want to make on the world going forward. Tapping into a program’s core values is a great way to do this. From Fortuna Expert Coach Catherine Tuttle, former Associate Program Director at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business: “The key is offering specific examples of how these themes have played out in your professional and personal life to date and how you hope to expand on them through the MBA.”


1) Reflect

2) Link past experiences with future goals and consider all aspects of the b-school experience

3) Understand your school’s culture and vocabulary

4) Tap into school values

5) Show your passion!

Each MBA program has its own unique selling proposition. So do you. By figuring out how these two things align, you’ll be well on your way to interview.

by Emma Bond.  Emma is a director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and was previously responsible for MBA admissions at London Business School. Fortuna is composed of former directors and associate directors of admissions at many of the world’s best business schools.

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