This second installment of a two-part series on Writing Powerful Essays highlights the typical types of MBA essays, along with tips for tackling them. Check out Writing Powerful Essays – Part 1: The Essentials.
Your MBA essays are a vital part of your sales pitch to a target school and a valuable opportunity to bring context and color to your application. Imagine the discerning administrator who’s already waded through hundreds of applications, and your essay being the only thing keeping him from turning in for the night. How will you grab his attention?
In recent years, the essay questions have skewed more behavioral in their focus. Just this week, Columbia debuted a new essay question asking candidates:
“Please provide an example of a team failure of which you have been a part. If given a second chance, what would you do differently?”
This kind of question, along with those that ask you to “reflect on a time” or “discuss a time when” require substantive self-reflection. The upshot is that all this introspection will help clarify in your own mind why this next part of your life is so important. And when you do, your story will be that much more persuasive to the admissions committee.
In my role at Fortuna Admissions, and as former Director of Admissions at INSEAD, I’ve observed that many candidates focus a great deal on the example they choose to illustrate their point but leave scant room for articulating outcomes and learning. It is easy to get caught up in the narrative, but you need to share what the event actually meant to you.
Last week, my Fortuna Admissions colleague Sharon Joyce shared some essential strategies for self-reflection and laying the groundwork for Writing a Powerful MBA Essay in part 1 of this series. In part 2, we’ll look at the typical MBA essay types and what schools are looking for, with top tips for gleaned from the Fortuna Admission team of senior admissions professionals.
Here are the top five types you’re likely to encounter, along with tips for tackling them:
The ‘introduce yourself’ question (e.g. HBS, Wharton, INSEAD)
With this prompt, the school is serving up the opportunity to reflect on how you became the person you are now, and where you see yourself growing. Don’t spread yourself too thin by trying to exhaustively cover your history and merits. Instead, you will want to stand out in the admissions officer’s mind as someone who presented with depth and passion. Your goal is to leave an impression in the reader’s mind and get the admissions committee excited about your trajectory and where you are heading.
- Take time to reflect on what is unique about your story
- Don’t repeat your resume
- Don’t focus only on your professional story, share who you are beyond your work accomplishments
- You can go back in time (e.g. a major turning point in your childhood)
- Illustrate your points with anecdotes
- Give a sense of your breadth and depth
Remember – the ‘introduce yourself essay’ is different than introducing yourself at a party. For more on responding to this question, check out The ‘Introduce Yourself’ MBA Essay by my Fortuna colleague Judith Silverman Hodara.
Career goals question (Columbia, LBS, Michigan Ross)
This essay is as much to do with viability and planning as it is with the actual path you choose. Business school is designed to be transformative, and programs anticipate your ambitions will evolve. Your mandate with this question is to demonstrate a path that’s logical given your professional and academic background, highlighting the transferable skills that you’ll bring to the next steps in your career.
- Take time to reflect on your goals: short, medium and long-term. What do you REALLY want to do?
- Research your options
- Schools want to see that your goals are ambitious, but also realistic
- Connect your goals to the school’s mission
Motivation for the School (Wharton, Columbia, Tuck):
Consider the program’s perspective – they want students who love the school, understand what makes it unique and know why they’re a great fit. You can’t credibly make these claims without knowing the program intimately and understanding what you’ll get out of it academically, professionally and personally. Each institution has a distinct personality and institutional identity – you won’t thrive at them all. And it’s equally vital to clarify how you’ll enhance the overall experience for others as well as yourself.
- Do your homework; ideally several months of research and relationship building (with current students, alumni, faculty)
- Show a sense of affinity with the school’s mission and community
- Communicate how you will fit in and add value
- Give examples (courses, projects, clubs etc.) and relate this to your story
- Be passionate
Achievements/failures questions (INSEAD, HEC, Columbia, Tuck)
What are the pivot points and circumstances that shaped you into an ever-wiser individual? For accomplishments or strengths, underscore your best attributes and relate them to what makes you an ideal candidate. And don’t just describe the achievement itself, but interweave the challenges you’ve faced and overcome along the way. Regarding failures, know that what’s compelling to a school is what you’ve learned from missteps, whether you can bounce back from failure, face your fears and forge ahead with new awareness.
- Pick something from the last 2-3 years
- Great opportunity to showcase a professional achievement
- Demonstrate that you’re honest and self-aware
- Use the STAR model:
- Action (be clear about your role)
- Result (what happened? What impact did this have? What did you learn?)
This isn’t the time to reiterate why the school should accept you over all the other qualified candidates, nor to explain why you only scored a 630 on the GMAT. This is the opportunity to discuss why you dropped out of school for a semester because of illness, were under house arrest for unpaid parking tickets, had an employment gap due to extraordinary or family circumstances. It doesn’t need to be more than three or four well-worded sentences nor go into excruciating detail. The Optional Essay is your chance to offer explanations and not excuses, to take responsibility, stop worrying and move on gracefully with the rest of your presentation.
- Do not use just as an overflow from other essays
- Address a potential concern – if not explained elsewhere – in a straightforward and succinct way
- Potentially use this space to showcase an important aspect of your story that does not fit elsewhere
As mentioned in part one of this series, dare to have some fun in your essay writing. Your challenge – and opportunity – is to pique the admissions committee’s interest so that they are intrigued enough to learn more and invite you to the formal interview.
Caroline Diarte Edwards is a Director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former INSEAD Director of Admissions, Marketing and Financial Aid. Fortuna is composed of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 12 of the top 15 business schools.
MORE FROM CAROLINE: Writing a Powerful MBA Essay: Part 1 – The Essentials, B-Schools Need To Feel The Love, Countdown to Round 2 MBA Applications: Top five tips for the final stretch, Global Experience: What Schools Want