MBA Application Essays Part 3 – Leadership, Past Decisions, And Setback Essays

In the first two articles in our MBA Essay Writing Boot Camp series, MBA Prep School discussed four of the most common types of MBA application essay questions. In this third article, we will round out the list of essay question types that you may come across when applying for an MBA. The final three essay categories include:

  • Leadership Essays
  • Past Decisions Essays
  • Setback Essays

Leadership Essays

The top business schools are designed in part to serve as training programs for future organizational leaders. For this reason, identifying candidates who possess the motivation and baseline ability to lead is considered “job one” for an MBA admissions committee.

That’s why Leadership essay questions commonly appear on MBA applications. Admissions committees are unlikely, however, to simply ask: “Are you a leader?”  Instead, they will expect you to tell a story about one or more of your leadership experiences, or to discuss your leadership style.

Here are two examples of Leadership essay questions from the current application season:

Kellogg Essay 1: Kellogg’s purpose is to educate, equip & inspire brave leaders who create lasting value. Tell us about a time you have demonstrated leadership and created lasting value. What challenges did you face, and what did you learn?

Darden Question 3: Darden strives to identify and cultivate leaders who follow their purpose. At this stage, how would you describe your evolving leadership style and please provide an example.

Other essay questions in this category include:

  • Discuss a defining experience in your leadership development.
  • Tell us about a time when you made a lasting impact on your organization.
  • What impact do you hope to have as a leader of consequence in the future?

To score top marks with your answer to these Leadership essay questions, you’ll be expected to show the admissions committee evidence that you have an ability to rally other people, motivate them to work together, and harness the energy and talents of a group to achieve an important shared vision/goal. Keep in mind that admissions officers are interested in your leadership achievements both inside and outside of work.

Past Decisions Essays

Your success following business school will have a lot to do with your values and the quality of your judgment. For this reason, admissions officers are interested in learning about your decision-making abilities. The next category of MBA essay questions relates to your ability to discuss your past decisions and to explain why you made them.

Here is an example of a Past Decisions essay question from the current application season:

Booth Essay 2:Chicago Booth immerses you in a choice-rich environment. How have your interests, leadership experiences, and other passions influenced the choices in your life?

Here are a few additional examples of this type of question:

  • Reflect on a time when you turned down an opportunity.
  • Tell us about a difficult decision you had to make.
  • What decisions have you made that led to your current role?

Questions of this type essentially ask you to explain your thought process when you were making an important decision. In an ideal sense, the decision should have posed high personal or professional stakes.

You’ll score top marks if you clearly discuss the choices with which you were presented, concisely describe the pros and cons of each, and share the reasons for your ultimate choice. Remember that what the decision was about is less important to the admissions committee than how you approached it. They are trying to determine whether you think analytically and attack complex decisions systematically and efficiently, because that is what business leaders must do every day.

Setback Essays

Another strength that MBA programs are interested in identifying is the ability of a candidate to recover when things don’t go his or her way.  A variation of the Setback essay—also referred to as a “Failure” or “Mistake” essay—appears this year on Columbia Business School’s MBA application:

Columbia Essay 3: 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?

Over the years, we have also seen this type of essay appear on applications in other forms, including:

  • What have you learned from a mistake?
  • Discuss a time when you navigated a challenging experience in either a personal or professional relationship.
  • Describe a failure that you have experienced.

You will earn top marks if you provide evidence that you handled a negative experience with emotional intelligence and treated adversaries and naysayers with empathy and understanding. If the negative experience is related to a relationship you had with another person, then showing you have an ability to compromise and diffuse conflict is important.

When reading your Setback essay, admissions officers will be interested to see if you can accept responsibility for missteps, rather than making excuses or pointing a finger at another party. The best Failure essays will convince your reader that not only were you able to recognize that you fell short, but also that you did something about it and grew in the process of overcoming the setback.

Next Up in the MBA Essay Writing Boot Camp Series

No matter which type of essay question you’re asked to answer in your MBA applications, your primary objective is to provide sufficient evidence that you possess the qualities that admissions committees value most. By doing so, you’ll move one step closer to an acceptance letter. In the next article in MBA Prep School’s MBA Essay Writing Boot Camp series, we will discuss the qualities admissions officers care about most – qualities that you will need to find a way to showcase in your MBA application essays.

Learn from Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, and the other top MBAs how they wrote essays that got them in!


Tyler Cormney  is the co-founder of MBA Prep School, a full-service, boutique MBA admissions consulting firm that specializes in helping aspiring MBA candidates realize their dream of attending an elite business school. As a graduate of both Harvard Business School and USC’s Professional Writing Program, Tyler draws upon his unique blend of creative writing, strategic thinking, and coaching skills to help applicants stand out from the competition for a place in the most selective MBA programs, including Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton.

MORE FROM MBA PREP SCHOOL’S SERIES: Part 1: Career Progress And Goals Essays,  Part 2: Why Our School And What Will You Contribute Essays

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