The 2018-2019 MBA application season has ushered in a flurry of application changes among the top business schools. From MIT’s new organizational chart requirement to Dartmouth Tuck’s admissions criteria screening for “niceness,” seven of the top 10 business schools made noteworthy changes in this year’s admissions cycle. Here’s a highlights reel of this year’s changes and trends, including links to further analysis and tangible tips from the Fortuna Admissions team of former business school insiders:
NOTABLE ESSAY CHANGES FOR WHARTON, BOOTH, COLUMBIA, HAAS AND CORNELL
The most notable new essays among top schools are from Wharton, Chicago Booth, Columbia and Berkeley Haas, as well as Johnson Cornell. The trend among essay question changes has skewed toward behavioral, with programs prompting candidates to demonstrate substantial self-reflection. The upshot is that all this introspection will help clarify in your own mind why this next chapter of your life is so important. And your story will be that much more persuasive to the admissions committee when you do.
As Wharton’s former head of Admissions, I’ll admit I really love Wharton’s new essay question, which requires both deep self-awareness and profound understanding of the community you’re hoping to join:
“Describe an impactful experience or accomplishment that is not reflected elsewhere in your application. How will you use what you learned through that experience to contribute to the Wharton community?”
This is an invitation to offer up something more personal, to share additional insights and information that don’t appear elsewhere in your application. It’s also an elegant compliment to the school’s longstanding, ‘what you hope to gain professionally from Wharton’ essay, allowing you to convey what you took away from your experience and how it shapes your current awareness as a potential community member.
Chicago Booth axed its creative and quirky question asking applicants to choose among an assortment of photos and name a “Booth moment” that most resonated, and explain why. Booth’s new first question cuts to the chase:
“How will the Booth MBA help you achieve your immediate and long-term post-MBA career goals?”
It’s a version of an old favorite, ‘Why an MBA and why this school’ – and, again, significant self-reflection is key to delivering an essay that’s both sincere and persuasive. In its second question, Booth is mining for a glimpse of what inspires and drives you, “Chicago Booth immerses you in a choice-rich environment. How have your interests, leadership experiences, and other passions influenced the choices in your life?” Writes my Fortuna colleague and former Assistant Director of Admissions at Chicago Booth, Krista McNamara in her article on how to tackle Booth’s new essays, “This second question is a golden opportunity to reveal something beyond your day job, to investigate and articulate the currents that shape your experiences, decisions and identities and which stand to impact the future community you hope to join.”
Berkeley Haas has taken the question of identity to another level by introducing a unique and evocative series of optional essay prompts that, with exacting focus, seek to uncover the less visible forces that shape candidates’ lives, decisions, opportunities and character. “In positioning its essay question in this way, Berkeley Haas signals its desire to hone in on the path that students walked to better understand who they’re reading,” writes my Fortuna colleague and former Associate Director of Admissions at Berkeley Haas, Sharon Joyce, in her article on Haas’s new optional essay. “It’s also a way for the admissions committee to recognize the challenges certain applicants face to get to where they are – even when students themselves don’t see them as distinctive or noteworthy.” Berkeley Haas also went from three required essays to two, maintaining its poetic “six-word essay” prompt and distilling its question around post-MBA goals.
Cornell Johnson’s new “Back of Your Resume” essay underscores that it’s you, not your track record, that the AdCom wants to meet through your essay. Because you can submit your song, video, digital portfolio, etc. – or enhance your prose with visuals – it’s also a playful invitation to be courageous. Cornell puts its new essay into context by stating: “The front page of your resume has given us a sense of your professional experience and accomplishments as well as your academic summary and extracurricular involvement. If the back page reflects “the rest of your story,” please help us get to know you better by sharing the experiences that will give us insight into your character, values, and interests.” Quips my Fortuna colleague and former Assistant Dean of Admissions at the Cornell Johnson, Randall Sawer, “Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to say that your greatest moment was when you raised millions in a day at Goldman or you were employee of the year… Without a doubt, an essay question like this invites a level of vulnerability.”
Speaking of vulnerability, few topics are more personal than that of failure. But in refreshing its essay questions for the second straight year, Columbia asks,
“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?”
With its new failure prompt, the admissions committee invites you to consider the circumstances and pivot points that shaped you into an ever-wiser human being. “It’s somewhat counterintuitive that the best candidates often have the most awful and memorable failure stories,” observes my Fortuna Co-Founder Caroline Diarte Edwards in her article on Columbia’s new essay questions. In her tenure as INSEAD’s former Director of MBA Admissions, Caroline reviewed countless attempts to answer the question of failure (INSEAD asks applicants to “describe a situation where you failed” and how the experience, along with the achievement you’re most proud of, impacted your relationship on others). Caroline emphasizes, “What’s most compelling to the admissions committee on the topic of failure is what you’ve learned from your experience, whether you’ve had to face your fears, and whether you’ve demonstrated the grit and persistence to bounce back and forge ahead with new awareness.”
APPLICATION UPDATES FOR MIT SLOAN AND TUCK
MIT Sloan’s MBA application requirements already buck the M7 standard by soliciting a cover letter and video statement in lieu of traditional written essays. This year, Sloan is also the first top tier business school to ask applicants for an organizational chart that outlines the “internal structure of your department and company.” Along with offering a sample for reference, MIT allows you to create your own if necessary. “With the introduction of the org chart requirement, MIT Sloan is really trying to get at the questions of what you do, how you interact with other parts of the company or entity, who you report to and how close you are to the top,” says Fortuna’s Heidi Hillis, former Alumni Interviewer for Stanford GSB. “It’s also about understanding your career path and the pace of your progression – how you’ve evolved over time, the significance of your promotions, your level of influence, and whether your movement has been upwards or horizontal.” In her shrewd analysis of MIT Sloan’s org chart requirement, Heidi predicts that other b-schools will follow suit in the future.
In addition to refreshing its essay questions, Dartmouth Tuck introduced new evaluation criteria that reflects the attributes of ‘successful Tuck students,’ including “smart, nice, accomplished and aware.” In doing so, Tuck shines a spotlight on its distinctive values and what it’s seeking from applicants hoping to join its community. Said head of Tuck admissions Luke Anthony Peña to CBS News, “We are looking to see that candidates have a habit of niceness… It’s about how they feel about contributing to the success of others. How do they interact with people in difficult and challenging circumstances.”
NO CHANGE TO ENDURING ESSAYS FROM GSB, HBS AND KELLOGG
Elsewhere among the applications of the top MBA programs this year, there is no change among essay questions for Harvard, Stanford GSB and Kellogg. HBS persists with the open-ended, “what would you like us to know” question, and for the fourteenth year in a row, Stanford GSB asks, “what matters to you most and why?” Kellogg continues to plumb for how you’ve grown in the past, along with lessons learned from “a time you have demonstrated leadership and created lasting value” (for the second year in a row). The endurance of these essay prompts signal how well they’re serving each respective admissions committee in terms of sussing our which candidates are a fit.
“These kinds of questions allow you to expand into terrain that shows your influences and inspirations, so give yourself some time to play with ideas,” says my Fortuna Co-Founder and colleague, Matt Symonds. “When you allow yourself to have fun writing it, you increase the chances of your audience’s enjoyment in reading it.”
Judith Silverman Hodara is a Director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Wharton head of Admissions. Fortuna is composed of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 12 of the top 15 business schools.