MBA Essay Questions From Two Decades Ago: What Top 10 Schools Were Asking

In the coming days, Harvard Business School will announce the deadlines and application details for the MBA Class of 2021. The school traditionally sets the earliest M7 deadline – last year R1 was set for September 5th, with a R2 deadline in early January.

Dee Leopold, former MBA Admissions Director used to say, ‘Getting into HBS is not an essay writing contest.” For the past five years, the admissions office in Dillon House has asked, “As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA Program?” To best answer that question I highly recommend you review this fascinating video, “What Does Harvard Business School Really Want?”, recorded with my Fortuna Admissions colleague and former HBS Associate Director, Karla Cohen.

For Karla, “The essay sets your overall application apart and earns you the interview amid so many applications with impressive credentials. You can’t expect to compete on credentials alone at any top tier business school, let alone Harvard, because HBS has seen it all.”

Twenty years ago, the HBS application included nine essays (see the full list below). They are now down to one, and when applicable a post-interview reflection. This trend is common to all the top schools – there are now fewer essays, shorter essays, and in some cases video essays.

During her eleven years in MBA admissions at Wharton, former Director Judith Silverman Hodara would usually read the essays before she read anything else. “I really liked getting to know what motivated the applicant, and what their backstory was, what mattered to them, and how they decided that the MBA made sense. I never wanted to have a pre-disposed feeling about them based on where they went to school or their GPA, GMAT or their resume and the names contained therein.”

At the time Wharton had four essays (also included below), and after finishing reading all of them Judith would go back and fill in the gaps. “I felt that getting an idea of the candidate away from the black and white of some of the quantifiable aspects was really important. It also allowed me to understand how their essays impacted the decisions and experiences they had made as reflected in other parts of the application.”

When Caroline Diarte Edwards was Director of Admissions at INSEAD she would love to review the motivation essays. “They often make an absolutely fascinating read, and it would be a favourite part of my day.”

With so many Fortuna Admissions colleagues who were Directors or Associate Directors of Admissions at the world’s top business schools, where applications are typically down to just one or two essays, Caroline is often teased for overseeing such a mammoth MBA application at Fontainebleau. But as the former INSEAD gatekeeper she always maintains that by sticking with a long format, and bucking the trend of streamlining despite some trimming, the school benefits from the multiple-essay format.

“The INSEAD application gives candidates space to really tell their story, and gives the file readers a much broader perspective on the candidate, beyond the facts and figures on their resumes. In an incredibly diverse applicant pool, having this broader picture is incredibly useful.“

Caroline also points to the signals that the longer application sends, in both directions. “It weeds out candidates that are not serious and can’t be bothered to put in the work. At the same time, it shows the candidates that the school is genuinely interested in who they are and what makes them tick, and not just in their impressive resume.”

To give you a sense of how the MBA applications at HBS, Stanford, Wharton, Booth, Columbia, MIT Sloan, Kellogg, Berkeley Haas, NYU Stern, INSEAD and LBS have changed over time, and perhaps remind some of you of the work you put in to your own applications to business school twenty years ago, I’ve included below an extract from Getting the MBA Admissions Edge, the bestseller that I co-wrote back in 1999, sponsored by McKinsey, BCG, Bain and Goldman Sachs.

As you can see, the top schools had lots of questions! And not just for the applicants – in reviewing her own application to Stanford GSB, my Fortuna Admissions colleague Heidi Hillis noted that recommenders also had a lot more work to do, and that her resume was 3 pages long.

So what was, or what will be your story?

A Harvard Business School classroom. Photo by Natalie Keyssar. Courtesy of HBS

Harvard Business School

  • Please describe your most significant leadership experience. Feel free to draw upon work experiences, extracurricular activities or your personal interactions, describing a period of formal or informal leadership. Please focus less on the specific situation and more on what caused you to be effective (300 words).
  • What are your career aspirations and why? How will you get there? (300 word limit)
  • What do you enjoy and what do you dislike about your current job? Why? (300 word limit)
  • What specifically have you done to help a group or organization change? (300 words)
  • Recognizing that successful leaders are able to learn from failure, describe a situation in which you failed. (100 words) Why did you fail? (200 words)
  • Describe your three most substantial accomplishments.
  • Describe a teacher/mentor you admire and explain why you admire him/her. How have you incorporated what you have learned from this individual in your life? (400 word limit)
  • What could you do to be an even more effective member of your organization? (200 word limit)
  • Optional essay: Is there any other information that you believe would be helpful to the board in understanding you better and in considering your application? Please be concise.

Stanford GSB

  • Each of us has been influenced by the people, events and situations in our lives. How have these influences shaped who you are today? (Our goal is to get a sense of who you are, rather than what you have done.)
  • Based on your professional experiences to date, what are your short- and long-term career goals? Why do you now wish to earn an MBA? What specific aspects of the Stanford MBA Program make it attractive to you? How will this experience help you to achieve your short- and long-term goals?

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