The revamped UCLA MBA essay questions for the 2019-2020 application season, and in keeping with broader MBA trends, significantly slimmed down word counts across the board. Gone is last year’s question, “what are you passionate about and why,” in favor of a prompt more reflective of Anderson’s values and culture. And given the scant real estate for responding, the trick is conveying your story in a way that’s concise, distinctive and memorable.
As a Fortuna Admissions coach and former Anderson Associate Director of Admissions, I think this essay evolution is great for applicants and admissions reviewers alike. Below I’ve offered some perspective on what Anderson is looking for, along with tips on how to tackle each essay to maximize your chances of admissions success.
For context, first-time applicants must respond to two short answer questions (your MBA goals/why Anderson) and one essay question. Let’s decode each of them:
a) Tell us about your MBA goals AND why you are applying to UCLA Anderson now:
Describe your short term and long term goals (150 words max)
Why is UCLA Anderson a good school for you? (150 words max)
While the spirit of this question hasn’t changed, previous applicants were given 500 words to respond, and it’s clear Anderson wants you to be as incisive as possible. In the first part of this question, the school is looking for assurance that you’ve meaningfully thought through why you’re applying at this point in your life and what specific career enhancements you’re hoping to gain. In a few well-chosen words, you need to convey career goals that are logical, ambitious yet achievable. You must be able to convincingly connect the dots from where you’ve been and where you’re going, and why the Anderson MBA is the essential next step.
First, understand the distinction between short and long term goals and how they should work together in your career vision (my Fortuna colleague, Heidi Hillis, outlines the key elements of each in her recent article on the topic, along with specific examples). Whereas your long-term vision is usually around 10 years out, signaling the impact you hope to make, your short-term goals are the stepping stones on your way to that end goal, and they need to be specific. Caution: If there’s a perceived disconnect between your career direction and your future plans, that will raise a flag.
Also, consider how other elements of your application, such as the MBA resume, can be tuned to reinforce key elements of your career vision, transferrable skills, inherent leadership capacities, and managerial skills. Given the brevity allotted in the short answer question, you’ll want to make sure that your resume highlights key career accomplishments and impact, along with extracurricular activities that reinforce the narrative you’re presenting.
Note that part two of this question is connected to your career goals versus broken out in a separate question. As such, you should respond to ‘why Anderson’ in the professional development context versus veering too extensively to cultural fit (although it’s okay to weave this in as appropriate). That’s because Anderson also wants to make sure it’s well-positioned to support your job search and placement. To this end, look at the professional organizations, clubs, and convenings that take place on campus – like those related to entrepreneurship, entertainment, retail or sports management, to name just a few. If you’re looking to expand your global focus, mention the opportunities on offer through Anderson’s global tracks or internationally focused AMR (Applied Management Research). And when you do, don’t just list what’s of interest but truly connect the dots with your aspirations and career plans.
Again, research here is fundamental, and Anderson puts a premium on relationship building. They want to see evidence that you’ve gone above and beyond the information available online to reach out to students, alumni and other members of the community. Look for ways to weave in insights from one of these conversations.
Onward to the new required essay:
b) At Anderson, we believe our students are engaged, courageous, humble, and open. Describe a time when you demonstrated one of these traits in your personal life. (250 words max.)
This year, Anderson is framing its query in the context of the culture its actively seeking to cultivate. This is also a specific invitation to depart from your professional achievements and get personal, to showcase your personality and the values that drive you. Anderson deeply values students who are active participants and collaborators, who are motivated to succeed but not at the expense of holding others back. It’s a student-driven community where the notion of ‘ambitious yet humble’ is highly prized.
Consider the quality that resonates most deeply for you. In getting started, give yourself some latitude to brainstorm pivotal events that shape you, and allow yourself to stretch back to childhood to see what percolates up. Use story to describe one of the qualities (don’t be tempted to do more in such limited space) and portray what you learned from this experience – don’t waste valuable words just chronicling what happened.
As you reflect on initial drafts, consider: What meaning can be discerned from your story and what does it say about you? How will the story you tell convey the kind of leader you are and hope to become? Have a trusted friend or colleague read your essay. If they can’t see you in the story or feel an emotional resonance, then try again until it comes through. As one student quips in Anderson’s jazzy two-minute ‘how to get in’ video, a great story creates a great application.
A final reflection: don’t let the need for brevity rob your responses of feeling. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen is showing a lack of enthusiasm. If your tone doesn’t convey excitement or energy, it won’t stand out. Same if you’ve only done the bare bones research and your essays lack nuanced and meaningful insight on the program or yourself. Dare to have a little fun and show Anderson the love. Remember, you want to leave the reviewer with a desire to meet you in person to learn more. Do this artfully, and you’re well-positioned to feel the love in return at admissions time.
Jessica Chung is an expert coach at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Associate Director of Admissions at UCLA Anderson. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.