Most & Least Challenging MBA Applications Of 2020-2021


Sometimes, schools were singled out for having highly challenging applications by fewer consultants who made compelling arguments for their inclusion. That was true of London Business School. “Beyond LBS’s essays, the program poses an exhaustive array of in-application questions related to academic readiness (400 words), interests and activities (400 words), pre-MBA discussions with friends and family (300 words), LBS connections (300 words), international experience (100 words), and English-language readiness (300 words, where appropriate),” says Greg Guglielmo, founder of Avanti Prep MBA Admissions Consulting.

“On top of that,” he adds, “each of their in-application job entries allows up to 400 words, followed by a 90-word “reasons for taking this role” and a 90-word “reasons for leaving this role. While an applicant certainly does not need to use the full word count for each of these responses, LBS applicants are facing 1,000 words via the main essays should they choose to answer the optional essay, 1,500 to 1,800 words via the non-job-related short-answer questions depending on whether they need to answer the English language question, and then up to 580 words for each job entry.

“An LBS applicant who has had three roles could therefore end up writing somewhere in the range of 4,000 and 4,500 words. Compare that to the other end of the application spectrum where from a ‘written’ perspective, Michigan Ross requires 400 words worth of essays and has a very lean application, and MIT Sloan requires a 300-word cover letter and also has a very lean application. Rather than becoming excited to channel their stories into a couple of focused essays, most LBS applicants we encounter become downtrodden when they find out how many de facto mini-essays are hiding within LBS’s online application.”


Of course, applying to any highly selective MBA program is never really easy. As one consultant makes clear, prepping for and taking a standardized test may in fact be the toughest part of applying. Nonetheless, when we asked the consultants which MBA applications were among the least challenging this year, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School received the most votes, with nearly one in four respondents naming the school.

Wharton requires two essay questions: “What do you hope to gain professionally from the Wharton MBA?” and “How do you plan to make specific, meaningful contributions to the Wharton community?” One consultant noted that those generic questions, similar to what is asked of applicants at Chicago Booth, are “the most easily repurposable and standard.” “It’s what can you GIVE to our school and what can you GET from our school,” the consultant adds. “Depending on the individual client, I sometimes find it helpful to start with one of these schools to lay a basic foundation.”

Consultants also zeroed in on Michigan Ross which moved from three to two short-answer essay questions and reducing the word count on its career essay by a third to 200 words. Applicants must choose to complete a sentence in 100 words each from two groups of questions. Examples in group one: “I want people to know that I…I made a difference when I…I was aware that I was different when…” Examples in group two: “I was out of my comfort zone when…I was humbled when…I was challenged when…”


All told, Ross is looking for no more than 400 words. One consultant views this in a positive light. “I admire Michigan Ross’s continued drive toward a lean application, however, I do believe that this inevitably makes the application less challenging,” the consultant told Poets&Quants. “If an applicant is deep into the broader process, they will almost certainly have a couple of already well-developed anecdotes to deliver in Ross’s short answers section and a well-developed “short-term goal / why” statement, which is all Ross really requests.”

Not surprisingly, perhaps, some consultants see it differently. “Ross’ reduction from three essays down to two has also been a little stressful because there’s less room in which to really shine,” counters another consultant.

Also making the least challenging list are Columbia Business School, Chicago Booth, and UCLA’s Anderson School of Management (see below table). “Columbia, Booth, and Wharton all have similarities and rather generic ‘goals’ essays,” explains Candy Lee LaBalle of LaBalle Admissions in Madrid. “Goals-centered apps are less challenging is because a goals essay is not an exercise in deep self-awareness or personal ‘authenticity.’ It’s not ambiguous, nor does it push you too far out of your comfort zone the way other schools do. It makes you share your professional goals, which if you are seeking a world-class MBA, you’ve probably done a good bit of thinking about them already.”

LaBalle’s advice: “The number one rule of MBA essay writing is ‘answer the question’ and the number two is “write to the school”. Which means, tailor your answer to what the school offers. In the prompts for CBS, Wharton, Booth and LBS, you’re being asked very directly ‘why us,’ ‘how can we help you achieve your goals,’ ‘why are we a good fit for your,’ ‘what do you want to gain professionally.’ The more specific your answer, the better.”


And when it came to essay questions that are favorites, Fuqua School of Business’ requirement for applicants to list 25 random things about themselves on two pages shot to the top of the list in a tie with Stanford’s ‘what matters most’ prompt. Four years ago, when Poets&Quants last surveyed MBA admission consultants on the year’s applications, that Fuqua question topped the list of favorites as well. Consultants say that Duke’s question allows applicants wide latitude to be creative and highly personal (see How To Answer Fuqua’s 25 Random Things Essay). “I think they really make an attempt to get to know the students,” says Pamela Jaffe at The Jaffee Advantage.

Hillary Schubach, the founder and president of Shine/ MBA Admissions Consulting, singles out Haas’ leadership essay prompt: “The definition of successful leadership has evolved over the last decade and will continue to change. What do you need to develop to become a successful leader?” “To do it well, this essay was trickier than it seemed—and actually sparked several fascinating conversations about what we can learn about leadership from the events of 2020, let alone the past few years,” she says.

She also gave high marks to both Stanford GSB and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “Stanford, UVA and others ask about times when you’ve made a meaningful impact,” says Schubach. “I always like those questions. Candidates feel good telling those stories, and it forces people to consider whether they have the ‘beyond yourself’ types of values that matter to just about every B-school.”


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