Cambridge Judge is among the many top schools that debuted a new essay question for the 2021-2022 season that sought to elicit more personal responses from MBA candidates. Chicago Booth wants to “learn more about you outside the office,” Berkeley Haas asks, “what makes you feel alive when you are doing it” and UCLA Anderson replaced its slate of essays with a singular question on “how the events of the past year have influenced the impact you want to make” (view specific MBA essay tips on these schools by my Fortuna Admissions colleagues).
Among the most unusual new essay questions comes from Cambridge Judge, a bastion of British excellence with an 800-year academic pedigree. (The latest Forbes ranking crowned Judge at #3, behind IMD and INSEAD.) It’s the last of four questions, all of which – beyond the personal statement that wants specifics on our short and long-term career goals, among other pointed details – veer toward the behavioral. In no more than 200 words, Cambridge Judge wants to know:
If you could give one piece of advice to your 18-year-old self, what would it be?
This MBA essay prompt speaks to growth, which can be a little tricky. As my Fortuna Admissions colleague Karen Ponte cautions, “There is a balance to be struck here between highlighting regrets/significant mistakes of the past and showing the journey that you’ve come on so far in your life. Take care to be as positive as you can and use this question to show your self-development and how the MBA will be a continuing part of that development. The average age of the Cambridge MBA student is 30 – but regardless of your age, you will need to demonstrate maturity and the ability to self-reflect.”
My suggestion is to go personal but avoid common sense learnings. Root your advice in a story or anecdote from your life. This is a question that lends itself to storytelling, to pulling a vignette from your life and drawing us in by setting the scene (quickly – 200 words isn’t much real estate) instead of leading with the advice straight away. A lot of people are afraid to get creative and take the reader on a journey, but that’s the wiser way to approach it. If it feels like a struggle, that’s understandable – you just don’t write like this at work.
You can think about what ways you’ve changed and any misconceptions you had about life and work. These even might tie back to the vision you have for your career (first essay question).
As you think it through, consider this approach:
- A time in life when I failed someone else or failed myself, i.e., was not living in line with my core missions/values (the ones I hold today that I might have not held tightly as a youngster)
- Tell that mini-story in 100 words
- Advise yourself based on it, and avoid using cliches, in 100 words
Beyond a failure, Karen offers other possible examples such as:
- Having more confidence
- Taking a risk
- Appreciating/valuing family
- Prioritizing education (remembering the strong focus on academia at Cambridge)
- Going traveling
- Worrying less
- Networking more; etc.
Showing vulnerability and growth is good (such as learning how to be more compassionate with yourself– that would be good advice for most teens). But there’s a fine line between vulnerability and oversharing, and your discernment reflects your maturity and awareness of your audience (the MBA admissions committee). Do fess up to failures if true learning was had, even if that learning was a bit embarrassing. View this as a chance to highlight who you are today and the journey that shaped you into an ever-wiser human. Don’t use cliché advice (i.e. you win some you lose some, etc.) or highlight anything that may raise questions regarding your character (like academic dishonesty).
As Karen says, “The rest of the application is very much focused around your professional life, so try to use this question to give the admissions team a little insight into other dimensions of who you are, your character, your unique perspectives, and experiences.”
This essay can, and I think should point to some value that you have and that you will bring to the program. You’re helping admissions get to know you, and you’re showing them what you’re bringing to the table and the kind of person you are, and how you will add value during and after your time on campus.
Finally, like tackling the MIT Sloan application, the full slate of Cambridge MBA essays poses a puzzle that you need to put together without being repetitive. Every essay isn’t a stand-alone, and while you want to get reflective about each one, as you sit down to write you’ll be wise to keep the overall narrative in mind. For advice on responding to all four Cambridge Judge MBA essays, view Karen’s related article, Cambridge Judge MBA Essays: Tips & Strategy.
Brittany Maschal is an Expert Coach at MBA consulting firm Fortuna Admissions and a former member of admissions teams at Wharton, Princeton & Johns Hopkins. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.