Harvard, Stanford & Wharton: Three MBA Essays That Got Candidates Admitted

If you’re applying to an elite MBA program, the odds are already stacked against you, even when you have the stats to get admitted.

Consider this: Last year, Stanford, Harvard, and Wharton–the holy trinity of the world’s most elite MBA programs–together received nearly ten applicants for every available seat. That’s 20,735 MBA applications for little more than 2,000 classroom slots. Despite the self-selecting nature of their applicant pools, the all three schools admitted a mere 15% of their candidates.

So what made the difference? Often, it was the stories candidates told in their answers to the schools’ essay prompts. If you’re aiming to apply to any highly selective business school in this forthcoming admissions season, you are likely working on your essays right now, especially for the round one deadlines that begin to topple like dominoes within weeks, Sept. 6th for HBS and Wharton, and Sept. 12th for Stanford.

So it stands to reason that you might well benefit by reading the essays of successful MBA applicants to these three schools.  Here are three recent examples to help guide your writing and to provide a bit of inspiration for one of the more challenging, yet consequential parts, of applying to a highly selective business school.

The Stanford University campus

Stanford GSB prompt: What matters most to you, and why? (Word count: 751)

Six months into joining JP Morgan, I got a call from my dad close to midnight. The call itself wasn’t unusual—my parents liked to check in on me—but the discussion was. He needed me to keep this conversation between the two of us. He needed money.

I was completely shocked but jumped into auto-pilot; I was comforting and optimistic and said I’d do anything to help. When we hung up, I wired him my paycheck, thinking it was a one-time request. Yet within months, I became Santa Claus for our family Christmas, the piggybank for my little sister at college, and the source for electricity at my parents’ home back in Orange County. 1

Monetary support was the reason my dad called me, but over time, as he told me about his business problems, I started giving him advice on the bankruptcy process and raising capital. 2 After a year, I convinced him to put aside his fear of disappointment and open up to our family about the business situation, though we never told them of my contributions. My dad, my mom, my little sister and older brother have all looked to me to provide a sense of calm and optimism, which has kept us

as strong as ever. Although I still felt young at 22, I realized I had the knowledge, personality, and wherewithal to have a real impact on others.

Things came easy to me growing up—school, friends, sports. Not to say I didn’t work hard (I did), but I was rewarded with positive outcomes. My older brother went about life with comparable happiness and ease. I assumed it was like this for everyone, until I saw how much my little sister struggled. She was a slow developer; she felt defeated in school and misplaced socially. 3 I became her life cheerleader, tutor, and best friend. I treasured each of her incremental steps more than my own achievements. When I went to Dartmouth, I gravitated towards similar roles—VP, Personal Development for my sorority, STEM tutor at a high school near Hanover and Peer Mentor in my finance classes. I enjoyed helping other people see their potential.

But the situation with my dad made that natural role take a new meaning. I was monumentally appreciative of the position I was in at JP Morgan: I was challenged, I was learning, and my learnings and position were relevant to others.

I realized I wanted to continue and expand my tendency to be a supporter for others. Recognizing how valuable my older brother’s friends were in helping me navigate my career path, I worked with Dartmouth Career Services and my fellow alumni in business to create a mentoring program that gave Dartmouth juniors a young alumni mentor in their field of interest. The response has been tremendous, and I myself am always happy to hear from my mentees, now at their dream jobs in finance.

Yet as proud as I was of the thousands of hours of career advice the program has facilitated, I wanted to help those who didn’t already have the benefit of being in a great school. I’ve since joined iMentor, an organization that helps high achieving, low-income high-school students on their path to college. My mentee, Eliana, was so shy in our first meeting she would cover her face when she spoke. Instead of jamming her day 1 with college prep, I worked to build her trust, and we became friends. She started speaking up in group sessions and trying new activities (like ice-skating, sushi, and considering out-of-state colleges). I am not an emotional person, but we both cried my last day at the program as she presented me with the hot pink funfetti cake she baked and led the group in singing me farewell songs.

I still speak with Eliana on Saturdays since moving to Chicago, just like I stay up late on the phone with my little sister troubleshooting the week’s latest obstacle (an exam or finding a summer job). I still help my dad through these tougher times and continue to look for ways to improve the Dartmouth’s Junior/Alum Match-Up program. My high-school motto, “find a way or make one,” which I dutifully lived by since graduation has morphed into “find a way and make one for others.” I love to be challenged and a pioneer for women in the workforce, and I have discovered the more I achieve, the more capacity and drive I have to help others reach their potential as well.

Liza Weale of Gatehouse Admissions

Commentary by Liza Weale of Gatehouse Admissions: Helena’s story of financially helping her father—and subsequently her entire family—is a moving one. Taking on that responsibility as a recent college graduate must have filled Helena with both stress and concern. Yet the story of her father’s plight accounts for only a small portion of the essay, and a meaningful theme emerges: Helena is fueled to grow, learn, and achieve for herself, then apply her growth, learnings, and achievements to help others.

Helena includes a number of stories and moments from her life to make her point, and as she moves from one time period to another, the consistent element (beyond her theme) is her use of specific details to make each story stand out. (Yes, we say it time and time again—such precise particulars make your story one that only you can tell; moreover, they enable the reader to better envision your world.) She also dots the essay with a few asides that give the reader more insight into who she is, even beyond her core thesis. Throughout, we see a strong, optimistic, and caring leader, one who is willing to contribute however she can to improve the circumstances of those around her.

I would like to comment briefly on paragraph length: applicants sometimes assume that their business school essays must follow a formal structure. Yet Helena mixes up the length of her paragraphs, with some being only a few sentences long—which is rare in formal writing. As someone who reads dozens (and dozens!) of essays every year, I can assure you not only that variety is appreciated but also that when used strategically, short paragraphs can help hold a reader’s attention. More condensed paragraphs can often be easier to digest. Of course, my point here is not that you should fill your essays with short paragraphs because doing so will get you accepted! (If only things were that easy…) Instead, my advice is to be flexible in your writing style to the extent that you feel comfortable doing so; schools do not expect a formally organized composition. The essays in this guide represent a variety of essay structures, and each one is associated with an applicant who was ultimately accepted. Find what you are comfortable with, and be confident in it.


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