Once you’ve spent the required time identifying your target schools’ admissions criteria, self-reflecting and identifying some of your key traits, and focusing on the personal narrative you want to depict in your applications, it’s time to dive into the essay questions. There are several themes that recur in the essay questions that business schools ask. Let’s examine three key common ones here:
1) Why get an MBA at this moment in your career? Although fewer schools are using this essay topic compared to a few years ago, it still comes up at several MBA programs. NYU Stern specifically asks: “Why pursue an MBA (or dual degree) at this point in your life?” And Tuck wants to know, “Why is an MBA a critical next step towards your short-and long-term career goals?”
You can imagine each business school’s perspective: they want students who will get the maximum value out of their program by achieving great things in the future. Stanford GSB’s motto is: “Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world.” That’s a pretty ambitious statement that tells you a lot about the candidates they’re looking for. So in this type of essay you need to make a strong case that the MBA is essential for you to achieve your dreams. You need to show that there’s a logical flow to your plan: that the MBA will somehow enhance your CV and enable you to take a next step. This is important. Our Fortuna team of former Admissions Directors admit rejecting candidates who, we thought, could achieve their goals without an MBA.
2) Why this MBA in particular? Stanford GSB gets right to the point with “Why Stanford?” while Fuqua gives applicants two options. They have the choice to answer a question around one of the Fuqua school principles, or “When asked by your family, friends, and colleagues why you want to go to Duke, what do you tell them? Share the reasons that are most meaningful to you.” In 2014 Wharton reduced its essays to just one question, which asks “What do you hope to gain both personally and professionally from the Wharton MBA?”
As unbelievable as it may seem, at INSEAD, former Director of Admissions Caroline Diarte Edwards received essays about why the candidate was passionate about London Business School. That’s a quick way to land your application on the reject pile. Don’t cut and paste your essays between applications (especially if you don’t know how to use the “find” and “replace” functions). Again, think about it from the school’s perspective. They want to recruit candidates who love the school, who really understand what makes it special, and can explain why it’s a great fit for them. You cannot write this essay well if you don’t know the school intimately. Too many candidates write vague generalities or offer insignificant comments, because they only have a superficial knowledge of the institution. So do your homework: conduct on-line research, talk to current students and alumni, and, if possible, visit the campus. Nothing else will give you a stronger sense of what the school is about or position you better to convincingly address this question.
3) What is your career vision? Business schools still want to know the answer to this question, sometimes asking in the form of a short essay, such as at Fuqua. UC Berkeley Haas asks candidates to respond in a longer essay, up to 500-600 words, to “What is your desired post-MBA role and at what company or organization?”
Admissions Directors are well aware that there’s often little correlation between what applicants say they’re going to do after business school and what they end up doing. The MBA should be a transformative experience; it will open your mind to new possibilities and opportunities. Some say, therefore, that this type of question has no real value. But, if you were an Admissions Director, would you rather admit Candidate A, who has a vision of expanding a consumer products firm in emerging markets, or Candidate B, who says any leadership opportunity would be of interest? Candidate A may well end up becoming an investment banker, but she’s more likely to sell herself to recruiters and build a brilliant career. Candidate B-types, however strong their track record, often struggle to develop a job search strategy. So even if your vision is likely to change, the fact that you can articulate a logical and inspiring vision is in your favor.
As the next step of this series, we’ll address essay questions concerning your contribution to the MBA program and fit with the school.