12 Steps on How to Apply to B-School – Step 9: MBA Application Essays – Strengths and Weaknesses, Accomplishments and Failures, Open-ended Questions

June 17, 2015 | by Matt Symonds

Previously in this series, we identified five common themes found in essays. In addition to those, some of the most daunting essay questions for candidates to address are topics that force you to be self-reflective and reveal your level of self-awareness. Candidates can sometimes be unduly modest and uncomfortable promoting themselves and discussing their strengths. Others can be worried about revealing their shortcomings, concerned it may impact their admission chances. Your responses and how you choose to frame the answers can be very telling for admissions officers.

Let’s examine how to handle both: 1) Addressing strengths and weaknesses, accomplishments and failures. Examples of this type of question include Dartmouth Tuck’s “Tell us about your most meaningful leadership experience and what role you played. What did you learn about your own individual strengths and weaknesses through this experience?” INSEAD asks candidates “Describe the achievement of which you are most proud and explain why. In addition, describe a situation where you failed. How did these experiences impact your relationships with others? Comment on what you learned.”

When asked to describe your strengths or accomplishments, emphasize your best attributes and relate them to what makes you an ideal MBA candidate, thereby circling back to your sales pitch. Pick an accomplishment that shows you have skills that will be useful in your dream career. And don’t stop at describing the accomplishment itself; try to weave the challenges that you faced and obstacles you overcame into the story. Strengths should also be illustrated with examples that compliment your accomplishments ‒ ideally from the last year or two.

When you’re asked to discuss weaknesses, don’t make the person reading your file snort in disdain by saying that you’re, unfortunately, a perfectionist. Or avoid writing that you work too hard. These are transparent attempts to avoid the question by highlighting qualities that you think make you look good. Instead, pick something more original and honest and, if possible, show that you’re working to overcome these flaws. Likewise for failures. Be honest and straightforward, but don’t dwell on the negative. What’s interesting to the school is what you’ve learned from the experience and whether you’re someone who can bounce back from failure ‒ can you swallow some humble pie and emerge from the experience a wiser human being?

Ultimately, the essay package should give the reader a sense that you’re a well-rounded person ‒ not just that you live to work. They should make the admissions officers want to learn more about you and invite you for an interview. Prove to them that you’re self-aware, honest, and have a clear sense of what a period at business school will mean for both you and the community in which you will become a member.

2) Answering open-ended questions. More recently, business schools have begun asking open-ended, general questions. One good example of this is Harvard’s essay, which has changed this year. The new question for HBS applicants for the class of 2018 is the following: “It’s the first day of class at HBS. You are in Aldrich Hall meeting your “section.” This is the group of 90 classmates who will become your close companions in the first-year MBA classroom. Our signature case method participant-based learning model ensures that you will get to know each other very well. The bonds you collectively create throughout this shared experience will be lasting. Introduce yourself.” In addition, Chicago Booth’s 2014-2015 application asked candidates: “In a four-slide presentation or an essay of no more than 600 words, broaden our perspective about who you are. Understanding what we currently know about you from the rest of the application, what else would you like us to know?”

Such open-ended questions can be intimidating at first sight. However, the same rules we’ve discussed in this series apply. Use this essay as an opportunity to reveal greater dimensions to your candidacy, think about what you’ve done in the past in terms of what it says about you, and how it shapes your values and attitudes about life. You can also think about any specific situations or aspects from your background that have shaped you into the person you are today. There is no rule about how to approach this essay so decide on what content you want to include before you think about how to communicate this. Don’t repeat what can be found already in your resume. Think about ways to provide depth around who you are and you might want to provide a few examples that illustrate the key points that you want to communicate. Also, respect the unspoken word limit; you should discuss a central theme (or two) but don’t try to cover too much in this one essay and go overboard.

Finally, whether you feel confident or nervous about tackling the essays, remember the value of getting the perspective of others, whether that is a trusted colleague, friend, mentor, or consultant. These are people who can help you work out your story, and how to best present yourself. As the next step of this series, we’ll discuss letters of recommendations.

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