Top B-School MBA Admissions Essays From 20 Years Ago

May 02, 2019 | by Matt Symonds

Update! Harvard Business School announced the deadlines and application details for the MBA Class of 2022.

As in times past, HBS is the first school to announce deadlines for the 2019-2020 season, and traditionally sets the earliest M7 deadline. This season, deadlines for Round 1 move up one day to September 4, 2019 and Round 2  is set for January 6, 2020. While the application won’t open up until early June 2019, HBS affirms its required essay will remain unchanged and links to its Application Guide for details on requirements. 

Dee Leopold, former MBA Admissions Director used to say, “Getting into HBS is not an essay writing contest.” For the past five years, the admissions office in Dillon House has asked, “As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA Program?” To best answer that question I highly recommend you review this fascinating video, “What Does Harvard Business School Really Want?”, recorded with my Fortuna Admissions colleague and former HBS Associate Director, Karla Cohen.

For Karla, “The essay sets your overall application apart and earns you the interview amid so many applications with impressive credentials. You can’t expect to compete on credentials alone at any top tier business school, let alone Harvard, because HBS has seen it all.”

Twenty years ago, the HBS application included nine essays (see the full list below). They are now down to one, and when applicable a post-interview reflection. This trend is common to all the top schools – there are now fewer essays, shorter essays, and in some cases video essays.

During her eleven years in MBA admissions at Wharton, former Director Judith Silverman Hodara would usually read the essays before she read anything else. “I really liked getting to know what motivated the applicant, and what their backstory was, what mattered to them, and how they decided that the MBA made sense. I never wanted to have a pre-disposed feeling about them based on where they went to school or their GPA, GMAT or their resume and the names contained therein.”

At the time Wharton had four essays (also included below), and after finishing reading all of them Judith would go back and fill in the gaps. “I felt that getting an idea of the candidate away from the black and white of some of the quantifiable aspects was really important. It also allowed me to understand how their essays impacted the decisions and experiences they had made as reflected in other parts of the application.”

When Caroline Diarte Edwards was Director of Admissions at INSEAD she would love to review the motivation essays. “They often make an absolutely fascinating read, and it would be a favourite part of my day.”

With so many Fortuna Admissions colleagues who were Directors or Associate Directors of Admissions at the world’s top business schools, where applications are typically down to just one or two essays, Caroline is often teased for overseeing such a mammoth MBA application at Fontainebleau. But as the former INSEAD gatekeeper she always maintains that by sticking with a long format, and bucking the trend of streamlining despite some trimming, the school benefits from the multiple essay format.

“The INSEAD application gives candidates space to really tell their story, and gives the file readers a much broader perspective on the candidate, beyond the facts and figures on their resumes. In an incredibly diverse applicant pool, having this broader picture is incredibly useful.“

Caroline also points to the signals that the longer application sends, in both directions. “It weeds out candidates that are not serious and can’t be bothered to put in the work. At the same time it shows the candidates that the school is genuinely interested in who they are and what makes them tick, and not just in their impressive resume.”

To give you a sense of how the MBA applications at HBS, Stanford, Wharton, Booth, Columbia, MIT Sloan, Kellogg, Berkeley Haas, NYU Stern, INSEAD and LBS have changed over time, and perhaps remind some of you of the work you put in to your own applications to business school twenty years ago, I’ve included below an extract from Getting the MBA Admissions Edge, the bestseller that I co-wrote back in 1999, sponsored by McKinsey, BCG, Bain and Goldman Sachs.

As you can see, the top schools had lots of questions! And not just for the applicants – in reviewing her own application to Stanford GSB, my Fortuna Admissions colleague Heidi Hillis noted that recommenders also had a lot more work to do, and that her resume was 3 pages long.

So what was, or what will be your story?

Harvard Business School

  • Please describe your most significant leadership experience. Feel free to draw upon work experiences, extracurricular activities or your personal interactions, describing a period of formal or informal leadership. Please focus less on the specific situation and more on what caused you to be effective (300 words).
  • What are your career aspirations and why? How will you get there? (300 word limit)
  • What do you enjoy and what do you dislike about your current job? Why? (300 word limit)
  • What specifically have you done to help a group or organization change? (300 words)
  • Recognizing that successful leaders are able to learn from failure, describe a situation in which you failed. (100 words) Why did you fail? (200 words)
  • Describe your three most substantial accomplishments.
  • Describe a teacher/mentor you admire and explain why you admire him/her. How have you incorporated what you have learned from this individual in your life? (400 word limit)
  • What could you do to be an even more effective member of your organization? (200 word limit)
  • Optional essay: Is there any other information that you believe would be helpful to the board in understanding you better and in considering your application? Please be concise.

Stanford GSB

  • Each of us has been influenced by the people, events and situations in our lives. How have these influences shaped who you are today? (Our goal is to get a sense of who you are, rather than what you have done.)
  • Based on your professional experiences to date, what are your short- and long-term career goals? Why do you now wish to earn an MBA? What specific aspects of the Stanford MBA Program make it attractive to you? How will this experience help you to achieve your short- and long-term goals?

Wharton

  • Describe how your experiences, both professional and personal, have led to your decision to pursue an MBA at the Wharton School this year. How does this decision relate to your career goals for the future?
  • Describe a situation where leadership and teamwork were critical to the outcome of a project in which you were directly involved. What did you learn from the experience and how have you applied what you learned to other situations?
  • Describe a personal achievement that has had a significant impact on your life. Give specific details. What did you learn from the experience? How did it help shape your understanding of yourself and the world around you?
  • Please tell us something else about yourself that you feel will help the Admissions Committee know you better.
  • (Optional) The Admissions Committee believes the required essay topics address issues that are important in understanding your candidacy. If there are extenuating circumstances or concerns affecting your application of which you felt the Admissions Committee should be aware, please elaborate here (e.g. your academic performance as an accurate measure of your potential, unexplained gaps in your work experience).

Chicago Booth

  • Why are you seeking an MBA or IMBA from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business? What do you hope to experience and contribute? What are your plans and goals after you receive your degree?
  • If you could be any age for the rest of your life, what age would you be and why?
  • If you had the opportunity to take the vacation of a lifetime, with whom and where would you spend it? Describe your dream vacation in detail.
  • If you had $10 million to give away, where would you give it?
  • If you could receive any award, who would present it and for what reason would it be given?

Columbia Business School

  • What are your career goals? How will an MBA help you achieve these goals? Why are you applying to Columbia Business School? (Limit 1000 words)
  • In reviewing the last five years, describe one or two accomplishments in which you demonstrated leadership. (Limit 500 words)
  • Discuss a non-academic personal failure. In what way were you disappointed in yourself? What did you learn from the experience? (Limit 500 words)
  • Columbia Business School diverse environment. Please discuss a life experience of yours that shows how you will contribute to the class. (Limit 250 words)

INSEAD

  • Give a candid description of yourself, stressing the personal characteristics you feel to be strengths and weaknesses and the main factors which have influenced your personal development. (30 lines)
  • Describe what you believe to be your two most substantial accomplishments to date, explaining why you view them as such. (30 lines)
  • Describe a situation taken from school, business, civil or military life where you did not meet your personal objectives, and discuss what you learned from this experience. (20 lines)
  • Discuss your career goals, and explain how an MBA will contribute to achieving these goals. Why are you applying to INSEAD and what means of ensuring your personal and professional development are you seriously considering as an alternative to INSEAD? (40 lines)
  • Is there anything that you have not mentioned in the above essays that you would like the admissions committee to know? (15 lines) (This question is in fact optional)

Kellogg

  • Briefly assess your career progress to date. Elaborate on your future career plans and your motivation for pursuing a graduate degree at Kellogg.
  • Each of our applicants is unique. Describe how your background, values, and non-work related activities will enhance the experiences of other Kellogg students.
  • You have been selected as a member of the Kellogg Admissions Committee. Please provide a brief evaluative assessment of your file.
  • 4A. Through the course of your life, what would you identify as your most valued accomplishment?
  • 4B. Outside of work, I enjoy…
  • 4C. Describe a situation that forced you to re-evaluate a personal belief.
  • 4D. Describe your most significant contribution to an organization or individual.

London Business School

  • Is your academic performance to date an accurate predictor of your potential success at LBS? If so, why? If not, why not? (100 words)
  • Describe any significant experiences outside of your home country. What did you gain from them? (200 words)
  • Please explain if you have been involved in community, extra-curricular and professional activities, giving examples of your involvement, the amount of time you gave to each activity and why you chose to get involved. (200 words)
  • With the increasing globalization of business, explain how the LBS MBA will equip you for your future international career? Why is now the right time for you to do an MBA as opposed to another qualification and what alternative plans do you have if you are not offered a place on any MBA program? (500 words)
  • If we asked three of your closest associates to describe you, what would they say your strengths and weaknesses were? Which adjectives would they use and why?
  • Describe a situation, either personal or professional, where you faced a particular frustration or difficulty. What was the outcome, what did you learn from the experience and what would you do differently if faced with a similar situation again?
  • It is the year 2010 and you have been invited to give a keynote speech, showcasing your professional achievements since graduating from LBS. Who have you been invited by, what is the occasion and what are the key points in your speech?
  • If you could choose any three people who have ever lived to join you for dinner, whom would you invite and why?

MIT Sloan

  • Discuss the effect that an increasingly global economy may have on your future responsibilities as a manager, both generally and as regards your chosen field, and what you hope to learn at MIT to enable you to meet this challenge.
  • Discuss your views regarding the management of technological change as a vital skill for future managers, what impact technological change has had on your chosen career field, and how study at MIT will prepare you to face these challenges.
  • Describe a situation where you introduced and/or managed change in an organization. Tell us how you influenced others in an organization (business, school, extracurricular activity) and comment on the professional and/or personal attributes you used to do this, and how these attributes (and others) might be important to the attainment of your career goals. How do you expect the Sloan School to further the development of these attributes?
  • If we had met you five years ago and then met you again today, how would we say that you have changed? Include specific examples that characterize your development.

NYU Stern

  • Think about the decisions you have made that led you to your current position. PAST: What choices have you made that led you to your current position? PRESENT: Why is a Stern MBA necessary at this point of your life? FUTURE: What is your desired position upon graduation from the Stern School?
  • It’s August in the new century and you have three years of experience with the company that hired you after you earned your MBA. Layoffs, mergers and acquisitions continue to define the business climate. You have just learned that your position will be eliminated. You don’t have the seniority required for severance pay or outplacement services but will receive your salary through September 15. What is your plan of action?
  • As a graduate of the Stern MBA, you are a successful manager and responsible for hiring people in your department. It now appears you may have made a mistake. An employee you selected six months ago is not performing at an acceptable level. You have confronted this person, reviewed performance expectations and given constructive suggestions for improvement. However, the employee’s performance has not improved and you’ve decided this cannot continue. How will you handle the situation?
  • Assume that you are planning to launch a new business venture. Write an executive summary of your business plan to present to potential investors.
  • Describe yourself to your MBA classmates (you may use any method to convey your message: words, illustrations, etc.).
  • (Optional) Please provide any additional information that you would like to bring to the attention of the admissions committee. If you are unable to submit a recommendation from a current employer, please give your reasons here.

UC Berkeley – Haas

(Short essays)

  • What leisure-time activities do you enjoy?
  • Who is your favorite author?
  • What is your most valued tangible possession? What is your most valuable intangible possession?
  • Briefly explain what prompts your best efforts
  • Briefly state what you view as your most significant accomplishment
  • What do you view as a particular strength of yours? What do you view as a particular weakness? Would friends and family share your view?
  • If you had four extra hours a day (i.e. a 28-hour day), what would you do with them?

(Long essays)

  • The unexamined life is not worth living – Socrates, the apology by Plato
  • What do you like about your job? What do you dislike? If you were promoted to a senior management position, what changes, if any, would you make to your former position to address your dissatisfaction?
  • Describe an ethical dilemma you have experienced and discuss how you handled the situation.
  • Please discuss your intermediate and professional long-term goals and why you want an MBA at this point in your career. In what ways do you think an MBA degree will help you achieve these goals? What do you want from an MBA program and why have you chosen the Haas School?
  • The optional essay: Please provide a statement concerning your personal history, background, and influences on your intellectual development. This statement should include educational an cultural opportunities (or lack of them), social and economic disadvantages that you may have had to overcome and the ways in which these experiences have affected you.

Fortuna Admissions Co-Founder and Director Matt Symonds writes about the MBA for Forbes, The Economist, BusinessWeek, the BBC, and AméricaEconomia.

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