NYU Stern Essays: Strategy & Tips for Success

August 26, 2020 | by Trisha Nussbaum

What do you want to do, and who do you want to be?

Taken together, the sum of Stern’s two required essays (Professional Aspirations + Personal Expression) should convey a clear and inspiring direction for your professional life, guided by your motivations, ambitions, ideals, and values. Your responses, both written and visual, help the admissions team understand what it is that drives you forward — not only in your career, but in your life.

At the same time, context matters. In 2019, Stern released a ‘new call to action,’ rebranding with its new slogan: Change. Dare it. Dream it. Drive it. You’ll want to consider Stern’s new curriculum and its ethos around adaptability in approaching your essays. No matter your background, Stern wants to see that you are agile, flexible and progressively thinking beyond your industry’s traditional definitions. Think about how you can position your achievements to highlight that you are more than someone who can simply be a passenger to change, but rather a leader or orchestrator of change.

As a Fortuna MBA Admissions Coach, tech consultant and NYU Stern MBA alum, I’ve worked with countless candidates to deliver a narrative that’s persuasive, coherent, concise and authentic to you. Given that the MBA essays are primary vehicle for distinguishing your uniqueness in a sea of excellence (especially if you’re from an overrepresented pool like finance, engineering or consulting), they offer a formidable exercise in self-awareness. So let’s talk strategy.


Essay 1: Professional Aspirations (500 words max)
What are your short and long-term career goals? How will the MBA help you achieve them?

The admissions committee at Stern is looking for a clear plan from its applicants that coherently aligns with your past experiences. Says my Fortuna colleague Nonie Mackie, former INSEAD assistant director of career services, in How to Convey a Powerful MBA Career Vision: “Your ability to express a logical and motivating career vision signals your commitment to the journey, even if the destination changes along the way. And admissions officers are aware your plans may evolve. After all, getting an MBA should be a life-changing experience; it will inevitably present new opportunities and possibilities.”

At the same time, the Admissions Committee wants confidence you can envision how the Stern MBA will add value to your career goals. Your ability to articulate a coherent, compelling career vision is an indication of the quality of work — and clarity of thought — you’re capable of producing. Create a path that makes sense given your academic and professional background, and the transferrable skills that you’ll bring with you to the next steps in your career. You need to convey, either as a career enhancer or a career switcher, that the path is viable.

This kind of clarity is also evidence you possess the abilities to develop a savvy job search strategy – even as your ambitions evolve. Spend time in advance of applying to do your research and speak to current business school students and alumni to learn more about what kind of career opportunities are available to Stern business school graduates. Stern has great success rates for placing graduates at reputable companies, so take a look at Stern’s MBA career section online to be knowledgeable about the most common industries and companies for recent graduates.

In terms of methodology, it’s helpful to begin with a brief anecdote from your background, or a consistent passion in your life, that sets up a path towards your goals. Next, spend a paragraph on how your experiences have led you towards your short-term goals, directly stating what they are. It’s important that your short-term goals are well thought-out, whereas your long-term goals can be more general, with an explanation of how an MBA from Stern will help you on this path. For example, the time frame of a long-term vision is typically around 10 years out — it’s the end game or pinnacle of your career. Your short-term goals, by contrast, are stepping stones on your way to that end goal, meaning they are your immediate plans (for your internship) to two to three years post-MBA.

Lastly, explain Stern’s part in achieving your goals, focusing on the unique qualities of the school, such as experiential learning and its location. You can demonstrate your dedication to the Stern community by explaining how you plan to get involved in clubs and activities.

Essay 2: Personal Expression (a.k.a. “Pick Six”)

Describe yourself to the Admissions Committee and to your future classmates using six images and corresponding captions. Your uploaded PDF should contain all of the following elements:

  • A brief introduction or overview of your “Pick Six” (no more than 3 sentences).
  • Six images that help illustrate who you are.
  • A one-sentence caption for each of the six images that helps explain why they were selected and are significant to you.

Note: Your visuals may include photos, infographics, drawings, or any other images that best describe you. Your document must be uploaded as a single PDF. The essay cannot be sent in physical form or be linked to a website.

If essay 1 delivers an understanding of your professional goals and academic achievements – what you do – essay 2 is about who you are. In additional to considering a candidate’s academic and professional background in the admissions process, Stern places a strong emphasis on personal characteristics and is looking for students who will be involved in the school and community. The Pick Six is a place to let your personality shine. You can utilize a diverse set of images, as long as they have significance in your life and, if possible, tie into the characteristics that Stern is looking for.

What is the story you wish to tell? Are you a climber, toastmaster or volunteer firefighter? Do you have strong ties with your family, a cause, or friends from different walks of life? These are all great themes to communicate visually in your pick six.

For example, one accepted student who is passionate about cooking used a picture of a dish she was particularly proud of, highlighting that she is constantly searching for new recipes and feels great satisfaction when bringing joy to others. Another candidate shared an image of scuba diving with sharks, explaining how she overcame a great fear, with the encouragement of her friends, for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. While these examples showcase the students’ explorative and community-oriented natures, they likewise pique an interest for the reader to meet the applicants in person.

The pick six also helps the Admissions Committee gauge your ‘fit’ with the program and community, and ensures that you have the qualities of a “Sternie.” This is a prime opportunity to showcase your EQ by representing the key inspirations that drive you to have a positive impact on those around you. Know that Stern values individuality, so think about presenting a range of images that can offer more insight into the various aspects of who you are.

Finally, while the openness of the instructions may suggest the committee is looking for an artistic presentation, there is no need to overthink it. The Pick Six can include photographs, posters, symbolic images, artwork, or most any other visual format. What’s most important are the images you select and the captions, so long as the final PDF is organized and refined.

Essay 3: Additional Information (optional, 250 word max)

Please provide any additional information that you would like to bring to the attention of the Admissions Committee. This may include current or past gaps in employment, further e xplanation of your undergraduate record or self-reported academic transcript(s), plans to retake the GMAT, GRE, IELTS or TOEFL, or any other relevant information.

If you feel that there may be a weakness or gap in your application, such as those in the description, then it may be helpful to utilize the optional third essay. This is also an opportunity to provide more context if you did not provide a recommendation from your direct supervisor. It is a personal decision whether or not to make use of this essay, but it can be useful to express to the admissions committee that you recognize that there may be a gap, but you have taken steps to address it.

Finally, you don’t want to wait until the last minute to get all of the pieces of your application ready. If possible, start early and take the time to do your research before writing your essays. This can help you with the content of what you write about. Don’t worry if you can’t get your application ready in time for the first application deadline. It’s more important that you do what it takes to make your application as strong as possible.

Fortuna’s Trisha Nussbaum is an MBA Admissions coach and an NYU Stern alumna with experience working at top tech giants Google and IBM. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.

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