Writing Your Way Aboard “Spaceship MBA”
While many in the admissions world were dismayed by the Supreme Court ruling that ended the use of Affirmative Action in US college admissions, I remember reading the words of Chief Justice Roberts in the majority Supreme Court opinion and feeling at least initially hopeful about the opportunity it provides for candidates to tell their unique stories.
As Judith Silverman Hodara and Caroline Diarte Edwards shared in this recent P&Q article, Roberts made it clear that applicants have every right to use application essays to share how their identity — any aspect of their identity, including their race — has shaped their “quality of character or unique abilities.” Admissions committees are free to consider these stories when evaluating applicants.
The result? Schools are updating their applications to provide more opportunities for applicants to express their identity through storytelling . New essay questions invite candidates to share how formative experiences related to race and other aspects of identity shaped who they are and what they hope to achieve in life.
Business schools are responding to the ruling by providing more ways for candidates to tell who they are and share their unique stories — and that’s an opportunity every candidate can seize.
Promptly Adjusting Prompts
Since the ruling came down, Fortuna has seen business schools release their applications with significant changes likely inspired by their desire to recruit a diverse class under new rules. For instance, Harvard Business School removed an optional essay used last year that specifically asked about race from its 2023–2024 application. However, the primary component of the HBS application remains an open-ended 900-word essay question applicants answer however they’d like:
“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?”
This offers candidates a wide-open opportunity to explore and explain their identity on their terms. Similarly, Wharton took out an item seeking ethnicity information under the biographical section of its application, with this added note: “At Wharton, we recognize that one’s cultural affinity cannot be confined to simple checkboxes. Please feel free tell us more about your cultural background and identity.”
Schools that have not faced direct legal challenges similar to Harvard’s responded by nimbly realigning their essay prompts to stay within the “Roberts loophole.” The Fortuna team has already written about Kellogg, Tuck, and Fuqua’s updated essays. Other top schools have application formats that provide blank canvases for candidates to share relevant aspects of their identities or have added open-ended questions to provide space for this. For example:
- MIT will continue to ask applicants to write a cover letter and make a video statement, and the topic of racial identity is fair game in both.
- Chicago Booth has added a new optional question under the “Personal History” section of its application: “Is there anything about your upbringing or family/household circumstances that you would like the admissions committee to know?”
- Yale has tweaked its required essay asking about “the biggest commitment you have ever made” to elicit more detail. That essay is now one of three essay questions to choose from. One new essay asks about “the community most meaningful to you” and what you gained from and contributed to this community. The other asks about the most significant challenge you have faced. All three essays invite candidates to weave their identity into their answer if they would like.
- Berkeley Haas has tweaked the language of its behavioral essay focused on DE&I so that it now asks for “experience or exposure you have in the areas of diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, and belonging,” perhaps in an attempt to broaden the question’s scope beyond the Court’s reach.
Advocating for Your Seat on “Spaceship MBA”
As a consultant, I know the storytelling component of business school applications has always been the best place for candidates to “jump off the page” and leave an impression on admissions committees. Now more than ever, the essays you write matter. They are a place to make the case for why you deserve a space in the class — or, in a metaphor I like to use, a seat on “Spaceship MBA.”
Imagine that each top B-school you are targeting is a spaceship leaving Earth with a limited number of seats. Your job is to convince the ship’s crew that you deserve one of the coveted spots to travel to M7, an uncharted new world, and that granting you a seat will provide unique perspectives, ideas, values, and contributions to the journey that only you possess.
In this scenario, many aspects of your background and identity are relevant and worthy of consideration to advocate for a seat on the ship: beyond your professional, academic and extra curricular accomplishments, this may include your gender identity, limitations in your physical abilities, your geographical roots, your socioeconomic experiences, your cultural and philosophical beliefs, and your race. All of this contributes to positive and negative formative experiences that shape your life trajectory from birth.
The new essay prompts we are seeing open up opportunities to tell your story and demonstrate how your values and experiences align with the school’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. Essays provide admissions readers who may otherwise be flying blind regarding your background with a richer story about who you are and what unique traits, experiences, and perspectives you bring to the MBA class.
When the topic of diversity comes up, sometimes my clients, especially if they are White or Indian men, will say things to me like, “I’m a stereotypical candidate,” to which I respond, “Yes, if that’s the image you leave us with in your essays, then you are. Anyone who is not telling a memorable story is, by default, stereotypical.”
Some of my underrepresented clients, in the wake of the Court’s decision, have recently asked, “Are my odds of acceptance lower this year than in the past?” and my reply to them is actually very similar: “Not if you focus on telling your incredible professional story; not if the information you share with the committee is authentic and, most of all, memorable.”
This advice applies to all candidates regardless of their backgrounds because admissions committees are always looking to get to know “the real you,” and they want to understand what makes you tick and what you will contribute to the class.
Midway through 2023, as the ticket slotting for Spaceship MBA unfolds, the best way to write your way on board is via a compelling, authentic narrative that justifies the unique contributions you will make during the voyage. Whether you use an admissions consultant, close friends or work colleagues to help with that process, and regardless of your racial identity, I hope you do so with vulnerability, courage, curiosity, and a spirit of collaboration that makes you increasingly aware of–and connected to–your fellow voyagers.
If you feel you could benefit from an insider’s advice on your all-important essays —or any other aspects of your application — sign up now for a free consultation and learn what Fortuna coaches can do for you.