12 Steps on How to Apply to Business School – Step 8: MBA Application Essays ‒ Your Contribution To The MBA Program And Fit

June 12, 2015 | by Matt Symonds


There are several themes that recur in essay questions that business schools ask so we’ll provide some MBA essay tips for these. Earlier in this series, we looked at three common themes around ‘Why an MBA now?”, “Why this MBA?”, and “What’s your career vision?”. Admissions committees also want to ensure they’re admitting positive contributors to their school community. Therefore you’ll also find two other common themes regarding what you can bring to the program and how well you align with the overall fit of the school.

Let’s take a look at these two themes that business schools want you to address:

1) What will you add to our student and alumni community? 
Schools want engaged students who have lively debates both inside and outside the classroom, who contribute to community life, and who will become active alumni in the future. The alumni network is, according to some schools, their greatest asset. So will you add value to it? Many schools use students and alumni in the admissions process as file readers, interviewers, and even as members of the admissions committee. When they look at your application, they’ll be thinking: Would I want this candidate as a member of my team? And: Do I want this person in my alumni network?

One of Columbia Business School’s essays asks “CBS Matters, a key element of the School’s culture, allows the people in your Cluster to learn more about you on a personal level. What will your Clustermates be pleasantly surprised to learn about you?” This question is looking for information about you that can be a conversation-starter, something that tells more about who you are, ideally something that others would find engaging. It can be something that others might not know about you initially and that will provide some insight into what matters to you and what makes you the person you are.

The example you share can be indicative of how you would be involved as a student there, even if your example is not necessarily related to the school. You need to demonstrate that you have interesting experiences to share, a perspective that could enlighten classmates, and the confidence to share what you have to offer. This is a great opportunity to show how you’ve contributed to other groups, clubs, or communities ‒ at your previous school, for example, or outside of work. If you have taken the lead and achieved something worthwhile, so much the better.

2) Cultural fit: your values and those of the school. INSEAD has a very international student body and thus asks its applicants to answer a question to assess their comfort in multi-cultural settings: “Tell us about an experience where you were significantly impacted by cultural diversity, in a positive or negative way.” Another school with a very distinctive culture is Berkeley-Haas, which promotes its four key principles heavily. The school expects applicants to know about these values, and asks candidates to share some of their own personal values that have shaped who they are. It’s important to really understand the culture and values of each program so you can highlight appropriate components from your own background that align with the schools’ values.

At Fortuna, as Admissions Directors, we saw students in our programs who didn’t flourish because of a cultural mismatch with the school. Each institution has a distinct identity ‒ hence the importance of visiting it beforehand to soak up the atmosphere and evaluate the fit. Some schools have a more competitive spirit; others promote very collaborative communities. Some have a lot of foreign students and few cultural norms ‒ you may well not fit in at all of the schools. So in this type of essay, you need to demonstrate that you’ve taken the pulse of the school, and that it’s an environment in which you’ll thrive. You also need to show that you understand what the school cares about, and that this is aligned with your own values and beliefs.

For MBA essays tips on another type of MBA essay, see our previous blog How to Get Noticed in Just One Essay. As the next step of this series, we’ll address essay questions related to self-reflection and how to handle open-ended questions.

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