The Fundamental MBA Question That Many Applicants Mess Up – And How To Get It Right

October 25, 2016 | by Emma Bond

In recent years, MBA program admission committees have started asking unconventional essay questions. For example, Berkeley-Haas asks you to pick a song that expresses who you are; Chicago Booth leads applicants to an assortment of photos – “shared Booth moments” – and to pick the one that resonates the most with them; Cornell Johnson requests you to create a Table of Contents to explain your life story. However despite this innovation, many schools are still also asking the old favorite ‘Why an MBA and why this school’ question.

Wharton asks ‘What do you hope to gain professionally from the Wharton MBA?’ London Business School requests that candidates explain their post-MBA goals, describing how their prior experience and the LBS MBA will contribute. Stanford’s second essay simply asks, ‘Why Stanford?’. These seemingly innocuous questions that are also at the core of many MBA interviews can be challenging to get right.  So how should you tackle them, and how do you convince each admissions committee that their school is your top choice?

To really crack these essays, self-reflection is the best place to start. Spend time thinking hard about your professional and personal journey to date, about what you want to gain from this specific business school, and about where you want to end up. This exercise of self-reflection can help you better understand yourself, both as a person, and as an MBA candidate. You’ll start to see which business schools are the right fit for you, and you’ll be in a much better position to share your vision with an admissions committee.

Secondly, stay away from lists. If you simply list classes you want to take but make no effort to link them to future goals, this will make zero impact. Heidi Hillis, Fortuna Expert Coach and former Stanford GSB admissions interviewer, encourages a holistic approach that also recognizes other aspects of the b-school experience: ‘Try starting with something like, “I want to learn how to create (for example) a corporate culture conducive to creativity.” Then identify which classes will assist you, and how. You can then conclude with something along the lines of “I intend to participate in X club to understand how the mind of engineers work, and hope to do work closely with X prof, who is an expert in this field.”’

Another mistake candidates make with this question is to simply pull some key facts listed on a school’s website. The world’s top business schools all offer a solid curriculum, first-class faculty, and a talented student body, so your essay can end up sounding extremely obvious. Be specific. Does your school have an incubator program that really entices you? Is this because you have already launched a start-up, or have an idea to start one? Has a previous guest speaker on campus really resonated with your goals? Does he/she have strong ties to a company you want to work for? If you’re excited about a particular area of a program, be confident in saying so.

It’s valuable to tour the school and meet staff and students, or if that’s not possible, to attend as many local information sessions and web events as possible, and interact with alumni. Judith Silverman Hodara, Fortuna Director and former Wharton Director of Admissions suggests that applicants should engross themselves in a school’s culture and really ‘learn its vocabulary’. She also urges candidates to be emotive in their writing –  ‘How did you feel standing in Wharton’s Huntsman Hall? What has it been like interacting with students and alumni? Try beginning your essay with a value statement, something like “I believe that…”, then include what it is you think about your role in business, or a problem you want to solve. From there, the rest of your dialogue and how a certain program relates to your beliefs will have much more impact.’

Lastly, your essay may be perfectly crafted and beautifully written, but unless you show ambition and enthusiasm for your MBA of choice, the admissions committee may not see you as a good fit. My top tip is to demonstrate passion – for your career, for the school and MBA experience you’re applying to, and for the worldwide impact you want to make in the future. Tapping into a program’s principal values is a great way to do this. Fortuna Expert Coach Catherine Tuttle, former Associate Program Director at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business says “The key is offering specific examples of how these themes have played out in your professional and personal life to date and how you hope to expand on them through the MBA.”



-Link previous experiences with future goals and consider all facets of the b-school experience

-Recognize your school’s culture and vocabulary

-Tap into school values

-Show your passion!

Each MBA program has its individual unique selling proposition. So do you. By figuring out how these two areas connect, you’ll be well on your way to interview.

Written by Emma Bond, Director, Fortuna Admissions and London Business School’s former Senior Manager of MBA Admissions

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