Category Archives: MBA Essay Questions

‘Bait the hook’ says The Guardian. Its also there in MBA Admissions Strategy

Today a shoutout for this how-to-write better article in the Guardian, which happily says exactly what MBA Admissions Strategy says about anticipating reader needs and serving those needs in MBA admissions essays.

Here’s the Guardian: “Call it audience awareness, call it decorum, call it reader relations if you like, but the key principle of all persuasive writing is customer service. I’m fond of a quote – variously attributed – that says: “When you go fishing, you bait the hook with what the fish likes, not with what you like.” An obvious principle, easily lost sight of.

“Putting yourself in the audience’s shoes governs everything from the shape of your argument to the choice of vocabulary. Ask what they do and don’t know about the subject, and what they need to; not what you know about it. Ask what they are likely to find funny, rather than what you do. What are the shared references that will bring them on board? Where do you need to pitch your language? How much attention are they likely to be paying?”

Here’s MBA Admissions Strategy: “MBA admissions success turns on the simplest and oldest rule in communications strategy: to win, you need to connect your objectives with those of your audience. You need to understand what your target need to see or is ready to hear, and to increase the overlap between that and what you say…

“Conveying fit between an item and its target audience is like marketing in the sense that you are selling a value proposition (you) to a consumer-client (the admissions committee) in a situation where the consumer has lots of other choices. You have to understand their needs, wants, and desires so you know what they value and why they value it, and how to pitch your product within this value system. Like any market communicator, you need to research consumer preferences, and coordinate various methods of communication (essays, interviews, recommendations, etc.) to make it clear why you are an attractive and necessary product, so that you get picked off the shelf. You create a coordinated campaign to influence the admissions officers’ “buying” decision, and manage this campaign as it unrolls over weeks or months…

“Understanding your admissions task in these terms should turn your application world upside down: it is about you but not just about you. It’s about them, and the overlap between you and them. Companies don’t make products and then try to sell them. They study the market, determine needs, and produce accordingly…

(BUT) “There is an important, immediate caveat. Nothing about this market-communications approach implies that you need to or should try to bend yourself into something you are not, or to what you think the mold of the ideal business school applicant is, and “package” yourself as such. There is no such mold. In fact, trying to be the stereotypical candidate puts you right outside the successful profile because the admissions committee wants and needs a full spread of different, diverse, authentic individuals, not an applicant stereotype…

“Therefore, your first task is always to be highly individualized, authentic, absolutely true to yourself—and then beyond that also savvy as to which parts of your unique special selfhood also happen to overlap best with the admissions committee’s needs and preferences.”

How to Avoid Empty Calories in your MBA Application Essay

One from the files: Let me quote Wikipedia, “Empty calories are a measurement of the energy present in high-energy foods with poor nutritional profiles, typically from processed carbohydrates or fats. An empty calorie has the same energy content of any other calorie but lacks accompanying nutrients such as vitamins, dietary minerals, antioxidants, amino acids, or in the case of refined grains, fiber.”

Empty calories define most fast food, sugary drinks, and popular cereals, so much so that regulators have reigned in advertising low-food-value items to children.

Why do I raise this? Because an MBA admissions essay – like any other piece of writing – is a meal for the reader. The reader’s hope and quiet prayer is that the text will deliver the informational nutrients they are looking for, with little fat or waste.

Consider something like this: “My journey to this point has been challenging, but the lessons I learned have been most meaningful – I truly have seen that a new beginning is an opportunity to start again, that life’s challenges are the best way to show one’s capability and forge memorable experiences, and that through passion and perseverance one can make a difference in the world.”

Or this: “I believe the best leaders are those who do things for the right reasons, grounded in a thorough understanding of economics, business, strategy, and innovation. I want to be a leader who is open-minded, can manage complex situations, and empowers people.”

Forget the turgid writing and cliche’s-running-amok for a moment. That can be fixed. The point is, even if fixed, there is still nothing there.

From the Adcom readers’ point of view there is no nutrition in the text, nothing that tells them anything interesting or specific or memorable about these applicants and why they should be admitted to b-school. There is no data, there is no record of action, no unique insights. Just words taking up space. That is, just empty calories.

The task of the MBA admissions essay is to explain your admissions value to Adcom, and you won’t achieve this via empty text. You must present nutrition-laden text, or you will be dinged.

This means excoriating anything and everything that tends towards vacant content, or generalization that could be said by any applicant. Cut that. Cut it urgently, to create space for reader nourishment –the crisp telling of specific experiences that show you in action, developing unique skills. Or fresh insights about yourself, about your future aspirations, and how you uniquely see the challenges of management and leadership.

Five MBA Admissions Essay Types And How To Tackle Them

MBA admissions committees change up their question sets almost every year, not least to discourage plagiarism of past essays, but behind the different ‘skins’ they are routinely asking the same questions they have always asked applicants. Here are five common MBA essay types and some pointers for how to address them:

First published on TopMBA.

MBA essay type 1: Career past and future; why an MBA?

Example: Pursuing an MBA is a catalyst for personal and professional growth. How have you grown in the past? How do you intend to grow at Kellogg? (Kellogg-Northwestern)

Recognition keywords: Past, present, future, career, goal, progress, plan, aspiration, choices, ambition, decision, position, objective, intention, aim, purpose, life, short term, long term.

You need to shape your ‘why an MBA’ answer carefully according to whether the question asks more about your past: “What has led you to want an MBA?” or about your future: “What will you do when you graduate? How will an MBA help you?” Note that there are, potentially, five parts to the question, covering three time periods:

  • Past – what experiences have led you to this point and this ambition?
  • Present – why an MBA now, at this point in your career?
  • Future – what do you want to do with your degree, in the short and long term?
  • Why an MBA at all? (Why not another kind of master’s, or a PhD?)
  • Why an MBA from this school particularly?

The ‘why an MBA’ question asks how your past connects to your future via business school. You need to show how the MBA is the bridge between your yesterday and your tomorrow. Past, present and future can be presented in any order, but you must paint a picture of a future that rests naturally on what you have done before, plus the MBA from the school to which you are applying.

MBA essay type 2: Weaknesses and failure

Example: What did you learn from your most spectacular failure? (Judge-Cambridge)

Recognition keywords: Failure, weakness, learning, unsuccessful, fall short, fault, limitation, criticism, shortcoming, adversity, feedback, go wrong, mistake, weak spot.

To succeed with this question, understand that this type of MBA essay is not set to see if you have weaknesses or have failed. Everyone has weaknesses and has failed. What is in doubt is how you responded, what insight into yourself you gained and how you grew from there. What they are testing, above all, is whether you have the self-insight to locate and admit to your mess-up, and the seniority to talk maturely about it.

The MBA admissions committee wants to know if you seek to understand your own flaws, and can discuss them candidly and work on them, or if you will try to hide them and/or blame circumstances or other people – markers of immaturity and poor managers-to-be. The committee (and your future bosses, partners and employees) will generally forgive the mistakes you make, if you are big enough to take responsibility and if you learn rapidly from them.

MBA essay type 3: Leadership

Example: Tell us about your most meaningful leadership experience and what role you played. How will that experience contribute to the learning environment at Tuck? (Tuck-Dartmouth)

Recognition keywords: Lead, motivate, initiative, impact, guide, direct, direction, responsibility, decision, inspire, encourage, power, influence, run, organize, mentor, motivate.

Leadership (and teamwork) will be a guiding theme in every application you do. MBA admissions committees question you in this area to find out not only whether you’ve got ‘the right stuff’ for leadership, but also to determine your understanding of and attitude to leadership and how you work with people. Part of having the right stuff is knowing what that is. Just having experience in a leadership position doesn’t necessarily mean you were good at it. You have to show them you understand what good is.

You also need to demonstrate an explicit understanding of your own personal leadership style – how you influence, motivate, sanction, inspire others to achieve, and so on – and the preferences that underpin your approach. In all leadership analysis, you should show respect for the difficulties of leadership. If you think leadership is easy, you have never really led.

MBA essay type 4: Uniqueness and diversity

Example: With your background and professional experience, what unique values can you bring in to enrich the learning experience at HKUST MBA? (HKUST)

Recognition keywords: Contribute, diversity, experience, knowledge, range, skill, enrich, talent, expertise, impact, proficiency, background, distinctive, attributes, variety, enhance, develop, unique.

Here, the admissions committee wants to know what in your background, ability, experience or training sets you apart and will be uniquely valuable to your cohort and the program in general. While other essays are designed to see if you fit the MBA mold, the test here is whether you can separate yourself from the crowd.

Put it this way; in various other essays and parts of the application, candidates provide reasons for an MBA admissions committee not to reject them – covering all the bases, fitting in with necessary criteria. But doing this doesn’t give the committee a compelling, positive reason to admit you. In this type of MBA essay, they look for a reason to say ‘yes’.

MBA essay type 5: Ethics and values

Example: Describe the situation with the greatest ethical complexity that you have faced in your professional or academic life, and how your input helped resolve it. (IE)

Recognition keywords: Ethics, values, principles, standards, ideals, code of conduct, beliefs, philosophy, personal guidelines, integrity, dilemma, decision, challenge.

Values are in. After Enron, the credit crunch, the Panama Papers and the ongoing litany of serious breaches of public faith by business leaders, business ethics is in the spotlight. Business schools have taken heavy criticism for turning out morally dubious, self-enriching managers. MBA admissions teams are under pressure to pick a better kind of person.

The tricky thing about the ethics-orientated MBA essay is that everyone knows what good values are and everyone claims embodiment of them. And yet, the world is full of scheming scoundrels. So, writing a nice essay where you shake your head and tut-tut at business and personal immorality, bid-rigging, claims-cheating, document falsifications, payoffs, etc., while assuring the reader of your absolute allegiance to fair play, good governance, and honest dealings is, please understand, absolutely worthless to your admissions prospects. Talk is cheap.

But, you will impress if you can demonstrate some thinking towards your own, unique set of values and show hard evidence of your commitment to values in the face of temptation and self-interest.