Category Archives: MBA Essay Questions

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.

MBA Essay Length: We Can’t Go Over It. We Can’t Go Under It. Or Can We?

“How strictly do I have to stick to the essay word limit? How much can I go over? Does it matter if I’m under?” are questions I get a lot. Here’s an piece from the files:

To answer this, it is essential, as always, to think about any process or task in admissions from the MBA admissions committee’s point of view. Put yourself in their shoes. Why do they ask for it? What are they trying to achieve? How does it help them?

So, what is Adcom trying to do with word limits? First, if there were no limits applicants would ask incessantly: “Please Miss, how long must it be?” Second, some applicants would write the great American novel, which would waste their time and Adcom’s. Third, limits provide a way of getting essays from different applicants to be more directly comparable, in being the same length.

But there is play in the system. The purpose of the essays is to get to know the applicant via their writing, and everyone knows that writing is a creative process and certainly nobody expects you to hit the word count on the nail. This is not engineering or accounting. (Believe it or not, some clients fuss the word count until they have the exact round number asked for, taking refuge in a detail that will provide them absolutely no refuge.) Anyway, application forms often talk about a word “guide” rather than word “limit.” So you can clearly go a bit over, but by how much?

My advice to clients is not to go more than +5% in any essay. This kind of margin is a natural “rounding error” in finishing up what you have to say and will not hurt you if your reader is a reasonable person, which we assume she is. More than this will start to look like you are taking advantage and-or asking for an advantage that your competitors are not getting.

However if you write a number of essays that are noticeably short it is fine to have one or two that are commensurately longer, so that the whole comes out more or less right. In fact, Stanford GSB has historically explicitly encourageed this giving guidance both per essay and for the essay set as a whole, inviting you to strategically trade off length between essays as you see fit. How well you do this is, by the way, is a test of your communications judgment.

Having said all this, be aware that it is possible that the computer system will act as a policeman, stopping you from going over the limit, or cutting your text in mid-stream. I believe this this less prevalent now than it was in the early days of essay uploading.

Can you go under the limit? Similarly, I advise clients not to go less than -5% on any essay. In one sense, like all professional communicators, I believe strongly in “say what you have to say; say it once, strongly and clearly and then stop talking.” This is the royal road to more powerful communications. Certainly there’s no merit in padding, wafffling, and repeating yourself.

But admissions essays are relatively short pieces of writing, and you — if you merit a place at a top b-school — are a multifaceted individual with an significant track record, so if you can’t find things to say to take up the word count this in itself flags that you have not been able to (or haven’t bothered to) properly investigate your own motivations or fully argue your merits.

How to ‘Fail Smart’ in MBA Admissions

MBA applicants are routinely asked the “failure question” either in MBA essays or interviews. It always takes more-or-less the same form: “Tell us about a time you failed and what you learned.”

As I’ve written before here, and in my book, the test is not to see if you have any weaknesses or failures. Everyone does. The test is whether you are mature enough to recognize your failures and so address the implied weaknesses.

Also, failures are more likely to occur in new, challenging tasks, so if you present “no failures” you are inadvertently telling Adcom that you haven’t been adequately challenged!

There’s a classic article on “intelligent failure”: Are You Squandering Your Intelligent Failures? by Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath, on the HBR Blog.

Says McGrath: “Despite widespread recognition that challenging times place unpredictable demands on people and businesses, I still run across many managers who would prefer to avoid the logical conclusion that stems from this: failure is a lot more common in highly uncertain environments than it is in better-understood situations.

“Instead of learning from failures, many executives seek to keep them hidden or to pretend that they were all part of a master plan and no big deal.

“To those executives, let me argue that an extraordinarily valuable corporate resource is being wasted if learning from failures is inhibited.

“Naturally, to an executive raised on the concept of ‘management by exception,’ any failure at all seems intolerable. This world view is reinforced by the widespread adoption of various quality techniques, for instance, six sigma, in which the goal is to stamp out variations (by definition, failures) in the pursuit of quality…

“[but] Failures are crucial to the process of organizational learning and sense-making. Failures show you where your assumptions are wrong. Failures demonstrate where future investment would be wasted. And failures can help you identify those among your team with the mettle to persevere and creatively change direction as opposed to pig-headedly charging blindly ahead. Further, failures are about the only way in which an organization can reset its expectations for the future in any meaningful way.”

McGrath’s point is failure is a route (perhaps, the route) to learning and future improvement. That’s the point you score with Adcom: “I failed to do, but I didn’t fail to learn.”

But not all failures have learning attached. One needs to set prior fail-safe mechanisms, and then interrogate a failure afterwards, to make a failure useful as learning. This turns it into an intelligent failure.

If you can show the MBA Adcom that you did this, that you didn’t just fail dumbly, or that you have turned a dumb failure into an intelligent failure, your MBA admissions essay will shine in all the right ways.