Category Archives: MBA Essay Questions

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.

What You Should Highlight In Your MBA Essay

This, below, is too good not to syndicate here with a tip of the hat and thanks to author Kathrin Liesenberg, Associate director of admissions for MBA and MSc at ESADE Business & Law School, and QS TopMBA.

MBA essays are your direct communication line to the MBA admissions team and your best tool to stand out. Use your MBA essays to present yourself to admissions and share your talents and accomplishments with us without sounding pompous. The MBA essays are your chance to directly convince us of what you have to offer the program and that you are a good match for the school.

What the MBA admissions teams looks for first
Before we look at the content of your MBA essay, let us quickly mention two important aspects: tone and format. Remember to…
•    Be honest.
•    Write in a natural, clear and precise way that reflects your own voice.
•    Use a positive, conversational tone to make the essays readable and to prevent them from becoming rote autobiographies.
•    Talk about yourself by offering a balanced description backed by analysis in order to catch our attention. Use facts to support your intended message and leadership skills.
•    Don’t look for excuses. Nobody is perfect, and we all have failed at some point. Whining does not reflect maturity and should be avoided.
•    Don’t leave anything up in the air when you end your essay. Wrap it up by highlighting the aspects you would like us to remember.

MBA Essay Content
Now let us talk about the content. The MBA admissions team already has your marks, test scores, letters of recommendation and CV from your MBA application, so there is no need to write about those aspects extensively. The best way to approach the essays is to tell us a consistent story that ties together all of your experience and goals, using plenty of narrative and including specifics.  Write your story, smoothly and naturally linking together all the aspects you consider relevant (your work experience, situations in which you demonstrated leadership skills, extracurricular activities, volunteering and social engagement, etc.).
•    First and foremost: stick to the questions! While this may sound obvious, applicants all too often stray off-topic.
•    Try to begin with something interesting (an anecdote, a quote, etc.) that leads you directly to the core topic you would like to address. How you begin your essay will largely determine whether it is a pleasure or a trial to read.
•    Clearly describe your specific mid and long-term goals, explaining how the business school can help you achieve them.
•    Showcase your high energy level and leadership skills. Being a hard worker able to give your best in all situations can lead to success; it can also offer proof of your commitment to achieving your goals.
•    It is also a plus to note that you have been in touch with current and former MBA students. It shows you have done your homework and bears witness to the seriousness and thoroughness of your approach.
•    If you are given a chance to write an optional essay, use it to share additional information that you believe will truly help to round out your MBA application with MBA admissions. If you believe something important has been missed, this is your chance to tell us about it. Likewise, if you plan to use this question to address an aspect of your MBA application that you believe is a potential disadvantage, do not make excuses. Instead, provide the necessary clarification and take responsibility. It will help to highlight your maturity and show that you can also be self-critical.
•    Allow a third party to read your essays and bring them back down to earth if they do not reflect the real you or if you forgot to mention, or simply took for granted, a true personal asset.

Fill in gaps from your MBA application
Be sure to cover the following three areas in your essays:
•    Your leadership skills and potential: challenges you have overcome and progress you have made in terms of your responsibility level over your career. How will you change the world?
•    The impact of the international environment on you, as well as your international experience. How will you approach the diversity on our campus?
•    Your understanding of the MBA program and the kind of collaborative, teamwork-based learning environment most MBA programs thrive on.

Final words of advice
•    Does length matter? Yes it does! Try not to exceed the word limit, as it could suggest that you are unable to follow simple directions. We receive hundreds of essays at MBA admissions and do not appreciate it when applicants fail to observe the word limits.
•    One last piece of advice: make sure you send the essay to the right institution! We receive essays meant for other institutions more often than you might think. Needless to say, it can have a very negative impact on the applicant’s candidacy, including automatic rejection for carelessness or, even worse, for committing plagiarism.

In conclusion, please don’t write what you think we want to read. Just be yourself and be honest! At ESADE, we cherish diversity and are very open-minded regarding work experience, education and post-MBA goals. However, when we are reviewing your MBA application, especially if you advance to the interview round, we will be looking for consistency and sincerity in your answers.