Category Archives: MBA Essay Questions

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.

Maslow’s Hierarchy and the MBA Admissions Goals Essay

Abraham Maslow created a 5-level theory of human motivation (Psychology Review, 1943) in which he proposed that human needs and satisfaction levels move upwards according to a “hierarchy” of needs. When lower needs such as sustenance and safety are met, we aspire to fulfill social, self-esteem, and self-actualization needs. The chart looks like this:

credit: Wikipedia
credit: Wikipedia

(The structure of the pyramid itself has been tinkered with over time, for example by Manfred Max-Neef, who sees levels of subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity, freedom.) But the core insight remains: once basic levels of fulfillment are achieved, and as long as they remain achieved, we move up the hierarchy in search of broader fulfillment.

What does this have to do with MBA admissions essays, and how does this help those struggling with the MBA admissions goals essay question in particular?

It helps because it provides a quick, reliable guide to the necessary reach of the essay. Too often applicants deal only at levels 2 and 3, talking of security and quality of employment, taking care of family (including elderly or immigrant parents) and developing friendship and contact networks, career progress, and so on.

This is all important. But there is more to say, and Maslow shows the way to it. The rest of your motivation statement should be rooted in levels 4 and 5: how the MBA will take you activities that create self-respect, and the respect of others, what you will create, or solve or build, and why this will be self-actualizing at the highest level.

As I tell my clients: a good career and family security are great things to want, but what comes after that? You don’t need to aspire to save the world, but you do need to reach into yourself and ask: “levels 4 and 5 — what are they for me? What would actualizing myself at these levels look like? And how will an MBA be part of the route that gets me there?”


How to Make your MBA Application Stand Out

One of the problems I have as an MBA admissions adviser–friend, coach, confidant, drill sergeant–to applicants trying to crack top-tier schools is explaining that while “good is nice and great is nicer” neither will get you into a top-tier MBA program. Only “good + special” will get you in.

Everyone knows that there are far fewer places than excellent candidates, but not everyone understands the implication of this, which is that the standard “good” profile application is more likely to fail than succeed. I do ding analyses: often there is something clear to point to, but often there is not. I’m left saying “there was no juice,” and I don’t mean this as a cop-out.

What I mean is–putting it another way–the applicant has provided reasons for Adcom not to reject them, covering all bases, saying the right things, but has not given Adcom a compelling reason to say yes.

Easier said than done. What if there is no specialness (distinctiveness) there? “I haven’t done anything that special,” they will say. “I have not won Olympic medals; never hot-air ballooned over the Atlantic; not pulled anyone from a burning car …”

I won’t kid you, it’s great if you’ve done something memorable like this. But there are two types of specialness. Specialness of what you have achieved AND specialness of who you are. Not everyone has the first type in their bag, but everyone can have the second.

Here are examples of the second type:

1. Distinctiveness of insight, self-reflection, and self-understanding. Unfortunately (but fortunately for you, dear reader) it appears these days that it takes a special person to be willing to reflect on their life path, their roles, their identity, their motivations. But this is exactly what Adcom wants of you. That’s why they ask complex, motivational questions. The quality of genuine self-reflection is so unique among 20-something-year-olds (and so highly correlated with real leadership ability) that if you can do it right, you’ll be special just for this.

Note: doing it right means being open and honest, but also circumspect, professional, to-the-point, and focused on the essay question, using practical examples and stories. It does not mean wallowing self-indulgently as if for your local Agony Aunt magazine column.

2. Distinctiveness of communication. Writing and (in the interview) speaking is the basis of your interaction with Adcom. Words are your tools. You do not need to be a fancy creative-writing major to write a wonderful MBA admissions essay, but there are basic tools of storytelling and essay building that make a piece of text stand out. Be aware how much turgid, repetitive prose your Adcom reader has to wade through. Getting your point across in a bright, clear, and organized way will make you stand out. (Much more about the how of this is in my MBA Admissions Strategy book.)

3. Distinctiveness of direction and goals. You can’t change your past. You should present it in the best light, but for better or worse, it is set. Your future is ahead of you. It can be anything–you can make any claim, within reason. It is a “free hit ” in the sense that you are pretty much invited to distinguish yourself from the crowd through the extent of your ambition, and the relevance, interest, and worthiness of your career path.