Category Archives: MBA Essay Questions

“What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

The “goals” question remains the core of any MBA admissions application. Continuing on past posts I’ve put up here on how to manage it — beyond the usual blah of clearly enunciating your short-term and long-term goals and connecting that to why you need an MBA — here’s something worth considering on the HBS site: the Harvard Business School Portrait Project.

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hbs portrait project
http://www.hbs.edu/mba/profiles/PortraitProject/2009portrait/

Harvard Business School (not HBS Adcom) says: “Each year we ask our classmates [this year class of 2009] a straightforward, simple question taken from the last lines of a poem by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Mary Oliver. It seems such an easy question on the surface, but sometimes the easy questions are the hardest to answer. Indeed, although we ask for only 200 words or less, most people grapple with the question a long time. We share with you intimate and candid responses from the Class of 2009 to this question,”What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” See what the students plan to do.

Now, consider the HBS goals essay: “What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?”

What is “career vision?” In their terms, what does “vision” mean? What does “meaningful” really mean? What do they expect of you? What will, as they say, ‘cut the mustard’ in this essay?

In fact, “What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?” is effectively asking the same thing, that is: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” You may say you want to be a hospitality logistics manager or an aviation entrepreneur … or anything. There’s no right or wrong answer. The point is why is it worth spending your one wild and precious life on? You have to justify it in those terms. That’s how you make it into a right answer.

This is true of the goals essay to any top school, not just Harvard.

For the Portrait Project HBS students get 200 words. For the HBS admissions essay you get 400 because you need to spend time nailing down how ‘what you plan to do with your one wild and precious life’ makes sense in terms of your past, the Harvard MBA specifically, and recruitment.

Using ‘Maslow’s hierarchy of needs’ to develop the why-an-MBA / goals essay

Psychologist Abraham Maslow created a 5-level theory of human motivation (Psychology Review, 1943) in which he proposed that peoples’ needs and satisfaction move ‘upwards’ through a common structure which he called a ‘hierarchy of needs.’ Once lower needs of sustenance and safety are met, we aspire to fulfill social, self-esteem, and self-actualization needs. The summary chart looks like this:

credit: Wikipedia
credit: Wikipedia

(The model made Maslow world famous. 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 more basic levels of fulfillment are achieved, and as long as they remain achieved, humans moves up the hierarchy in search of fulfillment.

What does this have to do with MBA admissions essays, and how does this help those struggling with the ‘why an MBA?’ question in particular?

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

This is all important. But there is more to say, and Maslow shows the way to developing it. Where is the rest of your motivation going to come from in your life: how will you achieve further self esteem, self-respect, and the respect of others? What will you create? What will put you, personally, to higher plain of self-actualization?

As I tell my clients: A good career and family security are great things to want. But what else is there? What comes after that? You don’t need to aspire to be Nelson Mandela or Mother Theresa, but you do need to reach into yourself and ask: ‘My 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 what takes me there?’

Take a tip from George Soros in Managing the B-School Failure Essay

The setback-failure-weakness essay is commonly asked for in MBA Admissions because it is a test of an applicant’s maturity, self-knowledge, honesty, and ability to learn from mistakes. It is, in other words, the biggest indicator of real leadership ability and potential.

Sample questions that approach this topic are:

Tuck-Dartmouth (Essay 3): Describe a circumstance in your life in which you faced adversity, failure, or setback. What actions did you take as a result and what did you learn from this experience?
Harvard Business School (Essay 2) Tell us three setbacks you have faced?
INSEAD (Essay 3) Describe a situation taken from your personal or professional life where you failed. Discuss what you learned.
Judge-Cambridge (essay 2) What did you learn from your most spectacular failure?

MBA applicants often struggle with these essays because they feel that admitting a weaknesses or sharing a time when they failed erodes their candidacy. In fact, it does just the opposite. Leaders know their weaknesses, and can admit them to themselves and others — in order to work on them, or work around them. It shows self-insight and points to seniority. No one is comfortable talking about their weak spots and failure. But nobody is perfect or has not failed. Not Bill Gates, not Richard Branson, not me, nor you, nor the admissions officer.

So it is not admitting a weakness is what will get you dinged, because it’s like waving red beacon that betrays inexperience and a junior mindset. If you “have no weaknesses” that just tells Adcom that you don’t know what they are yet or that you’re too immature to face them. It says you don’t know yourself, therefore you don’t yet know where you will mess up. You are a liability to yourself and your company.

Take a tip from George Soros, self-made billionaire, philosopher, philanthropist, social reformer, and fund manager extraordinaire – famous for “breaking the Bank (of England)” by shorting the pound sterling in 1992 – who shares this candid account of his weaknesses:

“I’m a very bad judge of character. I’m a good judge of stocks, and I have a reasonably good perspective on history. But I am, really, quite awful in judging character, and so I’ve made many mistakes. It took me five years and a lot of painful experiences to find the right management team. I am please that finally I found it, but I cannot claim to be as successful in picking a team as I have been in actually managing money. I think that I’m very good as a senior partner, or boss, because I have a lot of sympathy for the difficulties that fund managers face. When they are in trouble I can give them a lot of support, and that, I think, has contributed toward creating a good atmosphere in the firm. But I’m not so good at choosing them.” – ‘Soros on Soros: Staying Ahead of the Curve,’ Wiley & Sons, NY, 1995, p.18

See, the greatest business leaders all have weaknesses and all have made significant mistakes in their careers and their lives. The point is not to prove that you don’t fail, or won’t fail. It is to prove that you have the insight into yourself to be able to recognize and compensate for your weaknesses.

What Adcom wants to know is not how you avoided failure, but how you managed it, what you learned, what insights into yourself you gained, and how you grew from there. They want to see that you have the will and the insight to locate and understand the source of your mess up – the underlying weaknesses that caused it – and that you have the maturity to face and work on the issue.

To summarize: the setback essay is not testing to see if you have weaknesses. We all do. It is a test of your self-knowledge and maturity. The committee wants to see if you can candidly face, discuss, and work on your flaws, or if you will you try to hide them or blame circumstances or other people. This is a significant test of your readiness for senior leadership.

A note on tone
Soros is candid, straightforward, and objective in his self-analysis. He shares measured self-insight with the reader. He doesn’t try to slip in softening or deflecting phrases, or hide behind humor; nor is he self-excusing or whining and looking to blame others – the hallmarks of a too-junior applicant.

[Updated 9/2011]