Category Archives: MBA Essay Questions

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]

Harvard Business School essays (2009-10) add a cover letter just like MIT Sloan’s

Harvard has released their new essay questions, and deadlines for 2009-10, adding a cover letter essay (optional) which MIT Sloan’s has as a standard request for years. Still only four essays are required for HBS, and the first two compulsory questions remain the same:

1. What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such? (600)
2. What have you learned from a mistake? (400)

For essays essays 3 and 4, applicants now have five topics to choose from (up from four) two of which are new. One , a cover letter “introducing yourself to the Admissions Board,” is equivalent to the MIT Sloan signature essay.

This is no surprise. Cover letters are deeply difficult to get right because they require acute balance between brevity and detail. They test your ability to extract and communicate what is really important – demonstrating a key management skill.

The other new question: “Tell us about a time when you made a difficult decision,” is familiar ground in admissions, and something well covered in MBA Studio’s profiling process that focuses on your key life transitions (why?) and prepares you for questions like this in your essays and interview.

The full set of options for HBS essays 3 & 4 are:

Please respond to two of the following (400-word limit each):
1. What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience?
2. Discuss how you have engaged with a community or organization.
3. Tell us about a time when you made a difficult decision.
4. Write a cover letter to your application introducing yourself to the Admissions Board.
5. What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?

The deadlines are (all 5pm EST) R1: October 1, 2009; R2: January 19, 2010; R3: April 8, 2010


The “World MBA Tour” MBA essay advice session transcript

Getting previous MBA Studio resources up on the blog site, where they can be permalinked, so here is the transcript of a World MBA Tour online admissions essay advice service, where Avi appeared “live” as expert essay advisor. The text is “as was,” verbatim.

world-mba-tourMBA Studio Says
Hi, welcome to the Forum on MBA Admissions Essays. We’ll get started right away. I’ll answer as fast as I can …

Question asked by Brenda Sun
Hi. I’d like to know what the adcomm focuses the most in the MBA essays- The good writing style, the touching stories, or the logical reasoning behind. Does it need to be concise or detailed with strong supporting?

Answered by MBA Studio
What does adcom focus on the most — good writing style, the touching stories, or the logical reasoning behind – actually none of these three specifically. Style is important, but just so you can be clear enough. Touching stories bring your argument to life. Logical reasoning helps to build your argument. The most important thing is the argument – why you are an excellent candidate, what you contribute, why you fit with the school and the program. Everything follows from that.

Question asked by Graeme Lockwood
Hi, I am now writing my essays for London Business School MBA. there are 2 questions I am not sure how to tackle . What well known historical event would you have liked to have been involved in and why? (500 words) First, I don’t know what the adcom tries to know from this essay and I am not sure what kind of events I can talk about. Also, I think that expressing some opinions may be risky. On the basis of your experience of working in and leading teams (either in your professional or personal life), please reflect on how you plan to contribute to your study group and the wider school community. (500 words) In this question, I want to be sure of the kind of contributions that can be made to the school community.

Answered by MBA Studio
I’ll take these one by one. First, “What well known historical event would you have liked to have been involved in and why?” This is one of the classic types of question (The question “archetypes” — as I’ve defined in my book) This question wants to get to know more about you as a person — what’s important to you, and why. The trick is to pick something that is in itself valid and significant, but also allows you to make one of your theme points.

MBA Studio Says:
As to the second part of the question: they are asking you plain as daylight “plan to contribute to your study group and the wider school community” Tell them. Never mind what you think they want you to contribute. As long as it’s a valid contribution and you can credibly make it, they want it. What they want is diversity of contributions, not one thing.

Question asked by shruti singh
How to write a good essay in MBA application

Answered by MBA Studio
Wow, you’ll have to focus this a bit for me :) I have written a whole book on this … which part of the essay process would you like me to address?

Question asked by Alexander Sorge
HI Avi, nice to meet you! I´m new here! I found this TOP MBA Forum very helpful and would like to join Forum members. The problem is that I´m a Spanish native speaker interested in Chinese Culture.. to request the scholarship from Taiwan requires an appealing essay, writing an essay is a very hard-job!. what shall I probably write that possible works to get the Taiwan scholarship. Or what should never mention when writing an essay.

Answered by MBA Studio
Hi Alexander, again you’ll have to focus the question, or tell me more about yourself. Try to figure out what type of candidate gets the scholarship and emphasize your overlap with that kind of candidate.
What never to mention in an essay …? Never apologise, never denigrate yourself. If you’ve messed up at something, say so. Say what you learned, and move on to the positive

Question asked by Verma Vertika
Dear Avi, As an international student and a person who is not good at writing, I want to know whether it is a big problem. Now facing the essay topics, I think I have some good ideas. But to convey them effectively and beautifully is not my strong point. Compared to some essays I have read, I feel very worried and ashamed with my writing. What should I do now? I want to give an example of what I mean here: When telling about getting out of shyness, someone who is good at writing may write “I no longer wanted to hide under the shell of a lethargic tortoise, or act as a pariah”, a sentence which seems impossible to come to my mind!

Answered by MBA Studio
Schools “get it” that applicants come with different English writing levels. It’s business school, not literature school. So all you have to do is be clear. You don’t have to have beautiful prose, or literary allusions to tortoises etc. Having said that, clarity is very very hard, as you can see by all the turgid writing all around. What I do when I help candidates with their essays and application strategy, is I help them clarify their ideas. Why are they a valuable candidate? Why does what they bring fit with the school? What are their career goals and why do they need an MBA to fulfil them? If you have a clear mind you writing will be good (or good enough.)

Question asked by Verma Vertika
Sorry Avi, let me ask one more question. Some colleges ask us to write extra essays. One of the most common topics is why we choose it (a college). We are international students, although we have try to find as much information about the college as possible, we don’t have any chance to visit the college or see things in real life. That is the reason this kind of essay is difficult. We can’t tell with all our heart! How could we make our essay effective?

Answered by MBA Studio
No problem Verma, ask away. In this question, are you asking me about the extra essay “If you want the committee to know anything and you have not had a chance to say it, say it here” … or by college do you mean the business school? They do want to know what you know what you know about their school because, for them, it’s about the FIT between you and them. If you don’t know what they are about, you can’t explain the fit. You don’t need to visit the school (it does help) but if you can’t do your best to speak to people who are there, or from there. One great way is to phone or email current students — expecially the heads of clubs and societies you are interesed in– and ask them any/all questions you like.

Question asked by DongDong Cui
Hello Avi, I am done with tests (GRE and TOEFL) and now the final thing I need to prepare is a dreaded admission essay (I need to write two, in fact) I am applying to M.Sc. program in Business Administration (Management Information Systems) and one of the questions for the essay is as follows: Describe two events in your life to date that demonstrate your ability to do well in business. I am puzzled by the word “event” in this question. I am really not sure what to write about because I can’t think of any single event to demonstrate my business abilities. I participated in several important projects and advanced quickly from one position to another at my last job but I can not call it “an event” as it was prolonged in time. Maybe you could help me to think of an idea of event that could demonstrate someone’s ability to do well in business. Something fictions is fine, I just need to understand what kind of event it could be. Many thanks for you advice

Answered by MBA Studio
Ha ha I like it “dreaded admissions essay”! And I do them for a living :) (btw, I don’t write anyone’s essay for them) Anyway: Them asking for “events” is a way of focusing you on a story. Even if the demonstration of your business ability came as a part of a long process, there was probably some moment, some interaction, some turning point the brings the process to life and shows you off well. That’s your event. Giving that doesn’t mean you can’t also decribe the whole prolonged time as well. In terms of selecting your event, you’ll have to tell me more about you — either here or offline. I’m at avi.gordon@mbastudio.net

Question asked by Nikolas Pearson
Hello Avi! I have been asked to write an essay on post MBA career goals. I am not clear on how specific I should get. Also since I am interested in finance, should I talk only about finance about the MBA experience as well?

Answered by MBA Studio
Hi Nikolas, be as specific as possible. Details are the golden highway to admission. (Most people give generalities, and therefore they all sound like each other.) If you give details you will sound like a guy who knows what he is about, and where he’s going. That’s the kind of person who gets in.
I’m not sure I understand the second part of you question — can you reframe it? One more point on goals: make them big and ambitious. If you have small life and career goals you don’t need an MBA.

Question asked by samuel li
Hi! As a part of a business school essay I have been asked to evaluate a situation and communicate my decision. I wanted to know if business schools expect the case study format i.e analysis, alternatives and then recommendations or if there is some other way of structuring it. Secondly in my case the decision can be either yes or no. So the only way make my case stronger would be to give support to my decision? Have I understood it correctly? Can you tell me where I could find sample studies? I’m interested in knowing how better I could structure my essay. Thanks a lot!

Answered by MBA Studio
Hi Samuel, Which school is this for? Generally, schools don’t want you to follow formula — and it won’t help you to do it, or to seek out samples that “do it right”. They want to see how you think, and evidence of your intelligence, education, and training. You format – analysis, alternatives, reco’s sound right, or right enough. The content will be more important than the form on this one. ps when you get to interviewing, if you interview with big consulting firms, they will have cases that need to be tackled in a highly codified way. But not for admissions

Question asked by william Lee
hi Avi, I have to write a cover letter for my application stating highlights of my objectives and qualifications for admission. Could you help with links or suggestions, Thanks in advance!

Answered by MBA Studio
Hi William, Is this MIT? A cover letter is a test to see if you can extract the salient points. (Senior managers need to be able to do this — executive summaries, etc.) It forces a clarity on you — you have to be able to reduce your argument for admission into a few paragraphs. That means you have to really understand what your argument is! Again clarity is the key. The scaffolding is “These are the three reasons I should be admitted to MIT … 1; 2; 3″ Then take away the scaffolding.

Question asked by Sana Tajammul
I have this question to fill out in an application for MBA at the university of Amsterdam? Now could you please provide a few hints on how I can assess self critically? Do I have to mention negative ideas in order to stress positive ones? or should I only list positive ideas? well I hope you can help me!

Answered by MBA Studio
Sana, what’s the question for Amsterdam? Generally, don’t put negative points unless they ask for them. If you mention negative things / characteristics, also say how you intend to fix them, or how B-school will help you fix them.

Question asked by Nazli Unsur
Hi Avi! I was reading up articles on the web about writing a personal statement and some of the websites suggest writing the SOP in third person while others say that its better to write it in first person so that the SOP doesn’t look too wordy….What would you suggest????? As this is one thing which can sometimes make or break my application I just want it to be THE BEST!! Thanks in advance.

Answered by MBA Studio
Nazli, You are right that the essays make or break the application: Why is that? Because there are always too many people with great scores, great work exp., and great refs. Essays are the tie-breaker between top applicants. As to the Statement of Purpose: always always always in the 1st person. You must be personal. Try to come across as if this is a “fireside” chat with the head of the admissions committee. You get 15 minutes to tell her why you should be admitted rather than the other excellent candidates who are also wanting in.

MBA Studio Says:
All right, I’ll take advantage of a break in the questions to try to summarize a few key points, valid for all competitive MBA applications.
1. You must have a clear “argument” as to why you are a worthy candidate and should be admitted.
2. Your argument will rest on a few key points or themes. While answering the questions you have to also clearly — over a number of essays — make your argument
3. Clarity is your friend. Don’t worry about being a literary buff. Just have an organized position and communicate it in an organized way.
4. Stories help you by bringing your theme points to life. Admissions readers are human — they read stories better than analysis.
5. Be personal. They want to get to know things about you that you can’t know from the Gmat, refs, transcripts etc. Essays must add value to what’s already in your file.

MBA Studio Says:
Okay, that’s the end of the hour — let’s wrap it up here. Thanks for participating. Any more questions. We’re at www.mbastudio.net