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Simplifying MBA Admissions Essays for Top Business Schools

It can seem like there are an infinite variety of MBA admissions essays. With famous examples, like the Stanford GSB application’s “What Matters Most to You, and Why?” or the Duke Fuqua application’s “25 Random Things”, it is easy to get overwhelmed thinking that you will have to write a completely different essay with a different subject for every question on every one of your business school applications. While each essay does need to be tailored to each b-school, you can simplify and streamline the process of essay writing by embracing the idea that most MBA essay prompts can be categorized into core themes.

Let’s get to know them below:

MBA Application Essay #1: The Personal Essay

MBA programs care about your core values, your moral character, and the passions that motivate you. For example, UC Berkeley’s Haas Business School has four stated defining principles:

Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business is interested in accepting genuinely nice people. Duke’s Fuqua School of Business is interested in people’s “decency quotient.” These MBA programs look to recruit people with worldviews that are compatible with these values and it is your job, in this category of essay, to make sure that comes across.

Students at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth

Luckily, you can talk about almost anything in these personal essays. Applicants will often discuss relationships with friends and mentors. Others might talk about the hardships they overcame or difficult experiences. At the core, these anecdotes should serve to illuminate who you are as a person and demonstrate that you live according to a code that is in line with the school’s own approach to business education.

Yaron Dahan on why HBS and Stanford GSB have only personal essays:

MBA Application Essay #2: The Career Goals Essay

Business schools want you to have a good job when you graduate from their MBA program. This is for three reasons:

Even though getting a good job is important, this isn’t everything. In order to stand out from other candidates, the job needs to be a bit inspiring as well. If you are not ambitious enough in outlining your goals and the impact you want to make in your future career, it is possible to come across as a boring candidate who is more or less content to stay in their current position with slightly better pay. Business schools will likely take a hard pass on those applicants. That said, if you are not somewhat realistic with what you want to accomplish, you can end up sounding naïve or unserious.

The goal here is to walk the line between the two. It is your job to convince the school that you have goals which are meaningful, but also grounded in your past experiences and considered enough that your success is assured.

David White on Career Goal Basics:

Demonstrating School Fit

After you state your goals, you’ll also need to explain how the MBA is a necessary part of achieving those goals. This is a chance to show that not only do you need an MBA, but that the particular program you’re applying to is exactly the right fit with your development needs.

What MBA programs really want to know is that you have done your homework and researched the school in detail. They DON’T want to see copy/paste from the course catalogue. It is important to network with schools beforehand and then use what you learned to show that only their institution really has the resources to make your goals a reality.

MBA admissions officer
Busy MBA applicant

MBA Application Essay #3: School Participation Essay

Business schools are selfish! They want to know that you will add something to their institution by attending. Schools rely on students to run many programs, such as professional clubs, and want to know that you will be an active participant in the campus culture. In fact, MBA programs tend to do almost every class and activity in groups.

In order to answer questions like these effectively, you will need to map out the kinds of school-sponsored clubs, conferences, and activities in which you are interested in participating. Consider where you can make helpful contributions to campus life: how can you benefit your classmates as well as the school as a whole?

MBA alumni network

Rebecca Heath Anderson on Researching Career Goals:

MBA Application Essay #4: Behavioral Essays (Including Leadership and Failure Essays)

An MBA program might ask about your previous experiences, both to gauge whether you’re ready to benefit from the school’s leadership development programs and to know your moral values as a leader. These questions can come in a number of forms.

They might prompt you by saying “Tell us about a time when you led a team” or even “Tell us about a time when you failed.”

What schools really are looking for, in this instance, is some sign that you are self-reflective. They want to understand that you have experienced some leadership setbacks that have made you interested in and prepared to take in the knowledge they have to offer.

Now that we have looked at the main categories of essays, let’s talk about one of the persistent myths about the MBA application process: using example essays and templates.

MBA Essay Examples and Templates — A Bad Idea

It is tempting to think that you can model your business school essay off of someone else’s successful essay. People spend time and money searching for “the perfect MBA essay sample” to use as a guide. First, you may hope to avoid the effort of having to write the essay yourself. Second, this is the sort of cargo cult thinking that says: if I copy what a successful applicant did, then I will also be admitted.

The truth of the matter is that sample essays don’t work. People get admitted to MBA programs for many reasons. Menlo Coaching has bought and reviewed several editions of the Harbus Essay Guide, which contains a number of successful HBS essays… and some of the essays therein are absolutely terrible. One essay spent its entire length bragging about the writer’s vast family wealth and all the celebrities the writer knew. Clearly, that applicant did not get in on the merits of their essay-writing skills.

Former HBS director of admissions Dee Leopold famously said that “Applying to Harvard is not an essay writing contest.” People are accepted to MBA programs not on the quality of the writing, but on the quality of the thinking that went into the essay. As a result, “the perfect essay” is actually the one that answers the question based on your perspective and experiences.

MBA admissions director reading an MBA application essay

By focusing on these broad categories, you can avoid some of the pitfalls of the essay writing process. Try to keep in mind what your overall MBA story is and don’t get lost in some of the things that don’t matter, such as “sample essays” or figuring out the exact language you are going to use.

Remember, the best application essay is the one that addresses the question in a way that is tied in to your personal experience.

In fact, you don’t need to be a great writer at all!  We say more about the process of actually writing the essays at: