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How to write a winning MBA essay

Katie Schenk - October 22, 2019

Write a winning MBA admissions essay

Remember the day your top schools released their essay questions and you were confident you’d wrap the first draft within days? What happened to that excitement? Where did all that enthusiasm go?

If you’re sitting in a cycle of procrastination (or, perhaps, convincing yourself that it’s better to study for the GMAT), there's something you need to know right now – that essay will not write itself.

Sometimes it's a matter of understanding what should and shouldn't be in your essays.

Business schools aren't trying to trick you with their essay prompts, but that doesn't mean their questions aren't tricky. Before you begin drafting, it's worth considering what ad comms want to see.

Question 1: What are your goals? What will you do with your MBA? Why do you want an MBA?

Sometimes these are questions regarding your career goals - or how an MBA will help you achieve them. 

At other schools, you may be tasked to outline your short-term and long-term goals. This prompt is one of the most frequently requested, and often one of the most challenging as the word count provided is usually quite low.

What is this question asking?

Though worded differently, you should demonstrate how an MBA (and this programme in particular) is the bridge that connects your previous experiences to your future goals. 

Many applicants find it easier to draft this essay in 3 parts: background, post-MBA goals, and details about the programme that will help you to obtain it. Be sure to include your short-term personal goals as well as your professional ones.

What do ad comms want?

Very often, this is the first essay ad comms read from your application, so it's critical that you create a crisp impression. They’re looking at your drive and maturity levels. 

Be specific; provide them with the industry and job functions you hope to find yourself in post-MBA - and your reasons behind these choices. 

If you’re ambivalent, it’s better to explain why an MBA will provide you with the right path rather than making something up. Every word should be honest, direct, and confident.

What shouldn’t you do?

Above all, you want to avoid vague goals. Stating that you want to work in finance or hope to add value to your future employer will give ad comms an excellent reason to move your essay into the no pile. 

But, you don’t want to present a plan that’s too detailed. Both your short-term and long-term goals should be realistic - and you shouldn’t have too many of them.

Question 2: Why this programme?

This question is very common, but it’s not as easy to answer as many applicants believe at first glance. 

Here, it’s important to be specific and to have done plenty of research on the programme, the university, the degree, the city, and what you expect from your MBA.

What is this question asking?

It’s a straightforward question. You need to convey that you will be a good fit for the programme and that you will be successful on campus and as alumni.

What do ad comms want?

Rather than class size or geography, ad comms want to see that you’ve spent a lot of time looking over many options and can see what makes their programme different from their competitors. They want to know that you have a definite reason for choosing them - that you’re not just applying because they are highly ranked. 

Your best bet is to find an aspect of the programme that resonates with you and your goals and then to demonstrate what your life will be like during your degree. 

The more specific you can be, the better your essay will be.

What shouldn’t you do?

Never add basic facts to your essay; ad comms know how many professors they have. They want to know which professor, class, or initiative inspires you. 

And, remember that you’re not striving to be an average student, you want to be an exceptional one. Watch for coming across as presumptuous, however; ad comms wish to see that you’ve thought through your choices.  

Question 3: How will you contribute to the diversity of our programme?

This is another standard essay prompt. Responses should demonstrate that you bring something unique to the programme (why the admissions committee should choose you over another candidate with similar traits or background), and that you have a positive attitude towards diversity and the experiences of others.

What is this question asking?

This is pretty straightforward, and the wording on the prompt should point you directly towards your response. It’s asking for your unique perspective and how you will use your individuality to contribute to the school - on campus and for years after as an alumni. 

Start by thinking about how others describe you and what makes you unique - then move into how those aspects affect your interactions with others.

What do ad comms want?

B-schools love diversity; they strive for classes that pull together many different points of views. In essence, you’re answering the question of how you’ll fit in the next group of talented individuals while remaining uniquely you. 

Ad comms want to see that you’ve researched their programme and that you’ve spent a lot of time uncovering what makes you unique - especially if you fit into a conventional demographic.

What shouldn’t you do?

You’ll use a lot of adjectives to answer this prompt, but it’s critical that you back each one up with an example of how those words represent you.

Question 4: Describe a personal (or professional) achievement (or failure) and how it has affected you.

If you’re like most applicants, these types of questions will scare you. You might be frightened that admitting your failures will keep you out of the yes pile - and you don’t want to come across as boastful either. 

Striking the right balance is critical when writing about these situations. With luck, you’ll be asked to write about both achievements and failures. If you only have one prompt, be sure to answer it honestly.

What is this prompt asking?

This question is asking whether you can realistically assess yourself - and to see how you react when things are unfavourable. 

It’s not actually about the challenges or failures; it’s about being honest and accountable. Pick an experience that has real value in your life and avoid generalisations as they will come off as trite or insincere.

What do ad comms want?

When it comes to achievements, ad comms are interested in how you worked through the challenges (if it were easy, it wouldn’t be an achievement). 

What were your thoughts during this time? How did your unique worldview guide your choices? The failure question requires you to be honest about something that was relatively high-stakes and to show how you developed personally or professionally through the process. 

Ad comms know it is challenging to lay failures out, but they also know that no one is perfect.

What shouldn’t you do?

Any attempt to disguise a positive as a negative or to avoid answering the question head-on will receive a negative response. You should be able to demonstrate that you’ve matured from the experience, but you don’t want that development to be as base as “I learned from my mistakes.”

Question 5: What activities do you enjoy outside of work or school?

Applicants tend to think of this as one of the more straightforward questions only because everyone is interested in something. And, it’s a natural place to differentiate yourself if you participate in unusual activities.

What is this question asking?

There are a couple of questions here. 

The first is quite literal - what do you enjoy doing? The hidden question relates to how you interact socially; can you work with a team? 

And, are you able to manage a busy schedule that includes socialising as well as work?

What do ad comms want?

B-schools want friendly people that work well in teams and aren’t afraid to put themselves out there. They enjoy bringing in offbeat, but balanced students. So, the more unique your interests, the easier it is to craft this essay. 

Allow your passion to flow through this piece. And, if you can, show ad comms that you’ve developed leadership skills through your interests; don’t just say that you’ve held such positions.

What shouldn’t you do?

It’s not the best idea to write about solitary pursuits. Ad comms are looking for people with people-skills, so it’s better to highlight activities that involve working with others in some way.

Question 6: Who do you most admire and why?

If you have a business mentor that you respect, you’re well on your way to a successful admiration essay. Who you choose makes a big difference to the final result. But then, so does what you have to say about that person. This question also considers the types of people that have influenced your career.

What is this question asking? 

This prompt seeks to uncover the traits you value in others. Generally speaking, the attributes that you admire in others are the things you’re hoping to develop in yourself.

What do ad comms want?

Use concrete examples to show that you've learned something from your subject. Ask yourself what you do differently now or how your actions have changed - and remember to show, not tell (describe a situation, not just the person). 

While the drive to succeed or a no-fail attitude are good character traits to have, it’s better to choose something that’s not so obvious.

What shouldn’t you do?

Avoid choosing a famous person unless you have a personal relationship with him or her. Part of the idea is to get a picture of how you learn from others and the boundaries of your relationship-building capacity.

Question 7: Demonstrate your ability to lead or work with a team

This prompt may seem like a straightforward essay question, but it’s a little more complicated than merely relating a recent leadership experience. This particular prompt requires care - as it’s too easy for the response to be vague or (frighteningly) dull.

What is this question asking?

Yes, this topic seeks to uncover whether you can lead - as it’s essential for business success. It’s asking how you guide and whether you can inspire others. You’re not being asked to recount a time when you held a position of leadership; it’s much deeper than that. You’re being asked to show how and when your leadership style emerged and what makes it unique - making you an inspiring leader.

What do ad comms want?

Ad comms want to see that you’re able to work with and inspire others so that success comes from everyone in the team and not just yourself. And, they want to know how you do that. 

It’s not hard for these essays to become uninspiring, and you’ll need to dig deeper than a recent leadership experience. 

One important characteristic that can come through in this piece is accountability. Leadership and teamwork essays usually involve some level of adversity (otherwise you didn’t lead; you merely performed existing functions) - and you need to accept responsibility.

What shouldn’t you do?

It’s easy to reach a level of self-depreciation while striving to be humble. But you should avoid this. And, you’ll want to sidestep ethical dilemma questions as they demonstrate different aspects of your personality. 

Remember, you don’t have to use only business examples; personal anecdotes may even be more powerful (especially if tasked to show several examples).

What do tweet-length MBA essays mean for MBA applicants?

Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, Arizona State’s W.P. Carey School of Business and the University of Iowa’s Tippie School of Management previously made the most of Tweet-length essays. 

If you're faced with this format, you may think those long nights of struggling over the next paragraph are gone, but these new forms of essays force applicants to be succinct. Prospective MBA students must be proud of their accomplishments, and able to paint a picture of their strengths without embellishment.

How to write a sweet tweet

Although the format is different, application boards want to discover the same ends from a Tweet length application essay as they can garner from a full length one.

Focus on what admission boards want to see:

  • A complete picture of your personality
  • Your ability to be pithy when required
  • Creative thinking skills

MBA programmes want to see that you will:

  • Fit into campus life
  • Bring more to the classroom than academics
  • Offer prestige to their university after graduation

In the end, it is about putting your best foot forward, whether you are looking at several pages, or 140 characters. You still need to put in the effort, or your chosen schools will know it.

Looking for sample MBA admissions essays?

There are plenty of samples of excellent MBA essays online. You can probably find hundreds with a single search term. Excellent resources provide a breakdown by business school or offer you a new way to frame your own experiences without comparing yourself to the applicants in the examples.

While these are the articles that prompted acceptance into top schools, it's easy to spend hours and weeks pouring over samples, convinced yours will never be right. It never will be if you’re focusing on what’s said instead of how it’s said.

The way you tell the story is the key to ensuring that an admissions consultant reads all the way through your essays without yawning. 

Why? 

Just about everyone that applies to top business schools has an incredible history. They have all done something special – even if they had to go out of their way to do it.

That doesn’t mean the what isn’t important – not by any stretch of the imagination. If you’ve not jotted down any notes or belted out a first draft yet, you might want to start making a brag list. Write out all the moments and achievements you’re especially proud of and don’t ignore any aspect of your life at this point. Still, you should strive for realism on the list; you don’t want to exaggerate or reiterate any information found elsewhere in your application. 

No matter what, you will spend a crazy amount of time preparing your admissions essays. There will be a point when you simply cannot see your words or hear your mistakes any longer. You will want a fresh set of eyes on your work, even if it isn't a professional proofreader.

You can wait for the last minute of course, but that will cost you one way or another. And, no matter how long you take to get going, that essay simply won’t write itself. 

Already nailed your MBA admissions essays?

Once you've gotten in, we can help you out with a no co-signer, collateral-free international student loan to attend the MBA of your dreams.

Prodigy Finance Ltd is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority.

Post updated for accuracy and freshness on October 22, 2019. Originally published on October 10, 2017.


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