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Essay Topic Analysis

Free, expert analysis of business school application essay topics.

Northwestern / Kellogg Essay Topic Analysis 2014-2015

Following up on the announcement of Kellogg’s 2014-2015 essay questions, we wanted to offer some thoughts on how aspiring Northwestern MBA students might approach this element of the application.

Kellogg’s essay set this season consists of just two required responses totaling 900 words, in contrast to its three essays last year. Notably, the school has done away with its question about the applicant’s post-MBA plans and reasons for interest in Kellogg, though it’s possible that applicants will be asked to comment briefly on these subjects in their data forms. As for the two questions that remain, while the wording of each of these prompts has changed, their essence remains similar to the school’s questions from last year, with the first essay centering on the applicant’s resilience in the face of challenge or obstacle, and the second focusing on leadership ability.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these prompts:

Essay 1: Resilience. Perseverance. Grit. Call it what you will…. Challenges can build character. Describe a challenging experience you’ve had. How were you tested? What did you learn? (450 words)
The framing of this question makes it clear that the admissions committee isn’t just interested in the process of overcoming adversity, but also with the resulting growth and character-building that occurred. Given that applicants may draw from the personal or professional realms in responding to this question, there are numerous topics that could be appropriate here. For example, an applicant could discuss how growing up in difficult socioeconomic circumstances influenced his or her strong work ethic, or how a relationship with an adversarial supervisor made him or her a more flexible, adaptable person. Regardless of the subject, after providing a detailed description of the situation or experience and the reasons it posed a challenge—i.e. what skills, values, areas of knowledge, or assumptions were tested— applicants should be sure to clearly explain how they rose to the challenge and how that process shaped them in a positive way that has prepared them for success. To really prove to the adcom that they learned from the experience, applicants could provide a brief example of a later time when they navigated a difficult situation by implementing the strengths they’ve gained. In demonstrating their overall growth, applicants will show the adcom that they possess the ability to exercise resilience and overcome challenging circumstances to achieve a favorable outcome.

Essay 2: Leadership requires an ability to collaborate with and motivate others. Describe a professional experience that required you to influence people. What did this experience teach you about working with others, and how will it make you a better leader? (450 words)
No matter the nature of the professional experience chosen for this essay—for example, one could discuss a large-scale project success or a smaller initiative that improved a workplace process—the key word for applicants to attend to in this prompt is “influence.” The adcom is zeroing in on the interpersonal element of effective leadership here; while applicants will obviously want to comment on a successful outcome, this will be of secondary importance to illustrating the process by which he or she motivated or persuaded others in this situation. In addition to explaining the situation and their objectives, applicants may wish to go into detail about specific interactions, meetings, or presentations in order to highlight their interpersonal leadership skills in action. Of course, effective essays will also provide a complete treatment of lessons learned through this experience and ways that the applicant’s leadership skills or approach have been enhanced as a result.

Finally, given the scarcity of opportunities to convey their enthusiasm for Kellogg’s program in this essay set, applicants may want to take this opportunity to comment on a leadership position they may want to hold as an MBA student, and to remark on how this experience would equip them to make an impact on the Kellogg community. The program’s website, current and former students, and the Clear Admit School Guide to Kellogg are a few of the many resources available for this sort of information.

Re-applicant Essay: Since your previous application, what steps have you taken to strengthen your candidacy? (250 words)
The framing of this question suggests that the adcom is more interested in proactive steps toward material improvement of one’s candidacy, as opposed to a reflective discussion of personal growth. Applicants should therefore focus on the specific ways they’ve worked to strengthen their candiacy and the reasons that they believe themselves to be a better applicant to Kellogg this time around.

Optional Essay/Additional Information: If needed, use this section to briefly describe any extenuating circumstances (e.g. unexplained gaps in work experience, choice of recommenders, inconsistent or questionable academic performance, etc.) (no word limit)
Comments in this section should be limited to explaining potential liabilities or inconsistencies in one’s application. While applicants are free to write as much as they like here, we recommend a straightforward approach that uses as few words—and as little of the reader’s scarce time—as possible.

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UNC / Kenan-Flagler Essay Topic Analysis 2014-2015

Following up on the recent release of Kenan-Flagler’s 2014-2015 application essays, we wanted to weigh in with some thoughts on this year’s prompts.

UNC has dropped its number of required essays from three 500-word responses last year to just one required 500-word response this year, though applicants also have the option of responding to up to three non-mandatory 300-word queries. This change is in step with a broader trend of essay reduction that we’ve been observing across the leading U.S. schools, though the additional optional prompts offer UNC applicants a good opportunity to touch on a range of elements in their backgrounds while demonstrating their interest in the school. Broadly, this year’s Kenan-Flagler essays reflect a focus on applicant’s career plans and reasoning behind them, as well as ways that candidates would contribute to the community and succeed in the classroom.

Let’s take a closer look at each essay:

Essay 1 (Required): Please describe your short and long term goals post-MBA. Explain how: your professional experience has shaped these goals; why this career option appeals to you; and how you arrived at the decision that now is the time and the MBA is the appropriate degree. (500 words)
A repeat of an essay from the previous admissions cycle, this fairly standard career goals essay is Kenan-Flagler’s only required essay. Applicants will need to describe their professional aspirations—both immediately following an MBA and on a larger long-term scale, as well as the formative experience and underlying motivation behind them. Effective essays will clearly address each element of the prompt—identifying (1) a short-term goal and (2) a long-term goal, and addressing (3) ways their work to date has informed this objective, (4) why this career option is appealing, (5) why graduate school now, and (6) why an MBA in particular—a somewhat tall order, in just 500 words. Applicants will therefore need to be clear and direct in their writing and judicious in their use of words.

Naturally, in the course of the “why MBA” portion of this response, it would behoove candidates to comment on how exactly the Kenan-Flagler MBA specifically would position them to achieve their career goals rather than writing generically about the benefits of this credential. Therefore, knowing the details of Kenan-Flagler’s MBA program will be helpful in answering the last part of the prompt. Taking the time to learn about the school’s curriculum, special programs and extracurricular activities – whether through a visit to campus, conversation with alumni or reading the Clear Admit School Guide to Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC – will pay dividends here.

Essay 2 (Optional): What personal qualities or life experiences distinguish you from other applicants? How do these qualities or experiences equip you to contribute to UNC Kenan-Flagler? (300 words)
This question gives applicants the opportunity to share some information about their interests and experiences that set them apart from other applicants, while simultaneously showcasing their knowledge of and fit with Kenan-Flagler. Specifically calling for “personal qualities and life experiences,” this essay invites applicants to provide more intimate insight into who they are and what they care about outside of the office. Details matter here, so think about how you can translate your passions and past experiences into involvement on the UNC campus, and indicate specific contributions that you would like to make. Creating a link between your past and future at the program will enable you to present a consistent and clear picture of your candidacy and professional and personal interests. The more information you can provide about how exactly you would contribute (playing a certain role in organizing a particular event, for example), the more reason you’ll give the adcom to admit you.

Essay 3 (Optional): If your standardized test scores are low, or if you have not had coursework in core business subjects (calculus, microeconomics, statistics, financial accounting), please tell us how you plan to prepare yourself for the quantitative rigor of the MBA curriculum. (300 words)
This response is directed toward applicants with quantitative liabilities in their applications. Applicants should therefore first consider whether either of the conditions of this question applies to them; if your GMAT score falls below the average of enrolled students in the MBA program or if your academic transcripts don’t demonstrate a track record of success in quantitative work in classroom settings, then you should consider addressing this question. As for the response itself, applicants should focus on ways they’ll prepare before they arrive on campus, whether through additional coursework, group or self-study, or through seeking out more quantitatively-oriented responsibilities at work.

Essay 4 (Optional): Is there any other information you would like to share that is not presented elsewhere in the application? (300 words)
This response will be an appropriate place to address any elements of one’s application that need further explanation (e.g. recommender choice, expected promotions, etc.). The wording of this essay is fairly open and inviting, and so it may be an appropriate place to share an additional anecdote or highlight an impressive accomplishment. Applicants should aim to demonstrate good judgment in deciding whether to respond to this prompt, and should take care not to introduce information that appears elsewhere in their materials or that could have been covered in response to one of the above essays.

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UVA / Darden Essay Topic Analysis 2014-2015

Continuing our series of posts analyzing the essay topics of top business schools, we’re now turning our attention to the UVA Darden essay for 2014-2015.

Darden has retained its structure of one 500-word essay for a third year running, though in past years the school has included additional short responses in its online data form, which isn’t yet available for this admissions cycle. The school is again asking applicants to recount a professional situation and reflect on its larger implications, though the focus of this one required essay has shifted a bit—from tackling challenge and complexity to exercising courage. Let’s take a closer look at the question:

Essay 1: Describe the most courageous professional decision you have made or action you have taken. What did you learn from that experience? (500 words maximum)
The descriptor “courageous” could encompass a wide range of workplace situations, from assuming responsibility for a large, high-stakes project to taking a stand on an office policy that affected a relatively small subset of people. Unlike an accomplishment-specific essay, the adcom isn’t necessarily focused on impressive results or bottom-line impact (though if your example happens to include these, it certainly wouldn’t hurt); rather, Darden’s adcom seems most interested in an applicants process of persuading others or taking initiative, even if the results weren’t what the applicant was aiming for. One thing to keep in mind is that in order for a decision or action to be courageous, there must by definition be some element of fear, doubt or uncertainty at play, and so the best topics and their descriptions will likely have an emotional valence.

As always, it’s important to fully address both elements of the prompt, fully detailing the relevant context, the decision or action and the reasons behind it, as well as the subsequent events and outcomes. This should be followed by a treatment of the lessons that the applicant drew from this act of courage. While not explicitly requested, it would make sense to touch on ways that the applicant has used these lessons—or anticipates using them as a Darden student or alum—at the close of this response. This might even include a remark about bravely starting a student club or getting involved in a new on-campus activity that you’ve learned about through personal research, conversations with members of the Darden community and resources such as the Clear Admit School Guide to the Darden School of Business.

For some additional insight, see the Darden MBA Admissions blog for video pointers from Assistant Dean of MBA Admissions Sara Neher.

** This post will be updated with comments on optional and reapplicant essays as these prompts become available.

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Chicago / Booth Essay Topic Analysis 2014-2015

With Booth’s announcement of its 2014-2015 presentation/essay topic last week, we’re following up with some thoughts about how applicants might approach this ever-challenging task.

In a new twist on a familiar format, Booth is again asking applicants to “show themselves” to the admissions committee via an essay or a visual presentation. Perhaps the most interesting change for this season is the removal of any length restriction; whereas in previous years Booth has set forth a strict four-slide or 600-word maximum length for this element of its application, this year the adcom leaves this entirely to the applicant’s “best judgment.” While it will likely be prudent for essay-writing applicants to at least be cognizant of the word count of previous years, this change affords applicants choosing the presentation route a good deal of freedom to play with space and timing (while still being mindful of the adcom’s time and attention span, of course).

Let’s take a closer look at the prompt itself:

Presentation/Essay: Chicago Booth values adventurous inquiry, diverse perspectives, and a collaborative exchange of ideas. This is us. Who are you?

Presentation/Essay Guidelines

  • Be reflective. We’ve learned a lot about you throughout the application, but what more should we know?
  • Interpret broadly. “Who are you?” can be interpreted in many different ways. We encourage you to think critically and broadly about who you are, and how your values, passions and experiences have influenced you.
  • Determine your own length. There is no prescribed minimum or maximum length. We trust that you will use your best judgment in determining how long your submission should be, but we recommend that you think strategically about how to best allocate the space.
  • Choose the format that works for you. You can design your presentation or compose your essay in the format that you feel best captures your response. However, please consider the specific technical restrictions noted below.
  • Think about you, not us. Rather than focusing on what you think we want to hear, focus on what is essential for us to know about you. Simply put, be genuine.

This somewhat unusual and unstructured prompt speaks to Chicago Booth’s interest in the applicant’s interests, personality, and skills in self-expression. All of this “white space”—whether in essay or presentation format—might be daunting to some, but an easy way to approach this process is to ask oneself a few simple questions. What new and important information about yourself can you introduce to the adcom? How does that information lend itself to the formats available (essay vs. presentation)? Are you more of a visual presenter/thinker who will be very comfortable showcasing information in PowerPoint or other software, or is writing more your strength/comfort zone? In terms of organization for a presentation or an essay, are there separate topics to which you would like to devote a slide each or essay section? Or would you prefer to use the framework of your presentation or paragraphs of an essay to create a sense of progression through a current activity, past experience, “day in the life,” etc.?

We’re hesitant to provide too much guidance given the free-form nature of the task; the best advice we can offer is to think about who you are (and how this might be of interest to the Booth adcom in light of their stated values), consider how you could translate this into words and images, and then give it a try. Showing the initial result to someone who knows you well could be a great way to determine the effectiveness of a working draft. You might also wish to refresh yourself on how to present your “fit” with aspects of Chicago Booth’s culture, such that taking the time to learn more about the school’s MBA program – whether through a visit to campus, conversation with alumni or reading the Clear Admit School Guide to Chicago Booth.

We understand that this question can seem extremely challenging, so feel free to contact us for a free consultation in which a Clear Admit Admissions Counselor can help you think through the elements of your profile and determine how to best approach Booth’s application.

Reapplicant Essay: Upon reflection, how has your perspective regarding your future, Chicago Booth, and/or getting an MBA changed since the time of your last application? (300 words)
Whereas some reapplicant essays focus on material improvements in the applicant’s candidacy (e.g. promotions, improved leadership skills), this brief response is more focused on personal growth and changes in perspective since the applicant last applied. Specifically, this prompt seems to invite comments about ways the applicant has calibrated career goals, become better acquainted with Booth, or gained a better understanding of how an MBA will fit into a larger career trajectory. Those material improvements we mentioned before are worth commenting on, of course, but the tone of this response should be reflective, with a focus on how the events of the past months or years since being denied fit into a larger plan and understanding.

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Yale SOM Essay Topic Analysis 2014-2015

Today we’ll be taking a look at Yale School of Management’s essay question for this admissions season. In keeping with a trend we’ve been noting among many of the leading U.S. MBA programs, SOM has foregone its prior inquiries about the applicant’s reasons for seeking an MBA and interest in Yale, instead requiring candidates to respond to a single prompt focused on a past experience. This year’s change also marks a 50% reduction in total essay length – from 750 words between last season’s two essays to this year’s single 500-word-limit response – meaning that topic selection and careful writing will be important to an effective application.

Let’s take a closer look at this year’s Yale essay:

Essay 1: The Yale School of Management educates individuals who will have deep and lasting impact on the organizations they lead. Describe how you have positively influenced an organization—as an employee, a member, or an outside constituent. (500 words)
The framing of this question is fairly broad, as far as domains from which applicants can draw topics; examples from the professional realm are obviously fair game, as well as personal or community involvements in which one changed an organization as a member or lobbied for an adjustment as an outside stakeholder. Given the breadth of viable examples, the nature of the impact the applicant had will likely be key to an effective response. As the first sentence of the prompt indicates, Yale aims to graduate students who are equipped to make a “deep and lasting impact.” For this reason, situations in which an applicant was able to effect some kind of change or improvement that was sustained over the long-term will clearly be a better fit for this question than one-time successes (like turning a failing project around) or those with less tangible results (such as financial windfall as a result of closing a large deal).

While this essay isn’t centrally focused on walking the reader through a situation (as in the “describe about a time when” format), it would still make sense to open with context about the organization, your role, and your objectives in the situation in question. Of course, the manner and methods by which you exerted influence will also be of significant interest to the reader, as these skills and strategies are the element of your story that will be most transferrable to future situations. Finally, it will be important to describe the immediate and long-term results of your efforts, with an eye to establishing their deep and lasting characteristics. Of course, space permitting, a concluding comment about specific elements of the Yale curriculum or community on which you hope to make a similar impact—based on research into the program, conversations with SOM insiders, or information in the Clear Admit Yale School Guide—could provide a nice coda for this response.

Optional Essay: If any aspect of your candidacy needs further explanation (unexplained gaps in work experience, choice of recommenders, academic performance, promotions or recognitions, etc.), please provide a brief description here. (200 words)
This is an opportunity for applicants to explain any aberrations in their academic or work histories, address a lack of a recommendation from a current supervisor, or comment on other elements of their candidacies not captured in their written materials (for example, an anticipated promotion or upcoming volunteer project). As usual, these comments should be as brief and straightforward as possible.

Reapplicant Essay: Since your last application, please discuss any updates to your candidacy, including changes in your personal or professional life, additional coursework, or extracurricular/volunteer activities. (200 words)
This required response for repeat applicants is relatively short, so candidates will need to exercise sound judgment and brevity in writing as they cover material improvements in their candidacy. While some schools ask about the applicant’s reflection and growth since their prior application, the wording and length of this prompt suggest that a “facts first” approach will be most effective here.

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Duke / Fuqua Essay Topic Analysis 2014-2015

Following up on the announcement of Fuqua’s 2014-2015 essay questions, we wanted to weigh in with our thoughts on how applicants might approach their work on this application. Like last season, Duke asks applicants to respond to three career-related short answers and two longer essays, though the adcom has introduced a choice between two options – both centering on the applicant’s interest in and connection to Fuqua and its student ideals – for the second of these required answers. With so many programs reducing the number and scope of their essays, applicants may find this broadening of options to be a welcome development.

Let’s take a closer look at this year’s prompts:

Short Answer Questions (250 characters; about 50 words):
1. What are your short-term goals, post-MBA?
2. What are your long-term goals?
3. Life is full of uncertainties, and plans and circumstances can change. As a result, navigating a career requires you to be adaptable. Should the short-term goals that you provided above not materialize what alternative directions have you considered?
These three questions are quite straightforward, calling for applicants to concisely state their short-term goals, long-term goals, and a professional back-up plan. Although asking about career alternatives is slightly unusual, Question 3 is still fairly straightforward; applicants simply need to identify another post-MBA position that would also lead them toward their stated long-term goals. With roughly 50 words per question, applicants will need to be succinct and to the point in their comments, simply communicating the facts with minimal explanation.

Essay 1: The “Team Fuqua” spirit and community is one of the things that sets The Duke MBA experience apart, and it is a concept that extends beyond the student body to include faculty, staff, and administration. When a new person joins the Admissions Team, we ask that person to share with everyone in the office a list of “25 Random Things About Yourself.” As an Admissions team, we already know the new hire’s professional and academic background, so learning these “25 Random Things” helps us get to know someone’s personality, background, special talents, and more. In this spirit, the Admissions Committee also wants to get to know you – beyond the professional and academic achievements listed in your resume and transcript. You can share with us important life experiences, your likes/dislikes, hobbies, achievements, fun facts, or anything that helps us understand what makes you who you are. Share with us your list of “25 Random Things” about YOU.

Please present your response in list form, numbered 1 to 25. Some points may be only a few words, while others may be longer. Your complete list should not exceed 2 pages.
One of the more nontraditional business school essays, this prompt allows applicants to showcase interesting and meaningful facts about themselves that they otherwise might not get a chance to share with the adcom. Given the free-form nature of the task, we’re hesitant to provide too much guidance here; the best advice we can offer is for applicants to think about who they are and the people, events, and activities that have helped shape them, and to then start crafting their list. We also advise candidates to avoid assuming that the more words one puts into the document, the better one’s list will be; many great lists have an almost poetic tone. Showing the initial result to a close friend or relative could be a great way to determine the effectiveness of a working draft. One final thing to keep in mind is that while it’s perfectly fine for applicants to mention other people in their lists, they should make sure that each fact relates back to themselves in some way and helps the admissions reader get to know them.

We understand that the level of self-analysis required here can be extremely challenging, so applicants should feel free to contact us for a free consultation, in which a Clear Admit Admissions Counselor can help an applicant think through the elements of his or her profile and determine how to best portray his or her candidacy.

Second Required Essay: Choose only 1 of the following 2 essay questions to answer. Your response should be no more than 2 pages in length.

Essay 2.1: When asked by your family, friends, and colleagues why you want to go to Duke, what do you tell them? Share the reasons that are most meaningful to you.
Asking applicants about their interest in the school to which they are applying is standard practice among MBA programs, though Fuqua takes a more personal approach to the question. The adcom is looking for applicants to convey a sincere sense of excitement about Fuqua’s MBA program. According to the Fuqua admissions committee, “When you tell your best friend why you are applying to a specific school, you do so with genuine passion and enthusiasm. We want to hear that honest emotion, along with the reasoning that you give your best friend/mom/significant other/mentor about why you are applying not just to MBA programs, but to Fuqua.”

Keeping that in mind, one way for applicants to approach this essay might be to actually speak to family, friends, and colleagues about their interest in Fuqua, see which aspects of the school end up being discussed the most frequently in conversation, and then write their response based on those features. Candidates should remember, however, that they will ideally want to address not only what they would gain by attending Fuqua, but also how they envision themselves fitting into and contributing to the school community. Demonstrating an understanding of the unique merits of Fuqua’s program is crucial to an effective response to this question. Taking the time to learn about the school’s curriculum, special programs, and extracurricular activities – whether through a visit to campus, conversations with alumni, or reading the Clear Admit School Guide to Fuqua – will pay dividends here.

Essay 2.2: The Team Fuqua community is as unique as the individuals who comprise it. Underlying our individuality are a number of shared ideas and principles that we live out in our own ways. Our students have identified and defined 6 “Team Fuqua Principles” that we feel are the guiding philosophies that make our community special. At the end of your 2 years at Fuqua, if you were to receive an award for exemplifying one of the 6 Principles listed below, which one would it be and why? Your response should reflect the research you have done, your knowledge of Fuqua and the Daytime MBA program and experience, and the types of activities and leadership you would engage in as a Fuqua student.
(1) Authentic Engagement: We care and we take action. We each make a difference to Team Fuqua by being ourselves and engaging in and supporting activities about which we are passionate.
(2) Supportive Ambition: We support each other to achieve great things, because your success is my success. The success of each individual member of Team Fuqua makes the whole of Team Fuqua better.
(3) Collective Diversity: We embrace all of our classmates because our individuality is better and stronger together.
(4) Impactful Stewardship: We are leaders who focus on solutions to improve our communities both now and in the future. We aren’t satisfied with just maintaining the status quo.
(5) Loyal Community: We are a family who looks out for each other. Team Fuqua supports you when you need it the most.
(6) Uncompromising Integrity: We internalize and live the honor code in the classroom and beyond. We conduct ourselves with integrity within Fuqua, within Duke, and within all communities of which we are a part.
A new prompt for this year, this essay asks applicants to discuss the ways their behavior in the classroom and contribution to the Fuqua community will embody one of six student-identified values. In choosing which of these principles to discuss, applicants may want to think about the one with which they find the greatest resonance, and which may already be evident in their activities and accomplishments. Meanwhile, in responding to this prompt, applicants may even wish to demonstrate an existing commitment to the chosen principle by briefly introducing 1-2 past examples that illustrate their skills and potential to make a positive impact in line with the one of the values Fuqua lists here.

Of course, the majority of this response should center on the applicant’s planned activities and contribution as a Daytime MBA student. Given that the adcom explicitly states that this response should reflect the research one has done into Fuqua’s program, applicants will be expected to be fairly concrete in their comments about how they’ll embody the topic principle, to the point of discussing their behavior in the classroom and identifying specific student organizations in which they might take a leadership role. In order to speak convincingly about their ability to make a positive difference, applicants will likely need to have some sense of the areas of opportunity and need on campus, and so conversations with students and alumni (as well as other resources) will be helpful in producing the most effective essay possible.

Optional Essay: If you feel there are extenuating circumstances of which the Admissions Committee should be aware, please explain them in an optional essay (e.g. unexplained gaps in work, choice of recommenders, inconsistent or questionable academic performance, or any significant weakness in your application).
This is a fairly narrow prompt, and applicants should only use this optional essay to address liabilities in their candidacies. While the adcom allows responses of up to two pages, applicants should keep their responses as brief and direct as possible.

Reapplicant Essay: It is not uncommon for it to take more than one try to achieve a goal. Please share with us the self-reflection process that you underwent after last year’s application and how you have grown as a result. How did it shape your commitment to Fuqua and inspire your decision to reapply?
Responses should be no more than 2 pages, using 1.5 line spacing and a font size no smaller than 10-point.
Make sure you address any gaps in your application and that you show progress.
The wording of this prompt suggests that the adcom is looking for evidence of personal reflection as well as material progress in this response. Applicants should address ways that they’ve grown in the time since their prior Fuqua application, even addressing things that they might have changed about their previous mindset or approach. Of course, it will also be important to address ways that one is a stronger candidate this time around by outlining areas of accomplishments and professional development.

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UC Berkeley / Haas Essay Topic Analysis 2014-2015

Haas has again reduced its number of required essays, down from four last year to just three for this admissions season. While the total length of the essay set has also been trimmed, this reduction isn’t quite as pronounced, with the total word count down from 1,500 last year to 1,400 across this year’s three required responses. Indeed, the school appears to have replaced two of last year’s 250-word essays with a single 400-500 word prompt, meaning that applicants will have the opportunity to more fully develop their ideas about a single topic in this season’s application.

Let’s take a closer look at Berkeley’s MBA application prompts:

Essay 1: Describe an experience that has fundamentally changed the way you see the world. How did this transform you? (400-500 words)
A new question for this admissions season, this prompt centers on an applicant’s reflectiveness about his or her current worldview, and probes into the ability and willingness to re-evaluate his or her perspective based on new information or experience. The use of the words “fundamentally” and “transform” in this prompt suggest that the adcom is looking for something more significant and sweeping than a mere lesson about teamwork or a temporary setback. Instead, applicants will need to discuss a personal paradigm shift that truly altered their outlook or sense of meaning in a lasting way.

In order to deliver what the adcom is seeking with this response, applicants will need to think on the interactions, experiences, and cultural artifacts that have most influenced the way they see and approach the world. The internal process by which this change occurred will also be of interest to the reader. Effective essays will likely provide a “before and after” setup, describing the beliefs or assumptions held prior to the experience in question before discussing this event or encounter and the change it brought about. In addressing the second part of the prompt, applicants would likely do well to provide one or two concrete examples of how this shift manifests itself in their lives today, particularly as this relates to their personal and professional involvements.

Essay 2: What is your most significant professional accomplishment? (200-300 words)
This question is a slight variation on a prompt that’s appeared on the Haas application for the past several years, stipulating this season that the topic be drawn from the professional realm. Applicants will clearly want to select an impressive achievement to discuss – ideally one in which they had a positive impact on a client, team, colleague, or organization, as viewing these sorts of topics as significant may resonate more strongly with the adcom than promotions or other more insular successes. It will, of course, be important to comment not only on the accomplishment and its impact, but also on the thought process and actions involved in bringing it to fruition. This is a very tall order for a 250-word essay, so brevity will be key here.

Essay 3: What is your desired post-MBA role and at what company or organization? In your response, please specifically address sub-questions a., b., and c.
a. How is your background compelling to this company?
b. What is something you would do better for this company than any other employee?
c. Why is an MBA necessary and how will Haas specifically help you succeed at this company?
(500-600 word maximum for 3a, 3b, and 3c combined)
While many b-schools include essays about the applicant’s post-MBA plans, few request as much detail or are as focused on the viability of the applicant’s plans as this prompt. In addition to naming a job title and an organization where they hope to work upon graduating, applicants are asked to evaluate the employer’s likely level of interest in hiring them, as well as their competitive advantage over other applicants. Rather than simply speculating on these points, applicants would do well to speak with current employees or HR representatives at the firm that they name in this response in order to provide an informed response to sub-questions a and b. Applicants hoping to launch their own ventures directly out of the Haas MBA program may have a particularly tricky time navigating this prompt, though they should likely stay as true to the spirit of the question as possible, perhaps writing about how their background and skills uniquely position them to offer their planned product and service, and to lead a company around it.

Part c of this question is a bit more straightforward. After detailing their strengths in the first two sections, applicants should focus on the gaps between their current skill set and that needed to be effective in their target post-MBA role, and should explain how the Haas MBA will help to bridge the two. As the subject of the final question of this prompt suggests, demonstrating an understanding of the unique merits of Berkeley’s program is crucial to an effective response to this question. Taking the time to learn about the school’s curriculum, special programs and extracurricular activities – whether through a visit to campus, conversation with alumni or reading the Clear Admit School Guide to Haas – will pay dividends here.

Optional Essays
1.Please feel free to provide a statement concerning any information you would like to add to your application that you haven’t addressed elsewhere. (500 word maximum)
Applicants should exercise discretion when responding to this prompt, as providing an optional essay creates extra work for the admissions reader. This will be a good place to address extenuating circumstances that have influenced one’s academic or professional history, to address weaknesses in one’s application, or to explain an unusual choice of recommender. The wording of this question is open enough that applicants may also choose to discuss an element of their background that is not reflected in their other materials (including data forms and résumé), though they will need to demonstrate sound judgment in doing so – i.e. the nature of the content should be such that it makes a material difference to one’s application – and should summarize the information as concisely as possible.

2.If not clearly evident, please discuss ways in which you have demonstrated strong quantitative abilities, or plan to strengthen quantitative abilities. You do not need to list courses that appear on your transcript. (250 word maximum)
For applicants without a strong record of quantitative coursework or whose GMAT score falls below the adcom’s expectations, this essay provides an opportunity to discuss how they have and will continue to develop these skills at work and through further study.

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Michigan / Ross Essay Topic Analysis 2014-2015

In line with a broad trend toward brevity and simplicity of essay questions among the leading MBA programs, the required writing for this year’s Ross application is markedly briefer and more direct than last season’s set of prompts.  The school has chosen to eschew the fairly standard “career goals/why MBA” and “Describe a time when…” MBA essay formats for this application cycle, asking instead for the applicant to describe two points of pride, one personal and one professional.

In selecting topics for these two essays, applicants will therefore want to identify complementary examples – ones that showcase different skills, characteristics, and values – to provide as full a picture of themselves as possible between these two items.  It would also be beneficial to consider qualities that b-schools value in their students, for example collaboration and involvement in one’s larger community, to demonstrate a potential fit with and contribution to the Ross student body.

Let’s consider each of these prompts in a bit more detail.

Essay 1: What are you most proud of professionally and why? What did you learn from that experience? (400 words)
While narrowing the scope of potential topics to one’s full-time work experience, the framing of this prompt is otherwise quite broad.  The “what” of which one is most proud could be something fairly concrete, for example a successful project or a mentoring with a colleague, or something more abstract like obtaining autonomy quickly in a new job or taking a professional risk.  This response can therefore be used to showcase one’s impact on a team or one’s larger organization, or to highlight a change in professional trajectory or resilience in overcoming setbacks.  In choosing a topic, applicants may want to begin with their résumé, and to consider which aspects of their professional history would most benefit from elaboration or explanation, while also reflecting on the elements of that history of which they are truly most proud.

An effective response to this prompt will describe the accomplishment or situation in full, while also spending ample time addressing the reasons that the applicant is proud of the chosen topic and the lessons that he or she took away from the experience.  If these were lessons that you have applied in subsequent situations, that inform your plans to seek an MBA, or that you anticipate drawing on in your future career, it would certainly be worth mentioning this as well.

Essay 2: What are you most proud of personally and why? How does it shape who you are today? (400 words)
The “what” of this response is as broad as that of the first, while the “personally” qualifier opens the topic of this prompt to anything outside of the professional realm. Formal involvements outside of work are a logical starting point for consideration here, especially if you’ve taken a leadership role in a community organization or athletic team. Of course, applicants should also consider less tangible elements of their backgrounds that might be of interest to an admissions committee, for example being the first in one’s family to attend college or navigating a challenging coming-out process.

As with Essay 1, a full treatment of the “why” will be important to this response. Meanwhile, the second element of the prompt seems to suggest that the admissions committee is looking for applicants to address some lasting growth or transformation that occurred as a result of this experience. Therefore, in addition to considering your authentic responses to this question, you might also want to give particular consideration to those that posed a challenge or pushed you out of your comfort zone in order to most completely address this question.

Optional Essay: Is there anything not addressed elsewhere in the application that you would like the Admissions Committee to know about you to evaluate your candidacy? (300 words)
This is an appropriate place to address potential liabilities or anomalies in one’s application, for example, a sub-standard GMAT score or unusual choice of recommender. Given the relatively narrow scope of Ross’s essays for this season, it’s possible that there will be other elements of an applicant’s background that it would be appropriate to address here, though applicants should take care not to include content that is covered elsewhere in their data forms and essays.

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MIT / Sloan Essay Topic Analysis 2014-2015

With the release of Sloan’s 2014-2015 application essays last week, we thought we’d offer some commentary on this year’s set of questions. Sloan is again requiring that applicants respond to two required prompts, the second of which is new for this admissions season.

Of note, MIT’s topic selection guidelines continue to include a request that applicants draw on content from the past three years, reflecting a strong interest in recent activities and accomplishments.  Sloan also requests that applicants provide an account of what they thought, felt, said, and did in each of the situations they describe across both of their responses.  The philosophy behind Sloan’s approach is that past behavior is a reliable predictor of future behavior, so it will be wise to select examples that show you at your best.

Let’s take a closer look at each of this year’s MIT essays:

Essay 1: The mission of the MIT Sloan School of Management is to develop principled, innovative leaders who improve the world and generate ideas that advance management practice.  Discuss how you will contribute toward advancing the mission based on examples of past work and activities.  (500 words or fewer, limited to one page)
This topic directs applicants to illustrate their potential to advance the MIT Sloan mission, both during their time at the school and in their subsequent professional activities, by drawing on specific anecdotes from their past.  The Sloan admissions team has tended to steer clear of direct questions about an applicant’s career goals and reasons for choosing MIT; while a passing mention of these ideas might factor into an applicant’s comments about how he or she will “improve the world” or “advance management practice,” the primary focus of this response should be relating concrete examples of one’s past achievements and potential for future contributions to Sloan’s program. This essay question is open in terms of the nature of the examples an applicant can use—work, current activities, and even appropriate personal stories are fair game here.

Given the mission-oriented nature of this prompt, applicants would do well to showcase their “greatest hits” in terms of personal or professional successes, while carefully selecting topics that will allow them to touch on the impact they hope to make as professionals. In terms of time frame, there may be a little wiggle room in terms of selecting one stellar example that falls outside of the program’s “past three years” preference, but in general applicants should aim to keep to this guideline. It will be important for applicants to conduct a fair amount of research on the program in order to convince the adcom that their backgrounds are uniquely suited to advancing MIT Sloan’s mission.  Taking the time to learn about MIT’s curriculum, special programs and extracurricular activities—whether through a visit to campus, conversation with alumni or reading the Clear Admit School Guide to MIT Sloan—will pay dividends here.

Essay 2: Write a professional letter of recommendation on behalf of yourself.  Answer the following questions as if you were your most recent supervisor recommending yourself for admission to the MIT Sloan MBA Program: (750 words or fewer)

  • How long and in what capacity have you known the applicant?
  • How does the applicant stand out from others in a similar capacity?
  • Please give an example of the applicant’s impact on a person, group, or organization.
  • Please give a representative example of how the applicant interacts with other people.
  • Which of the applicant’s personal or professional characteristics would you change?
  • Please tell us anything else you think we should know about this applicant.

A new prompt for this admissions season, this essay calls on applicants to step into a supervisor’s shoes and imagine how this person might appraise their skills, accomplishments, and areas for growth. In composing this essay, the writer is asked to assume the perspective of the supervisor and to discuss his or her work in the third person. In addition to being an exercise in perspective-taking, this response calls on the applicant to consider his or her impact on others and on the organization, and to identify examples that illustrate his or her interpersonal approach and ability to create positive change. The added challenge of writing as your supervisor about what you thought and felt in these situations (in addition to what you said and did) will require careful attention to wording – and consideration of the inferences that someone else might make about your emotions and cognitions based on behavioral observations and knowledge of your personality.

Given Sloan’s interest in situational specifics, applicants will likely want to allocate a fair amount of space to the elements of the prompt that ask for illustrative examples, while still taking care to fully address the other elements of the essay. In particular, the item asking about a personal or professional characteristic that one’s supervisor would change will require honest reflection and a brief comment about how this habit or quality might serve as a barrier to interpersonal connection or optimal performance in the workplace (and ways that your “supervisor” believes you might be able to remedy this issue).

Beyond the considerations outlined above, this prompt will entail an additional logistical and strategic wrinkle for a subset of Sloan applicants. It’s no secret that many MBA candidates are put in the unfortunate position of drafting their own recommendations at their supervisors’ request, and this prompt would seem to be designed to counteract this phenomenon by sourcing a “writing sample” to compare to an applicant’s official recommendation responses. MIT aspirants therefore have an added incentive to push back on these sorts of requests and seek support from recommenders who are willing and able to generate their own recommendation content.

Optional Essay: The Admissions Committee invites you to share anything else you would like us to know about you, in any format. If you choose to use a multimedia format, please host the information on a website and provide us the URL.
As far as optional essay prompts go, this one is fairly inviting–with respect to both content as well as format. This prompt offers an opportunity to address elements of one’s application that require explanation (e.g. choice of recommender, a semester of poor undergraduate performance), and may also be an opportunity to share important information that isn’t captured elsewhere in one’s written materials. As always, applicants should use good judgment in determining the content and length of this response–remember that responding to an optional essay essentially creates more work for the admissions reader–keeping their comments and brief and possible and thinking carefully about whether responding to this prompt will really make a meaningful difference in their application.

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Wharton Essay Topic Analysis 2014-2015

Wharton recently released its application essay – singular – for the coming admissions season, and we wanted to weigh in with some guidance on how applicants might approach this unprecedentedly brief application. This response is very similar to the first of Wharton’s two essays from the 2013-2014 season, though now that the school has dropped its second prompt about engagement in the school’s learning community, responses to this year’s essay will need to do double duty in terms of discussing the applicant’s goals from and interest in the program.

Let’s take a closer look at this year’s prompt:

What do you hope to gain both personally and professionally from the Wharton MBA? (500 words)
A variation of the typical career goals essay, this question asks applicants to adopt a big-picture view of their aspirations, touching on their personal development as well as their professional goals.  Along with describing their immediate post-MBA career goals, applicants should explain their long-term career goals and the broad impact they hope to have on their industry, community, country or region.  In addition, applicants will need to touch upon how they hope to develop on a more personal level, in ways that may include improving their ability to motivate others or honing their understanding of other cultures.

At the same time, applicants should address how they see themselves contributing to Wharton’s community, both in and out of the classroom. The mere fact that the school has dropped the required essay on this topic doesn’t mean that the admissions committee isn’t interested in hearing about what the candidate will bring to the school. It will therefore be important to build some comments on this topic into the response, which will require that applicants be very thoughtful and as concise as possible as they formulate this response and allocate words to the various topics that need to be covered here.

Of course, to craft a truly compelling essay, applicants must also display a strong and specific understanding of how Wharton’s program would enable them to accomplish their goals.  Taking the time to learn about the school’s curriculum, special programs and extracurricular activities—whether by visiting campus, speaking with members of the community, or reading the Clear Admit Guide to Wharton—will pay dividends here.

Optional Essay: Please use the space below to highlight any additional information that you would like the Admissions Committee to know about your candidacy. (400 words)
While this prompt seems fairly inviting of additional content, applicants should be mindful that responding to this essay creates more reading for the admissions officer reviewing his or her file. It would therefore be wise to only share information that isn’t captured in your other written application materials (including data forms) and which you believe will make a meaningful difference in your application.

Reapplicant Essay: All reapplicants to Wharton are required to complete the Optional Essay. Explain how you have reflected on the previous decision about your application, and discuss any updates to your candidacy (e.g., changes in your professional life, additional coursework, extracurricular/volunteer engagements). You may also use this section to address any extenuating circumstances. (250 words)
This prompt appears to provide reapplicants with some guidance as to what they might address in the above optional essay, while allowing a bit of extra room for applicants to address the circumstances surrounding weaknesses in their candidacies. Reapplicants should note that Wharton asks about both material improvements in one’s application as well as the growth and reflection that has occurred after (or as a result of) previously being denied. Effective reapplicant essays will therefore address both of these angles in explaining how an applicant is “new and improved” this time around.

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Stanford GSB Essay Topic Analysis 2014-2015

Following up on Stanford’s announcement of its essay questions for the 2014-2015 admissions season, we wanted to offer some guidance on how GSB hopefuls might approach this task. Like many of its peer programs, Stanford has pared down its required writing this year, eliminating its third situation-focused “tell us about a time…” prompt and leaving two core questions. The program has provided suggested ranges for the length of each of these two items, and has stipulated that the combined word count not exceed 1,100 words. Candidates will therefore need to make judgments about how to strategically allocate content across these two responses.


Let’s take a closer look at each of this year’s questions:


Essay A: What matters most to you, and why? (suggested word count: 650-850 words)

This open-ended and somewhat philosophical question has been part of Stanford’s MBA application for upwards of ten years, reflecting a durable interest on the part of the adcom in the values and forces that drive its applicants’ decisions. Because it asks applicants to articulate something so profound and personal within the strategic context of an application, this prompt poses a challenging starting point for this set of essays.

If a topic doesn’t immediately spring to mind, a constructive approach might be to think about your experiences to date (including growing up, attending school, working, pursuing outside activities and general interests) and look for some unifying theme among some or all of them.  Because it’s always a good idea to introduce specific details and anecdotes to really tie the general ideas expressed in your essays to the key elements of your candidacy, it would be wise to select a topic that not only gives the adcom a sense of your values and priorities, but also allows to you discuss some of the ways you have translated these into action.  Stanford’s pointers on this essay also reflect an interest in the developmental process behind the worldview reflected in this essay, so an opening commentary on formative experiences will likely be important in fully addressing the prompt. Needless to say, this is one of the more challenging essays in the business school application world, so feel free to reach out to Clear Admit if you seek tailored guidance vis-à-vis your candidacy.

MBA candidates should also reflect on the following tips for this essay that were shared by the Stanford GSB’s admissions team, which states that a strong response will:

Focus on the “why” rather than the “what.”

Reflect the self-examination process you used to write your response.

Genuinely illustrate who you are and how you came to be the person you are.

Share the insights, experiences, and lessons that shaped your perspectives, rather than focusing merely on what you’ve done or accomplished.

Be written from the heart, and illustrate how a person, situation, or event has influenced you.


Essay B: Why Stanford? (suggested word count: 250-450 words)

Perhaps the most concise formulation of this sort of prompt among the leading programs, this essay focuses on the candidate’s career goals and the reasons for his or her particular interest in Stanford.  Like Essay A, this question is framed rather openly, and so and applicants may want to consider keeping their comments fairly high-level rather than sketching out specific short- and long-term goals, focusing instead on the broad impact they hope to make on a group, service, or sector through their career plans. Logically, this response should likely connect with the connect of Essay A in some logical way; i.e. the thing that matters most to an applicant would presumably be compatible with the focus of his or her professional goals and/or reasons for choosing to apply to Stanford.


No matter how broadly you decide to formulate your goals, it will be important to provide a detailed discussion of the ways an MBA, and specifically an MBA from Stanford, is necessary to achieve these aims, as well as the potential contribution you could make to the program. The relatively narrow word count will require that applicants be judicious in their ‘why Stanford’ remarks, honing in on the courses and extracurricular offerings that are most clearly connected to their post-MBA plans. Taking the time to learn about the school’s curriculum, special programs and extracurricular activities – whether through a visit to campus, conversation with alumni or reading the Clear Admit School Guide to Stanford – will therefore pay dividends here.

As with Essay 1, Stanford also offers its own picture of a strong response to Essay 2, which applicants will want to keep in mind when responding to the prompt:

Explain your decision to pursue graduate education in management.

Explain the distinctive opportunities you will pursue at Stanford.



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