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Essay Topic Analysis

Free, expert analysis of business school application essay topics.

Oxford / Saïd Essay Topic Analysis 2014-2015

Continuing our series of essay topic analyses, we’re now turning our attention to Oxford’s Saïd Business School’s 2014-2015 MBA essays. Bucking the larger trend of different and fewer required essays that we’ve observed this summer, Saïd’s essays remained unchanged between this year and last, with the program again requiring that applicants provide three essays of 500 words each. Oxford’s questions reflect an ongoing interest in learning about applicants’ expected contributions to the school, their career goals, and their reasons for applying to Oxford. The third essay, meanwhile, provides applicants with the opportunity to showcase their ability to make a compelling argument about the business world in general.

Essay 1: What should Oxford expect from you? (500 words)
Appearing on Oxford’s application for the third year in a row, this question gives applicants the chance to show the SBS adcom that they have done their research and know the ways in which they can make a positive contribution to the Oxford MBA program. Before approaching this essay, we suggest that applicants take some time to think about their strengths and the unique aspects of their backgrounds and personalities that would inform their contributions to SBS. In addition, having a strong grasp of Oxford’s academic offerings, clubs, special programs and extracurricular offerings will allow a candidate to draw conclusions about the circumstances under which he or she would display certain strengths and characteristics. 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 Oxford – will pay dividends here.

Essay 2: How do you hope to see your career developing over the next 5 years? How will the MBA and Oxford assist you in the development of these ambitions? (500 words)
This prompt requests a fairly standard career goals essay, and thus the general advice we’ve offered in the past on how to tackle this sort of question applies here. The Oxford adcom looks for applicants who offer fully defined long- and short-term career goals, sound reasons for pursuing an MBA at this time, a well-informed rationale for their interest in SBS and specific plans to contribute to the campus community if they are admitted. Note that Oxford specifically asks applicants to discuss their five-year career plans; while it is certainly fine to explore longer-term objectives as well, it is at minimum essential to explore one’s next five years in depth.

The key to successfully tackling each of these components is specificity. In presenting their goals and explaining their motivation for seeking an MBA, it is crucial for applicants to present well-defined and feasible short-term and long-term career objectives, specifying the job title they hope to hold in their target industry and commenting on what they hope to accomplish in their target positions. Though not called for directly in the essay prompt, in most situations a career goals essay is more compelling when it includes a brief but coherent career history that summarizes the applicant’s work to date, revealing the continuity between one’s previous professional experiences and goals for the future.

Essay 3: Please choose and answer one of the two essays below:
- Sport is pure competition. What does it teach us about companies, individuals, and markets? (500 words maximum)
- The business of business is business. Is this true? (500 words)

Appearing on Oxford’s application for a second consecutive year, Essay 3 is one of the more unusual business school essays out there. While the open-ended nature of both options may initially appear intimidating, applicants should keep in mind that they are being assessed not on the actual answers they give, but rather on their ability to make a cohesive argument.

In the first option, applicants are asked to explain what business lessons can be extracted from the competitive nature of athletics. A variety of answers could apply here, such as the importance of adjusting to one’s competitors, drawing lessons learned in a team environment, staying aware of new trends in equipment and strategy, or learning from failure. Regardless of the direction applicants choose here, the key to crafting an effective response will be to not just state one’s answer, but to also provide compelling examples – either from one’s own experiences or from the realm of professional sports – that support one’s argument.

The second option, while perhaps enigmatically phrased, asks applicants to discuss whether businesses have inherent responsibilities (be they ethical, environmental, social, etc.) beyond commercial success. Again, it is important to remember that the adcom is less concerned with the answer a candidate gives than they are with his or her ability to choose a stance and convincingly argue a point. As with the first option, the most effective responses will illustrate one’s stance using concrete examples.

Reapplicant Essay: What improvements have you made in your candidacy since you last applied to the Oxford MBA? (250 words)
This straightforward prompt is asking about material improvements in the applicant’s candidacy since their last application. Given the narrow word limit, applicants should focus on detailing the steps they’ve taken to enhance their work experience, improve their level of involvement outside of work, and remedy areas of academic concern.

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Indian School of Business Essay Topic Analysis 2014-2015

Today we’ll take a look at the Indian School of Business’s MBA essays for 2014-2015 and offer some thoughts about how applicants might approach this set of responses.

With the exception of the fourth and optional essay, each of these prompts is new for this admissions season. Whereas last year’s essays focused on applicants’ appreciation of the ISB program and potential to contribute to the community, this season’s prompts reflect a broader focus on what candidates have learned from their past experience, as well as their broader skills in critical thinking, persuasive writing, and self-awareness.

Let’s look at each of ISB’s prompts in more detail:

Essay 1: Innovation or doing things differently it is said is a key to future success. Could you substantiate or negate this idea based on your experience. Please provide examples from your own experience – either examples of your own innovation or examples of others whom you have worked with. (300 words)
This prompt calls on applicants to take a pro- or anti-innovation stance, and to explain their position using examples from their own personal or professional experience. While it’s a bit difficult for us to imagine a candidate arguing against innovation or change, the very fact that ISB is asking the question suggests that they’re open to either position, so long as the response is clearly written and well reasoned. Applicants will therefore want to reflect on salient examples from their own experience, and ideally select one in which they had an active role. For example, if taking the con position, it will likely be more effective to describe a situation in which one lobbied against a risky change—or even took a risk that didn’t pay off—rather than describing someone else’s failure of innovation that one observed from the sidelines. While the form of the response is important, this is also an opportunity to illustrate one’s skills and insight in the chosen example.

Essay 2: Applying to and enrolling in a Business School is an important career decision. Critically look at your career to date, the choices you have made, the key influences behind those choices, your goals for the future and how you expect to benefit from the ISB experience in achieving your goals. (300 words)
A career goals essay with a reflective twist, this prompts asks applicants to comment on the factors that have informed their major career choices to date, to detail their professional goals, and to comment on the ways that an MBA from ISB will support them in these future endeavors. With only 300 words to work with, applicants will need to be fairly efficient in covering each of these topics, with a focus on ISB-specific courses, programming, and student organizations in the latter section (consider consulting with students and alumni, visiting the school’s campus, or perusing the Clear Admit School Guide to the Indian School of Business for ideas here).

Essay 3: One of the following (200 words)
A) This experience completely changed my way of thinking. OR
B) An instance when you went out of the ordinary to achieve something significant, but in hind sight feel you could have done better. OR
C) Tell us about your role in a team that made a significant contribution to the organization OR
D) Contribution to peer learning and engagement with the ISB student body are important aspects of the ISB experience. What contribution do you expect to make in this direction during the one year at ISB.

ISB offers applicants four rather different options for the 200-word response, and it’s particularly unusual to see a response about one’s potential contribution to a program (often a topic of keen interest to admissions committees) lumped in with several other more situational options. Applicants will therefore need to consider which of these prompts will give them the opportunity to showcase the quality that they consider most valuable to their candidacy, whether this is their openness to changing their thinking, their ability to learn from non-optimal past performance, their capacity to work with others to accomplish an impactful goal, or their plans to make a difference on their colleagues as a student at ISB. Again, given that ISB is offering options for this response, there’s no “correct” choice of prompt. Given the narrow word count, effective responses will be focused and direct, and will demonstrate self-awareness, critical thinking, interpersonal skills and/or potential to draw on their experiences for the benefit of others.

Optional Essay: Please provide additional information, if any, that will significantly affect the consideration of your application to the ISB. (200 words)
Applicants should think carefully before utilizing a school’s optional essay prompt. Candidates with extenuating circumstances, such as a gap in work experience or lower than average GPA or GMAT scores, would do well to address those here. However, applicants with atypical aspects to their candidacy might take this chance to explore important elements of their profile not mentioned in their data forms, résumé, or other responses. The fact that this prompt is such a broad one allows candidates a high degree of freedom in wrapping up their essays with information that cannot be conveyed elsewhere in their applications.

Re-applicant Essay: How has your profile changed from the time you last applied to the ISB? (300 words)
This response provides an opportunity for candidates to outline developments in their work experience and improvements in other areas of their applications since previously applying.

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Georgetown / McDonough Essay Topic Analysis 2014-2015

Today we’ll be turning our attention to Georgetown / McDonough’s MBA application essay for 2014-2015. Like so many of its peer schools, Georgetown has reduced its number of required essays between this year and last, dropping from three essay responses last season to just one for Class of 2017 admissions. Moreover, McDonough has dramatically shortened the essay prompt itself, asking a mere two-word question of MBA applicants. This represents a fairly significant reduction in the opportunity that candidates are afforded to share information about their candidacies, and will require that applicants be fairly judicious about what the write about and at what length.

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

Essay 1: Why You? (Hint: we are looking for an answer that cannot be found from research on our website; 750 words)
This terse prompt can most likely be taken to imply the expanded question “Why [should we admit] you [to our program over other interesting and well qualified applicants]?” Once unpacked, the reads like a fairly straightforward question about the applicant’s interest in, knowledge about, and potential to contribute to the MBA community. In addressing this prompt, candidates will likely want to introduce their reasons for applying, touching on their post-MBA plans and reasons for applying to Georgetown in their pursuit. The bulk of the essay, however, should likely be spent explaining what the applicant has learned about the program and its culture, how he or she believes this fits with his or her background and personality, and what impact he or she expects to make as a student.

The hint that accompanies this essay indicates that McDonough is particularly interested in applicants who have gone beyond the website and made an effort to learn about the program by visiting the campus or through direct contact with students, alumni, and even faculty. Demonstrating this level of knowledge will therefore be important to an effective response. Of course, another way to interpret the hint would be read it as an expression of the adcom’s interest in learning about the applicant’s experiences and personal qualities rather than having a list of courses and clubs recited to them. Given this ambiguity, the optimal strategy may lie in a combination of these two interpretations, balancing information about oneself with content about the reasons one feels a fit with the McDonough program.

Optional Essay 1: If you are not currently employed full-time, use this space to provide information about your current activities. (250 words)
This is a straightforward request for information from a sub-set of applicants, and should only be answered by applicants who aren’t working full-time.

Optional Essay 2: Please provide any information you would like to add to your application that you have not otherwise included. (500 words)
This will be an appropriate place for applicants to address potential concerns with or liabilities in their candidacies, to explain unusual recommenders or gaps in employment, or to comment on extenuating circumstances that affected past performance. Given the length and wording of this prompt, this response may also be an appropriate place to share more general information that wasn’t covered in Essay 1, though candidates should exercise good judgment in determining whether this additional response will add materially to their candidacy and justify the additional time required for the admissions officer to read it.

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Cambridge / Judge Essay Topic Analysis 2014-2015

Following up on the release of Judge’s MBA essays for 2014-2015, we wanted to provide some guidance for applicants targeting Cambridge this admissions season.

In keeping with the trend of fewer and shorter essays we’ve been seeing this year, Cambridge has dropped its number of required responses from three to just two for Class of 2017 applicants, striking last year’s prompt about how the applicant would change about his or her current organization if given the chance, while its other two responses remain unchanged.

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

Essay 1: What did you learn from your most spectacular failure? (200 words)
While the topic of failure is a common one when it comes to MBA applications, the very tight word limit of this response makes this a relatively unusual task. With only 200 words to work with, applicants will need to summarize the failure itself in a very high-level manner, devoting the majority of the response to a treatment of the lessons they learned from the experience and perhaps a mention of the sorts of situations to which this learning has subsequently proven applicable.

The “spectacular” scope of the question adds a further layer of complexity, as applicants should aim to discuss lessons that will be relevant to future experiences on the Judge campus and in their future careers. Failures from the personal realm are technically fair game here, but candidates will likely want to give first consideration to professional or academic examples, or to those from structured extracurricular activities.

Essay 2: What are your short and long term career objectives? What skills/characteristics do you already have that will help you to achieve them? What do you hope to gain from the degree and how do you feel it will help you achieve the career objectives you have? (500 words)
For another year running, Cambridge includes a fairly standard career goals essay of the sort featured in many MBA programs’ applications. Applicants are asked to outline their immediate post-MBA professional objectives, as well as their longer-term plans. As is also typical, Judge asks applicants to explain what they hope to gain from its MBA program, and to link the skills and knowledge they’ll acquire during this year of study to their ability to achieve these goals. Meanwhile, the explicit request that applicants inventory the existing skills and characteristics that will help them along their chosen paths is a somewhat unusual one, so candidates will need to reflect on their qualifications and take care in addressing this element of the prompt.

As is the case with most schools, demonstrating an understanding of the unique merits of Judge’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 Judge—will pay dividends here.

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Cornell / Johnson Essay Topics Analysis 2014-2015

Today we’ll be offering some comments on Cornell/Johnson’s MBA application essays for 2014-2015.

Johnson has moved from word counts to character limits this season; each of the school’s essay items are limited to 2,000 characters including spaces, which works out to between 250 and 300 words. This marks a reduction in the length of the school’s essays for this season, down from a total of 750 words across two essays last season a maximum of 600 this year. The program has retained its Table of Contents prompt for another year, and has narrowed the scope of its second response to a fairly focused inquiry about the applicant’s immediate post-MBA plans.

Let’s take a closer look at each essay-section prompt:

Creative Submission: You are the author for the book of Your Life Story. In 2000 characters or less, please write the table of contents for the book in the space provided or upload it as an attachment. Note: approach this essay with your unique style. We value creativity and authenticity.
This unusual prompt calls for a high-level and non-narrative overview of an applicant’s life to date. Internalizing the “Note” for this essay, applicants should understand that while the structure for this essay is set, there’s still a good deal of room for strategy and creativity: candidates are free to decide which eras or events to highlight, how to title each chapter, and so on. Though relying on a list format might be a viable approach, candidates will likely get more mileage out of this essay by structuring information in sentences or a series of sub-sections under broad chapter headings, offering a description of that “chapter” in your life and drawing out the important themes of the story. Regardless of the format you choose, make sure that it allows you to provide an authentic representation of yourself. Moreover, with the 2000 character limit for this essay, applicants should ensure their writing is succinct so that they can convey all of their points in this limited space.

As for the content itself, the admissions committee is likely looking for a sense of each candidate’s background, as well as his or her trajectory and growth over time. Touch on those events and accomplishments that are most meaningful and important to you, highlighting the ones that have shaped your personal development. Remember, though, that this is a b-school application, so you will also want to share information that is relevant to your current work and your future objectives without too much repetition of points raised in your other essays. While applicants have a bit of room to discuss their work history in the second of the school’s prompts, candidates may also want to touch on their professional trajectories here. That said, dedicating the entirety of the table of contents to professional pursuits may not be advantageous or allow candidates to provide well-rounded pictures of who they are. Overall, you want to make sure to highlight the unique aspects of your personality and candidacy, as doing so will allow you to stand out from others in the applicant pool.

Targeted Job Type: What is the job that you would like to have immediately upon graduating with your MBA? (2000 characters)
While this prompt centers on the applicant’s immediate post-MBA plans—candidates will of course want to provide a function or job title, as well as their target industry and perhaps one or two target organizations—with 250-300 words to work with, there’s also room to briefly touch on the bigger picture. Applicants might comment on their long term goals, as well as the ways their work experience to date has influenced, and prepared them for, these objectives. Space permitting, applicants may also want to comment on a few specific elements of Johnson’s MBA program that would help to position them for success in their first job after graduation (conversations with current students and alumni, visits to campus, and Clear Admit’s School Guide to the Johnson Graduate School of Management are all viable sources of information on this point). With a number of potential topics to cover in so few words, applicants will want to be judicious about what they include here, making sure that they completely address the primary question before expanding into other subjects.

Post-Collegiate Activities: List community activities (clubs, church, civic, etc.) and professional associations you contributed to since graduation from college. Please include the organization name, your role, hours dedicated, elected offices held, and dates of participation (2000 characters).
While applicants will have the same text field for this response as for the above essays, a simple list format that clearly includes all of the requested information will likely work best here. There aren’t instructions about the order in which to include entries in this sections, so applicants may opt for chronological or priority-based orderings.

Collegiate Activities and Employment: List your extracurricular activities while in college in order of importance to you. You may include details about your positions and the time commitment, honors or awards received, and dates of participation. The list may also include part-time and summer employment held while in college. Please list your employer, job title, responsibilities, hours per week, and the dates for each position (2000 character limit).
Similarly to the above prompt, a list format clearly providing the requested information will be the most efficient way to convey this information.

Hobbies and Activities: Please describe any hobbies or activities that hold special significance for you (2000 characters).
Applicants might choose to compose an essay in this space, or to adopt a list-style format with a short entry about each activity and the reason one considers it significant. Important milestones or accomplishments related to these hobbies or activities might also be included here.

Optional Essay: Complete this essay if you would like to add additional details regarding your candidacy. For instance, if you believe one or more aspects of your application (e.g., undergraduate record or test scores) do not accurately reflect your potential for success at the Johnson School. (2000 characters)
This space will likely be best used to address liabilities or potential issues in one’s application rather than providing additional information about one’s background.

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UT Austin / McCombs Essay Topic Analysis 2014-2015

Today we’ll be offering some pointers on UT Austin McCombs’s 2014-2015 application essays.

While McCombs has reduced the number of required essays for this admissions season – down from three prompts last year to just two this cycle – the changes aren’t quite as drastic as we’ve seen with some other programs. The school has retained its creative introduction essay that it introduced last year, and appears to have combined two of last year’s 250-word prompts, one about fit with McCombs and another about what the applicant sought from the UT Austin MBA, into a single 500-word response for this year. These prompts seem to reflect a continued interest in the qualities that an applicant would bring to his or her classmates and the larger McCombs community, as well as his or her reasons for seeking an MBA from this particular program.

Let’s take a closer look at each of McComb’s essays:

Essay 1: Imagine that you are at the Texas MBA Orientation for the Class of 2017. Please introduce yourself to your new classmates, and include any personal and/or professional aspects that you believe to be significant. Select only one communication method that you would like to use for your response.
• Write an essay (250 words)
• Share a video introduction (one minute)
• Share your profile

Appearing on the McCombs MBA application for a second year in a row, this prompt affords applicants two new media options to go beyond the traditional written essay. No matter which of these three is the best fit with your background, there are a few themes to keep in mind as you plot out your approach. This essay looks to see how applicants present themselves to their peers, requiring applicants to reflect carefully on the aspects of their backgrounds that would be most interesting and valuable to their future classmates. While a brief mention of your professional background and career goals may be appropriate, we also encourage applicants to use this opportunity to showcase elements of their personalities and candidacies that they will not have the chance to address in their responses to the other application essay. Perhaps you have a particularly interesting work or extracurricular experience to share, or a personal accomplishment or aspect of your heritage of which you’re especially proud. If any of these lend themselves to a video presentation, you could consider how to visually convey more personal information in addition to any script you may draft. The 250-word limit does give applicants some flexibility for describing a range of qualities and characteristics in order to demonstrate the well-rounded nature of their candidacies, while applicants with a robust (and admissions-appropriate) social media presence might opt to synthesize text and visuals in an profile.

Essay 2: In the Texas MBA program, we promote a diverse and collaborative community by providing opportunities for growth in an academically rigorous environment. Please discuss why McCombs is the right program for you, what you hope to gain from your time in the Texas MBA Program both personally and professionally, and how you will contribute to your classmates’ experiences. (500 words)
Rather than asking about these topics in isolated essays as they did last season, the adcom has combined the “why MBA” and “fit with McCombs” topics into a single prompt this year, giving applicants a bit more freedom in structuring their responses and allocating words among these subjects (that said, last year’s structure may provide a cue that applicants should aim to devote roughly equal parts of the essay to each topic). Applicants will naturally want to discuss their professional goals and the ways the McCombs MBA would position them for success, as well as the more personal growth they hope to experience and soft skills they wish to gain during their time on campus.

At the same time, they’ll also want to be clear about how they would enhance the experience of their fellow students, whether through in-class participation, leadership of a student organization, or other avenues. Throughout, it will be important to demonstrate one’s fit with and knowledge of the McCombs program and school community, going into some detail about specific classes and clubs that are appealing. Taking the time to learn about the school’s special programs and extracurricular activities – whether through a visit to campus, conversation with alumni or reading the Clear Admit School Guide to McCombs School of Business – will pay dividends here.

Optional Essay: Please provide any additional information to the Admissions Committee that you believe is important and/or will address any areas of concern that will be beneficial to the Admissions Committee in considering your application. (200 words)
This essay will be best used to address liabilities in one’s application rather than to provide “bonus” information to the adcom. Candidates with questionable quantitative records, gaps in employment, or unusual recommenders should take advantage of this opportunity to offer explanations or outline plans to address potential issues.

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Northwestern / Kellogg Essay Topic Analysis 2014-2015

Following up on the announcement of the Kellogg essay questions for 2014-15, 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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