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Thursday, May 25, 2017 at 1pm

5 MBA Admissions Essay Question Types and How to Tackle Them

Navigate MBA essay questions used by top business schools with detailed advice from guest blogger, Avi Gordon

MBA admissions committees change up their question sets almost every year, not least to discourage plagiarism of past essays, but behind the different ‘skins’ they are routinely asking the same questions they have always asked applicants. Here are five common MBA essay types and some pointers for how to address them:  


MBA essay type 1: Career past and future; why an MBA?

Example: Pursuing an MBA is a catalyst for personal and professional growth. How have you grown in the past? How do you intend to grow at Kellogg? (Kellogg-Northwestern)  

Recognition keywords: Past, present, future, career, goal, progress, plan, aspiration, choices, ambition, decision, position, objective, intention, aim, purpose, life, short term, long term. 

You need to shape your ‘why an MBA’ answer carefully according to whether the question asks more about your past: “What has led you to want an MBA?” or about your future: “What will you do when you graduate? How will an MBA help you?” Note that there are, potentially, five parts to the question, covering three time periods:

  • Past - what experiences have led you to this point and this ambition?
  • Present - why an MBA now, at this point in your career?
  • Future - what do you want to do with your degree, in the short and long term?
  • Why an MBA at all? (Why not another kind of master’s, or a PhD?)
  • Why an MBA from this school particularly?

The ‘why an MBA’ question asks how your past connects to your future via business school. You need to show how the MBA is the bridge between your yesterday and your tomorrow. Past, present and future can be presented in any order, but you must paint a picture of a future that rests naturally on what you have done before, plus the MBA from the school to which you are applying.

MBA essay type 2: Weaknesses and failure

Example: What did you learn from your most spectacular failure? (Judge-Cambridge

Recognition keywords: Failure, weakness, learning, unsuccessful, fall short, fault, limitation, criticism, shortcoming, adversity, feedback, go wrong, mistake, weak spot.

To succeed with this question, understand that this type of MBA essay is not set to see if you have weaknesses or have failed. Everyone has weaknesses and has failed. What is in doubt is how you responded, what insight into yourself you gained and how you grew from there. What they are testing, above all, is whether you have the self-insight to locate and admit to your mess-up, and the seniority to talk maturely about it.

The MBA admissions committee wants to know if you seek to understand your own flaws, and can discuss them candidly and work on them, or if you will try to hide them and/or blame circumstances or other people – markers of immaturity and poor managers-to-be. The committee (and your future bosses, partners and employees) will generally forgive the mistakes you make, if you are big enough to take responsibility and if you learn rapidly from them.

MBA essay type 3: Leadership 

Example: Tell us about your most meaningful leadership experience and what role you played. How will that experience contribute to the learning environment at Tuck? (Tuck-Dartmouth)

Recognition keywords: Lead, motivate, initiative, impact, guide, direct, direction, responsibility, decision, inspire, encourage, power, influence, run, organize, mentor, motivate.

Leadership (and teamwork) will be a guiding theme in every application you do. MBA admissions committees question you in this area to find out not only whether you’ve got ‘the right stuff’ for leadership, but also to determine your understanding of and attitude to leadership and how you work with people. Part of having the right stuff is knowing what that is. Just having experience in a leadership position doesn’t necessarily mean you were good at it. You have to show them you understand what good is.

You also need to demonstrate an explicit understanding of your own personal leadership style – how you influence, motivate, sanction, inspire others to achieve, and so on - and the preferences that underpin your approach. In all leadership analysis, you should show respect for the difficulties of leadership. If you think leadership is easy, you have never really led.

MBA essay type 4: Uniqueness and diversity

Example: With your background and professional experience, what unique values can you bring in to enrich the learning experience at HKUST MBA? (HKUST)

Recognition keywords: Contribute, diversity, experience, knowledge, range, skill, enrich, talent, expertise, impact, proficiency, background, distinctive, attributes, variety, enhance, develop, unique.

Here, the admissions committee wants to know what in your background, ability, experience or training sets you apart and will be uniquely valuable to your cohort and the program in general. While other essays are designed to see if you fit the MBA mold, the test here is whether you can separate yourself from the crowd. 

Put it this way; in various other essays and parts of the application, candidates provide reasons for an MBA admissions committee not to reject them – covering all the bases, fitting in with necessary criteria. But doing this doesn’t give the committee a compelling, positive reason to admit you. In this type of MBA essay, they look for a reason to say ‘yes’.  

MBA essay type 5: Ethics and values

Example: Describe the situation with the greatest ethical complexity that you have faced in your professional or academic life, and how your input helped resolve it. (IE)

Recognition keywords: Ethics, values, principles, standards, ideals, code of conduct, beliefs, philosophy, personal guidelines, integrity, dilemma, decision, challenge.

Values are in. After Enron, the credit crunch, the Panama Papers and the ongoing litany of serious breaches of public faith by business leaders, business ethics is in the spotlight. Business schools have taken heavy criticism for turning out morally dubious, self-enriching managers. MBA admissions teams are under pressure to pick a better kind of person.

The tricky thing about the ethics-orientated MBA essay is that everyone knows what good values are and everyone claims embodiment of them. And yet, the world is full of scheming scoundrels. So, writing a nice essay where you shake your head and tut-tut at business and personal immorality, bid-rigging, claims-cheating, document falsifications, payoffs, etc., while assuring the reader of your absolute allegiance to fair play, good governance, and honest dealings is, please understand, absolutely worthless to your admissions prospects. Talk is cheap.  


But, you will impress if you can demonstrate some thinking towards your own, unique set of values and show hard evidence of your commitment to values in the face of temptation and self-interest.

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Avi Gordon is director of The MBA Admissions Studio and author of ‘MBA Admissions Strategy: From Profile Building to Essay Writing’, Open University Press, McGraw-Hill Education.

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