How to Write MBA Application Essays

Learn about some of the do's and don'ts of essays straight from the people who are going to read them

You've heard them all: “Why do you want to do an MBA?” Or, “explain your greatest weakness.” Application essay topics may seem somewhat banal, but they're actually extremely important in the MBA application process. This is where business schools learn about who you are.

“We find that they're integral to us finding out more about the applicants,” says Lucy Reynolds, an admissions officer at the University of Strathclyde Business School.

According to Andrew Lord, the senior director of admissions at the University of Florida's Warrington College of Business Administration, although GMAT scores, work experience, and undergraduate GPA are all extremely important, the essays are where you can let your personality shine through.

“You want to see well-roundedness in somebody,” says Lord, “so that they're not just academic- or career-focused. Do they play music? Are they involved in sports? Do they like to have fun outside of a very busy life?”

Why this school?

The essays can come in a variety of different forms, depending on the school. Many ask why an applicant wants to do an MBA, and why at that particular school. In general, admissions committees do understand that applicants might be applying to multiple schools, but that's no excuse for making easily-correctable mistakes.

“A funny thing is whenever somebody uses the wrong university in their essay question,” says Lord.

You should make sure you adapt your essays to specific schools, rather than sending one generic essay.

“We know that students are applying to other programs, says Strathclyde's Lucy Reynolds, “but you have to show some commitment to our course.”

This can mean doing some research to understand the culture of the business school you're applying to. Newton Campos, the director of admissions for blended programs at Spain's IE Business School, says that IE values some fairly specific traits in applicants, including international experience, social consciousness, and humility. So, if an applicant appears over-confident in an essay, this can be a major turn-off.

“Perhaps in some schools, this is positive,” says Campos, “but in our case, since we are so low-profile, it can be a bad thing.”

Tweet this essay

Beyond the basics, some business schools are beginning to ask students to answer more specific questions, and sometimes, they can be answered in unique forms. For example, one of the University of Florida's MBA essays asks potential students to explain what makes them different from other candidates, in 125 characters.

“It really comes across as a Tweet,” Andrew Lord says.

The Twitter-like application essay format is also being adopted by other schools. Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business and Arizona State's Carey School of Business also have MBA essay questions that must be answered in a Tweet-like length of 140 characters or less.

Acing the MBA Admissions Essay

Other schools use unconventional questions to get applicants to reveal more about who they are. UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, for example, asks applicants to “choose a song that expresses you.” And Stanford Graduate School of Business' MBA application asks “what matters most to you, and why?” to get at applicants' values and life experiences.

Not playing it safe

Two years ago, IE Business School completely reformulated the admissions essay section of its MBA applications. In the past, students had to answer three fairly standard essays; but now, they can choose three from a list of over a dozen questions. In the current form, only one answer has to be written; for the other two, an applicant can choose to respond in a variety of different forms. They “can answer it by singing, or playing an instrument, or making a video, or making audio, or making a sculpture, or dancing,” among others, says Newton Campos.

Campos says that IE is seeing an increasing number of students who use video in lieu of written essays, and some have even responded by dancing. Although dancing a response may seem a bit out there, if it's done right, it can have more impact.

“It brings in a different angle,” Campos says. “It definitely helps us to understand the candidate better, compared to three texts.”

Likewise, Florida's Andrew Lord says that he prefers application essays that don't always play it safe. “I've been an admissions director for about ten years now,” he says, “ and those are the ones that always stand out in my mind: the ones that are entertaining, or take risks.”

“You want to be able to identify personality with these.”

“Let it all hang out”

Effective application essays can make a difference for a candidate who has other issues with his or her profile. According to Lucy Reynolds, Strathclyde has had some “really bright applicants that have come through with just the minimum level of work experience, but demonstrate through their essays and through their interviews that they're very keen to progress their career.”

“That can make the difference,” she adds.

The University of Florida's Andrew Lord would agree.

“If you're right on the fence with your GMAT or work experience, this is definitely your opportunity to take advantage of essays, and let it all hang out.”

A few tips

Grammar and spelling: For international applicants, admissions committees will often be somewhat flexible when it comes to an essay's level of written English. For qualified candidates with imperfect English, admissions staff might suggest taking classes before school starts.

“We'll go back to the applicant and discuss any issues we might have with their language ability,” says Strathclyde's Lucy Reynolds.

Native English speakers usually have less leeway.

Plagiarism: Admissions staff have ways of detecting whether you've copied your essays from somebody else or from the internet, so don't even think about doing it.

Length: Try to stick to what the business school recommends. If they're expecting a one-page essay and you give them ten pages, this will probably be an issue.

Optional essays: These are where you can explain negative parts of your application, like a poor undergraduate GPA, or give perspective about your life through a personal story.

Keep it simple: Think about structure, and plan to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. According to IE's Newton Campos, “a lot of people get lost trying to communicate too many things at once in an essay.”

Photo: M. Filtz 

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