Every school you apply to will ask you a series of essay questions. Although the questions differ from application to application, we studied the essay questions from prior years and identified eight question types that appear again and again.
After introducing eight different categories of MBA essay questions, we will go through each of these question types and provide a few examples of how the questions might be worded – drawn from successful MBA applications. Then, we’ll go through each question and give you some tips for scoring top marks with your answers.
The Eight Most Frequently Asked MBA Essay Questions can be classified into the following categories:
- Career Story
- Career Goals
- “Why Our School?”
- “What Will You Contribute?”
- Past Decisions
- Negative Experiences
We have talked about the importance of demonstrating your leadership strengths and potential throughout this website. Leadership essays are your absolute best opportunity to communicate the central elements of the Leadership Portfolio that you assembled in the Discover Your Leadership Capabilities unit.
Admissions officers are going to be very interested in your leadership achievements both inside and outside of work. You won’t be asked directly “Are you a leader?” Instead, you’ll be asked to share stories about your leadership achievements. Typical questions include:
- Discuss a defining experience in your leadership development.
- Tell us about a time when you made a lasting impact on your organization.
- What impact do you hope to have as a leader of consequence in the future?
To score top marks with your answer to these leadership questions, you’ll be expected to show the admissions committee plenty of evidence that you have an ability to rally other people and motivate them to work together to achieve an important shared vision or goal.
The first category of essay question is the Career Story essay – this essay type is a chance to tell the admissions committee about your career progress and what you have accomplished thus far as a professional.
Essay questions include:
- Briefly summarize your career progress.
- Tell us about your career-to-date.
- What is your most significant professional achievement?
We introduced you to the Career Story concept in the Discover Your Strengths MBA Prep Step™. To briefly review, your Career Story is an executive summary of your career thus far. When answering Career Story essays, bullet points aren’t sufficient – that’s what your resume is for.
So what is the admissions committee looking for in a great Career Story Essay?
Business school admissions committees want to admit the high-achievers. To score top marks, you’ll need to provide evidence of distinguished academic and career performance in the top 10% of your peer group and demonstrate your potential for future advancement.
Admissions officers are interested in your career history but they are even more interested in your plans for the future. An acceptance letter to a top school isn’t a blue ribbon for past achievements. Rather admissions officers are interested in what you have achieved thus far to help them assess your potential for making an even bigger impact in the future.
As pointed out in the Define Your Career Goals section, just about every application will ask you to write a career goals essay, although each school will not ask the question in the same way. Some variations include:
- What are your professional objectives?
- What is your career vision?
- Where do you want to be 10 years from now?
When it comes to answering this question, top marks are earned by demonstrating that you have passion for the career you describe and that your career goals are fueled by a larger sense of purpose, not just the desire for a larger paycheck.
Of course, admissions officers will also be looking for a credible career action plan that connects the dots between your current skills and experiences and your future aspirations.
If you completed the exercises in our Define Your Career Goals MBA Prep Step™, then you have the Content Building Blocks for a powerful Career Goals essay.
“Why Our School?”
The “Why Our School” essay question might be asked in a few different forms including:
- Why do you need an MBA from our program?
- Why is now the best time for you go back to school?
- How do you think that our school can prepare you for your career goals?
The best answers to these types of questions are both personal and specific. They are personal because they cover the unique challenges that you need to prepare for in the future. They are specific because they draw distinct connections between your motivations for an MBA and the specific resources that particular school has to offer.
Answering the “Why Our School” question correctly begins with the extensive research you completed in the Select Your Schools MBA Prep Step™. You built a convincing case for applying to each school in that step; now it is time to present your case to admissions officers in essay form in order to persuade them that their school is the perfect match with your academic needs, career goals, and cultural expectations.
“What Will You Contribute?”
There are always more qualified candidates than there are seats in the class; so the admissions committee will want to know what you can contribute.
The next essay question we’ll talk about can take a few different forms:
- What can you contribute to our program?
- How can you enrich next year’s class?
- How will your past experiences, values, and academic background be of value to your future classmates?
The important thing to understand when preparing to answer these kinds of questions is that concrete answers about what you can contribute to the program are very important. The schools are looking for candidates who can put in just as much as they take out.
Our Discover Your Points of Difference MBA Prep Step™ provided the Content Building Blocks for this essay. The secret to scoring top marks in the essay is to be both concrete and specific. Too many candidates answer in vague generalities: “I’ll be a student leader” or “I can offer a diverse perspective.” When you selected your Top 5 PODs, you did so by prioritizing the unique things about you that would benefit your classmates. Don’t leave it up to the admissions officers to figure that out. Write about the ways that you can enrich the class given your own unique background, talents, and life experiences.
Reference letter questions invite outsiders to discuss your strengths and weaknesses; self-evaluative questions invite you to discuss them yourself.
- Give a candid description of yourself.
- What are your strengths?
- What are your weaknesses?
Self-evaluative questions are an opportunity to demonstrate your self-awareness. It is critical that you back up any claims you make with concrete evidence and examples. Whenever possible, use the self-evaluative questions to emphasize the Fit Qualities you possess – the attributes that the school values most.
Remember that when you are asked about your strengths, the only way to convince admissions officers that you actually possess those strengths is by providing evidence and specific examples.
Concentrate on your three or four most important strengths – the ones you identified in the Discover Your Strengths MBA Prep Step™. Also recognize that these questions are an open invitation to present elements of your Leadership Portfolio. Share your key leadership stories with admissions officers to prove that you have ample leadership potential.
Also, a brief word of advice about weakness essay questions: don’t try to get away with a strength disguised as a weakness. Candidates who write things like “I just can’t say no to projects. I’m always taking on too much work” have fallen into this trap. Admissions officers can see through those answers. Instead, focus on real weaknesses that earning an MBA might help you to address.
Self-awareness is important to MBA programs and that includes an ability to evaluate your past decisions and explain why you made them.
Admissions officers are keenly interested in the reasoning behind important decisions and your decision-making abilities. As such, many schools ask you questions about important past decision, such as:
- Reflect on a time when you turned down an opportunity.
- Tell us about a difficult decision you had to make.
- What decisions have you made that led to your current role?
Questions of this type ask you to recount what went on inside of your head when you were making an important decision. You will score top marks if you clearly discuss the choices that were presented to you, concisely describe the pros and cons of each, and share the reasons for your ultimate choice. Remember that the admissions committee wants evidence that you can think analytically and attack complex decisions systematically and efficiently.
You might discuss active steps you took such as reaching out for advice. These essay questions are also a good opportunity to share the values and principles that you draw upon when faced with an important decision.
Another strength that MBA Programs are interested in is the ability to recover when things don’t go your way. Negative experience essay questions include:
- What have you learned from a mistake?
- Discuss a time when you navigated a challenging experience in either a personal or professional relationship.
- Describe a failure that you have experienced.
Top marks will be scored if you provide evidence that you handled the negative experiences with emotional intelligence and treated adversaries and naysayers with empathy and understanding. You might use the essay to highlight the ability to compromise and diffuse conflict if the negative experience you write about is related to a relationship with another person.
When reading your essay, admissions officers will be interested to see if you can accept responsibility for missteps and avoid making excuses or pointing fingers. Ultimately, they will want to see that you not only recognized failure or admitted a mistake but that you did something about it and learned a great deal from the experience.
Unit Review: The Eight Most Frequently Asked MBA Essays Questions
- Leadership: these essays are your absolute best opportunity to communicate the central elements of your Leadership Portfolio.
- Career Story: a great Career Story essay provides the connections and interrelationships between your jobs and brings your resume to life.
- Career Goals: this is your opportunity to tell admissions officers about your Dream Job and the Career Purpose, career goals, and career action plan you developed in the Define Your Career Goals MBA Prep Step™.
- “Why Our School?”: the best answers to these types of questions are both personal and specific. Build a convincing case in the essay that summarizes the central reasons you feel it is the best school for you.
- “What Will You Contribute?”: share the Points of Difference that will be of greatest benefit to your classmates.
- Self-Evaluation: emphasize your Fit Qualities and always back up the strengths you claim with specific examples and evidence.
- Past Decisions: discuss the choices that were presented to you, concisely describe the pros and cons of each, and share the reasons for your ultimate choice.
- Negative Experiences: admissions officers want to see that you recognized failure or admitted a mistake and learned a great deal from the experience.