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Highlighting Leadership in Your B-School Essays

Posted by Chioma Isiadinso

Are you planning to apply to an MBA program this year? Over the next couple of months, most business schools will be releasing their MBA application essay questions for the 2017-2018 application season. And while round one deadlines won’t start hitting until September and October, it’s always better to give yourself as much time as possible to prepare.

This is especially true now, as there’s a current trend in MBA essay questions that is proving tricky for many applicants. Top business schools have been continually working on streamlining their essay process. While this does have many benefits for applicants – imagine having to apply to multiple schools that each ask for as many essays as INSEAD does! – there are drawbacks as well.


How MBA Application Essay Prompts Have Changed

As a part of the streamlining process, schools are going to fewer, shorter essays, often with essay prompts which are much more vague and open-ended. This can be very challenging for applicants, who may not know exactly what to address in their essay responses. As an example, compare the 2016-2017 prompts for Tuck, Yale, and Harvard:

1. Dartmouth Tuck School of Business:

Question 1 – Tuck educates wise leaders who better the world of business. What are your short- and long-term goals? How will a Tuck MBA enable you to become a wise leader with global impact?

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Question 2 – As a diverse and global community, our students arrive at the same place from many different paths. Tell us about an experience in which you have had to live, learn, and/ or work with other people different from yourself. What challenges and/ or opportunities did you experience, how did you respond, and what did you learn about yourself as a result?

2. Yale School of Management: Describe the biggest commitment you have ever made.

3. Harvard Business School: As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program?

Now, these are last year’s prompts; we can’t say for sure what this year’s questions will look like. But what I want to draw your attention to is the wide variety of approaches that individual schools have taken toward learning about their applicants.

Looking at these essay prompts, you might imagine that the three schools are looking for very different candidates (or at least very different information from their application essays). And while it’s broadly true that business schools have their own individual brands, and aspects of their program that they emphasize more than others, the truth is that there is one quality that all top business schools are looking for in their students: leadership.

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How to Write Your MBA Application Essay

No one enrolls in a world-class MBA program to learn to be a follower. The sacrifice that’s involved, the hard work, the expense, the time away from the work force: these are things that students undertake because they want to lead.

They might want to lead a division, a corporation, a non-profit, a global initiative, but they want to lead. And business schools want to admit students who have that passion for leadership, who will make an impact on the world after graduation.

However, many business schools these days are trending away from asking directly about leadership. Tuck’s MBA essay questions from the last application round still came out and explicitly asked about leadership; Yale’s question approached it indirectly; and Harvard left it open to see what applicants would come up with.

But make no mistake: just because an MBA program doesn’t ask directly about your leadership story, doesn’t mean that they’re not interested in it. If you want to write an MBA application essay that will get you admitted, you need to be clear about how leadership has shaped your personal brand.

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You can start now, even before you know exactly what your target schools will be asking for their application essays, by brainstorming about your experiences:

– What was the time you felt most successful as a leader?

– What is a time when you experienced failure as a leader?

– When have you taken on leadership responsibilities without being assigned them?

– How have you overcome obstacles as a leader?

– What has been your most significant challenge as a leader?

– How do you hope to grow as a leader during, and after, business school?

We don’t yet know what the 2017-2018 MBA application essay questions will be. We will be keeping an eye on the trends, and offering school-specific essay tips on the EXPARTUS blog as more information becomes available.

If you’d like more tailored advice on how to develop a personal brand and MBA application package that truly reflect your strengths as a leader, EXPARTUS can help.

We have 15 years of experience helping candidates gain admission to the world’s top business schools. For more information, get in touch with us at, or reach out to us for a complimentary MBA application assessment.


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