Essay Coach Justin Marshall provides his tips and advice on how to answer the Wharton MBA essay questions for the class of 2016

I’m going to just come out and say it: I’ve never liked Wharton’s essay questions. From quoting its own Dean in its prompts (can you say immodest?) to asking what candidates would do if they had the afternoon off (for which there were only two honest answers: sleep or drink), Wharton has managed to leave once champion Columbia GSB in the dust when it comes to annoying admissions questions.

So I was quite happy when I saw that Wharton had followed this year’s trend of essay deflation and cut the number of required essays from three to two. Until, that is, I read the second question. Sigh. But we’ll get to that in a moment. First, question #1: 

1. What do you aspire to achieve, personally and professionally, through the Wharton MBA? (500 words)

There’s little for me to complain about here. It’s succinct and pretty straightforward. The key to answering this one is realizing that it’s a Goals essay. The question may not explicitly ask what your future career objectives are, but if you fail to discuss that, well then you fail the essay. After all, how can you talk about what you aspire to achieve without talking about your career?

As always, focus not on what you will get out of your goals, but what your goals will contribute to an industry, a group, a population, or the world at large. Don’t only tell us what your goal is, but why you’re passionate about it, or what the inspiration for it was. And it’s a good idea to include a short-term goal to demonstrate that you know how to get to where you want to go.

It’s also important to note that this essay asks you to speak not about an MBA in general, but the “Wharton MBA.” In other words, you need to talk about “Why Wharton.” For those of you applying to Stanford, you’ve probably figured out by now that this essay is just a 500-word, Wharton-centric version of that school’s “What do you want to do—REALLY—and why Stanford?” Can you recycle? Yes you can. Just don’t be too obvious about it. Do your research to show you really know Wharton and what it has to offer (which is a lot).

The curveball in this essay is the word “personal.” Let’s face it—the MBA is not a “personal” degree. It’s not like getting an MFA in Poetry (no offense to my friends with MFAs in Poetry, who are all wonderful people...unemployed, but wonderful). That being said, you need to answer the question, so focus on the “softer” reasons for pursuing an MBA: personal leadership skills you want to develop, the opportunity to work collaboratively with people from different walks of life, the opportunity to make long-lasting friendships, etc.

Keep the focus of the second half of the essay on Wharton, and you’ll do fine.

Now, on to Question 2:

2. Academic engagement is an important element of the Wharton MBA experience. How do you see yourself contributing to our learning community? (500 words)

Beginning an essay with the word “academic” is a very dangerous thing. I guarantee that countless applicants are going to see that word and immediately think that this is an essay in which they have to prove that they are up to the quantitative rigors of a Wharton MBA. But that is exactly the wrong approach to take here. As The MBA Reality Check makes clear in Chapter 2, your essays are not where you prove your worth (that would be the job of your GMAT scores and undergrad transcript).

Instead, this essay is a place for you to show how the insights, skills, attributes, and exposure you have accumulated over the last few years of your life (both through professional and extracurricular experiences) will enable you to enrich the Wharton learning community. That could be tough to execute, so here’s a rough outline to use:

Envision the essay as three paragraphs of approximately 175 words each. Each paragraph should detail an experience you’ve had, the takeaway from it, and how you’ll apply that takeaway at Wharton. For example: you spent the last two years mentoring underserved teens, through which you developed an ability to help people reach their full potential, which you’ll apply at Wharton to help classmates in your learning team and help small business owners as a member of the Wharton Small Business Development Center.

In short: Experience, attribute, contribution.

As for where and how you contribute at Wharton, well that’s where the word “academic” comes into play. The classroom, your cluster, your study group, and your learning team are all fair game. Non-professional clubs like the wine club and the squash club are not within the “learning community.”

But don't you dare write about how your GMAT score will allow you contribute.