Forster-Thomas Editor and Essay Coach Kirsten Guenther provides her tips on how to answer Tuck’s MBA essays.

Essay #1: Why is an MBA a critical next step toward your short- and long-term career goals? Why is Tuck the best MBA program for you? (If you are applying for a joint or dual degree, please explain how the additional degree will contribute to those goals.)

Fess up. You’re taking your Harvard goals essay and tweaking it. And that’s okay—as long as you Tuck it rather than tweak it.

As an editor, I have worked on hundreds of goals essays, and I can tell you that the most effective goals essays are specific and to the point. You’ve always been the class clown? It’s great that you want your personality to shine through, but that’s also why you’ve ended up with 800 words and pulling your hair trying to cut it down to 500. It can be tough to decide what to cut and what to keep.

It’s simple: keep the action. Keep the parts that outline your intentions, how you’re going to accomplish your goals, what you’ve done thus far, and why Tuck is a vital part of the plan. It’s important to know that a trip to Afghanistan helped shape your mission in life, but it’s not important to know that you sat in seat 14D on the plane ride over.

Here are four tips to keep in mind when writing a goals essay:

  1. Use sign posts. Let the reader know where you were, when your realization took place and what you were doing when you made the decision to pursue your goal. Throughout the essay continue to use signposts to organize it.
  2. Research Tuck. I cannot stress this enough. They want people who are excited to be there. Learn about the classes, who teaches them, and what clubs you will join if admitted.  If you’re an amazing badminton player and they don’t have a badminton club, talk about starting one. What will you contribute to Tuck?
  3. It’s not just about how Tuck will help you reach your goal but how you will contribute to Tuck. Yes, Tuck’s Center for Leadership will be a good place for you to hone your leadership skills, but what will you bring? How will you help others become great leaders?
  4. Short-term goals are important. They are your plan to achieve your long-term goal. Your plan for achieving your goal is equally important to what that goal is. You want to convey to Tuck that this is not a pipe dream but a well thought out plan that you are passionate about.

Essay #2: Discuss your most meaningful leadership experience. What did you learn about your own individual strengths and weaknesses through this experience? (500 words)

“Easy— I’ll just turn one of my HBS accomplishments into a leadership essay.” Um…No.

Before you even think about doing that, you need to understand the difference between “Leadership” and an “Accomplishment.” As Auntie Evan says in The MBA Reality Check, leadership is when you have two or more people in the bed; an accomplishment, you can take care of with your right (or left) hand, for the same desired results.

Tuck is interested in leaders—professionally, personally and in the community.  So when you’re brainstorming ideas for your leadership essay, challenge yourself to come up with some examples of times you’ve acted in a leadership position in your personal life and in the community, as well as professionally.

Also, read the question. Remember that the question asks what your most meaningful leadership experience is. It asks for strengths and weaknesses. The question is NOT, “Tell us about a time you were an ideal leader.” You are allowed to talk about a time you failed as a leader and what you learned from it.

From an editor’s perspective, my advice with this essay is to write 700-800 words on your first pass, then spend time trimming the fat to arrive at, say, 525 words. With Tuck you’re allowed to go over word count 10%. But don’t go crazy with this and DO NOT go over 10%.

In all of these essays, always remember that you want to write more rather than less for your first draft. If you write 500 words, you’ll find through the editing process that you only have 400 words of real, useable content.

Essay 3: Describe a circumstance in your life in which you faced adversity, failure, or setback. What actions did you take as a result and what did you learn from this experience?

Failure, adversity or setback. These are three different things.

If you choose “Failure”, for the love of God, please make sure it’s an actual failure. I’m sure you’ve read Auntie Evan’s book, so you know that getting a “B” in 8th grade Algebra is not a failure—no matter how much you wanted an A.  Make sure you write about an actual failure, please.

Adversity is a challenge. A setback is when an expectation isn’t met.  Either one can be in a professional or personal context. It’s important to remember that no matter which you pick, what matters most is the take away. What’s important is how you handled the failure, adversity or setback—how you responded and acted, how that experience shaped who you are today, the way you act in your present life, and the way you plan to act in the future.

I was hired to write a play about a hedge fund, and so I am working at one now for research—I can tell you from experience that on the trading floor, uncontrollable setbacks happen, and what’s important is how these traders and analysts react to them. The story is in your reaction to the events.

Essay 4: Tuck seeks candidates of various backgrounds who can bring new perspectives to our community. How will your unique personal history, values, and/or life experiences contribute to the culture at Tuck?

Start with a value. A motto you live by. Something you learned as a child that helped shape your perspective and how you live your life. Dig deep and really think about how you choose to live your life, and why that is. Give examples of this.

Find places you live your life—both formal and informal—and then bring that to Tuck. Let’s say literacy is really important to you because of something you learned when you were younger, and so you’ve mentored children over the years. You can use this experience to describe how you’ll start a literacy club at Tuck or a charity that will help kids who don’t have the opportunity to learn how to read.

The important thing is to make connections between your past experiences and your future plans for involvement and participation in the Tuck community, whether inside or outside the classroom.

Essay 5 (Optional): Please provide any additional insight or information that you have not addressed elsewhere that may be helpful in reviewing your application (e.g., unusual choice of evaluators, weaknesses in academic performance, unexplained job gaps or changes, etc.). Complete this question only if you feel your candidacy is not fully represented by this application.

As is true of optional essays for most other schools, no new information should be present in this essay if you decide to write one. I don’t want to hear about how you were kidnapped in Brazil and thrown in a potato sack. If you find yourself writing new information, then you haven’t done your job on the other essays. The optional essay is not a “P.S.” or “Oh, by the way…”. It is a place to provide important context to aspects of your candidacy that the admissions committee already knows about because of its inclusion elsewhere in your application.

See our Tuck 2011-2012 MBA Essay Guide for more information.