How do you write the perfect personal essay for film school?  Admissions experts at Forster-Thomas have the answers.

By Justin Marshall

USC film school calls it a Personal Statement.  So does NYU Tisch.  To UCLA, FSU, and the University of Texas, it’s a Statement of Purpose.  It’s a Narrative statement at AFI, an Artist’s Statement at CalArts, and an Autobiographical Essay at Columbia University.  Whatever the name and regardless of length (anywhere from 500 words to six pages), the personal essay is one of the most common application documents MFA film programs request for admissions.  

What few realize is that it’s also the single most important item you’ll submit. Richard Walter, professor and co-chairman of UCLA’s MFA Screenwriting program, told me: “The single best way to get into our program is to give us a great statement of purpose—one that’s personal and well written.”

Surprised? Sure, filmmaking experience is an important element.  So are good grades in college. And if you have a strong reel, that absolutely increases your chances of getting in.  But the personal essay is king for three key reasons:

  1. It sheds light on how you think. OK, you have a good GPA and a killer music video under your belt. But do you have the life experience, maturity, and unique voice necessary to tell a career’s worth of amazing visual stories? Are you capable of working in a fundamentally collaborative process? Do you have the tenacity of spirit to survive the film industry? These are all crucial qualities, and the personal essay is the only opportunity you have to showcase them.
  2. It puts your reel into perspective. In the personal essay, you can explain the influences behind the films on your reel, what you were trying to say, and what you learned through the creative process. If we understand what you were going for, we will appreciate your films more.
  3. It tells the school if you’re the right fit for their program. USC wants Hollywood players. CalArts wants artists. NYU wants something in between. The personal essay allows you to explain which one you are—and why.

If you want a cheesy analogy, think of the personal statement like an online dating profile or a personals ad (don’t act like you’ve never read them). If you’re looking for true love, a couple of cute photos and a matching Zodiac sign aren’t going to cut it. You want to know that you’re compatible at the core, from musical tastes to hobbies/interests to political views. The personal essay does just that: it shows the school the person behind the images.  It allows you to communicate who you are and how you think.  It’s where sparks fly and true compatibility emerges. And at the end of the day, as good as your reel might be, the schools aren’t admitting a film to a program; they’re admitting a person to their program.  So use the personal essay to showcase who you are—the real you.

Now that you understand what the personal statement is and why it’s so important, read Part 2 of this blog, where I provide three do’s and don’ts for writing the personal essay.

Read more on our MFA Film School consulting process or request a free candidacy assessment.

--Justin Marshall


A lot of people are complaining about the College Board these days and the fact that in the recently announced 2013–2014 application, the personal statement word limit of 650 is strictly enforced. In previous years, you could upload your essay in a word document, allowing you to slip in an extra 50–100 words without anyone noticing. Guidance counselors and colleagues of mine, including educational consultants, are in an uproar about this, as I’m sure are you.

To be honest, however, I am thrilled by these changes. I want to say, “FINALLY!”

You too should be EXCITED that the personal statement is now 650 words or less—now you have an opportunity to show how creative you are. In fact, limits are a good thing—and not just for admissions officers who have to wade through the hundreds and hundreds of essays filled with lengthy babble just to find the gems. This is an opportunity for you to make sure you are one of those gems.

This is a test of how effective you are in communicating and how you use your 650 words; you still have more than enough to tell a story. Story being the operative word here. The personal statement is not a place to regurgitate the activity resume—it’s an opportunity to show or reveal a level of maturity through the choice of topic and the way you write about it what you learned—concisely. And about those clever uploads your younger child got to do—you know the one where he uploaded that cartoon from the New Yorker to make his point? You should not have to rely on props. The essay is about your ability to WRITE—you know, that thing one has to do all of the time in a land called college!

I understand that this is difficult, that you have so much that you want to say, and that you think that everything you want to say is so important. There’s no one more full of himself than I am—and I think you need every detail, but that’s just not true.

One easy example of how writers cut out the steps for the sake of storytelling is on the show Friends, when Ross picks up a girl for a date. He always shows up at her front door—even though everyone in New York City knows that this is impossible. You have to get buzzed in to a building first. Yet we just go with it, because it’s not important with respect to the story they are trying to tell. The writers EDIT out extraneous details like getting buzzed in first (unless that’s part of the joke). This makes the story BETTER.

Creativity is the picture you create with eight Crayola crayons, not the one you make when you use the box of 64. Creativity is about limitations and boundaries.

So calm down. This is a GOOD thing that the College Board is doing. Mom, Dad, students—there is power in brevity and editing. So, don’t even use your full 650 words: Try to keep it closer to the 500-550 that Common App is actually requesting..

Also, I practice what I preach: After re-reading this blog, I went back and cut it down from 662 words to 550. 


Auntie Evan

P.S. For your reference, here are the 2013-2014 Common Application essay questions:

Instructions. The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don't feel obligated to do so. (The application won't accept a response shorter than 250 words.)

    Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

    Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

    Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

    Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

    Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Attitude is More Important than Getting In

As eager as you are to get into the school of your dreams, remember that no college, grad school, or MBA program is a silver bullet.  The key to true success lies with YOU. Evan Forster tells you why.

Right now, so many of us are struggling with our New Year’s resolutions. I know I am: The Medifast diet (“Dutch Chocolate Shake”—disgusting). Goodbye, Tequila. And of course, spend more time with friends and family.

At Forster-Thomas, however, our candidates are too stressed to grapple with these high-level resolutions, because they are in what we call the “Waiting Season”—waiting for colleges and graduate programs to say, “yay,” “nay,” or, “congrats—we’d like you to come in for an interview.” As anyone who has gone through it knows, the waiting season is terrifying. Crippling. Even worse than sitting through a Celine Dion concert. And sometimes, you just need to vent, which is exactly what one of our candidates did.

Justin Marshall, one of our coaches, recently received an email from a Forster-Thomas MBA candidate I'll call Kathy. Like so many others, Kathy is freaking out in her Pradas. She just had her Wharton interview. And it went well. She thinks. Or did it? Yes! No! She just can’t tell.

Like you, she’s driving herself crazy. Fortunately, Justin has personal experience waiting for admissions results (and he’s read The MBA Reality Check, which addresses this very topic). His response was brilliant, so let me share it here:

The good news is that you’re very competitive at Wharton. Therefore, I’m not surprised at all that you got an interview. You’re remarkably intelligent and authentic, and I always found you to be charming in our conversations, so I’m sure you did great with the interviews.

Here’s the BETTER news: As eager as you are to get in, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you do. I know that sounds, crazy, but it’s true.  A Wharton degree guarantees you nothing [same goes for HBS, Stanford, etc.]. Sure, it’s a great education, and a great name. But there are THOUSANDS of top-tier grads out there that are in a job they hate, doing fairly “functionary” work. They don’t necessarily regret their education, where they went, or how much they spent, but it didn’t magically turn them into heads-of-state or company CEOs.

Meanwhile, there are THOUSANDS of people all over the world who went to a second- or third-tier MBA program, or didn’t even study business at all, who are amazingly successful business people.  Look at Apple, one of the world’s most successful companies. Steve Jobs was a college drop-out. The current CEO, Tim Cook, went to Auburn University for undergrad and then Duke for his MBA. Neither of them needed Wharton, or HBS, or Stanford. Ditto Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, etc. The list goes on and on. As Auntie Evan reminds me all of the time: ‘A top MBA program can make your path to success easier, but it can’t CREATE the path to success.’ Only you can do that, and if you have the personal strength and ability to be successful, you will get to where you want to go—no matter what.

Kathy, I don’t say this to DE-VALUE Wharton, or any school. I truly hope you get in—because that's where you want to go, and I think it will provide you with an amazing education. But I also know—both from personal experience and a lot of wisdom gained over the years—that the key is never a school, a job offer, a fancy title, or anything else. The key is YOU. Once you get that and embrace this way of thinking, you will kick-ass in everything you do. As the MBA REALITY CHECK says: “Invite Wharton or any program or potential job to be part of YOUR journey, not the other way around.” That’s what gets you accepted rather than rejected…from ANYTHING in life.

Justin is DEAD RIGHT. And THAT should be your New Year's resolution: Invite the world to join YOU in your journey to reach your personal top-tier.

--Auntie Evan (and Cuzin' Justin)

So you know better than to tell Stanford GSB that “what matters most” to you is your iPad. And you managed to figure out that Wharton’s admissions committee will swiftly reject you if you go 4,000 words over the maximum word count. But could you still be dooming your business school candidacy with less egregious blunders?

To quote everyone’s favorite Alaskan: You betcha!    

Common sense will help you avoid the biggest b-school admissions essay mistakes, so we’re not going to waste your time with those. After all, if you’re smart enough to be reading our blogs, you’re smart enough to avoid using one of those birthday-cake fonts for your essays. Instead, I reached out to one of my intrepid essay coaches (fondly referred to as Cuzin’ Justin), and we put together a list of the five most common MBA admissions essay mistakes we’ve seen over the years:

1. Not answering the essay question. You’d be amazed how often we see candidates make this mistake, especially when it comes to two- or three-part questions. Remember, the admissions committee spent months deciding exactly what questions to ask and how to word them. There’s no better way to piss them off than blatantly disregarding all that effort.

Example: an MBA program asks, “What are your long-term career goals and why is now the best time for an MBA?” If you spend 100 words telling them how much you love their school without ever mentioning why now is the best time for an MBA, well, game over. You lose. It’s that simple.

Some people don’t answer the question because they’re too smart. You know what the school really wants to hear, so you write about that. Or you figure out how to turn the question into an opportunity to showcase your awesome accomplishments. Bravo to you. You’re the reason safety schools stay in business.

2. Trying to write like Noam-freaking-Chomsky. Or Susan-frickin-Sontag. Or anyone else besides you. We know you’re desperate to sound intelligent, but if your own voice doesn’t come through in your essays, the admissions committee won’t connect to you… and it’s a lot easier to reject someone you don’t feel connected to. So put a "face" on your essays. Inject some of the real you into those words. If you quote a conversation with a friend, don’t write, “Would you like to venture to an eating establishment?” Write what you really said: “Dude—wanna get something to eat?” You will not get rejected because you say "dude." In fact, you’re more likely to be accepted because you have the confidence to admit that you say "dude." And guess what? When admissions people were your age, they said "dude." Some of them still say it now. Dude—trust us.

3. Using vague platitudes like "giving back to the community” and “making a difference." The biggest way you could "make a difference" would be to stop promising to do so in your essays. We don’t believe you anymore. First, it’s making admissions officers’ eyes roll, and roll to the point of spinning. Second, it’s like that famous Shakespearean line: “The lady doth protest too much.” The more you talk about it, the less we believe it. Just do it by giving examples. Stop talking about your commitment to "transform the planet" or "create access to opportunity for those less fortunate." Show it to us—through your actual examples. Describe the time you got your friends to build that playground in Crenshaw or the way you organized the mentor team to show up even during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. You get accepted when there’s less talk and more walk.

4. Baffling your reader with jargon and technical mumbo-jumbo. Stop going from the sell side to the buy side or describing that SWOT analysis following the divestiture. You’re smart. We get it. But you’re also confusing and worse, you’re boring.  Insider phrases and ten-dollar words do not get you accepted. What they do is get you thrown into the "Gotta-read-that again later?" file. Here’s the rule of thumb: If Granny gets what you’re talking about and little Tommy doesn’t scrunch his face and walk away, you’re probably writing a "readable" essay—one that makes it easy for admissions officers to understand what you do and what you’re talking about. Remember, admissions officers are people too—and often, they have a masters in education, not business. So, EBITDA to you. I’m going back to playing Minecraft!

5. Essays by committee. We mentioned this in our book, The MBA Reality Check, but since you’re stubborn, we’ll mention it again: don’t ask for feedback on your essays from all your friends, family, and colleagues. Yes, we know how smart they are. But if you incorporate all their notes, you'll start to sound like everyone else (because everyone else helped you with your essays). You’ll also drive yourself crazy when you get back conflicting notes ("I love when you say dude" / "You can’t say dude").  Spare yourself the frustration—put your big-girl panties on and keep your essays to yourself.

Bonus mistake: last-minute essays / putting off essays in favor of endless test prep. We’re not saying ignore that GMAT. You need to knock it out of the ballpark. But we are saying give your essays the same level of respect and effort or it won’t matter how many 760s you get. You’ll just be a great test-taker and have proven your command over math and reading. But that’s all IQ stuff. What makes a great, accepted candidate—one who’s got something to add to that diverse class at HBS, Haas, or USC’s IBEAR—is your EQ, or emotional quotient. The deep down, who you are: your failures, your defining moments, and your surprises.  And none of that’s getting revealed by writing “last-minute” essays. So get to writing now—not after you get the test score you want—cuz your essays are what will up your chances after your immutable numbers just keep you where you are.

--Auntie Evan & Cuzin' Justin

Forster-Thomas essay coach Ben Feuer shares his tips on how to answer the Wharton essay questions for the class of 2015

Wharton’s MBA application essay questions have changed this year, but the underlying message remains the same: show us why you’re a good fit for Wharton, and get us excited and engaged with what you have been doing and what you plan to do with your life (both personally and professionally). Remember that these essays are about more than just repeating bullet points from your resume, or talking points from your interview checklist. You have to infuse the essays with your personal feeling—the essence of YOU.

1. How will the Wharton MBA help you achieve your professional objectives? (400 words)

At first blush, this might seem to be a standard “goals” essay, sharing what you want to achieve in your career and why you need an MBA to go do it. But as always, a close reading of the prompt provides important clues about what kind of answer Wharton is looking for. Note, for example, their shift from a single, all-encompassing “goal” to the more moderate “professional objectives.” This isn’t an invitation to check your passion at the door, but it is a reminder that this essay is about putting forward exciting possibilities, not set-in-stone business plans. And the prominent mention of a Wharton MBA in the prompt suggests that you should be paying even MORE attention than usual to the program details that attract you to the school. Try to connect every point you make about your future career back to the Wharton experience. Find the line of continuity between what you have been doing, what Wharton will teach you to do, and where that will eventually take you.

2. Select a Wharton MBA course, co-curricular opportunity, or extra-curricular engagement that you are interested in. Tell us why you chose this activity and how it connects to your interests. (500 words)

This essay invites you to dig deep into one thing—JUST ONE—that excites you about the Wharton experience. There are a few effective ways to approach this question. One would be to focus on a course that is the perfect bridge between your professional experience thus far and your future professional goals. With only 400 words in the previous essay to talk about your goal, you can use this essay as a chance to better draw those connecting lines between yourself and Wharton. You could also talk about a course or co-curricular that connects to one of your greatest passions and describe how learning more about it would inform your professional development. However, it seems to this Essay Coach that an equally viable path for many candidates will be extracurriculars. Talking about a club, and your contributions to it, gives you the opportunity to really put yourself in the middle of something exciting that is already taking place on campus, and envision yourself in a leadership role. It also gives you a chance to refer back to similar positions you may have held in the past. What would you keep? What would you change? What would you disrupt? The world is at your fingertips.

3. Imagine your work obligations for the afternoon were cancelled and you found yourself "work free" for three hours, what would you do? (500 words)

At its heart, this is a passion essay (see Chapter 15 of The MBA Reality Check), a question has circled around from school to school over the years—because it is, well, a good way to get to know the real you! For those of you who are feeling a little creative, this is your chance to really get the admissions officers excited about having you around. Don’t take the easy way out. Don’t talk about going to see your family, or going to see that new movie that’s in theaters. Instead, write about something that is unique to you, that allows you to explore a side of yourself they might otherwise overlook. Something surprising. Maybe even something a little bit dangerous. Just because this is business school doesn’t mean you have to be all business, all the time! What are your passions? Your secret fascinations? I know what I would do: pull out my laptop, listen to a few Broadway show tunes and get inspired. To some people they may scream dorky, but I have always been fascinated by the evolution of story in song. Your turn! Go off script! Start sharing, and you’ll eat up those 500 words in no time—and admissions will eat you up! But don’t forget to tie it back to a broader point about your candidacy overall—you don’t want this essay to stick out like a sore thumb.

4. "Knowledge for Action draws upon the great qualities that have always been evident at Wharton: rigorous research, dynamic thinking, and thoughtful leadership." - Thomas S. Robertson, Dean, The Wharton School. Tell us about a time when you put knowledge into action. (500 words)

This scintillating quote from the Dean of the Wharton School, Thomas S. Robertson, invites you to explore a leadership or accomplishment experience (yes, just in case you didn’t recognize those clues in the quote about “research, thinking and LEADERSHIP,” this is a leadership essay)—but with a twist! This leadership experience must begin with knowledge, something you know that others do not. Often this will come from specialized workplace knowledge; you may be the Excel genius of your office, or maybe it’s sales…or yodeling. Whatever the knowledge may be, this is a great place to address it. Make sure it ends in action, positive change that transformed a group or organization. The more exciting and “disruptive” this change, the better. The harder it was to implement, the better. But the key thing to remember is that it must begin with knowledge; whether you acquired that knowledge through research, deep thought, or dumb luck*, doesn’t matter—something you knew sparked you to get off your butt and lead!

*Seriously, it’s fine if you encountered your knowledge via dumb luck; after all, Auntie Evan claims that most of his best lines were overheard in an elevator. Just make sure you’re honest about it being dumb luck, and you’ll be fine.

Need help digging down deep to write amazing MBA essays? Call Forster-Thomas at 212-741-9090 or click here to set up a free candidacy assessment.

Forster-Thomas essay coach Kirsten Guenther shares her tips on how to answer the Stanford GSB essay questions for the class of 2015.

Essay 1: What matters most to you, and why?

Save the best for last. Hold off on this essay until you’ve completed the essays for every other school you’re applying to. Trust me, “WMM” will be strengthened by the introspection you have gained from delving into the other essays.

Important: This is not a goals essay (as Auntie Evan points out in Chapter 16 of The MBA Reality Check). This is not “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Think of WMM this way: The airplane is going down…you have one minute to live—think fast—what’s the most important thing in the world to you?

BE HONEST. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Stanford wants to know who you are at this juncture in your life, how you came to be that person and what it taught you, and how you have applied that lesson—or how a realization has shaped who you are today.

I recently read a book called, What I Saw and How I Lied. For the protagonist, the most important thing in the world was to live a life that is truthful. So true that she refused to even laugh at a joke that she didn’t think was funny just to fit in. HOW did she come to be this person? HOW did this become the thing that mattered MOST to her? When she was a teenager her mother committed a crime and asked her daughter, the protagonist, to be her alibi—this ended up causing a ripple effect of even more serious issues. The protagonist saw that no one was helped by the lie; in fact, their lives were made much worse because of it and they were unhappy. It was then that she vowed never again to tell even the whitest lie.

If she were applying to Stanford, I would urge her to write about the moment she made the decision to lie for her mother—the fallout from NOT being true to herself—and then what led her to make the commitment to live a truthful life in the future. She could then write about how this has affected her relationships with friends and colleagues and how she has had to adapt her communication skills in life from that day forward. No longer could she say she liked a Christmas sweater she didn’t, or could she agree with a co-worker just to placate someone. She would have had to adapt her communication skills so that she could be honest but not off-putting or awkward—not just in business but in her personal life as well. Who she is as a person was largely shaped by the decision she made to live a completely truthful life.

Last, drill down deep—you’re not revealing anything about yourself to stick to broad, common themes (no matter how truthful) such as “family” or “honor,” and you sound like you’re just saying what you think they want by writing about “access to opportunity” and “making the world a better place.” This isn’t the Miss Universe pageant. These things matter to everybody. Teach us something that makes you you.


Essay 2: What do you want to do—REALLY—and why Stanford?

What do you REALLY want to do? Okay—in the spirit of Forster-Thomas’s own Project Ridiculous—Go! Want to create an Indian dance troop to tour the globe, bringing awareness to the Indian tradition and culture? Great. Write about that…if that’s what you REALLY want to do. But if you think that’s just going to win you points by sounding meaningful? The adcom will see right through it (because nothing else in your candidacy will back that up).

State your aspiration—but don’t forget to include why YOU…why this is your calling. Why will YOU (specifically) succeed in this? Talk about the skills you’ve built thus far, but ALSO talk about your personal background or relationships you can draw from in terms of pursuing your goal. Maybe your cousin in India is a theatrical producer and the two of you can join forces?

DISCLAIMER: While your goal should be something you are passionate about, if you know nothing about Indian dance and have never been to India but you saw Slumdog Millionaire and thought it looked cool, that does not mean you should write about it in your business school application. You’re not playing pin the tail on the donkey with your aspirations here. Your goal needs to be something that you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and educating yourself about—it is something for which you have developed a PLAN to accomplish. This plan includes business school.

Next, talk about what skills you want to gain or improve—and why these skills are essential and how you will build these not at any business school but at Stanford. VISIT the school. Talk to alumni—go through the class schedule and figure out what curriculum and classes will support your aspirations. Don’t just talk about why these classes will help you achieve your goal, but also what you will offer your classmates and what you will contribute to the Stanford COMMUNITY.


Essay 3: Answer one of the three questions below. Tell us not only what you did but also how you did it. What was the outcome? How did people respond? Only describe experiences that have occurred during the last three years.

  • Option A: Tell us about a time in the last three years when you built or developed a team whose performance exceeded expectations.

Leadership. Leadership. Leadership. They want to know that you can motivate a group to work toward a common goal. More so, they want to know that you can bring together the right group to accomplish that goal. “When you built or developed a team…” For example, the time the afterschool program at the high school in your hometown was losing funding for the arts and you cast a team from your friends and colleagues to raise the funds to save the program. Maybe you called your college roommate who was a theater major, and your brother’s girlfriend who is a public school teacher, and your buddy on your intramural basketball team who’s a marketing guru. Talk about a time when you not only coached the team but you drafted the players as well.

  • Option B: Tell us about a time in the last three years when you identified and pursued an opportunity to improve an organization.

This is about creating positive change—leaving something better than when you found it. It’s not that guy you’re dating who you got to stop wearing two-toned shirts (though that would be an improvement). In this question, they want to know that you seek opportunities to create positive change. This doesn’t just have to be raising enough money to expand the work of a charity you believe in—get creative—and remember, leadership. Talk about the time you designed an innovative marketing strategy for your favorite charity and how that plan is reaching more donors. That is something that will CONTINUE to improve the cause, as opposed to a one-time fundraiser (we call this “legacy”—see Chapter 5 of The MBA Reality Check).

  • Option C: Tell us about a time in the last three years when you went beyond what was defined or established.

Talk about a time you didn’t just do the research your manager asked you to do and organize it into a spreadsheet—talk about the time you did that AND then created a method to make sharing this research with your whole department more effective. A time you didn’t just adopt a homeless dog—you built an animal shelter.

For all of the choose-one-of-three questions, remember to talk about HOW you were able to accomplish these things: what your methods were for problem solving and how you lead your team. What skill set and resources did you draw from?

For more information on the Stanford 2012-2013 essays, see our Stanford Essay Guide.

Need help digging down deep to write amazing essays? Call Forster-Thomas at 212-741-9090 or set up a free candidacy assessment.

INSEAD's MBA program has announced its essay questions and application deadlines for the class of 2014 and 2014, respectively.  (Yeah, it sounds weird, but that's the way INSEAD rolls. It must be a French thing.)

The deadlines are as follows:

Application Deadlines – September 2013 Intake (Class of July 2014)

Round 1 Deadline: October 3, 2012
Round 2 Deadline: December 5, 2012
Round 3 Deadline: March 13, 2013

Applications Deadlines -- January 2014 Intake (Class of December 2014)

Round 1 Deadline: April 3, 2013
Round 2 Deadline: June 12, 2013
Round 3 Deadline: August 7, 2013

The essay questions are identical to last year's questions, and can be found in our INSEAD Essay Guide. But for those of you who are too lazy to click on the link, here they are:

Job Description Essays

1. Briefly summarise your current (or most recent) job, including the nature of work, major responsibilities, and, where relevant, employees under your supervision, size of budget, clients/ products and results achieved. (250 words maximum)

2. Please give a full description of your career since graduating from university. If you were to remain with your present employer, what would be your next step in terms of position? (250 words maximum)

3. If you are currently not working, what are you doing and what do you plan to do until you start the MBA programme? (250 words maximum)


1. Give a candid description of yourself, stressing the personal characteristics you feel to be your strengths and weaknesses and the main factors, which have influenced your personal development, giving examples when necessary. (600 words maximum)

2. Describe what you believe to be your two most substantial accomplishments to date (if possible specify one personal and one professional), explaining why you view them as such. (400 words maximum)

3. Describe a situation taken from your personal or professional life where you failed. Discuss what you learned. (400 words maximum)

4. a) Discuss your short and long term career goals. (300 words maximum) and b) How will studying at INSEAD help you achieve your vision? (250 words maximum)

5. Please choose one of the following two essay topics:

  • Have you ever experienced culture shock? What insights did you gain? (250 words maximum)
  • Describe the ways in which a foreigner in your country might experience culture shock. (250 words maximum)

Forster-Thomas essay coach Susan Clark shares her tips on how to answer the Columbia GSB essay questions for the class of 2015

Essay 1:

  • Part A. Why are you pursuing an MBA at this point in your career, and how do you plan to achieve your immediate and long term post-MBA professional goals? (Maximum 500 words)

Thanks, Columbia, for including in your prompt an essential part of great goal setting: “What’s your plan, Stan?” “You wanna see Mecca? Ya goin’ by boat, plane, or camel?” In other words, you have a degree in earth science and your dream is to build a green tech consulting company … now what? Your short term goal of a position in a consulting firm is a start, but still a long way from establishing your own company. Including a job currently not attainable, even with your MBA, is an essential interim step. Moving into a strategy position at a sustainability program in a major corporation—eventually becoming senior sustainability officer—would allow you to develop expertise in the industry and the credibility and network to raise funds. Include in your plan the specific role education plays: “An MBA will give me the internship necessary to move into consulting, the management training to lead a corporate department, and the entrepreneurial mindset to start my own company,” for example. Believable steps from where you are now can take you anywhere you like, to Mecca or even the Moon. Make sure the final destination is worth the effort. Demonstrate leadership and creativity in your goal. By the end of the essay, you’ve transformed your image from that of a tree hugger into a thoroughbred the ad-com can bet on.

  • Part B. Please view this video, entitled Community at Columbia. Diverse, tight-knit clusters and carefully selected learning teams are defining features of the first year at Columbia Business School. Along with more than 100 student organizations and countless events each semester, the cluster system helps to create a supportive and devoted lifelong community. Describe why you are interested in becoming a part of the Columbia community. (Maximum 250 words)

What do business schools expect when they ask a “Why do you love us” question? It’s like my husband showing off his muscles (he’s been working out) and asking “You like these guns?” The only thing I can say is “Ooh, ahh, wonderful.” Columbia makes it worse by nearly dictating what they want you to say. They seem to be begging for “I want to be part of Columbia’s community because of its wonderful student organizations, countless events, and lifelong friends.” It’s enough to make you gag. If you want to stand out—and you do—you have to give them something other than the canned answer.

Beneath this question and video is an interesting piece of information. Columbia is looking for students who love student organizations, attending diverse events, and are inspired by working with others. “No loners need apply” is the subtext. Columbia wants community leaders: let them know you are one. Slip in that service accomplishment: “After a month as a volunteer cleaning plastic off Hong Kong beaches, I organized a fundraiser for Project Kaisei, a non-profit cleaning up the Pacific Ocean. I raised $30,000 and convinced the CEO of my investment firm to institute sustainable plastic-use policies in every portfolio investment.” Then, demonstrate how this interest of yours is relevant: “I envision creating opportunities for Columbia students to make an impact on our local environment and community by generating an interface between Columbia’s Community Action Rewards Everyone, and the nonprofit Bronx River Alliance.” 80 words spent on that, plus a few more on why it’s meaningful to you, are infinitely more powerful than the gush about the gorgeous campus and tight knit community in the Big Apple. And, of course, your demonstrated interest in the environment needs to be for real, not for resume.

Essay 2:

Describe a personal experience and how it has influenced who you are today. This essay should have a personal rather than a professional focus. (Maximum 500 words)

Personal. That is a very specific word. This is not the time for the career failure you wrote for that other school. It is about your life as a real person—your dad, your first car, the most embarrassing moment of your life—an experience that made you who you are. Personal does not mean intimate, however. Don’t use that very tempting “My girlfriend broke up with me” story. Slipping in a line or two at the end about how the personal experience resulted in fame and fortune could work; however, remember not to let those few words pull attention away from the main event.

You can look at this question as consisting of three significant parts.

The experience:

  • This can be a story about be an event that caused you to make a decision, or to change your mind. It can be about your first puppy, or about the time your drill sergeant pushed you until you nearly died. It can be beneficial to have an event that stymied you in some way or forced you to make a choice of some sort. I would probably write about the time when I was six and stole a quarter from the church collection plate to buy an ice cream. I cried for three hours after confessing to my mother. You can also take another approach. You can describe an experience that is broader than just an event—one that arises from a condition, like being the shortest kid in class, or growing up with a popular sister. Any state of being is ok: being the loser, the immigrant, the only one that didn’t speak Spanish, the rich kid. I would use the fact that I was one of eight kids raised in the inner city of Trenton, New Jersey.

The influence:

  • This is the heart of the essay—how the experience influenced you. Your response to the experience should be life-affirming and active, rather than passive. “Because my mother dropped me, I became afraid of heights” is passive: Something else was the causal factor. Active is: “My mother dropped me. I decided that I wanted to make sure all babies have safe environments.” This is the part of the essay where you define what you are made of, what kind of thinking drives your behavior. How awful I felt after the theft of the quarter made me realize that nothing is more important to me than my integrity. My large, struggling family made me into a bit of a tough but I also discovered how to stand by others and be loyal.

The result of that influence:

  • Demonstrate how this influence plays out in your life. For my quarter story, I could cite a time my integrity was challenged, but I think I would go with the time I helped a kid make the right decision when he was tempted to make the wrong one. The result of influence could be expressed in a variety of ways. For example, my loyalty has been challenged many times with good and bad results. A lot of my essay could be about the progression of my experience of what it means to be loyal.

Overall, this essay is very adaptable: it can be all touchy-feely, or accomplishment-driven. At its heart, this prompt wants you to reveal who you are. The ad-com wants to get to know you better, just as you learned that I am a Catholic inner city street tough who will never let you down. Given half a chance, I’ll kick your butt all the way into the best MBA program possible.

For more information about the Columbia essay questions and deadlines, see our Columbia Essay Guide.

The last of the top 10 MBA programs has finally spoken. Here are the essay questions for Kellogg's  class of 2015:

  1. Discuss moments or influences in your personal life that have defined who you are today. (500 word limit)

  2. What have been your most significant leadership experiences? What challenges did you face, and what impact did you have? This is your opportunity to explain how you Think Bravely (personally and/or professionally). (500 word limit)

  3. Imagine yourself at your Kellogg graduation. What career will you be preparing to enter, and how have the MBA and Kellogg helped you get there? (Please answer in terms of your program choice: One-Year, Two-Year, MMM, JD-MBA) (500 word limit)

  4. What one interesting or fun fact would you want your future Kellogg classmates to know about you? (25 words or less)

There are also essays for re-applicants, MMM applicants, and an optional essay, all of which can be found on our Kellogg essay guide.  

The University of Chicago's Booth MBA program has announced its essay questions and application deadlines for the Class of 2015. 

Perhaps following in HBS's footsteps, Booth has moved its Round 1 deadline up a full week; it is now October 2nd, 2012. The Round 2 deadline is January 8th, and the Round 3 deadline is April 4th, no doubt intended to coincide with the auspicious births of Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Timofeyevich Isakov and actor Heath Ledger.

The Essays are:

1 - Essay
What are your short- and long-term goals, and how will an MBA from Chicago Booth help you reach them? (500 words)

2 - Short Answer Essays

  • a. What has been your biggest challenge, and what have you learned from it? (200 words maximum)
  • b. Tell us about something that has fundamentally transformed the way you think. (200 words maximum)

3 - Presentation/Essay
The Chicago experience will take you deeper into issues, force you to challenge assumptions, and broaden your perspective. In a four-slide presentation or an essay of no more than 600 words, broaden our perspective about who you are. Understanding what we currently know about you from the application, what else would you like us to know?

For more information, see our Chicago Booth Essay Guide.