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.


Evan Forster, founder of Forster-Thomas, provides his tips and advice on how to answer the HBS essay question for the class of 2016.

Now that we’ve all gotten over the shock that HBS only has one essay (which, for the record, is all you need), let’s look at how to actually answer that question. Here it is:

You’re applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your resume, school transcripts, extra-curricular activities, awards, post-MBA career goals, test scores and what your recommenders have to say about you. What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy? (no word limit)

First, notice there is no word limit. But don’t take this as an invitation to test the limits of HBS admissions board’s patience. Exercise self-control. Don’t babble or give an expanded laundry list of every achievement you’ve ever been a part of. Our rule of thumb for this essay is 300-600 words. If it takes more words than that to make a case for why HBS should take you, then you’re probably not HBS material.

As for what to write? Something new!! Something not in your other application materials, just as the prompt says. Your essay also needs to demonstrate that you have those essential HBS values and attributes: “A habit of leadership, analytical aptitude and appetite, and engaged community citizenship.” (FYI, we didn’t make those up ourselves. They came from a recent HBS info session, during which HBS admissions board member Kelly Ward stated that those would be excellent attributes to discuss in the essay).

There are two ways you could communicate these qualities. The first would be to give three stories, each of which demonstrates one of the attributes. But the more sophisticated method—the one Forster-Thomas prefers—is coming up with ONE story that demonstrates ALL THREE qualities. Think you don’t have such a story? You do. You just have to find it. Chances are it’s a story you don’t think of often, because it’s not “impressive” enough. But it is impressive—it’s that defining moment that made you realize that you could learn to be a leader in a community. It might be a bit old, or even be embarrassing, but it shows how you think and how you became the person you are today, with the attributes to do the great things you have done.

If you’re struggling to find your story, here are some hints:

  • What’s that story your family loves to tell about you—the one that embarrasses the Hell out of you when they recount it each year during Thanksgiving dinner? What does that story say about you and how you operate…or how you’ve changed? 
  • “What if” questions—or the kind of kooky questions other MBA programs ask—are great areas to mine for stories that express you as a leader: What would you do if you had the afternoon off from work? What are you most passionate about? What is your favorite song and what does it say about you? Such questions might seem like odd places to look, but they can unearth powerful stories. 
  • Embrace those defining moments in your life—the powerful moments where “a way of being” was altered, a moral changed, or an emotional muscle grew. Focusing solely on what you do now fails to show HOW you’ve developed as a person. You need to dig deeper by going back and figuring out what experiences led you to be who you are today. Those are the stories that demonstrate your ability to adapt, learn, and evolve. 
  • Let your family help you. They know your secrets and they’re not afraid to remind you of them. They also know what your greatest qualities are. Ask ‘em. They’ll share. And then ask when they’ve seen it in action. Mother does know best… 
Warning! Warning! Whichever story you come up with, don’t oversell it. Don’t tell us you’re the “only person who has ever done something like this.” Remember, it’s HBS you’re applying to—your competition is filled with “Firsts” and “Bests.” Let your accomplishments speak for themselves.

--Evan Forster
 

For more information, check out our HBS Essay Guide for the Class of 2016.


Forster-Thomas essay coach Kirsten Guenther shares her tips on how to answer the Stanford GSB essay questions for the class of 2016.

Last year, Stanford tweaked their essay questions a bit, reducing the number of essays from four to three and increasing the word count of the choose-one-of-three essay. In this year's May 24th newsletter, they wrote, "This worked really well, so essay questions are remaining the same as last year." In other words, this year's Stanford essays are identical to last year's. But you still need to make sure you answer them the right way, so here we go:

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.


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.


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.


Evan Forster, founder of Forster-Thomas, provides his tips and advice on how to answer the HBS essay questions for the class of 2015.

When you've been doing this as long as I have, there's one proverb you know is always true: The more things change, the more they stay the same. And this couldn't be truer than with the new Harvard Business School essay questions.

Hidden deep within essay 1, "Tell us something you did well," is your basic accomplishment and/or leadership question (see chapters 9 and 10 of The MBA Reality Check). The choice is yours, but I'd go with leadership. This is HBS, so it's all about leadership potential. The obvious default is to find a great professional moment in your work history, but if you don't have one, don't despair. After all, you're barely 25. What did you expect? (If your answer is, "to rule the world" you're a perfect HBS candidate). What you need now is to—dare I say it—dig down deep and find a great moment in your not-so-distant past wherein you led the charge, faced a challenge, and got others to row that boat across the Delaware with you at its prow. (No white wig unless there's a drag aspect to your triumphant tale).

But if not at work, then where? Leadership is everywhere: in your family, with your friends, and in your extracurriculars (or as we like to call them at Forster-Thomas Inc, your Power-curriculars ©2012—things you do that change a community). This means anything from throwing a really great surprise bachelorette party to launching a college mentor program. The key is in the lesson you learn that you can and do apply to every part of your professional life. Remember, you need to demonstrate a strength or, as we like to call it, a super power!  

Essay 2: "Tell us about something you wish you had done better." What's behind that door, Vanna White? Well let's pull the curtain back and what do we find—yes, it's another failure or mistake question in disguise (see Chapter 13 in The MBA Reality Check). In this essay, you need to communicate a weakness, or at the risk of overdoing the metaphor, your personal Kryptonite. Again, this means digging down deep and really telling the truth about something you screwed up and what you learned from it—not how you fixed it or saved the day in the 11th hour. Remember, in this reality show, you do not get immunity. You must face the music, no holds barred. Admit the truth about yourself: something not so great; something you wish no one knew; something you would love to take back, but can't.

Does this flop come from your personal or professional life? It does not matter. (That said, it cannot be a bad grade. That's a different essay entirely—see Optional Essays in Chapter 19 of The MBA Reality Check). What matters here is that you see your weakness and change your behavior as you move forward. And when you see it and come out with it, admissions is gonna love you. They're gonna see what your good friends, lover, wife, partner, frat brothers, and teammates love about you—your ability to face the truth about you.

Finally, it's all about what you learned from this personal or professional error. How have you grown? How, when faced with subsequent similar circumstances, do you take your life/profession on now? That's what makes you an awesome leader—now and in the future.

Tip: If you're not a little worried about sharing this story with the committee, you are not HBS material. In fact, you're not top ten material—and the Tribal Council will definitely vote you off the treacherous Island of Harvard.

This year, if you make it to the HBS interview, you will encounter Question 3, "The Last Word," as Dean Leopold refers to it (I like to call this one Survivor: HBS, The Final Round).

Should you make it this far, just think talk radio. Nothing is more difficult than having to figure out the "underlying issue" in 8 minutes or less when Uncle David and I host Job Talk. So, what do you do? Well, you can't prepare for this one since the topic of the essay is the interview, and until you've had it, you won't know what was said.

What I can tell you is that you need to be authentic. Real. Ask yourself what you really wished you could've told that interviewer. What do you truly think needed expanding? Or what burning question did you have—after you walked out. We all get 'em. Hindsight is 20/20. This is your opportunity to show your ability to dance in the moment and zero in on the underlying issue—just like we have to do with our callers. So, be your own radio talk show host and, no matter what, say what you are thinking. Identify the elephant in the room during the interview and go for it. It's not a time to be careful. Ultimately this is about taking a huge risk. Doug Flutie, throw that Hail Mary pass!

For more information about the HBS essay questions and deadlines, see our HBS essay guide.


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.  


Forster-Thomas Essay Coach Justin Marshall provides his tips on how to answer Haas’ MBA essays.

If Haas’s collection of essays were a meal, it would be Kaiseki.  For those whose knowledge of Japanese culture extends only as far as sushi, karaoke, and toilets that sing and flush themselves, let me explain:  Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese meal composed of seemingly countless courses, each one about the size of a walnut.  Because every course is so small, it’s easy to underestimate its powers. But sure enough, each one packs an amazing punch, from its nuanced flavors and textures to its beautiful presentation.

So yeah, that’s Haas: A whole lot of essays, most of them teeny tiny. But don’t underestimate them; like a Kaiseki chef, you’ll have to be an artist, delicately imbuing each and every essay with subtle textures and powerful flavors. Every word counts, and every essay should be able to stand on its own.

 

Essay 1: What brings you the greatest joy? How does this make you distinctive? (250 words)

In case you forgot that one of America’s top b-schools is located in Hippie central, Haas’ very first essay is here to bring you back down to (mother) earth.

But beware: Haas is looking for honesty here, not lip service. That’s why they changed the essay—for years, they asked what candidates were most passionate about, but they got tired of people writing about “helping others” or “the environment” or some other crap. So now they ask about joy, and that’s what you should talk about. If your greatest joy is helping others or the saving the environment, then talk about that—but you better be able to back up those words with evidence (action). More than likely, though, your greatest joy is something more “trivial”: cooking, kickboxing, playing guitar, running in the park. As long as it’s legal in the state of Alabama, that’s what you should talk about here, and the trick is to go deep—why is this your greatest joy, and how has it affected your mindset and perspective on life?

Essay 2: What is your most significant accomplishment? (250 words)

If you’re applying to Harvard, you’re in luck—you already have three accomplishments to choose from, each with a word count not much different than Haas gives you. But don’t overlook that four-syllable word: significant. Haas doesn’t want any old accomplishment here, they want to know what you see as the most important thing you’ve done—ever. So repurposing that essay about assisting in some M&A deal probably ain’t going to cut it. You need an achievement that either allowed you to grow and change (a defining moment in your life) or to have a profound impact upon others. Don’t be afraid to go back in time to your teen or even preteen years, as long as you can identify a defining moment that really changed your mindset, and then provide adult evidence of that mindset in action.

Essay 3. Describe a time when you questioned an established practice or thought within an organization. How did your actions create positive change? (250 words)

Here’s an important insight I tell all my candidates: Leaders are rebels. They don’t adhere to the status quo, they break from it, improve upon it, and make no apologies for doing so. That’s what Haas wants to see here. You need to find a time in which you thought and acted independently. It’s OK if you didn’t reinvent the wheel. Maybe you only added tires or treads. What’s important is that you explain how others thought, why you decided to break from that viewpoint, and how it turned out. It’s even OK if your initiative failed, as long as you successfully made people recognize that there was another way to look at things.

Essay 4. Describe a time when you were a student of your own failure. What specific insight from this experience has shaped your development? (250 words)

If most high-achieving young professionals have a weakness, it’s admitting that they have a weakness. As someone who is hyperaware of my own flaws (all 4,387 of them), this drives me crazy, and I enjoy nothing more than helping my candidates discover all the ways they’ve fallen on their asses throughout their lives. A true failure does indeed require you to fall on your ass, and if you blame it on the slick pavement, you failed to be a student of your own failure. You need to identify your own personal responsibility in the matter, even if you secretly think it was someone else’s fault (that in itself is a failure, by the way). Most importantly, embrace your failure. Don’t mitigate anything. Trying to make your failure sound not as bad as it really was is the biggest failure one can make.

Essay 5. Describe a time when you led by inspiring or motivating others toward a shared goal. (250 words)

If you think about it, every action of leadership requires you to inspire or motivate others in some form or another. The key to this one is that it must be a shared goal. That means this can’t be a story about how you got others to contribute to a cause only you care about. However, if you were able to inspire others to care about your own goal, thereby creating a shared goal, well then you get double bonus points. The important factor here is that you show how you did it, which demonstrates your personal leadership style. Did you push? Did you cajole? Did you make a trade? Did you nurture? There’s no one right answer—we just need to know that you know what works for you.

6. a. What are your post-MBA short-term and long-term career goals? How have your professional experiences prepared you to achieve these goals? b. How will an MBA from Haas help you achieve these goals? (1000 word maximum for 6a. and 6b.)

So much for Kaiseki. After all those little teeny essays, here’s a 1,000-word, American-sized, flame-broiled whopper. In the not-so-distant past, most schools had lengthy goals essays; these days only a couple still do.

Two important things here. First, unlike many goals essays, Haas wants you to talk about your past professional experiences. Don’t go overboard here (150-250 words is appropriate), and don’t just slip in all your professional achievements to make sure you squeezed ‘em in somewhere. Haas wants to know how your career prepared you for your goals. If you’re planning on making a career change, this might seem impossible, but it isn’t. Think about the skills, insights, and experiences you’ve gained that are universally applicable to any career—you’ll be amazed how many there are.

Secondly, don’t skimp on section b. If it’s less than 250 words, you won’t seem to have done thorough enough research on Haas. And since Haas knows they are often viewed as a second choice to other schools (such as their almost-as-crunchy neighbor, Stanford), you need to convince them that you really know the school and really want to go there. And no, using the word “really” a lot of times won’t do the trick. This requires research, folks, and showing that you know why Haas is just right for you. If you’re lucky, it will be—it’s a Helluva program.

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


Forster-Thomas founder Evan Forster provides his tips and suggestions on how to answer the HBS MBA essay questions.

The more things change, the more things stay the same. In the nearly twenty years I’ve been coaching people on how to approach their MBA essays, I’ve seen all the schools, from the top echelon to the bottom of the barrel, pretty much stay the same at their core. Sure, sometimes schools ask for your “long-term goals,” and sometimes they call them “career expectations.” Sometimes schools call a mistake a mistake, and sometimes they call it a setback. But essentially the approach is always the same: Be specific, tell the truth, dig down deep, and take risks. That said, here we go with Harvard Business School’s 2011-12 essay questions.

Tell us about three of your accomplishments (600 words).

Yeah, I know, it’s not exactly the same as last year, but its damn close. Here’s the deal: all they took out was “tell us why.” The likely reason? Because no one ever bothered to answer it—except for Forster-Thomas candidates. So we say tell them anyway.

What should you write about? Firsts and bests. “I launched the first ever…” “I was rated the best in my….” Whether it’s a first or a best, you better have overcome a hurdle. Some big-ass Goliath better have stood in your way. But remember, it’s all about context. What’s big for someone else might not have been a big deal for you. For example: completing the Ironman isn’t such a big deal nowadays. Unless, of course, you have one leg. After all, we are talking about Harvard.

And of course it’s the biggest deal when what you’ve accomplished lives on without you. Like that training manual for the telecom group, or that college-bound program for inner city kids you no longer run.

Here’s the structure, kids: you get 200 words for each of the three accomplishments. Each one goes like this: about 100-125 words for what you did, and at least 75 for why it’s so significant, as in what did it teach you, how did it change you, what’s the impact you made on yourself or that organization? In a perfect world, one accomplishment is personal, one is professional, and one is about an extracurricular act of service.

Tell us three setbacks you have faced. (600 words)

This year, HBS changed “failure” to “setback.” This is a big distinction. They are not the same. Like it says in Chapter 13 of The MBA Reality Check, a failure is something you screwed up, or that went wrong because of you. A failure is something you take responsibility for.

Whereas, while you might be responsible for a setback, you are not always responsible for a setback. It can be something you have no control over. For example, we had a client who had a brain aneurysm. That can be used as a setback. But there can be no more than one of these.

One of your setbacks should definitely be a failure or a screw up—something you can’t take back. In this type of setback, the failure causes the setback. For example, your low-income mentee missed his early decision or first round college application deadlines because you missed two sessions of the mentoring program due to last-minute work conflicts. What’s the failure? Work came first, even though you made a commitment to that kid. (Please note: I realize the mentee should take responsibility as well, but you’re writing about your part in the matter, not his.) A straight up setback with this topic would have been that the wireless system at your mentee’s high school went down hours before the deadline. How did you help meet the deadline or get the deadline pushed back?

The question for all of these is how you handled it moving forward. And the key to all of these is being really honest.

Structure? Don’t use more that 50% of your word count describing the actual situation. You want to save half of it for analyzing and synthesizing the situation and how it defined or matured you.

Why do you want an MBA? (400 words)

One word: KISS. Keep it simple, stupid. Harvard’s gone back and forth with this question. For many years they asked it, then they made it optional, and last year they got rid of it altogether. But, like Herpes, it moves around and eventually comes back. Here’s how it goes: like all great goals essays, you need to be really clear about what you want to do (see Chapter 8 of The MBA Reality Check) in the long term. Is it okay to have more than one long-term goal? Yes. While your goal doesn’t necessarily have to be groundbreaking, it needs to create change (that’s the HBS watchword) and make a difference. If you don’t believe us, read the HBS mission statement. What has shifted a little bit since our book was written is the economy and the relative importance of a short-term goal. Harvard, and every other school, wants to make sure you know how you’re going to make your dream happen. What’s the road map?

What is NOT important for Harvard is why you want to go to Harvard. While you might mention a specific HBS attribute (and not just the tired old Case Method), why you want to go to Harvard in particular doesn’t need to be explained. That’s right, the place has an attitude. But remember, the key to getting in is that yours better be bigger. In this essay, be up to something big, and invite Harvard to join you.

Answer a question you wish we’d asked (400 words).

This is a Forster-Thomas favorite. It requires the ultimate in creativity. Don’t just read Chapter 15 of The MBA Reality Check, imbibe it. To get this one going, use the right side of your brain. Questions to ask yourself would be the following: What’s something really surprising about you? For example, do you play hockey and tap dance? What’s the worst thing people would say about you? (No really, the worst thing.) What’s the best thing people would say about you? When people make fun of you, what story do they tell? Who do you really look up to and what do you have in common with that person? Most importantly, what negative attributes do you share with that person? This essay is an opportunity for you to show how in touch with yourself you are. It is not an opportunity to show how big your junk is. That should be self-evident. Rule of thumb: if you have to talk about it, it’s probably not all that.

On that note, is any topic sacred? Probably not. It’s all about the grace and maturity with which you handle it, with a small side of self-deprecation.  One last thing: never use this as a space to write about your bad grades!!!! This is not an optional essay. And, of course, only write an optional essay if absolutely necessary!

For more infomation, see our HBS 2011-2012 MBA Essay Guide