Scrap the B-School Admissions Essay

Posted by: Louis Lavelle on July 5, 2011

B-school admissions is a process fraught with problems. With the stakes for applicants higher than ever, plagiarism is a growing problem and the widespread use of consultants to polish essays makes it impossible for the admissions team to tell where the applicant ends and the consultant begins. It’s enough to make you want to major in philosophy.

I suspect that part of the problem may be the admissions essays themselves. The questions in many cases are so similar that applicants can turn in virtually identical essays to multiple schools by simply replacing one school name with another—a pet peeve of admissions directors. The similarity makes it possible for consultants to develop strategies for answering the questions that can be applied to virtually any top school. The same strategy they sold to the Harvard applicant will work on the same questions at Wharton, Stanford, and Kellogg.

Consider the humble “why are you pursuing an MBA” question. It’s a fine question and probably one that needs to be addressed at some point during the application process. But it appears in some form on the applications of eight of Bloomberg Businessweek’s 10 top full-time MBA programs. If an applicant has answered it once, the temptation to use the same answer for the next six b-schools must be overpowering.

Career goals? Six of the top 10 ask that one, and unless your career goals change every 10 minutes you’re probably hard-pressed to come up with something new for each application. Accomplishments? Four of the 10.

Which isn’t to say that there’s a dearth of imagination when it comes to essay questions. At UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, where a new curriculum was announced last year, an effort has been made to craft questions that align with its foundational principles. One such principle is “question the status quo,” so one essay question asks applicants to describe a time when they questioned an established practice at their organization. Columbia Business School has applicants choose from a series of inventive questions that include writing an elevator pitch for a new business, a campaign speech, or a description of how they would take advantage of 30 minutes of face time with a top executive.

One of the more intriguing solutions to the essay question dilemma isn't an essay question at all, but a blank sheet of paper. In one of its three required essays, Chicago's Booth School of Business gives applicants free rein to write about anything, in keeping with the school's practice of teaching MBA students how to think, rather than what to think.

But even a blank sheet of paper is no sure fix. A cottage industry sprouted up to advise MBA applicants how to answer "why are you pursuing an MBA"--it's only a matter of time before the same industry begins advising them on how to deal with the "blank sheet" essay. Some MBA admissions consultants, including Stacy Blackman, already are.

If business schools really want to attract applicants who are a good fit for their institutions--and do away with plagiarism, duplicate essays, and the problems posed by consultants all at the same time--the answer is simple: do away with the essays. That's probably easier said than done, and would mean relying much more on interviews, but it's not impossible. A well-crafted application and resume gives admissions committees everything they need to make the first cut. And a 20 minute conversation between the applicant and an admissions rep--no consultants, no cut and paste, no search and replace--will tell them everything they need to know.

Reader Comments

Jeff Lorton

July 5, 2011 4:49 PM


I would like to share information about this topic.

As you know, we help our clients verify their applicants written submissions. At the GMAC conference in June, this was a hot topic. Carrie Marcinkevage helped facilitate a session that discussed the issue of dealing with consultants, plagiarism, duplicate responses and the value of the essays.

Business schools have been discussing the issues and sharing information in an online discussion group, Integrity in MBA Admissions, started by Carrie Marcinkevage from Penn State university, Smeal College of Business, in February. Over 100 business school admissions professionals have joined the group and others may join the group by contacting Carrie at In a web presentation recorded in May, she described plagiarism problems in their MBA application essays and how they have improved their application process to verify those documents:

Admissions professionals at undergraduate and graduate programs are deciding that there is value received from the applicant written response and that verification helps them make fair well-informed decisions. Many MBA programs will be verifying their essays in the new 2011 admissions cycle.

Jeff Lorton
Turnitin for Admissions

Jay Punyamurtiwar

July 8, 2011 9:50 AM

I can not agree more than I already have on this topic. I think the whole process of writing essays has become so repetative, I mean - how could you differentiate 6000 essays on the same topic and expect to be unique or diverse?

Larry Sochrin

July 14, 2011 9:53 AM

i have a different view. Having been an admissions consultant for 14 years, mainly assisting MBA applicants at Kaplan, I've seen essays perform a different role. Many of my clients began with no true understanding of why they wanted to go to business school, other than to improve their earning potential or to get out of a career rut. The essay writing process, especially when working with a good consultant, helped them to focus on understanding who they really were, what career goals really matched them and their educational plans, and what schools mapped the best with their career goals. In many cases, the research I required my clients to go back and do before writing led to them deciding to change directions completely. A good consultant will convince clients to not simply write what they think a school wants to hear, and will never write for the client nor allow any plagiarism. Instead, the process of working on essays helps applicants to truly identify and present what is unique about them, which should help the school admissions staff to make good decisions. One of the first steps I go through with some of my clients is to explain to them that developing a template that covers the same type of essay for multiple schools is a no-win approach. By the way, I can't resist commenting to Jay, whose comment you published before mine, that if he's an applicant, he should be careful to correct the spelling of "repetative" before submitting any essays! Although in this case, this is no doubt a simple typo, such errors are yet one more insight that essays can give schools about applicants.

Janson Woodlee

July 19, 2011 8:28 PM

Agree with Larry, rather obviously. While essay editing is the flagship service of our business, the underlying ethos is on teaching clients "how to think, rather than what to think."

In speaking with a few of our past clients (now MBA graduates) last week, some common themes emerged. Transitions back into their post-MBA careers have been both exciting and sobering, especially because student groups (and business cases) thrust them into pivotal leadership roles that don't mirror their post-MBA careers. Concrete skills from Strategy or Operations might not even be touched in the short-term (if at all).

What these individuals do acknowledge is that MBA programs HAVE truly helped them to think strategically about their career vision. "I've learned to not only pursue but recognize a great opportunity and go after it." MBA programs have helped instill the confidence to share opinions with senior business leaders. "I would never have shared my opinion so openly before getting my MBA."

This is a process that we (and good admissions consultants, IMHO) initiate with clients. Whether getting them to clarify their career goals, conduct a realistic self-appraisal, or even draft their 'elevator pitch,' they ultimately feel more confident in their MBA and post-MBA paths. We facilitate rather than fabricate self-reflection and goal-setting. At the end of the day, I think many MBA programs will acknowledge this synergy between admissions committees, effective admissions consultants, applicants and applications/essays as a valuable one.

Janson Woodlee
Ivy Eyes Editing

Louis Lavelle

July 22, 2011 9:40 AM

Assuming you accept the premise that every MBA applicant actually has a truly unique story to tell (I'm not entirely sure I do) the kind of self-reflection advocated here still serves an important purpose, even absent an admissions essay. And consultants can still have a role: helping applicants decide what their story is and the best way to present their choice of recommenders and in their admissions interviews. The problem, in my humble opinion, isn't the self-reflection and the story-telling, it's the form it takes in the application: a written essay. The essay gives applicants much too much time to get everything just so (and to get into trouble with plagiarism etc.), and it gives the adcom folks absolutely no opportunity to stray from the script. When I hire someone, I always make it a point to ask a question straight out of left field: I want to see them think on their feet. With an essay, there is no thinking on your feet.

Louis Lavelle
Associate Editor
Bloomberg Businessweek

Tyler Cormney

July 22, 2011 6:45 PM

I don’t agree that scrapping the business school essays is the solution to the problems raised in this post. I have been an MBA admissions consultant for over five years, and while ghost writing admissions consultants and plagiarizing applicants do exist, I believe the vast majority of consultants and the applicants we serve are ethical people.

While Mr. Lavelle makes a number of valid points regarding inherent flaws in business school essays, I believe that the positives of including them in the MBA application outweigh their shortcomings.

The essay writing assignment requires busy, young professionals to answer challenging questions about their life experiences and about their future plans. Many would-be applicants decide that they are not up to the challenge; therefore, the essays ensure that the ones who accept the challenge are serious about attending graduate business school.

The essays are the best way for applicants to differentiate themselves from the competition, share important life experiences that hide in the “white spaces” of the resume, and describe not only “what” they have achieved but also “why” those achievements are meaningful to them.

Are transcripts, test scores, and a resume really sufficient, as Mr. Lavelle suggests, for making a first cut? I don’t believe so. Those are historical documents whereas the essays permit the applicant to share his or her plans for the future and to build a case for pursuing an MBA from that particular school.

Mr. Lavelle raises a valid concern that some applicants enlist the help of admissions consultants while others must go it alone, often for financial reasons. To address this issue, our company, MBA Prep School, has deployed online learning technology to emulate the experience of working with a private coach for a fraction of the cost. By giving more applicants access to guidance and essay writing tools we are helping to level the playing field, not just for the essays but also across the other components of the application: resume, reference letters, application forms, and interviews.

I believe that admission essays are here to stay, and I feel that’s a good thing for both applicants and admissions officers. For applicants, the business school essays are an opportunity for self-examination and self-expression; for admissions committees, they are a rich source to aid their decision making process.

1st-year student

July 24, 2011 6:18 AM

Interesting topic. I would like to share my point of a view from a position of a student who is about to begin his 2 year MBA program and who in just one month, even before official orientation has even begun, has gone through visting over 10 Business Schools prior to applying to 9, taking the GMAT twice and suffering the eternal wait to get the fortunate admissions call.

Personally I would like to consider the question 'Is essay writing the most efficient way to get to know someone and know that he or she is a good candidate for an MBA program, succesful enough to pay all the bills he or she will be incurring while in Business School? Since contrary to the sci-fi buffs who think machines will eventually be running the world, I believe that business is just a relationship between two or more people. Maybe we should develop a ground breaking, cost effective alternative, one that might allow us to get to know each other a little bit better. How about taking the pre selected candidate (Good GMAT score, nice resume, perhaps one who has a sense of humor) out to lunch for one hour. Maybe breakfast or even dinner. Or are we getting so busy these days programming our smart phones, setting our GPS to take us from point A and B without knowing what lies in between, only to do our job on time with the hope of not having to work over time, reading the gazillion applications that come with each cycle?? I would much rather read an author that I love 1000 times than 1000 author's that I dont know to hopefully find one who mildly entertains me. And if that is not the most efficient way, maybe the essays will not stand the time.

If essays were intended to correlate someone's success and FIT with his or hers writing abilities, I think that today where it is possible to get in touch easily one should question the staus quo.

But hey, who am I to question the 'status quo', as I applied to Berkely and I think that ironically my app got lost in the Internet.

Or then again you should believe in destiny and think that you will end up where you were meant to be.

P.S. I didnt use a consultant to review this comment so it might have the occasional typo or even an improper use of the english language.

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