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MBA Essay Questions That Put Applicants in the Spotlight

In an effort to better determine which applicants will best fit in on campus, business schools are turning to nontraditional MBA admissions essay questions. The purpose is to garner information beyond the usual résumé, work experience, and leadership potential featured in the rest of the application. And it doesn’t hurt that these more personal questions call for more interesting and creative responses that capture the attention of the admissions committee members reading them.

Ultimately, schools want to enroll students who are a good fit for their offerings and culture, and this is one of the ways they are attempting to find their perfect matches. Each business school has crafted its own unique question—from the Columbia Business School option of writing about an outrageous business plan to the New York University’s Stern School of Business “personal expression” question, which has applicants sharing their passions about everything from music CDs to recipes. The majority of these nontraditional essay questions are meant to unearth personal characteristics, style, and attitude as a means of understanding the type of contribution an applicant would make to his or her class and the campus community as a whole.


Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business asks applicants to share either something that is surprising about them or their proudest moment. Although the last application cycle was the first time these two options were offered, a similar question has been around for about three years. One of the most memorable responses came from someone who participated in the Warrior Dash, an extreme 5K run that has participants crawling through mud and leaping over fire, says James Frick, director of MBA admissions at Tepper. Many others, he adds, used these essays to discuss family, often to convey their gratitude to their parents for helping them grow into the person they are today.

Applicants to the UCLA Anderson School of Management must answer a direct question about the people and events that have shaped their character. For the past couple of years, this question has replaced other more roundabout questions attempting to get at the same information, says Craig Hubbell, associate director of MBA admissions at UCLA Anderson. One applicant wrote about what he learned working on his grandparents’ farm, including how he will incorporate these skills into his future career and pay particular attention to work/life balance in an attempt to avoid working himself to death as his grandparents did. Someone else wrote about being homeless as a child, and another shared the story of her life in a polygamous family. “It’s interesting when you are reading essay after essay late at night,” says Hubbell. “[It] grabs your attention.”

The admissions committee at University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business keeps its interest piqued with a question asking applicants to describe themselves to future classmates in 100 words or less. “We want to see how people present themselves in a quick snapshot,” says Soojin Kwon Koh, director of admissions at Ross. A successful response was one in which the applicant defined himself as though he were an entry in the dictionary. “I really like this question,” she adds. “When I’m doing a final review of applications, this is the one I turn to because it gives you a sense of how applicants view themselves.”


Asking a specific question about life—what brings you the greatest joy—is how the admissions committee at the UC, Berkeley Haas School of Business seeks to understand the personality of applicants better. In its first year, this question has acquired mixed responses, says Stephanie Fujii, director of admissions at Haas. The most successful applicants, she adds, share their authentic selves through the essay. “Embrace this as an opportunity to tell us something that’s not easily translated from your résumé,” says Fujii. Some of the best responses, she adds, focused on why an applicant chose a particular subject as their joy or passion.

Passions are a common theme for business schools seeking students who will make the best fit. More than 10 years ago, NYU Stern began asking applicants to describe themselves using any method they would like. People have shared collages, mocked-up guitars, personalized board games, View Masters with little pictures depicting their life, statues, even menus. Last year, the school updated the question to allow for USB, DVD, and CD submissions, too, says Isser Gallogly, assistant dean of MBA admissions at Stern. The possibilities seem almost endless.

While many applicants feel overwhelmed by these kinds of unexpected and nontraditional essay questions, administrators say there are benefits for the applicants, as well. “Embrace it,” says Gallogly. “Applicants often feel as though their profile is typical. They worry how they’re going to stand out, and questions like this help them set themselves apart.”

Join the discussion on the Bloomberg Businessweek Business School Forum, visit us on Facebook, and follow @BWbschools on Twitter.
Di Meglio is a reporter for in Fort Lee, N.J.

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