Posted on November 13, 2016

‘Creativity’ and Business School Essays

Having worked with MBA applicants on their application essays in the past five years, I have observed that the application essay writing is getting more and more challenging for the applicants every year. In this highly competitive admissions process,  admissions essays distinguish them from the sea of equally qualified applicants they are competing with. One of the greatest challenges that stare business school applicants in the face is that business schools come up with essay prompts that challenge them to use their imagination and creativity every year. These questions are thoughtfully composed by the Admission Committee to get illuminating glimpses into their prospective students' lives. These essay questions offer the applicants an opportunity to showcase their interests and passions, backgrounds, and life experiences that have shaped their unique personalities.

I want to share some of the most interesting essay questions that have intrigued my students.

1. If you could choose one song that expresses who you are, what is it, and why? (Haas- 250-word maximum) Your song can be in any language, from any culture, and does not need to contain lyrics. The strongest responses will focus on answering why this song expresses who you are.)

This unique essay question seems to be a favorite of Haas as it has been asked four times so far and aims to get insights into the writer’s personality. It is more challenging than it appears to select a particular song that expresses your thinking and values and reflects the true you. By explaining what is common between your personality and the lyrics of this song and how this song defines who you are, you are, in fact, sharing your emotions, feelings, values, fears, and dreams, which in turn reveal the personality traits that will set you apart from other candidates. The “what” of the song is not as important as the “why"?”

2. You are the author of the book of Your Life Story. In 2,000 characters or less, please write the table of contents for the book in the space provided or upload it as an attachment.  Note: approach this essay with your unique style.  We value creativity and authenticity.

Another fascinating but highly creative essay prompt that has made the applicants sweat themselves out is Cornell’s ‘Table of Contents.’  By asking you to create a table of contents of your life story, Cornell offers you an opportunity to demonstrate your passions/ abilities/ influences/ accomplishments that have not been described anywhere else in your application. You may approach this essay in two ways- thematically or chronologically. Please note that this year’s students can use up to 500 words instead of 300 words.

3. The "Team Fuqua" spirit and community is one thing that sets The Duke MBA experience apart. It is a concept that extends beyond the student body to include faculty, staff, and administration.  When a new person joins the Admissions team, we ask that person to share with everyone in the office a list of "25 Random Things About Yourself."  As an Admissions team, we already know the new hire's professional and academic background, so learning these "25 Random Things" helps us get to know someone's personality, background, special talents, and more.  In this spirit, the Admissions Committee also wants to know you–beyond the professional and academic achievements listed in your resume and transcript.  You can share important life experiences, likes/ dislikes, hobbies, achievements, fun facts, or anything that helps us understand what makes you who you are.  Share with us your list of "25 Random Things" about YOU.

Duke’s list of 25 random things is my personal favorite.  For the last five years, the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University has asked applicants to share a list of “25 Random Things” about themselves.  This question allows applicants to showcase interesting and meaningful facts about themselves that they otherwise might not get a chance to share with the Ad.Com.

4. If you could trade places with someone for one day, who would it be and why? (Georgia Tech)

This question also requires a lot of soul searching and self-reflection as you think of exchanging roles with someone you aspire to be.  The Ad.Com would like to see your thought process and your view of your personal and professional goals through this question. Again the ‘why’ part of this question is more important than the ‘what’ part

5. I am unique because....... (UCLA- FEMBA Essay:500 words)

This is another question that baffles students and demands significant self-refection. In addition to introspection, discussion with your parents, siblings, and spouse may also help you identify your distinguishing qualities. You may shortlist 2-3 personal traits and one professional trait and illustrate them with examples. Avoid listing 10 traits that would read like the laundry list without any real-life examples. Make statements about your personal or professional trait and back them up as evidence of your statements. For each talent/ quality, you should also reflect on your life factors that have influenced/ shaped your personality.

When discussing creative questions that stimulate the thought process, I would like to recall the following two essay questions that Richard Ivey (2013-14) and Georgia Tech (2012-13) had asked in the past.

6. Imagine that you received an early morning call from your office telling you that due to a technical issue, the office wouldn’t be open that day: how would you spend your ‘found time?’ (Richard Ivey -250 word limit.

This ‘found time’ question expected the applicants to describe how they would use their new-found time off if they came to know that their office was unexpectedly closed for a day. Would they like to pursue your passions/interests (read a book, play, hike), or would they like to spend time with your family, friends?  Your response to the question would give the Ad Com an understanding of your interests and passions.

7. If you could host a dinner party and invite any four people, living or dead, whom would you invite and what would the five of you discuss together? There is no right answer concerning the dinner guests; we want you to be creative and thoughtful in your response. (Georgia Tech -4,000 chars).

This question gave a hard time to my students. The purpose of this question was to gain insights into applicants’ views, ideologies, and perspectives. Their first challenge was to select four people (living or dead) whose life experiences, achievements, had influenced them, inspired, or intrigued them. Then they had to come up with common topics of discussion/ questions. Their choice of guests, the topics, and the details of discussion breathed life into the essay and offered insights into the writers’ values and belief system.

Some other interesting questions that allow applicants to showcase their creativity and imagination are:

  • Please share with the admissions committee an interesting or surprising fact about you. (Kelley- 25 words),
  • On your 75th birthday, someone close to you presents our laudation (tribute).  It can be a friend, colleague, family member, etc.  Please describe in detail what this person would say about you and your life. (IMD- 300 words)
  • What does integrity mean to you?  How does integrity relate to building communities of trust in academic, personal, and professional settings?  What expectations should Purdue have towards its students with regard to academic integrity?  What consequences should students who do not uphold these standards face? (Purdue 500 words).

B-schools come up with such creative questions because they are seeking well-rounded personalities, and not one dimensional professionally accomplished people. However, what makes tackling these essay questions more challenging is the changing trend of fewer and shorter essays every year. Schools are not only reducing the number of required essays ( 1 or 2) but also the number of words they expect the applicants to write which makes this process all the more daunting for applicants. For example, CMU now requires only one essay of 300-350 words (‘Imagine that you meet up with a member of the admission committee at an airport while on a layover. You have an opportunity to make a memorable impression. Use this essay to introduce yourself. Include any information that you believe is important for the committee member to know about you both professionally and personally.) and MIT requires a Cover Letter of 250 words or fewer (Please submit a cover letter seeking a place in the MIT Sloan MBA Program. Your letter should conform to standard business correspondence and be addressed to Mr. Rod Garcia, Senior Director of Admissions). 

As each school composes questions per their own requirements, it helps prevent plagiarism and ensures that the students actually compose the essays themselves. Since they change questions every year, applicants cannot recycle one school’s essay responses to other schools. Most schools include it in their instructions that there is no right or wrong answer. We want you to be creative and thoughtful in your response.

Thus, developing stories for these fascinating essay topics for MBA essays is a skill that demands immense self-reflection and preparation. To choose your best stories/ experiences, you first need to comprehend the essay prompt well and then devote a significant amount of time in reflecting deeply on your professional aspirations and life experiences. After selecting your stories, organize them coherently, and flesh them out with relevant details. Remember, the essence of writing is rewriting. So you must revise your essays multiple times to ensure that all the pieces of your story fit together and then proofread them for any grammar, punctuation, or spelling errors. Lastly, use economical expressions to fit your story to meet the stringent word limit specifications. By following this structured approach, you will transform your stories into memorable essays that will help you secure admission to your chosen school.

B School essay writing is a creative journey- the more time and thought you will invest in it, the more rewarding it will turn out to be for you.

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