A Proposal for a Better MBA Application

MBA Application essay

“Provide a window into the real you.”

Let’s start with a few basic assumptions:

  • Admissions committee members are professionals, dedicated gate-keepers striving to attract and fashion the best, most diverse class they can.
  • The purpose of application essays is to:
    • Provide a window into the real you.
    • Add value to the other elements of the application.
    • Demonstrate communications ability.

A bit of background: I have worked with applicants to college, business school, medical school, law school, and a variety of graduate specialties since 1994. Of the major professional school application processes, the medical school application process is by far the most demanding. The law school process is the easiest and most focused on grades and test score.  The MBA process is my favorite because I feel that it requires a reasonable amount of effort from the applicant and is still holistic.

The widespread shrinking of MBA applications this year is making the process less holistic and that saddens me.  As an Accepted.com consultant recently emailed me: “This shift of HBS to only 2 essays is killing me since I feel [my client is] leaving so much out!”

I admire the commitment to constantly improve reflected in Harvard Admissions Director Dee Leopold’s May 22 blog post where she announced this year’s app and wrote:

“Our process is the product of an admissions team that is always in design/development mode. All throughout the year we meet and dream up ways that will make it easier for you to feel “understood” and undertake assessment steps that map to what we do here in the classroom and what you will do in your careers. We’re always trying to tweak and improve, and this is what we’ve come up with for the Class of 2015.”

I fear however that applicants, especially those not invited to interview at HBS or those struggling with less room in most MBA applications, are feeling “less understood.” After all, HBS is giving more words to the recommenders than to the applicant in its initial application. It’s like saying, “I really want to understand you, but don’t talk too much.”

So as someone who is seeing what’s being left out in this year’s MBA applications and who also has perspective from other admissions processes and 18 years of experience seeing different applications and essays, here’s my suggestion for next year’s MBA application.

MBA Application Requirements.

      • Undergrad transcript from accredited institutions
      • TOEFL, IELTS, or PTE if applicant did not graduate from a college or university where English is the language of instruction.
      • GMAT or GRE
      • Job and activity history. In addition, applicants to choose the three most significant jobs or activities and indicate why they consider these experiences noteworthy. (150 words maximum for each experience)
      • 4 Required Essay Questions:
  1. What do you want to do after business school? How did you develop this goal? How will attending our school help you do it? (500 words)
  2. Please tell us about a time when you demonstrated Quality X (Could be leadership, teamwork, humility, communications, initiative, innovation. Choose the attribute your school values most.) What did you learn? (300 words)
  3. Tell us about a time when you experienced a setback or failure. What happened? What did you do, feel, and learn? (300 words)
  4. If you have a free day to do anything you want, how do you spend it? (300 words)
      • Optional Information: Please provide context for information contained in your application that you feel needs explanation. If you don’t have anything to explain, don’t write anything. (Maximum 250 words.)

These questions would produce a holistic picture of an applicant.  #4, however, could be any question that elicits non-professional information from a candidate like Duke’s “25 Things.” Or even more off-beat: “If you were to bury 5 things in a time capsule to be found in 100 years, what would they be and why these items?” You get the idea.

Some schools have what I call a “signature question,” a question that is unique to that institution, like Stanford #1 or NYU Stern #3. If your school has a signature question and you want to keep it, substitute it for any one of 2-4

      • 2 Letters of Recommendation. (1 must be from a professional context and from a supervisor; the second can be from a significant, but non-professional commitment.)
      • Interview, by invitation only. I believe that Wharton’s team interview is a great addition to one-on-one interviews since so much work both in business school and beyond is done in teams. Many businesses also require a team interview as part of their hiring process.  Obviously adding the team interview requires a serious manpower and logistical investment.

Some of you will probably read this proposal and think, “Ah, she just wants more essays so she can make more money.” My motives are irrelevant to the merit of my proposal. They can be noble or nefarious, selfish or altruistic. They simply don’t matter. Ultimately, either my proposal improves the application process and gets admissions offices the information they need to create the ever-improving classes they like to brag about, or it doesn’t. And there are still plenty of schools with more demanding applications than I am proposing above.

Here’s to an ever-improving MBA application.

Linda Abraham By Linda Abraham, president and founder of Accepted.com, co-founder and past president of the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, and author of MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools.

This article first appeared on Poets and Quants.