No B-school application essay may be harder to write than the ethics essay. For most applicants, one challenge is simply identifying an appropriate story. Many applicants assume that the ethics essay is designed to put their morals to some stringent litmus test. They brainstorm for examples that show them proudly refusing bribes, pointedly excusing themselves from insider-trading deals, or sternly rejecting other blatantly illegal schemes. They misunderstand the ethic essay’s purpose.
Admissions committees use the ethics essay to see how you analyze and propose solutions to thorny problems that lack black-and-white answers. Managers who expect to lead organizations well must be comfortable with ambiguity and have the emotional intelligence to find their way to solutions that balance complexities. Essays in which you pat yourself on the back for resisting an obviously illegal scheme (which admissions officers would expect you to reject outright) tell them nothing about your ability to balance ambiguous alternatives or conflicting values.
To inventory your own experience for possible ethical stories, look under every rock, including your community, academic, and personal experiences. The key is to search where ethical issues are usually arise: at the intersection of competing interests, such as public versus private, individual versus organization, shareholder versus employee, labor versus management. You’re hunting for gray areas, moments where your loyalties and instincts feel conflicted or collide.
The heart of the ethics essay is your analysis of the alternative decision paths open to you and their potential costs and benefits. Remember that schools don’t pose ethics questions to poke around in your scruples but to see how you tease out a course of action where all your alternatives seem poor. You should explain clearly whom your decision will affect and dispassionately weigh the pluses and minuses of each “solution,” without appearing to judge the various participants or predetermine the outcome.
You should always try to draw the “moral” from the story, the lessons you learned and have applied in similar situations since. This is where you extract the particulars of your ethical challenge into a larger insight or principle. If the best you can do is, “honesty is the best policy” or “do onto others as you would have them do unto you,” you need to keep digging.
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