What are the ultimate business school essay questions?

Over the years as an admissions consultant, I’ve worked with all kinds of applicants and seen all kinds of essay questions from a wide array of schools. Some of the questions are certainly enlightening (“what matters most to you and why”) and some are unintentionally comical and ridiculous (“if you were to choose the school mascot, what would it be and why?”). And other times, the essay questions tend to be more relevant or insightful for certain kinds of applicants vs others (“what are your career goals and why” may yield more insight from someone who isn’t a banker/consultant).

But the point of these essays (as well as the recommendation letters and interviews) really is to get a sense for who the applicant is BEYOND the resume. In other words, adcoms really hope to gain more insight into who you are as a person that may not be immediately obvious or reasonably inferred from your resume (i.e. if you’re an engineer, it’s reasonable to assume that math and analytical skills aren’t a problem for you compared to most non-engineering b-school applicants).

Some schools ask too many questions. Others don’t ask enough. Some ask too many questions that overlap. Others simply don’t ask questions as directly as they should. And yet others ask a mix of questions that may reveal more from certain kinds of applicants vs others.

If I were to come up with the essential list of questions, it really would be these five things (sort of a condensed “best of” or rewording of some of the “best” questions from various schools):

(1) Introduce yourself to the admissions committee in a one-minute (or less) audio or video recording (mp3, mpg, mov, wmv).

UCLA is the first to introduce an audio/video essay, and I personally think it’s a great idea. Most if not all b-school applicants will have video cams or audio recording capabilities in their laptops or desktops, so there shouldn’t be any technical constraints.

In my view, having a one-minute “elevator pitch” is a great way to get a sense for who the applicant is that perhaps 1,000 written words can’t fully capture. An adcom may not be able to get an in-depth understanding of the person in one minute or less, but they can certainly get a sense of the person’s essence, personality, and most importantly – their speaking skills.

Given that managers spend most of their day in meetings talking to colleagues, vendors, customers, investors, Board members, and so forth – speaking skills are essential in business. In addition, business professionals (in any industry or job function) are constantly introducing themselves (or their companies) to new people. Being able to succinctly introduce yourself in a clear, specific and succinct way is an invaluable skill – that’s how people remember you.

Moreover, this one-minute elevator pitch gives the applicant the chance to distill and synthesize who they are (sort of an “executive summary” of their entire application or what some may call a “positioning statement”) in a dynamic and personable way.

Also, it could even help the adcom cut down on the number of interview invites as well.

(2) What is your biggest accomplishment to date and why? (400 words)

I personally think asking for three accomplishments is unnecessary. Asking for just one accomplishment allows the adcom to understand what your biggest talent is — and what aspect of your life you’ve worked the hardest at, because no substantive achievement happens overnight. It’s usually the culmination and the apex of many years (if not decades) of sustained commitment and dedication. In other words, is there at least *one* thing in the applicant’s life that they have really dedicated time, effort and passion towards – with the accomplishment being the byproduct of all that.

Also, one “showcase” accomplishment is less prone to “positioning” — with three accomplishments, it becomes very cliche to “mix it up for the sake of mixing it up” by including one work example, one extracurricular achievement, and one personal milestone – when for a lot of applicants they may be exceptional in one area (i.e. a decorated military officer). Whether they have a variety of accomplishments or not is really besides the point. For example, is it more impressive that Michael Phelps could write three accomplishments about all the swimming medals he’s won, or the random person who “positioned” his essays by writing a variety of notable but non-unique achievements? What is more “impressive” or compelling is finding out through their ONE biggest accomplishment how high they’ve reached – to what degree are they an outlier or not.

(3) Describe a time when your choices, decisions, actions or behavior cause the entire group to fail. What did you learn about yourself? (400 words)

A lot of b-schools ask variations of this theme – describe a time you failed, screwed up, made a mistake, etc.

It’s a great question. The reason is it reveals a person’s true character. Some will come across as defensive. Some will avoid the subject by turning the essay into something else entirely. And others will come up with a bona fide screw up, own up to it, and describe how they responded to it or recovered from such a disappointment.

And forcing the applicant to talk about how their mistake caused a group to fail ensures that the example has stakes (if the applicant answered the question at face value) – by describing a time where their failures had real consequences for others.

Character is about how one responds to a crushing or humiliating disappointment. And this essay can help to reveal that (or reveal that the person isn’t mature enough or unable to admit his/her own flaws).

(4) Based on your own experiences, what do you think are the differences between being an effective team member vs an effective leader? Reference examples from your professional or extracurricular history. (600 words)

This is really a distillation of the various questions that many b-schools ask.

In short, every single business school is a collaborative environment. Students go there to network and make friends. A lot of the projects are done in groups. Many students study for exams together (or help one another out during informal tutorial sessions). What makes the business school experience overwhelming or difficult isn’t the actual work itself, but the sheer volume. There are simply way more readings, problem sets, spreadsheets, etc than one can possibly do alone. And that is just the academics. On top of that, there are way more extracurricular activities, speaker events, recruiting presentations, and so forth than one has time for. Students at virtually every b-school learn very quickly that one can’t get through business school alone. Which in many ways mirrors life, career, and any business. Everything is done in teams.

And an essay like this asking for an applicant’s experience with team work and leadership (whether formal or informal) can help reveal whether the applicant is ready for a highly collaborative environment like b-school.

In my view, it’s certainly more effective than asking “how can you contribute to b-school?” because it’s easy for that kind of question to become a cliched narrative and laundry list the applicant cherry picked from various websites and forums.

Asking for the applicant’s prior history and experience with team work and leadership is certainly a stronger indicator of whether they will be an active contributor – because if they are used to working in highly collaborative teams AND they are highly accomplished and willing to admit their flaws — they will get involved without the adcom having to read through a random list of things. The applicant will figure it out once they’re in school – so long as based on their past they have the capacity to do so.

(5) Is there anything else you’d like to tell us that will yield more insight into who you are as a career professional? (i.e. goals, personal history/backstory, etc.) (400 words)

A lot of b-schools are giving applicants a choice (i.e. choose 3 of 4; choose 2 of 5, etc.) because applicants come from so many different backgrounds – certain questions or themes reveal more about that person compared to other questions. An open-ended question like this just distills it further, without having to list a bunch of questions to choose from. Give the applicant the blank canvas to “fill in the blanks” so to speak – they aren’t children, but working professional adults after all who should have some opportunity to choose what they want to talk about, rather than being so constrained by questions that don’t always yield what the adcoms may really want.