Last year, one of our observations about the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan’s main essay question was that the 400-word limit did not offer a lot of room to expound on the topic. Thankfully, applicants also had a second essay (albeit also quite short, at just 250 words) in which to address their professional aspirations. This season, Michigan Ross has tightened the reins even more, asking applicants to provide 100-word responses (or shorter) to three “complete the sentence” prompts and to write a 300-word-maximum essay answering three career-related questions that actually encompass four topics. The scope of the main essay prompt has also been drastically narrowed, from a discussion of a personal event or attribute of which the applicant was proud to a rather prescribed rundown of the candidate’s career goals and plans to attain them.
This clear shift from a more touchy-feely focus to an inarguably pragmatic one seems to indicate a desire on the part of Admissions Director Soojin Kwon and her team to get straight to the heart of what makes the school’s applicants tick, without a lot of extraneous fluff (or any, for that matter). With more than a decade of experience as the head of admissions at Michigan Ross, Kwon undoubtedly has a handle on what to look for in candidates, and this new approach was likely engineered to elicit this information more efficiently. In a recent blog post, Kwon stated that the impetus behind the changes was a desire to “get to know more about you than we would in a traditional essay where you’d talk at length about one topic.” Our advice on how to ensure you deliver what the admissions committee wants follows…
Select one prompt from each group. Respond to your selected prompts using 100 words or fewer (<100 words each; 300 words total).
I want people to know that I:
I turned an idea into action when I:
I made a difference when I:
I showed my resilience when I:
I was humbled when:
I am out of my comfort zone when:
I was aware that I am different when:
I find it challenging when people:
A valuable thing I have taught someone is:
Although these prompts are presented as short-answer questions on the Michigan Ross application, they are unquestionably mini essays, with each one offering you approximately four to five sentences in which to present your selected story. We recommend starting by reading through all the options for the three groups and considering each one thoroughly in turn. Do not simply pick the first three that catch your eye—you may have a much more compelling answer possible for a prompt you might not initially be drawn to, so you could do yourself a disservice by dismissing any out of hand, without proper contemplation. Naturally, you will be able to think of a fitting response to certain prompts much more easily than to others, but again, do not let this be the primary reason behind your final choice of which ones to complete. Take time to devise an answer—however meager in some cases—to each one, and then step back and look at all your options.
Hearken back to Kwon’s statement about wanting to “get to know more about you” and think about which response in each group feels most authentic to and revelatory of who you are as an individual. You want to be able to “own” your answer—as we like to say—meaning that no other applicant could write the same thing you do. Using the second prompt of the first group as an example (“I turned an idea into action when I…”), writing something like “dabble with different ideas and test hypotheses in my efforts to make an impact” would be far too general a response and could easily be stated by a large number of applicants. Instead, something much more specific like “knew no one wanted to launch yet another charity walk, but I was confident that a charity pie-eating contest would draw an enthusiastic market” would stand out for its originality and paint a clearer picture of the candidate who wrote it.
Next, look at your top three choices thus far and see if they are complementary of one another. If you feel that any two seem repetitive or focus on the same general idea, story, or area of your life, you may want to replace one. Your goal is to have each of your three responses reveal something new and interesting about you. Another factor to consider is everything the admissions committee will learn about you through the other portions of your application; you do not want to waste this opportunity to paint a well-rounded picture of yourself by repeating something the school will already know. So, to recap, strive to make sure that your three responses (1) genuinely reflect who you are as a candidate and are as specific to you alone as possible; (2) are complementary of each other, meaning that each one reveals something different about you; and (3) do not discuss a part of your profile that is already well explained or represented elsewhere in your application.
Please share your short-term and long-term career goals. What skills/strengths do you have that will be relevant to your career goals? How will Ross prepare you for your goals? (300 words)
As we noted earlier, Michigan Ross has refined its career-related essay query a bit by narrowing the scope from “what is your desired career path and why” to these more direct questions. Obviously, the admissions committee wants specific information and has adjusted its prompt to remove any ambiguity. Explained Kwon in the aforementioned blog post, “In previous years, some applicants wrote about their long-term career goals. Others wrote about their immediate plans after B-school. We want to learn about both. So, we thought we’d ask you to spell it out.” With just 300 words, you do not have any space to waste, so focus on presenting your answers as clearly and thoroughly as possible, and give the admissions committee what it wants!
To craft a successful essay response to this prompt, you will need to accomplish a few things (though not necessarily in the order we are about to present them). One, clearly present both your immediate post-MBA goal and your longer-term aspiration. Two, ensure that the connection between these two objectives is clear, and if not, provide appropriate context or explanation to reveal the connection and why the transition from one to the other is reasonable and attainable for you. Three, describe the skills and background you already possess that position you for success in your desired roles and industry, along with those you still need to attain via an MBA education (thereby demonstrating your understanding of what is required to reach your stated positions and thrive there). And four, identify the resources and experiences Michigan Ross offers (and, ideally, that other top business schools do not) that will allow you to gain the abilities and exposure you currently lack. We explain these concepts and how to achieve them in more detail in our mbaMission Personal Statement Guide, which is available free of charge. Download your complimentary copy today!
And for a thorough exploration of Michigan Ross’s academic program/merits, social life, unique offerings, and other key characteristics, check out the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business, which is also available for free.
Optional Statement: This section should only be used to convey information not addressed elsewhere in your application, for example, completion of supplemental coursework, employment gaps, academic issues, etc. Feel free to use bullet points where appropriate.
This optional essay prompt may start out sounding like an invitation to discuss anything more you wish to share with the admissions committee, but a closer look—paying particular attention to the word “only” and the nature of the examples offered—seems to restrict the possible topics to problem areas and auxiliary elements of your profile that may not be readily conveyed elsewhere in your application. The additional directive about bullet points seems to be a not-too-veiled implication that the school wants you to focus on imparting key information rather than offering a detailed and longwinded explanation of the issue in question. This is not the time or place to share another cool story or otherwise try to impress or pander to the admissions committee. If you do not truly need to explain an issue or potentially confusing element of your candidacy (a poor grade or overall GPA, a low GMAT score, a gap in your work experience, etc.), we do not recommend that you submit an option essay; if you do have issues to clarify, keep things concise. In our free mbaMission Optional Essays Guide, we offer detailed advice on when and how to take advantage of the optional essay, including multiple examples.
The Next Step—Mastering Your Michigan Ross Interview: Many MBA candidates find admissions interviews stressful and intimidating, but mastering this important element of the application process is definitely possible—the key is informed preparation. We therefore offer our free Interview Primers to spur you along! Download your free copy of the Michigan Ross Interview Primer today.
Last year (after just one season), Harvard Business School (HBS) did away with its incredibly broad “introduce yourself” essay prompt in favor of one that at first glance seemed to have almost no parameters at all—and, interestingly, was more or less the same as the one from 2013–2014, when Dee Leopold was running the show. Now with a full year under his belt as HBS’s director of admissions, Chad Losee must feel that the essay question was effective in eliciting the kind of information the admissions committee finds valuable in evaluating the program’s potential students, because it remains exactly the same this year. Our analysis of the prompt and advice on the best way to approach it therefore also remain constant…
“As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA Program?” (no word limit)
Take special note of the word “more” in this straightforward question. With it, the admissions committee is subtly acknowledging that it already has a lot of information about you that it can and will use to get to know you better, including your resume, extracurricular activities, recommendations, short-answer question responses, academic transcripts, and GMAT/GRE score. You should therefore think first about what these portions of your application convey about who you are as an individual and candidate, so you can determine which parts of your profile still need presenting or could benefit from more detail. Now, some applicants may fret that this means they absolutely cannot touch on anything mentioned elsewhere in their application, for fear that the admissions committee will become annoyed and reject them. However, HBS is not asking only for fresh information—it is asking for more, and specifically, whatever “more” you believe the committee needs to evaluate you thoroughly and fairly. So, even though a bullet on your resume may inform the school of a certain fact, if a profoundly important story lurks behind that fact that you feel effectively expresses a key part of your personality or skill set, you should not feel hesitant to share that story. That said, we are not advocating for you to explore your resume in depth, just trying to convey that “more” here does not mean strictly “thus far unmentioned.”
Before we discuss a few approaches you might take in framing this essay, we must note that your goal in writing it is sincerity. The admissions committee is not staffed by robots, seeking to detect a certain “type” of applicant. These are human beings who are trying to get to know you and really want to end up liking you! With this essay, you essentially want to forge a meaningful connection with a complete stranger, and if you try to present yourself as something or someone you are not, you will fail.
You, like many other applicants, may worry that your sincere stories will sound clichéd. For example, if you want to write about making a difference, you may wince simply thinking those words: “making a difference.” But the power of your story does not lie in the theme you choose (if you choose to write thematically, that is), but in the manner in which you reveal your actions. If you have truly made a significant difference in the lives of others and can own that angle by offering powerful anecdotes and demonstrating a deep emotional connection to others and profound purpose in your acts, you can write on this topic. Although more than a few candidates will undoubtedly submit clichéd pieces on making a difference, if you can capture your admissions reader’s attention fully and make a strong enough impression, the cliché aspect will disappear, and he or she will be impressed by your actions and character.
So, what approach might you take to this essay? The prompt is so open-ended that we cannot possibly capture all possible options, but here are a few:
- Thematic approach: You could write about a characteristic or attribute that has woven its way throughout your life or that you have woven into your life. Do some self-exploration and see if you can identify a thread that is common to your greatest achievements, thereby illustrating its importance in bringing you to where you are today. Simply stating that theme is not enough—you need to really guide your reader through the illustrative events in your life to show how and why this theme manifests. In the end, your values are what need to come to the fore in this essay, rather than just a series of discrete episodes. (Note that highlighting your values is necessary with any approach you take to your HBS essay.)
- Inflection points: Maybe the key events and aspects of your life cannot be neatly captured or categorized within a neat and tidy theme. People are complex, meaning that many are not able to identify a singular “force” that unifies their life experience. If this is you, do not worry—instead, consider discussing a few inflection points that were instrumental in shaping the individual you are today. This does not mean writing a very linear biography or regurgitating your resume in detail. The admissions committee does not need or want such a summary and is instead interested in your ability to reflect on the catalysts in and challenges to your world view and the manifestations thereof. Likewise, you do not need to offer a family history or an overarching explanation of your existence. Simply start with the first significant incident that shaped who you are as an adult, and again, ensure that your essay ultimately reveals your values.
- Singular anecdote: Although this is rare, you may have had a single standout experience that could serve as a microcosm of who you are and what you stand for. If this experience or moment truly defines you and strikes at the essence of your being, you can discuss it and it alone. You do not need to worry that offering just one anecdote will make your essay seem “skimpy” or present you as one-dimensional, as long as the story has inherent strength and power. You will need to delve into the narrative and let the story tell itself; if you are choosing to write a singular anecdote, the story should be sufficiently compelling on its own, without a lot of explanation.
You may have read through these three options and thought, “What about a fourth option, in which I discuss my goals and why HBS? Certainly they want to know about that!” The HBS admissions committee is a straight-shooting group—if the school wanted candidates to write about their goals and why HBS, or wanted them not to, the prompt would come right out and say so. The reality is that most people should not use this essay to discuss their career ambitions and interest in HBS, because doing so will not reveal that much “more” about them. For example, if you are a consultant who plans to return to consulting after graduation, we cannot imagine a scenario in which addressing your goals and why an HBS MBA is critical would constitute an effective use of this essay. However, if you are a medic at a bush hospital in Uganda and are applying to HBS with the goal of commercializing low-cost technologies to fight infectious diseases, this may well be a fitting topic for your essay, as you seek to connect the dots between your unusual (in a positive sense) career path and your aspirations. In short, for most candidates, we would suggest eschewing a “Why MBA? Why HBS?” approach, but in a few rare cases, it may be appropriate and compelling.
Finally, let us talk about word limits! HBS has not stipulated any particular parameters, but keep in mind that with each word, you are making a claim on someone else’s time—so you better make sure that what you have written is worth that additional time and effort. We expect that most of our clients will use between 750 and 1,000 words, with some using as few as 600 and a small minority using as many as 1,250. We have difficulty imagining a scenario in which an applicant would truly need more than 1,250, but we certainly know of candidates who were accepted with essays that exceeded that high target. In short, take the space you need to tell your story properly and showcase your personality and experience, and then work to reduce your essay to its lowest possible word count, without sacrificing any impact or effectiveness.
Have the Last Word: The Post-Interview Reflection (conditional on being interviewed)
From the admissions committee: “Following the interview, candidates are required to submit a written reflection using our online application system. This must be submitted within 24 hours following the completion of the interview. Detailed instructions will be provided to those applicants who are invited to the interview process.”
For the fourth consecutive year, HBS ask candidates who are granted an interview to complete one more written task. Within 24 hours of interviewing, you must submit some final words of reflection, addressing the question “How well did we get to know you?” As with the application essay, this post-interview reflection is open-ended; you can structure it however you wish and write about whatever you want to tell the committee. HBS urges interviewed applicants not to approach this reflection as a formal essay but instead “as an email you might write to a colleague or supervisor after a meeting.”
Some candidates may find this additional submission intimidating, but we encourage you to view it as an opportunity to reveal new aspects of your profile to the admissions committee. Because your HBS interviewer will have read your entire application before your meeting, you will likely discuss information from your resume, essays, recommendations, etc., during your interview. This post-interview reflection, then, could provide an opening for you to integrate new and different elements of your profile, thereby adding depth to your candidacy. For example, if you could not find a way to include the story of a key life experience of yours into your essays, but your interviewer touches on a similar story or something connected with this experience in your meeting, you would now have license to share that anecdote.
As soon as your interview is over, jot down all the topics covered and stories you discussed. If you interview on campus, note also any observations about your time there. For example, sitting in on a class might have reminded you of a compelling past experience, or participating in the case method may have provided insight into an approach you could use in some way in the future. Maybe the people you met or a building you saw made a meaningful impression on you. Whatever these elements are, tie them to aspects of your background and profile while adding some new thoughts and information about yourself. This last part is key—simply describing your visit will not teach the admissions committee anything about you, and a flat statement like “I loved the case method” will not make you stand out. Similarly, offering a summary of everything the admissions committee already knows about you will not advance your candidacy and would constitute a lost opportunity to keep the committee learning about who you are.
HBS offers some additional advice on the post-interview reflection that we strongly urge you to take seriously and follow:
- We will be much more generous in our reaction to typos and grammatical errors than we will be with pre-packaged responses. Emails that give any indication that they were produced BEFORE you had the interview will raise a flag for us.
- We do not expect you to solicit or receive any outside assistance with this exercise.
As for how long this essay should be, HBS again does not offer a word limit. We have seen successful submissions ranging from 400 words to more than 1,000. We recommend aiming for approximately 500, but adjust as appropriate to thoroughly tell the admissions committee what you feel is important, while striving to be succinct.
For a thorough exploration of HBS’s academic offerings, defining characteristics, crucial statistics, social life, community/environment, and other key facets of the program, please download your free copy of the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to Harvard Business School.
The Next Step—Mastering Your HBS Interview: Many MBA candidates find admissions interviews stressful and intimidating, but mastering this important element of the application process is definitely possible—the key is informed preparation. Download your complimentary copy of the Harvard Business School Interview Primer today, and be sure to also check out our tailored HBS Mock Interview and Post-Interview Reflection Support.