Category Archives: University of Chicago Booth

How do I answer that?? Tough MBA Essay Questions Round-up 1: Haas, Chicago, Duke & MIT

– Cecilia Wu Tanaka

As you’ve probably seen by now, MBA application questions run the gamut from straightforward (“Tell us about a meaningful leadership experience”) to the bizarre (“If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, whom would you choose, and what would you order?” (an old Haas question)). MBA programs, unlike other academic programs, focus on the individual. To be successful as a business person you’ll need not only intelligence and the hard skills of leadership, but also sound personal character and an attractive personality. Many of these “stranger” or more difficult essay questions are trying to get at those more personal aspects of your background. In this post I’ll discuss some of the less straightforward essay questions that are out this year:

University of California, Berkeley, Haas

1. If you could choose one song that expresses who you are, what is it and why? (250 word maximum)

The purpose of this question is the same as the “dinner” question I cited above. Basically, they are trying to learn more about who you are as a person: what are your values? What do you care about? What are you like, not just as a professional, but as a person?

When you choose your song, be sure to choose a song by its lyrics – the words – rather than by the tempo of the song. In other words, don’t select an upbeat song to show that you are an upbeat person. Rather, find a song whose words best capture who you are. And the song does not need to be in America’s or UK’s greatest hits lists. It can be an old song, a folk song, a song that is popular only in your country, or even a song that was passed down through your family. My point being, it is not the song that matters but rather how you can use your selection to talk more about who you are.

For example, I’ve always loved the song True to Your Heart by 98 Degrees, ever since I saw the Disney film Mulan when I was younger. Of course, if you read the lyrics literally, the song is a love song, but I have applied the message to life in general. The lines “Open your eyes / your heart can tell you no lies” basically tell my life story of fighting back against my family’s traditional teachings to create the life that is true to me. If I were to write this essay, I would mention only briefly what this song is about and then spend the rest of the essay explaining how I’ve developed this belief in my own life, and how I have lived by this philosophy, bringing in my own life examples.

The University of Chicago Booth

3. Presentation/Essay
The Chicago experience will take you deeper into issues, force you to challenge assumptions, and broaden your perspective. In a four-slide presentation or an essay of no more than 600 words, broaden our perspective about who you are. Understanding what we currently know about you from the application, what else would you like us to know?

This, too, is a question asking you to tell them more about who you are. Chicago’s other essay questions will ask you about (Q1) your professional goals, (Q2a) a challenge you’ve overcome, and (Q2b) an experience which has transformed your way of thinking. Presumably, you will cover some of your professional career in any of those 3 questions. Now, this Presentation/Essay question is a chance for you to supplement the information already provided in Questions 1-2a & 2b. What else would you like the admissions committee to know about you, that isn’t already apparent in the other essays? What is compelling or essential information about you? I recommend presenting or discussing a few things about you – for example, perhaps you’re wildly creative, and have been building and inventing small things on the side since you were a kid, and you also love all types of adventure sports. Or, maybe you wrestled with a rather difficult childhood illness or condition and this has led you to a life-long dedication to volunteer work, something that has also taken you to many diverse communities in and out of your country. The activities you present about yourself will be vehicles to show your character, values, and/or personality. For example, something as common as a life-long hobby in tennis can be a way of showing your unrelenting dedication to excellence; a series of solo backpacking trips in developing countries can convey your spirit of adventure and curiosity in less privileged cultures. In the end, it is not what you write about that will make you stand out, but how you write about it – by allowing the admissions committee to get a sense of the person behind your application.

Duke Fuqua

Long essay 1. The “Team Fuqua” spirit and community is one of the things that sets The Duke MBA experience apart, and 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 get to know you—beyond the professional and academic achievements listed in your resume and transcript. You can share with us important life experiences, your 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.

Please present your response in list form, numbered 1 to 25. Some points may be only a few words, while others may be longer. Your complete list should not exceed 2 pages.

Duke makes it very clear here that they are trying to learn more about you beyond your career and academic experience. They are not looking to see how unusual you are; they simply want to get to know you. When approaching this question, think of all the things that define and characterize you. The Random Things can range from your favorite book to your favorite hero, from your most embarrassing moment to the experience that changed your life. They can include relevant information about your identity or life like the fact that you were adopted or are an American child of multiracial parents or a former semi-finalist for American Idol. I recommend mixing the topics (small, big, funny, dark, touching, inspirational, etc.) so the admissions committee can get to know you on different levels. In the end, just make sure that the list portrays you as someone who would be an interesting addition to the entering class, and who will fit in with the team-oriented and collaborative community at Fuqua. (Too many facts painting you as a brooding, dark person who likes to be alone probably will not get you admitted!)

A helpful guide is this post written by Fuqua Director of Admissions Megan Lynam, where she provides some actual examples of fellow Duke colleagues’ 25 random things about themselves.

MIT Sloan

Cover Letter

Please prepare a cover letter (up to 500 words) seeking a place in the MIT Sloan MBA program. Your letter should describe your accomplishments, address any extenuating circumstances that may apply to your application, and conform to standard business correspondence. Your letter should be addressed to Mr. Rod Garcia, Senior Director of Admissions.

This will be covered in a future blog post, but let me touch upon this question here. Though not listed as one of the main essays, this classic MIT question is, basically, one of the main essays. It’s their substitute for the goals essay and it is also a way for them to get an overview of your qualifications and to see how well you are able to promote yourself (something that will be useful once job recruitment time comes).

A cover letter is designed to sell a candidate. Without embellishment or arrogance, you will need to sound a bit stronger than you normally would in a regular goals essay. You need to start the letter with the “60 second elevator pitch.” That first paragraph needs to grab the reader’s attention and make him/her interested in reading more about you. How would you summarize what you have been doing, what you have achieved, and in what way(s) you have made impact? In the rest of the letter, explain to Mr. Garcia why they ought to be interested in you and what you have to offer: what you have achieved, what you want to achieve in the future, and how you can add value to MIT’s community.

When considering appropriate topics for your essays, especially in essay sets that ask you more personal questions, be sure to efficiently and wisely use all the questions to present your candidacy as a balanced whole.

I will do another round up of difficult MBA essay questions within a week.

Cecilia Wu Tanaka is co-founder of Reve Counseling and a veteran graduate admissions counselor. Prior to starting Reve 7 years ago she headed up a $1.25 million counseling department at the largest test prep company in Asia. In her previous life, she sat on various admissions committees at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, conducted interviews for the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and directed the interview program at Harvard Medical School.

University of Chicago Booth School of Business Essay Question Analyses and Deadlines 2010-11

Some of our counseling staff will be contributing to the blog in the coming months. For this essay analysis of the University of Chicago, I’d like to introduce our counselor Brian.

Submission Deadlines:

1st Round

Submission Deadline: October 13, 2010

Mid-Decision Date: November 10, 2010

Decision Notification Date: December 15, 2010

2nd Round

Submission Deadline: January 5, 2011

Mid-Decision Date: February 16, 2011

Decision Notification Date: March 16, 2011

3rd Round

Submission Deadline: April 13, 2011

Mid-Decision Date: April 27, 2011

Decision Notification Date: May 18, 2011

Essay Questions:

1. The Admissions Committee is interested in learning more about you on both a personal and professional level. Please answer the following (maximum of 300 words for each section):

Note: Uploaded documents are not allowed. You may cut and paste text from MS Word (or similar program) into the text box.

a. Why are you pursuing a full-time MBA at this point in your life?

Note that these first three questions are interconnected, particularly B and C.  The answer for one should lead naturally into the next question.  For this first question you should show that you have a clear vision of your future, and you have carefully considered why you need an MBA to fulfill this vision.  You want to show that you have seriously thought about the MBA, and are committed to successfully completing it.  Admissions committees want applicants who will be successful in their programs, and who will go on to be successful in their careers.  The success of the students reflects on the program itself.  It is just as important to the committee as it is to you that you know what you are getting into and are prepared for the challenge.  For this question you should carefully consider how your life has led you to the position you are in now, and how the MBA is a necessary next step.

b. Define your short and long term career goals post MBA.

This question is related to and builds upon your response to the previous question.  In this question you want to elaborate more specifically on your vision of your future.  Demonstrate that you have carefully thought about your future, and that you have clear and specific goals, rather than an ambiguous vision of success.  Here you should be as concrete as possible about your plans, which you could separate into 2, 5, and 10 year stages.

c. What is it about Chicago Booth that is going to help you reach your goals?

This response is where you show that you have done your research, and that you are specifically interested in attending Chicago Booth.  It is important to be specific about the courses, resources, and anything else the school offers that can help you attain your goals.  Programs often lose candidates to rival schools once acceptance letters are sent out, and they want to be sure that you will choose their school if offered.  They also want to get a feel for how well you would fit into their program, and how your interests and the school’s resources connect.  You might consider particular individuals you want to work with, specific classes that are offered, or the attending students themselves and how they may help you as contacts in your field of interest in the future.  Show how Chicago Booth can help you achieve your goals in a way that other schools cannot.

d. REAPPLICANTS ONLY You are a reapplicant if you submitted an application for the Chicago Booth Full-Time MBA program for the Fall 2009 and/or Fall 2010.

Upon reflection, how has your thinking regarding your future, Chicago Booth, and/or getting an MBA changed since the time of your last application?

For this response seriously consider what has changed in terms of your goals and your academic needs since you first applied for the program.  You want to demonstrate here that you are not simply sending in the same application, but that you have carefully thought about your current needs and are assured of how Chicago Booth fits into your future plans.

2. Chicago Booth is a place that challenges its students to stretch and take risks that they might not take elsewhere. Tell us about a time when you took a risk and what you learned from that experience (maximum of 750 words).

Note: For essay question 2 you have the option to upload a Word or PDF document. Please include your full name at the top of ALL uploaded documents. Or you may cut and paste text from MS Word (or similar program) into the text box.

This question is partially an opportunity to demonstrate strength of character, but pay particular attention to the wording.  The question explains that Chicago Booth wants students who are able to stretch and take risks.  You want to demonstrate to the committee that you are flexible, adaptable, open to change, and willing to face uncertain challenges.  Think about a risk you took in your life that demonstrates these qualities, either in taking on the risk or in what you learned afterwards.  The risk could have resulted in success or failure, but if it resulted in failure then it is important to demonstrate how you learned and grew as a person from the experience.

3. At Chicago Booth, we teach you HOW to think rather than what to think. With this in mind, we have provided you with "blank pages" in our application. Knowing that there is not a right or even a preferred answer allows you to demonstrate to the committee your ability to navigate ambiguity and provide information that you believe will support your candidacy for Chicago Booth.

Essay Question 3 Guidelines

We have set forth the following guidelines:

  The content is completely up to you. Acceptable file formats are PowerPoint or PDF.

  There is a strict maximum of 4 pages, though you can provide fewer if you choose.

  The document will be printed in color and added to your file for review; therefore, flash, hyperlinks, embedded videos, music, etc. will not be viewed by the committee. You are limited to text and static images to convey your points.

  The file will be evaluated on the quality of content and ability to convey your ideas, not on technical expertise or presentation.

  Files need to be less than 9 megabytes in order to upload. If your file is too large you may save your file as a PDF and upload your essay.

This response should be used to round out your essay.  Do not use this to elaborate on aspects of you that you have already addressed in the earlier questions.  While the earlier questions asked specifically about your professional and academic background and goals, here you are free to express who you are outside of these narrow limitations.  MBA programs are interested in building an entering class that is not only successful but also diverse, in both background and character.  Use this essay to paint a stronger picture of yourself, and to leave a lasting impression, in a way that distinguishes you from the other applicants.  Think about what makes you unique, and what makes you desirable as a candidate for Booth.  Use the open-ended aspect of this question to your advantage.

Think about why they are asking this question, in this format, and why they have explicitly left it ambiguous.  Think about what aspects of your character you would like the committee to know about (that you have not already mentioned), and think about how you can present this through words and images.  Follow the guidelines in concerning yourself more with the content than with how it is presented, but at the same time keep in mind that style and presentation do have their importance, and visuals often make a much stronger impression than words.

Optional Essay If there is any important information that is relevant for your candidacy that you were unable to address elsewhere in the application, please share that information here.

You can use this essay to explain anything important about you related to your application to the MBA program that you did not address in the earlier questions.  This is a good place to address any weaknesses in your application, such as test scores.  When addressing weaknesses, also show how you have compensated for these weaknesses, such as taking additional courses in school to compensate for a weak quantitative score on the GMAT.

Brian is a writing specialist, having studied rhetoric and second language writing in his Ph.D. studies.  He has extensive experience in teaching college and university composition courses, as well as researching varieties of writing in differing cultural, institutional, and workplace contexts.  He attended UCLA for his undergraduate degree and Purdue University for his doctoral studies.  He is originally from California, United States.

Chicago Booth 2009-10 Essay Question Analyses and Deadlines

Please find below the deadlines and essay questions (much simpler this year!) for Chicago. My analyses and comments follow the questions. Despite the unfamiliar wording of some of them, the questions are all fairly basic.


Round 1: October 14, 2009

Round 2: January 6, 2010

Round 3: March 10, 2010


1. How did you choose your most recent job/internship and how did this experience influence your future goals? What about the Chicago Booth MBA makes you feel it is the next best step in your career at this time? (750-1000 words)

This is a straightforward goals question that asks about how your most recent position is connected to your goals. Note that they ask you how you chose your most recent position, which means you will probably need to explain your overall career a bit as well (in order to explain how you arrived at your most recent post). It is interesting that Chicago chooses to use the word “most recent” and not “current,” showing that they are sensitive to the fact that some applicants may have lost jobs.

Finally, you are asked to explain why Chicago’s program is the best next step for you. As with all schools, you need to show specifically how the features of this particular program will allow you to gain the skills, knowledge and experiences that you will need in order to continue with your goals.

1a. FOR REAPPLICANTS ONLY: Upon reflection, how has your thinking regarding your future, Chicago Booth, and/or getting an MBA changed since the time of your last application? (250 words)

In addition to writing the above goals essay, you will also need to, if you are a reapplicant, write this short essay reflecting on your thoughts regarding your future. Unlike reapplicant essays for most other schools, you will not be focusing on listing the various changes in your candidacy since your last application (e.g., increased test scores, promotion). Of course, if appropriate, you should definitely highlight any improvements in your application. However, Chicago is most interested in hearing an honest reflection of how your thoughts have changed regarding Chicago and/or your goals. Are you more focused now? Have your goals changed? If so, why or why not? Ultimately, they want to make sure that you have put serious thought into reapplying, rather than simply repackaging everything to resend.

2. Please choose one of the following (500 – 750 words):

Describe a time when you wish you could have retracted something you said or did. When did you realize your mistake and how did you handle the situation?

This question is basically a failure or mistake question. Chicago wants to know about something that you regret having done. (Now, a common question that I get is, “Can I talk about something that I regret having not done?” The answer is usually “yes” since neglecting to do something is also an action.

The point of asking this question is to see if you have the self-awareness and humility to admit to having made a mistake, and the maturity to recognize and learn from it.


Describe a time when you were surprised by feedback that you received. What was the feedback and why were you surprised?

This question falls into the same category as the above question. You’ll recognize it as the “constructive criticism/feedback” question that some other schools ask about in essays and/or recommendations. You’re basically asked to describe a time when someone gave you feedback that you did not expect. And while they do not specify positive or negative feedback, given that you are offered a choice of a failure or feedback question to answer, I think it is safe to discuss an episode in which you received negative feedback. (Being surprised at receiving positive feedback could also work; it would all depend on your story.) And while they also do not ask you to talk about how you handled the feedback, I would suggest that you do, in order to provide the admissions committee with the information that they are looking for. You should talk about how you reacted to the feedback and how you reflected on it. If possible, talk about how you have accepted and incorporated that advice. The point of the question is to find out, again, if you have the humility, self-awareness and maturity to learn from mistakes.

Slide Presentation

In four slides or less please answer the following question: What have you not already shared in your application that you would like your future classmates to know about you?

We have set forth the following guidelines for you to consider when creating your presentation.

  • The content is completely up to you. There is no right or wrong approach to this essay.
  • Feel free to use the software you are most comfortable with. Acceptable formats for upload in the online application system are PowerPoint or PDF.
  • There is a strict maximum of 4 slides, though you can provide fewer than 4 if you choose. 
  • Slides will be printed and added to your file for review, therefore, flash, hyperlinks, embedded videos, music, etc. will not be viewed by the committee. You are limited to text and static images to convey your points. Color may be used.
  • Slides will be evaluated on the quality of content and ability to convey your ideas, not on technical expertise or presentation.
  • You are welcome to attach a document containing notes if you feel a deeper explanation of your slides is necessary. However the hope is the slide is able to stand alone and convey your ideas clearly. You will not be penalized for adding notes but you should not construct a slide with the intention of using the notes section as a consistent means of explanation.

This Slide Presentation reminds me of NYU Stern’s Personal Expression question in that it is a creative means of telling the admissions committee something – anything – about yourself. You’d need to look at what you’ve written for the other essays, and then prepare the slides to talk about the other parts of you that you haven’t yet shared. This could include work accomplishments, community work, sports, university experiences, and/or personal experiences. Be sure to make the slides informative and interesting but well-organized. Follow Chicago’s guidelines carefully and focus on the content rather than the artistry of the slides. In the end, you are “selling” yourself, not your technical expertise.

Optional Essay

If there is any important information that is relevant for your candidacy that you were unable to address elsewhere in the application, please share that information here.

This is an open-ended question in which you can talk about something important that you did not have a chance to address elsewhere, including the Slide Presentation. In particular, if you have any unusual or extenuating circumstances (e.g., inability to get a current supervisor recommendation, weak test scores or university grades), this is the place to explain them.