Category Archives: MBA Essays

Kellogg Video Essay Questions

For those of you who don’t speak English as a first language and/or don’t feel comfortable in front of a camera, the video essay questions that Kellogg are asking are probably causing a bit of undue stress. Below I’ll offer some tips on how to prepare, including a chance to practice using the same software that Kellogg uses.

As you know, you will be required to record answers to two video essay questions: one about your interest in Kellogg, and another about something of a more personal nature. Applicants last year were asked such questions as “What possession or memento do you treasure most and why?”, “If you could teach a class on any topic, what would it be and why?”, etc. The purpose in asking this question is to get to know you better, to see more of your personality and character beyond your resume.

For these more casual and personal questions, the key is to answer the question directly, and then offer a reason and some brief examples.

Take this question for instance:

If you could meet anyone, living or dead, whom would you choose and why?

Whom you choose will reveal something about you, although there is no right or wrong answer here. If you choose a historical figure, say, one who advocated for civil rights, the admissions committee will have learned something more about you. Perhaps you have been working intensely in your business career but in fact, on the side, you have a very activist nature and you also care a good deal about civic issues and have been active in this area. This adds a bit more depth and diversity to your candidacy.

Or, let’s say that you wish to meet your grandmother who had passed away not long ago. In your response you might reveal something about your family, or about qualities that you admired in your grandmother which in turn says something about your own values. This, too, will reveal more about you as a person.

In structuring your response, you should

1) Answer the question (e.g., “I would choose to meet xxx”)

2) Explain briefly why you have chosen this person

3) Provide some brief anecdote(s) or example(s).

In most cases, there are no “wrong” answers unless you reveal something inappropriate or (more likely) fail to provide valuable reasons or details.

I recommend spending some time going through these types of questions since they are not things we normally think about.


We have recorded questions using the same software that Kellogg uses. Our simulated practice will consist of the opportunity to record your responses to 5 questions* and detailed written feedback on both your responses and any visual issues surrounding your recording (e.g., lighting, body language).

*Our questions are based on past applicants’ experiences, though there is no guarantee that you will get the same questions in your actual video essay experience since Kellogg has a large database of questions from which they randomly generate their questions.

If you would like to experience a simulated practice and get some feedback before you record yourself on Kellogg’s application, please write to us at info[at]revecounseling[dot]com for information on how to get started.

Columbia Business School: 2013-14 Deadlines and Essay Analyses


Early Decision (August 2014 entry): October 2, 2013

Regular Decision (August 2014 entry): April 9, 2014

January 2014 entry: October 2, 2013

Important: Columbia admissions is on a rolling basis (first-come, first-serve), so you should apply well before the posted deadlines.

Columbia Business School offers a few different application options.

If you know for certain that Columbia is your top choice, you should definitely consider applying through their Early Decision program. The deadline is earlier (October 2 this year) and you need to make a commitment to attend if admitted. The advantage is that you can submit your application for consideration well before the rush of other applications comes in. If you’re a strong candidate and Columbia is your first choice, you will likely have your strongest chance of getting accepted in this round. It is beneficial for a school to know with some certainty that the applicant they admit will actually come.

If you’re flexible as to when you can start your MBA and you’re looking for a shorter program, you might want to consider applying for their January 2014 entering class. The January program is 16 months and can work well for you if you are looking to return to work soon and don’t need that summer internship. The deadline is also October 2.

Otherwise, there is regular admissions for entry in August 2014. I imagine that this is the most competitive round in terms of volume of applications.

Rolling admissions means that Columbia accepts applicants on a first-come, first-serve basis. If they like you, they will extend an interview invitation to you. They will then make a final decision shortly after your interview is done without waiting for and comparing you against other applicants. So, unlike most other schools that do not operate on a rolling basis, it is better to apply earlier rather than later to Columbia (do not wait until the deadline!). They won’t start reviewing applications until early January for regular admissions, but you can submit yours even before then to get yourself in the pipeline. We have had strong clients who received feedback from the admissions office that they wished they could admit them, but unfortunately there was no space left (they had submitted applications after the winter).

Below are the essay questions for the 2013-14 application and my comments and advice:

(1.) What is your immediate post-MBA professional goal? Required by all applicants.

This is not technically an essay but appears in the essay portion of the on-line application. You are asked to write in one succinct sentence your post-MBA career goal. Be specific and clear here as to what you plan to be doing after graduation (e.g., “I will be returning to my company to lead the marketing department in our new office in Delhi.”).

2. Given your individual background, why are you pursuing a Columbia MBA at this time? (500 words) 

I would interpret this as the usual goals essay that is asked by most business schools. They want to know how your background has led you to apply to Columbia’s MBA program at this time. You’ll need to discuss your background (be careful not to simply repeat your resume but instead focus on the most salient points as related to your goals (talk about key points in your career development and the main experiences and issues that have led you to your goals)), your short- and long-term goals (you can go into a little more detail in this essay), and why you want an MBA now and why at Columbia in particular.

3. Columbia Business School is located in the heart of the world’s business capital – Manhattan. How do you anticipate that New York City will impact your experience at Columbia? (250 words)

Please view the videos below [available in the essay section of the on-line application]:

New York City – limitless possibilities

New York City – fast paced and adaptable

Yes! You have to watch these two videos first. However, they’re both very short (the longer one is just a little over 2 minutes). The first video provides an introduction to the atmosphere and culture of New York to those who aren’t familiar with the city, while the second talks more about the access that Columbia students have to businesses and leaders because they are studying in New York.

Looking at your own situation, why do you want to be in New York and how do you wish to benefit from the location? You’ll need to think about and write this essay from the view of your goals. Specifically, how can studying in New York help you grow in the ways that you hope? Definitely talk about the professional aspects of what you hope to achieve, but you can also talk about personal aspects. For example, maybe in addition to studying finance and doing an internship in Manhattan and listening to speakers, you also have an interest in volunteering in the ethnic communities, and you would like to explore this while you are in New York. Or perhaps you are from a remote part of the world, and it will be the first time to be in a city like New York. Think of the different ways you believe that studying in New York will help develop both your goals and your growth as a person.

4. What will the people in your Cluster be pleasantly surprised to learn about you? (250 words)

The Cluster will be the group of 65-70 students to which you’ll be assigned once you start at Columbia. You’ll be taking most of your first year core courses with these students as well as socializing with them outside of class.

In this essay, you are asked to reveal something interesting about yourself. Since these Cluster mates will be your friends, you are invited to write something personal here. The purpose of this essay is to offer a glimpse of you that is not apparent in the other parts of your application, which will focus entirely on your professional side. Is there anything interesting or unexpected or unusual or funny that you’d like for your future classmates to know about you? This is an open ended essay and there is no set rule as to how to write it, but if applicable, talk about (as a conclusion) how you can also somehow contribute to your classmates with this particular attribute (e.g., If you choose to discuss your hobbies in singing or acting you can also mention how you would like to contribute your talents to their MBA Follies, the students’ annual comedy show.)

5. Is there any further information that you wish to provide the Admissions Committee? Please use this space to provide an explanation of any areas of concern in your academic record or your personal history. (Maximum 500 words)

Use this optional essay to shed light on any aspect of your background that you are concerned might impact the way the admissions committee views your application. Examples include less than average test scores or GPA, employment gaps, and inability to secure a recommendation letter from a current supervisor. If in doubt, it is better to explain it, since the admissions committee will see the problem whether or not you actually talk about it. Without an explanation on your part, they will not give you the benefit of the doubt but, rather, assume the worst.

When addressing concerns, be sure to never offer excuses. Put yourself in the shoes of the admissions committee and try and anticipate how you can help them, by providing the information that they need. For example, if your TOEFL score is low, then you’ll need to provide them not reasons why your score is low but a description of the ways that you use English effectively. After all, the admissions committee is trying to gather evidence that you will not struggle in the curriculum.

For reapplicants:

How have you enhanced your candidacy since your previous application? Please detail your progress since you last applied and reiterate how you plan to achieve your immediate and long term post-MBA professional goals. (Maximum 500 words).

If you applied in the past but were not admitted, discuss here the different ways in which you have improved your candidacy since that application. Consider any weaknesses that you had, and talk about how you have worked on improving them. For example, if you had applied with average test scores, hopefully you can now show them higher test scores; if you had insufficient international experience then but have since gotten involved in some international projects, talk about that. The admissions committee wants to see an improved applicant.

Finally, update and reconfirm your career goals.

Should You Apply in Round 3?

Should You Apply in Round 3?

A number of MBA programs have their final deadlines coming up in the next few weeks. If you have not yet settled on a business school for the coming fall and yet you have been hoping to go if you could, you may be struggling with the decision of whether or not to make this last minute attempt.

What do Round 3 applicants look like?

According to business schools, the third round is smaller in volume than the first two rounds. There are fewer available seats. And the overall quality of applicants is lower.

Are my chances better or worse in Round 3?

Given the above profile of R3 applicants, the answer could be either, depending on your profile.

As mentioned in an earlier post I had written, R3 is when admissions officers admit to making decisions to help round out their class. By the 3rd round, they will have a pretty good idea of how their incoming class is shaping up in terms of gender, nationality, and industry. While they likely don’t have specific quotas set for each possible category of students, no school wants an imbalanced class. So (for example) if there are “too” many incoming students from China and India and virtually none from Southeast Asia, a strong Southeast Asian applicant in R3 is going to grab the committee’s attention. The same holds true for women applicants and applicants from any field that is not well represented in a typical MBA applicant pool. So yes, if you have an “unusual” or atypical profile and you are strong, you could have a shot in R3.

At the same time, a poor application is a poor application regardless of when you submit it. An interesting phenomenon is that many applicants sloppily put together an application in R3 because they believe it is their last chance to get into a school. This is known as the “hail Mary” pass, a term used in American football in which there is little time left in the game and a player makes a desperate attempt to throw a pass, knowing in all likelihood that his team will not win. Many applicants who apply this same philosophy to R3 think, “Well, if I don’t get in, I’ll just reapply in the fall.” If your profile is weak and you don’t have the time or energy to put your very best into your application, then it really makes no sense to apply in a round that is already known to be the most difficult round.

Why you still need to be strategic about your decision to apply in Round 3

By applying in R3 you might feel some satisfaction that you have at least tried, and so you don’t have to have any regrets. However, if there is any chance that you may reapply if you don’t get admitted, then you may want to think carefully about whether or not you should apply in R3.

Schools actually look favorably upon reapplicants as reapplying shows a high level of commitment to the school. And at some schools reapplicants actually enjoy a higher percentage acceptance rate when compared to the general applicant pool. This could be because many reapplicants who are serious will work hard over the summer to improve on the weaknesses that kept them from being admitted the first time around.

However, schools do have access to your first application and the admissions committees may read it. If you are unable to put together a decent application package together the first time around, those bad essays or recommendations will still be there when you reapply. Of course, the admissions committee will be basing their decisions on the most recent application that you submit, however, it is best if they don’t see two sets of applications that are drastically different in quality and substance. One example that comes to mind is an applicant whose first language is not English, and he writes his R3 essays in very raw and broken English. In his reapplication the following season he hires a consultant who helps him polish his essays to a native level. If the admissions committee reads these 2 sets of essays, they will be suspicious of the applicant’s English ability.

Ultimately my point is this: don’t volunteer a negative first impression of yourself if you don’t need to, unless you know for sure that you will not be reapplying. And by giving a negative impression I mean showing those qualities that might be hard to later overcome or explain. If you submit an application with weak test scores or work experience, you can at least still improve on those.

What does this all mean?

I’ll sum up my advice in this way (and please note that this is very general advice; for personalized advice tailored to your particular situation it is best to consult with someone individually):

  • If you believe you have an atypical profile and you feel ready to make a good application, apply. A strong applicant with an unusual profile will stand out in R3.
  • If you have a typical profile but you feel ready to make a good application, apply.
  • If your profile is overall strong but you have some weaknesses, but you are ready to put all your effort into your application, apply. (Of course, also take into consideration the level of the school and your qualifications.)
  • If you don’t have the time to put an application together with care and to show the admissions committee that you are taking their school seriously – if you think you might just write your essays quickly overnight and you know you won’t do a very good job – I would advise you to think twice about applying, unless you are certain you do not plan to reapply in the near future.

Good luck!


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.

Kellogg Essay Writing Tips and Deadlines 2012-13

– Jessica Nitschke


The Kellogg deadlines are quite complicated, involving a 2-step application process and separate deadlines for interview requests. For further details on their deadlines I’d like to direct you to Kellogg’s deadline instructions  here.


For the 2012-2013 application season the admissions team at Kellogg has completely changed three of its four required essay questions and reworded the remaining one (about leadership) to make what they’re asking more explicit. The new questions seem to be aimed at getting applicants to focus their answers more – to be more specific and direct about who they are and what they plan to get from their MBA education. These changes in Kellogg’s application are further evidence that, as always, applicants should strive to avoid generality and vagueness in their essays.

1. Discuss moments or influences in your personal life that have defined who you are today. (500 word limit)

This question is about allowing the admissions officers to get to know you more deeply, beyond the facts of your resume. This is your chance to introduce yourself and make a memorable impression on the reader, which is important when you consider that admissions officers read thousands of essays from applicants, many of whom have similar types of work experience, test scores, and so on.

What they’re looking for is a description of an influential episode or person in your life that had a lasting impact on you, such that it is in part responsible for the choices you have made in your life and the type of person you have become. It could be an encounter you had while traveling, a childhood experience, a personal setback, an influential teacher, or a book you read. Whatever you choose, you need to make it clear how this experience contributed to make you the person you are today. With only a 500-word limit, it is best to focus on just one or two moments or influences, giving sufficient explanation or narrative detail to make the episode meaningful, rather than create a list, which will be too general and not have much impact.

2. What have been your most significant leadership experiences? What challenges did you face, and what impact did you have? This is your opportunity to explain how you Think Bravely (personally and/or professionally). (500 word limit)

The admissions team at Kellogg has updated this traditional leadership question to address the specific characteristics that they look for and cultivate in leaders: courage to think outside the box and to influence others, collaboration, innovation – all of which are part of their “Think Bravely” tag line (applicants would be wise to read more about this on their website). So in approaching this question, applicants should use examples that reflect these qualities. The question asks for more than one example, but you have limited space, so it’s best to stick to just two examples, preferably ones that highlight different strengths. They don’t both have to come from your work experience (although one certainly should), and if you have had leadership experiences in sports or volunteer organizations, this is an excellent place to call attention to that part of your resume and background.

3. Imagine yourself at your Kellogg graduation. What career will you be preparing to enter, and how have the MBA and Kellogg helped you get there? (Please answer in terms of your program choice: One-Year, Two-Year, MMM, JD-MBA) (500 word limit)

What they’re looking for here is concrete evidence that you have seriously thought through your decision to pursue an MBA – that you’ve done the necessary self-reflection of yourself and your career to date; that you’ve researched what an MBA can and cannot do for you; and that you have thoroughly investigated Kellogg’s program and can articulate precisely what aspects of this program will help you in your goals.

In answering this question, be sure you present a clear idea of what you want to be doing when you finish – it’s ok if you’re not 100% sure – no one is going to hold you to exactly what you write in this essay. But you do need to demonstrate that you have specific goals that are ambitious but still realistic, and that an MBA from Kellogg is an important step in reaching these goals. The more specific you can be on this point, the better, to show your familiarity with Kellogg’s offerings and how they are well matched to your academic needs.

4. What one interesting or fun fact would you want your future Kellogg classmates to know about you? (25 words or less)

These types of questions are always difficult, as it’s challenging to try and guess what others would truly find interesting about yourself. Look at the question this way: this is a chance for you to round out your application. After you’ve finished all the other essays and finished editing your resume, you should try to take a step back and look at your application as a whole, consider the picture that you’ve painted of yourself, and ask, is there something missing? Is there something important, something beyond your professional identity, which makes you interesting and enjoyable to be around, which you just haven’t had the chance to put anywhere else in your application? Then this is the place to put it. This could be a hobby or skill, an interesting childhood pursuit, an unexpected part-time or summer job, or something else entirely. Just be sure that it doesn’t duplicate something you’ve already discussed elsewhere in your essays. If you’re struggling to answer this one, the best course of action is to consult with a variety of friends or co-workers – people who know you pretty well – about things that they find interesting about you.

Reve Counselor Jessica Nitschke has a BA from the University of Chicago and a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. She has taught at Berkeley and is a former faculty member at DePauw University and Georgetown University. Most recently she was living and conducting research in Tokyo, Japan before moving to Cape Town, South Africa.

Stanford MBA Essay Question Tips and Deadlines 2012-13

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Chi Pham | Reve Counselor | Sept 2012

The structure for the Stanford MBA application essays has been slightly modified for the 2013 application season. The essay portion of the application continues to have two required questions: Essay 1 and Essay 2. The change is in Essay 3 where applicants are required to answer only one question from a series of options rather than two as in previous years.

Is this good news? Yes, in the sense that applicants now have one less essay to write. However, Stanford continues to expect high quality essays that reflect each applicant’s own voice, personality, and story. They probably feel that they can glean enough about your professional experiences from your one short essay, resume, and recommendations. This now allows them to focus more on Essays 1 and 2, and on your potential future interview. Stanford, perhaps more than any other business school, requires you to sit down for some soul searching and begin asking difficult questions about yourself.

Below are the deadlines, essay questions, and my analyses.

For further information about Stanford GSB application procedures and deadlines, please go to:

Deadlines (all 17:00PT)

Round 1: 3 Oct 2012

Round 2: 9 Jan 2013

Round 3: 3 April 2013

Essay Questions

Essay 1: What matters most to you and why?

This is the classic Stanford question and is designed to get to know you beyond your academic credentials and professional accomplishments. The admissions committee is trying to understand what makes you tick, and what makes you who you are. There will be dozens if not hundreds of other candidates who share a similar profile as you. However, even if you are among several hundred bankers (for example), there is only one you. This essay is designed to get to the root of that individuality and uniqueness. So think broadly about what really matters to you, beyond getting the next promotion or business deal. But, also ground your story with past experiences and concrete evidence rather than lofty ideals such as achieving world peace or finding the cure for cancer.

My advice for answering this question echoes what Cecilia has written in previous posts: brainstorm the various key experiences you’ve had in your own life and find the common theme or value that runs through these experiences. The theme or value you discover should be the answer to “what matters most to you.” As for the “why” part of the question, this is where you back up your claim with specific evidence. Tell the story of how this value came to be. Where and how did it arise? How has it impacted and shaped the person you are today? What has it led you to do or achieve? Where will it lead you in the future? This will be a study of who you are as a person as well as your ability to self-reflect deeply. This is THE place to be authentic – be honest, show your weaknesses and fears if appropriate, and be yourself, because Stanford will be able to tell easily if you are manufacturing something that isn’t coming from the heart.

Essay 2: What do you – REALLY – want to do and why Stanford?

It’s important to remember that this essay is for you to share about your future. You should address two distinct topics: (1) your career goal; (2) why/how Stanford can help you to achieve your goals.

For the first part, your career goal should be focused. Furthermore, it should be ambitious but believable and achievable. This is the time to show that you’ve carefully thought about your future career, where you want to go, what you want do, and why it’s important that you do this. Are you the type of person who might possibly change the world in some way? Stanford will look at your potential to do this at some point in your future.

For the second part, know Stanford’s unique programs, culture, student body, and mission thoroughly. Show the school that you have done your research and have thought about their school and what they offer constructively (i.e. why its MBA program is the best program for you to accelerate your career). Don’t fall into the trap of repeating what the school already knows about itself, such as its world-class academic environment, great professors, and bountiful opportunities to collaborate with classmates. Repeating these wonderful characteristics in your essay is like singing to the choir. Yes, Stanford knows it’s great. You do not need to repeat this. Rather, show how these great areas will benefit you and boost your career. Research Stanford’s MBA program, student clubs and activities, other institutes at the school that you would join or participate, and location. Make a case, with evidence, why what Stanford offers is exactly what you need right now and that you are a fit with Stanford.

Essay 3: (Answer 1 of the following 3 questions. Use only experiences within the last 3 years.)

Remember to only use experiences in the last three years. Ignoring this part shows that the applicant cannot follow instructions.

Option A: Tell us a time in the last three years when you built or developed a team whose performance exceeded expectations.

This question is about leadership and teamwork and the key words are “built or developed.” Use an experience where you worked on a team and ultimately delivered exceptional results as a team. While it’s tempting to talk about how you shone as a leader here, try to use examples that show HOW you work with people (i.e. your interaction with your teammates, your collaboration and motivation skills, and your ability to empathize with team members). Highlight your understanding of the makeup of team members, how they worked together, and how you utilized each member’s strengths and weaknesses that led your team to deliver better-than-expected results. Use specific outcomes to “show” that your team exceeded expectations.

Option B: Tell us about a time in the last three years when you identified and pursued an opportunity to improve an organization.

Stanford looks for students who can take initiative to leave a mark on an organization. For this question, it is best to briefly explain the opportunity while spending most of the essay describing HOW you initiated and implemented the change that has improved the organization. At the end, highlight the impact on the organization by focusing on the implication of this improvement (e.g., efficiency, effectiveness, better culture/relationships, more innovation, more partnerships, etc.).

Option C: Tell us about a time in the last three years when you went beyond what was defined or established.

This question is about innovation and pioneering abilities. Stanford wants to know if you’re the type of person who goes beyond what is expected or what is safe to achieve higher, better, more impressive results. Appropriate examples here include something that you did that was out of the ordinary but still effective, perhaps creating something for the first time, or performing at a level above your age, rank or expected responsibility. Be sure to identify the established norm and show how you went beyond that norm to achieve the desired results.

The above questions reflect Stanford’s values: humility, self-awareness, maturity, focus, the human side of management, initiative, creativity and an independent/risk-taking mindset.

Please go here (Stanford’s website) for instructions on formatting.

Reve Counselor Chi Pham holds degrees from the London School of Economics, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Wellesley College. A former business management researcher at Accenture, Chi’s works have appeared in business journals and have been used to improve leadership development programs at Fortune 500 companies. She also worked in school reform in Abu Dhabi before becoming a counselor to graduate and undergraduate applicants.

Wharton Essay Question Tips and Deadlines 2012-13

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From Wharton’s website:

2012-2013 application deadlines and decision release dates:

MBA Program
Application Deadline Decision Release Date
Round 1 October 1, 2012 December 20, 2012
Round 2 January 3, 2013 March 26, 2013
Round 3 March 2013 May 2013

All deadlines are 5:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST).

Class of 2015 Essay Questions

The Admissions Committee is interested in getting to know you on both a professional and personal level. We encourage you to be introspective, candid, and succinct. Most importantly, we suggest you be yourself.


How will the Wharton MBA help you achieve your professional objectives? (400 words)

Wharton has changed this question twice before. Previously, the question used to be a long essay about goals. Then the question became a 300 word description of professional objectives. Now the question gives you 400 words to answer. Wharton wishes to have a summary of what you aim to learn from their MBA program. This short question requires you to be focused and succinct in discussing your goals and academic needs. It also requires you to demonstrate your familiarity with their program in order to show a strong academic fit.


1. Select a Wharton MBA course, co-curricular opportunity or extra-curricular engagement that you are interested in. Tell us why you chose this activity and how it connects to your interests. (500 words)

Wharton wants to know why you are a good match for their MBA program and they want to understand more about your interests and/or values. Read through the course descriptions, the co-curricular opportunities, and the extra-curricular activities offered by Wharton. Wharton offers a very rich selection of co-curricular opportunities; see, for example, their entrepreneurial internship programs and networks,

or their leadership and service programs,

A great example of using the leadership programs to further career development comes from Dominic Skerritt, in the current class at Wharton. He is an Australian with a background in the Australian military, and will be working at McKinsey in New York after graduating. Dominic explains that he was already a leader in the Australian military, and took part in three leadership programs at Wharton: climbing Mount Cotopaxi in Ecuador, leading classmates on a trek in Antarctica, and ice climbing in the Adirondack mountains in New York state. Just from these selections, you get a strong sense that Dominic is someone who looks forward to challenges. He relates that on the Ecuador climb, one of his teammates became ill from altitude sickness, and the team made a poor decision to push on to the peak. Dominic says that the next time this happens, he would stick to his values. This comment shows us another important, ethical angle to Dominic’s character. It’s also a good choice because it shows us that Dominic is being honest in his evaluation of his own weaknesses.

Find an aspect of Wharton that you can use to link your past activities and future goals, thus demonstrating a deep-seated interest in some area. For example, if you have an interest to help companies discover ways to use clean technology, find a Wharton course or activity that will allow you to develop this interest further. Also take advantage of this essay to demonstrate what you have done so far to pursue this interest. Be specific about why you’ve chosen the course or activity and how you see yourself engaging in it. Try to explain your choices in a way that illuminates your character.

2. Imagine your work obligations for the afternoon were cancelled and you found yourself "work free" for three hours, what would you do? (500 words)

This is another way for Wharton to find out more about you and to learn about some aspect of your personal character and background that isn’t obvious from your professional experiences. For example, in the current class at Wharton, there is a Japanese student named Akihisa Shiozaki. He is a lawyer who graduated from Tokyo University. He states that he tried stand-up comedy for the first time after coming to Wharton, after being encouraged by a classmate who was a professional comedian. Akihisa mentions that the experience “completely pushed my limits. I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into, but after I did it, it felt really good. It opened a new world to me. It was one of those things you’d only do in a low-risk environment like Wharton, which really pushes you to discover new facets of yourself.”

This story, like the one about Dominic Skerritt above, shows how a reader can glean quite a bit about a person’s character from his or her choice of activity. Keep in mind that there is no “right” or “wrong” choice of topic here; your goal is to allow the admissions committee to understand a little more about who you are through the non-work activity that you choose.

3. "Knowledge for Action draws upon the great qualities that have always been evident at Wharton: rigorous research, dynamic thinking, and thoughtful leadership." – Thomas S. Robertson, Dean, The Wharton School

Tell us about a time when you put knowledge into action. (500 words)

The distinguishing aspects of the Wharton MBA are the ambitiousness and prominence of its alumni. These are not people who go to school to learn; they are eager to put the ideas into profitable practice. This question is an opportunity to show the Admissions Committee that you are an active, decisive person, rather than a passive watcher. Think about the times when you were able to take knowledge that you learned from school or other sources, and were able to apply that knowledge effectively. Ideally the story you choose will be taken from a business or work-related environment.


All reapplicants to Wharton are required to complete the Optional Essay. Please use this space to explain how you have reflected on the previous decision on your application and to discuss any updates to your candidacy (e.g., changes in your professional life, additional coursework, extracurricular/volunteer engagements). You may also use this section to address any extenuating circumstances. (250 words)

This is a chance to take advantage of any improvements in your application profile, such as improved test scores, workplace promotions, evidence of increased responsibilities or better focused goals. Reflect deeply on how you’ve grown since your last application and make a case for your improved candidacy this year.


If you feel there are extenuating circumstances of which the Committee should be aware, please explain them here (e.g., unexplained gaps in work experience, choice of recommenders, or questionable academic performance, significant weaknesses in your application). (250 words)

If in doubt, it is always best to explain extenuating circumstances to the Admissions Committee. Keep your explanations brief and to the point and address any issues that may be of concern to them in order to maintain the transparency of your application.


The above three questions are quite broad and you will need to spend some time planning a set of answers that will display your character to your advantage. Question 3 appears to be the most straightforward and I imagine it would be the easiest to answer for most candidates. You can think about your professional life and find situations in which you were able to apply knowledge in an effective manner. Questions 1 and 2 allow you the freedom to discuss aspects of your professional or non-professional self, and will help to round out your application. Consider the most compelling stories and characteristics that you wish to convey, and pick the set of questions that best reflects your strengths.

Reve Counselor Stephen Le is a graduate of the Masters in International Relations program at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University and holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He has previously served as Lecturer at UCLA and as a writing assistant for international students at SAIS. He has advised numerous students in their applications to graduate programs around the world and has taught and/or conducted research in Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Washington, DC and Los Angeles.

Harvard’s New Essay Requirements and What It Tells Us About the MBA Admissions Process

by Jessica Nitschke

As Cecilia mentioned in an earlier post, Harvard Business School has radically changed the essay requirements of their application. They have reduced the number of initial essays from 4 to 2, narrowed the focus of these questions, and added a new, post-interview essay that they are calling “Have the Last Word,” in which the applicants are required to submit a written reflection within 24 hours of the conclusion of the interview.

In terms of actual number of words you as the applicant have to sell yourself, the HBS application has gone from 2000 words last year to 800 words this year, at least for the initial essays (more about the post-interview, “have the last word” essay below). Plus, admissions has thrown out more traditional questions like “Why do you want an MBA?” and “Talk about three setbacks” in favor of something more introspective: “Tell us about something you did well.” There has been a fair amount of speculation about what prompted these changes as well as concern about the challenges these changes they might present to candidates in trying to tell their story and sell themselves.

As to why HBS implemented these changes, the explanation is pretty straightforward. If the admissions office believed that having four essays – covering a broad swath of topics: various accomplishments, setbacks, reasons for getting an MBA, and anything else you feel like mentioning – was useful in deciding which candidates to interview, they would have kept them. They didn’t. They cut the number of words students can use to less than half the original. It’s clear the traditional essay requirement wasn’t working any longer.

Why is this? Well, there are several reasons. An essay on why you want an MBA is likely to just mimic what you’re going to say in an interview – why should the essays and interviews be simply duplicates of one another? Many have also pointed out that limiting the number of pre-interview essays and requiring an immediate, post-interview essay is an attempt to eliminate fraud and deception in the essay-writing process – both cases of outright ghostwriting as well as excessive editing or rewriting by outside professionals.

But beyond this, there is a larger dilemma with the MBA essays from the perspective of admissions. Even students who do not use a coach or counselor will often seek out models or guides for how to craft the “right” essay. There are no shortage of examples and templates online – if you haven’t already, just google “mba essays” and prepare to be overwhelmed. The rhetoric of a lot of these websites, regrettably, implies that there is a specific “winning” type of essay, thus implying (incorrectly) that an essay that doesn’t conform to its template or example will doom an application.

The result is thousands of cookie-cutter, formulaic essays, as applicants attempt to conform to what they think is the one, “right” way to present oneself. But the more similar applicants’ essays are, the less useful they are as a means of judging who truly is a good fit for the school. Essays were introduced into the application process as a means of allowing the students to explain who they are as individuals, rather than as just a set of data. But if everyone writes basically the same essay – slotting in their career data or their extracurricular achievements into an established template – then the essays aren’t really much more useful in expressing who you are as an individual than a GMAT score.

With their new essay questions, it’s clear that HBS is trying to cut through the conformity and guide applicants into really expressing who they are. Take the new question – “Tell us about something you did well” (replacing “Tell us about three of your accomplishments”). The new question is more introspective – it’s still a question about an accomplishment of sorts, but it’s asking for more context from you as the applicant, putting emphasis on your worldview and your perspective – not simply an elaboration of your resume. They’re asking you to think carefully about how well you know and understand yourself.

Harvard’s search for the thoughtful, self-reflective and authentic applicant is most clear in the “Have the Last Word” essay, which, in my opinion, is a brilliant move on Harvard’s part. In addition to bringing out a more honest, less polished and less rehearsed side of a candidate, it is a test that is more similar to the kind of communication and writing you have to do in both the MBA classroom and the real world.

But this new essay should be especially welcomed by prospective MBA applicants. While such an essay, with its 24-hour time limit, might seem daunting at first, I think applicants will find it a much, much easier and more worthwhile exercise than answering an essay prompt as vague and difficult as “Ask a question you wish we’d asked” (essay question #4 from Harvard’s old application). Why? You get to respond to something real (30 to 60 minutes of interaction with an actual representative of Harvard) rather than something abstract and hypothetical. I don’t think I know a single person who hasn’t had something thoughtful and meaningful to say immediately after an interview experience.

For applicants to any program, Harvard’s changes to the essay portion of their application is an important reminder of something that Reve has been stressing for a long time: as you look for guidance, models and inspirations, and as you write, fret, rewrite, edit, and fret some more, don’t make the mistake of editing yourself out of your essays.

Jessica Nitschke is a counselor at Reve. Originally from Michigan, she has a BA from the University of Chicago and a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. She has taught at Berkeley and is a former faculty member at DePauw University and Georgetown University. Most recently she was living in Tokyo, Japan before moving to Cape Town, South Africa.

Writing your best essays by being honest

I see this a lot: essays that sound formal, that rely on platitudes, that sound like a wall has been built around the words. Usually in such cases I will ask my client to retell me his story as if he is emailing a friend. In fact, I often will ask this person to email the story to me, rather than try and fit it into the confines of a Word document. The story often sounds very different, and much more human.

Stanford Business School has a line on its website that goes something like this: “The best essays, indeed, are the ones that don’t start out trying to impress us.” All schools want authentic stories that are written from the heart.

Last week, I wrote a 250-ish word self-introduction to the clients who have signed on with us. I’ve made this introduction many times before. I usually talk about my career, why I enjoy doing what I do. But this time I wrote it differently. Instead of recounting my career path and the promotions or awards I’ve received, I told the story of how I got interested in admissions. Many years ago, when I was a high school senior, I was rejected by my dream school. I had good grades and a high class rank, and yet I did not get in. I was rejected in favor of others who I knew sat much lower than me in academic rank. It was then that I realized there was much more to the admissions process than just grades.

And I told the story of how I came from an immigrant family. I was not, in fact, even born in the US. However, this early experience trying to access the top educational opportunities despite initial language and cultural barriers, and my experience helping my Chinese parents navigate American society are what influenced me to work as a bridge for international applicants.

I have never told this story to my clients because I believed I needed to appear successful. I am helping them try to enter top American and European programs. How would it look if I told them I was an immigrant, and that I myself had failed to get into my top choice university?

To my surprise, my clients responded positively, writing back to me to say that I had inspired and touched them.

My point in sharing this story is to remind all of you how powerful honesty can be. You are all successful now, which is why you are considering graduate school, so there is nothing to be afraid of showing. Maybe you got to this point by overcoming language barriers, or surviving poverty or depression. Maybe you’ve learned to be a leader by having had doubts or stumbling or even failing earlier in your career. Whatever the path, the fact that you are here is admirable. So don’t be afraid to show it. Be honest, be human, and the admissions committee will be impressed by the real you.

New York MBA Conference: How Admissions Decisions are Made

The MBA Tour sponsored an all-day MBA fair in New York city on July 23, and we sent our local correspondent to cover the scene:

I arrived at the Grand Hyatt in Midtown at 8:50AM and there was already a line of about fifteen people waiting to get their name tags. By the time I made my way to the front of the line, checked in, and put the lanyard over my neck the Admissions panel at 9AM had started so I sprinted up the stairs to the big Broadway room, which seated around a hundred people. It was mostly already full.

At the front were a panel of three women; I couldn’t see their names because of where I was seated. They had already started talking about the GMAT. I heard one of them mention as a resource. One said that the GMAT is a good indicator of how a potential student would fare in the core classes but not necessarily the MBA program as a whole. (After having sat through numerous information sessions later on I get the sense that  the schools really just want to make sure you can handle the quant classes in the core.)

The rest of the panel consisted of segments on the essay, letters of recommendation, the resume, and the interview, followed by a Q&A session that I’ve incorporated into their appropriate categories.

The Essay

The members of the panel kept using the refrain “but check with the school” so what they were saying was very general. They offered some basic tips like check the maximum number of words, check your grammar and spelling, and be sure to put the (right) name of the school.

Here’s what I thought was a useful tidbit, on optional essays. You don’t get extra credit so if you don’t have something compelling, skip it. You can, however, also take this opportunity to explain low GMAT scores or tell your personal story. One of the panelists brought up an essay by a student who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. But if you don’t have anything compelling to say, this is just more for them to read.

Letters of Recommendation

Ask for letters as soon as possible. Aside from choosing your writers, you really have little control over this part. Prep your writers–give them your resume. Tell them why you want an MBA. And if your school is asking for a recommendation from your supervisor and you’re uncomfortable with this (as you intend to leave the company), explain this to the admissions office. In terms of whom to ask to write on your behalf, this panel and representatives from the schools whose information sessions I attended later on all echoed the same thing: choose people who know you well, not just people who have a high status and rank. In one example given, one high-ranking executive wrote a one-sentence letter of recommendation (though shame on him, I say.) Another piece of instruction I kept hearing is that the admissions committees want recommendations from people in the workplace. This makes sense; they want to know what you’re like in action. So should you have  professors write letters for you? Only if you’ve worked with them. And what if you’re an entrepreneur? Since you don’t have a supervisor, seek letters from clients, vendors, etc. One last thing they mentioned: If the letters are to be submitted electronically, let your writers now. And make sure they use the (right) name of the school.


Don’t merely provide a listing but really highlight what the school’s interested in. Know the emphasis of the program–what is your target school looking for? Do you have strengths you can offer to the school?–and the profile of the students. Show results. Show special special projects. Show that each year you’ve taken projects out of your comfort zone. Do you have cross functional work experience? Or team oriented projects and collaborative experiences? The more of this you can demonstrate the better.

In college, what did you do in addition to studying? They want to see well-rounded individuals. Include activities. What was meaningful to you? What were one or two that really excited you? And did you work during school to support yourself? If so, include this as it shows maturity and depth. Include interests, outside work, work at non-profits, sports, travel–they want to see the total person.

Other bits of advice:

– Make sure you can explain gaps in employment on chronological resumes.

– If you have different career paths, address them somewhere.

– Check page numbers. If they say two pages, they may automatically throw out your third page.

– Don’t include your high school. No one cares.

And one general takeaway: The admissions committee wants to know if you have strengths that fit the school. Don’t make them have to search to find out what they are. Make it easy for them.

The Interview

So you got an interview. Congratulations!

From the moment you step into the school for the interview until you leave, everything will be fair game for your evaluation. First impressions are important. This includes not just your professional appearance but how you greet the admissions staff upon arrival. Word gets around among schools, so don’t be rude to the receptionist.

How to prepare:

– In terms of research by now you should have done more than just visit the website. Hopefully you’ve spoken with alumni and even visited the school.

– Call ahead to see if the interview is a panel or one on one meeting. If there are other candidates present you will be observed on how you interact with them.

– Review your application before your interview as they are different between schools.

– Be prepared to conduct a conversation.

– Show your intellectual ability about your sector. Be current on recent events in your sector (read The Economist, The Financial Times, etc.)

– Think about what you want to talk about. What can you contribute?

– Don’t repeat what you’ve already written about (in other parts of your application.)

– Be prepared to talk about weak points.

– Show energy and enthusiasm about their school.

– For international students especially, your communication ability is important.

In the following Q&A session questions fell into the above categories so I’ve already incorporated them here. One question of note was when to apply–in round 1, round 2, etc. While of course earlier is better, especially if you’re applying for scholarships, it is less about the rounds than when you are ready. Apply when you have the best application to present yourself.

Will follow up over the coming two weeks with summaries of some of the individual school presentations.