Category Archives: mba essays

Columbia Business School Essays for 2012-2013

After releasing its application deadlines for the 2012-2013 admissions season, Columbia Business School has released its admissions essays, and we’ll dig into those today:

Columbia Business School Application Essays

Short Answer Question
What is your immediate post-MBA professional goal? (200 characters maximum)

You read that right… It’s 200 characters, not words! This question was new last year, and naturally it made waves by being so short & sweet. It has changed every so slightly this year: Columbia added the word “immediate,” presumably to keep applicants even more focused on what they plan to do coming right out of school. Think of this “essay” as the positioning statement that sums up your career goals in one sentence. Do you want to be known as the applicant who wants to run a sports team, or perhaps the applicant who wants to launch a renewable energy startup? Columbia provides some examples on its site, and you’ll see that there’s nothing particularly creative or special about them. No need to take too many risks or get too gimmicky here, but remember that this is the one thing (about your career goals) that you want the admissions committee to remember about you.

Essay Questions

  • Why are you pursuing an MBA at this point in your career, and how do you plan to achieve your immediate and long term post-MBA professional goals? (500 words)

    This question has evolved a bit since last year. First of all, Columbia broke it into two parts, with Columbia moving the “Why Columbia?” question to the second part. Despite the changes, we’d still categorize it as the typical “Why an MBA?” question that many top MBA programs ask. Yes, you are right to point out that this question is a tad redundant given the Short Answer Question, but think of that as the headline that partly sums up this essay. Like every other school, Columbia asks this question to get a sense of where you’re going with your career, whether your goals are realistic, and whether you “get” what an MBA can (and can’t) do for you.
  • Please view this video, entitled Community at Columbia. Diverse, tight-knit clusters and carefully selected learning teams are defining features of the first year at Columbia Business School. Along with more than 100 student organizations and countless events each semester, the cluster system helps to create a supportive and devoted lifelong community. Describe why you are interested in becoming a part of the Columbia community. (Maximum 250 words)

    This is where those other 250 words went. As we have said before, many applicants fail to adequately to explain why Columbia is the best place for them to earn their MBA, given the school’s culture, academic strengths, ties to certain industries, etc. Yes, Columbia has a big name and proximity to Wall Street. Those strengths are obvious. What else does Columbia offer that you can’t find anywhere else? This is what the school is looking for when it asks about “fit.” Also, pay attention to how many times the phrase “Despite being in NYC…” (or something similar) comes up in the video. We’ve noted before that Columbia doesn’t want to be viewed as a commuter school in the middle of a huge city… Keep this in mind as you spell out how you will fit in at Columbia.
  • Describe a personal experience and how it has influenced who you are today. This essay should have a personal rather than a professional focus. (500 words)

    This question has been reworded, but the thrust of it is the same as it was last year, when Columbia introduced it to its application. Therefore, our advice mostly remains the same. We still like the more direct nature of this question, which asks for a specific life experience, rather than simply asking about your personal interests, which Columbia’s application used to do. Remember that, when a school tweaks an essay prompt from year year to the next, that usually means that the admissions committee wasn’t quite getting what it wanted. Our guess is that Columbia is trying even harder now t put the focus on your personal side, not the professional you. Don’t be afraid to reveal something that seems a little more personal than what you thought you would share going into this process… They clearly want to see how you have grown and evolved in your relatively young life.
  • Columbia also provides space for an optional fourth essay. Our advice here is always the same: If you really do feel the need to explain something, then address it and move on. In other words, don’t dwell on it or provide that weakness with more stage time than it deserves!

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Teamwork Still Matters as You Write Your Essays

Teamwork matters. Business schools want teamwork-savvy students, and MBA admissions officers look for applicants who can work well with others. They want to see that you can get things done by working with others, rather than by working around them or in spite of them. Why, then, have essay questions that directly hit on teamwork mostly disappeared from business schools’ applications over the past decade? Why have many of them been replaced by diversity questions? Could this mean that teamwork suddenly doesn’t matter like it used to? Are business school going to revert back to the “every man for himself” reputation that has (rightly or wrongly) been assigned to them over the years?

No way. While most schools no longer directly as about teamwork in their essay prompts, you can be sure that they still care about this attribute a lot. They have just moved from asking about teamwork directly to looking for signs of a team-friendly attitude in your other essays and interview answers, as well as in your letters of recommendation. While they could ask you in an essay prompt, many have found that they get more useful answers via the interview process and your letters of recommendation.

While many applicants hear “teamwork” and think of warm fuzzies, it’s a much more involved concept than that. It requires a willingness to share successes and take accountability for failures. It also calls for a great deal of empathy and emotional intelligence, which admissions officers talk about almost endlessly these days. MIT Sloan’s essay attempts to get at that — an ability to “feel out” a situation and figure out how to work with someone, even when they may not want to help or your goals may not be aligned. While the word “team” doesn’t show up at all in this question, you can be sure that the core traits that make someone a good team player are still lurking underneath.

So, don’t doubt that teamwork is going away as a core attribute that admissions officers want to see; they’re just measuring it differently than they have in the past. Whether you communicate this ability via essays or letters of recommendation or any other medium, you absolutely must bring teamwork to the table in order to be successful in the MBA admissions process.

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Want to Write a Great Admissions Essay? Look to the Wedding Toast.

Struggling to complete your admissions essays? Think back for a minute and consider the last few weddings you’ve been to. If you’re lucky, you only have witnessed great wedding speeches and toasts, but odds are that you’ve sat through at least one or two bombs. What accounts for the difference?

While your first answer might understandably be, “It’s how comfortable the person is about delivering speeches in front of large groups,” I don’t really think that’s the case. Yes, no one wants to watch the poor guy stand up there and sweat bullets as he fumbles with a piece of paper covered in smeared ink, mumbling into the microphone for what seems like an eternity. Delivery matters, no doubt.

However, content outshines delivery almost every time. Here’s one common culprit that’s made more than a few wedding toasts bad: The speaker just focused on cracking jokes, and left you scratching your head as to who he is, what he has to do with all of this, and why he chose to tell that embarrassing story about the groom. Although he probably thought it was funny, you were checking your watch (or your iPhone; this is 2011, after all), wondering when was going to finish. He didn’t connect with you, and you ended up caring about him or his relationship with the lucky couple no more than when he started.

Now think about the ones that you have enjoyed. Even the most nervous toastmasters deliver good speeches when they’re willing to get a little personal. The good speakers reveal a little bit about themselves, and in doing so they help you get to know them a bit better. They share a vulnerability or concern that we’ve all felt at some point, and everyone shares a small appreciative chuckle. They present a side of the bride and groom that you’ve never seen before (and actually want to see). They make you care a little more. They connect with you.

A great speaker — just like a great admissions essay writer — doesn’t need to leave them rolling in the aisles. Humor helps, but only to the extent that it helps to present and accentuate personal stories that make you feel like you now know the person on more than a superficial level. A great admissions essay works in the same way. It doesn’t focus on devices and gimmicks; it just delivers a message that the reader will leave the reader saying, “I really enjoyed that. He seems like someone I’d like to get to know more.” Whether you’re talking about what matters most to you (… and why), or discussing a time when you failed as part of a team, or discussing where you see yourself in your career ten years from now, this same yardstick applies. Taking a chance and putting a little bit of your self “out there” is the difference between a bore of an essay and a terrific one.

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Essay-Writing Services Flourish, but Why?

Recently the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article written by an anonymous “hired gun” who writes admissions essays, term papers, and even doctoral theses for paying students, who in turn pass these off as their own. Bloomberg Businessweek also ran a similar piece that profiled a couple of similar services that write essays for business school applicants.

Are these services unethical? Yes, we think so, but that’s so obvious that we won’t devote any more words to it here. (If you’re reading this because you’re looking to hire someone to write your admissions essays for you, then you can keep looking.)

What really concerns us is that schools and admissions offices seemingly don’t question how someone with a horrible command or English could create a perfectly constructed essay or research paper. If you are to believe the sources quoted in both article, these services work well enough (i.e., students get caught rarely enough) that they have thriving businesses with repeat customers. Again, the students who submit these and the hired guns who write them are flaunting the rules of the system, but where the hell the admissions officers, professors, and university department heads who should easily catch this sort of behavior? You mean to tell me that, as a student with broken English clumsily defends a doctoral thesis that he’s barely read all the way through, the thought of, “I wonder if this is his work,” never crosses their minds?

Again, that doesn’t excuse such behavior, but we really wonder about who’s minding the shop at these supposedly academically challenging institutions. Just like the TSA may never catch every pen knife that goes through airport security, it’s understandable if a handful of forged academic papers slip through the system now and then. But, if the practice is as commonplace as the Chronicle piece makes it out to be (just look at the business this guy’s company supposedly does), then someone is not doing their job. This isn’t even a question of what the penalties should be for students who are caught cheating — those penalties should of course be steep — but a question of why more of these students don’t get caught in the first place.

Another concern of ours: It bothers us is that such services cause the whole industry of admissions consultants and coaches to get painted with the same broad brush. As mentioned in the Bloomberg Businessweek article, AIGAC is an international organization devoted to upholding ethical standards among admissions consultants. Bring admitted to AIGAC is no small task — a company and its individual members have to jump through many hoops to be admitted — and maintaining one’s membership is just as involved.

Although AIGAC now has dozens of members around the world, it takes just one or two bad actors (like the ones profiled in these articles) to cause some admissions officer to go off half-cocked and ban any type of application assistance, no matter what the circumstances. We’d hate to see that happen because of these services.

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Three Ways to Break Through Writer’s Block

If you stumbled across the article while procrastinating on your business school admissions essays, you’re in luck. Hopefully this article will be the best thing that could have happened to your essays. Today we present three ways to break through writer’s block and get your MBA admissions essays back on track.

When we say “writer’s block,” we mean any situation where you know what’s on paper (or on your computer screen) is far from being a finished product that you’ll be happy to submit as part of your finished application. Maybe you just can’t think about what to start writing about (this is what most people think of when they hear “writer’s block”), but an even tougher case can be when you’re staring at a nearly-finished essay and you just know that it’s not working. In either case, try these three things to clear your mind and start fresh

Talk to an Old Friend or Relative
Why would connecting with an old friend or relative help with your writer’s block? Doing so can help stimulate memories and ideas that may be buried deep in your brain. A conversation with an old friend may remind you of why you got so excited about your current career in the first place, giving new oomph to a “Career Progression”-oriented essay. The real thing — whether it’s talking to an old friend or looking through old pictures — is far more effective at jogging your memory and unleashing old (but good) ideas than is sitting at a computer.

Write Something You Know You’ll Never Submit
There’s something to be said for doing a “dry run” that you know will have no real consequences. Stumped on your Stanford GSB “What matters most and why” essay? Write an absurd piece that you know would immediately get you dinged if you ever submitted it. Or, write it as a character from a movie would — Gordon Gekko is always a good one to fall back on — and let your creative juices flow. Just be sure that you remember NOT to submit this version when you send in your application!

Get Some Rest!
At the end of the day, no mind is better able to create than a well rested one. One night of at least eight hours of sleep and another night of dedicated writing is always more effective than two nights of tired writing and less sleep than your body really needs. Science backs this up, too: While you’re asleep, your brain processes the day’s memories and makes new connections between neurons to store those in your long-term memory. This “flushing out” of your short-term memory helps your brain take in, process, and synthesize new information. Tell that to your professor when you get caught napping in class!

Got other ideas? Share them in the comments section below! For more MBA admissions advice, be sure to subscribe to this blog and to follow us on Twitter!

Using Improv Comedy to Tighten Your Admissions Essays

Recently we came across this terrific piece on a hypothetical college course that the author would one day like to teach. The course would require students to ruthlessly edit their own writing with every assignment they submit. We immediately circulated here, because it hit so close to home for the Veritas Prep team. Every day we work with clients to help them sharpen their ideas, and this exercise helps crystallize it perfectly.

The author, Jason Fried, says:
Continue reading

INSEAD Admissions Essays for 2010-2011

Today we’ll dig into INSEAD’s MBA admissions essays for the coming year (you’ll need to log into the online application to access the essays). Here they are, followed by our comments and advice in italics:

INSEAD Application Essays

Job Essays

  1. Please give a detailed description of your job, including nature of work, major responsibilities; and, where relevant, employees under your supervision, size of budget, number of clients/products and results achieved. (250 words)

    The goal of this essay is clear: You must succinctly help the admissions office understand exactly what you do on a day-to-day basis. As easy as it is to become consumed with your GMAT score and your extracurricular activities, at the end of the day, the most accurate predictor of your professional potential is what you have done in your career to date. Don’t be spooked by the fact that the school asks for the number of employees under your supervision and the size of the budget you manage — if you haven’t really managed a team or owned a budget yet, that’s okay. The school is just trying to understand exactly what it is you do in your present job. Also, note the emphasis on your PRESENT job. This is not a typical “career progression” essay; stick to what the question asks.

  2. Please give us a full description of your career since graduating from university. If you were to remain with your present employer, what would be your next step in terms of position? (250 words)

    Here is where you can provide some context around your career progression up until now. Of course, doing this in 250 words is a tough job, do you will really need to stick to the highlights in terms of what you have achieved and the reasons for the moves you have made. You will have to ditch most of the flowery prose in favor of clear, easy-to-follow facts. The second part of this question is interesting in that it pretty directly hits on something that INSEAD and any other top business school wants to know — that you’re interested in pursuing an MBA to turbocharge an already successful career, not to bail out of a stagnant one. Painting the picture of a successful young professional (in not many words, of course!) will be key here.

Personal Essays

  1. Give a candid description of yourself, stressing the personal characteristics you feel to be your strengths and weaknesses and the main factors, which have influenced your personal development, giving examples when necessary. (400 words)

    While the Job Essays above required you to really stick to the facts and simply summarize your resume, here is where you can start to provide more narrative. Many applicants see the word “weaknesses” and tense up, thinking, “Oh no! I need to come up with an innocuous weakness that won’t kill my candidacy!” But the admissions committee knows that no one is perfect. INSEAD truly wants to understand what you’re good at and where you need some work. The school wants to see evidence of strong self-awareness and a desire to build on your strengths and improve on your weaknesses. The seemingly natural place to go from here is to explain how INSEAD can help you with these areas, although note that this is not a “Why INSEAD?” essay prompt. Keep the focus mostly on you and what you have accomplished to date.

  2. Describe what you believe to be your two most substantial accomplishments to date, explaining why you view them as such. (400 words)

  3. This question reminds us of Harvard’s “three most substantial accomplishments” essay prompt. Not surprisingly, our advice is pretty much the same: This gives you a great opportunity for you to spell out at least two main themes that you want to emphasize in your application. Remember, the “why” in your story is even more important than the “what,” so be sure to spell out why these accomplishments are so critical to describing you as an emerging leader. Also, don’t feel that both accomplishment need to come from your job. If you have a great achievement from outside of work — such as from your community service efforts or even from a hobby that you’re passionate about — that can also provide great material for this essay.

  4. Describe a situation taken from school, business, civil or military life, where you did not meet your personal objectives, and discuss briefly the effect. (250 words)

    Ack, a failure question! Time to run for the hills! Don’t worry — as stated above, INSEAD knows you’re not perfect. The question is how you are able to overcome your failures and grow as a result of them. INSEAD’s word choice in asking for the “effect” of your failure is odd; what the school really wants to hear is what you learned and how you improved (both as a professional and as a person) as a result. And, ideally, you can even work in an example of ho you put what you learned to use when faced with another challenge. Of course, the word count is tight, but being able to work in this example shows that you’re not just talk.

  5. Discuss your career goals. What skills do you expect to gain from studying at INSEAD and how will they contribute to your professional career. (500 words)

    Now we’re really getting into the “Why and MBA?” and “Why this school?” questions. Note that, as important is it is to make a convincing case about your career goals and your reasons for wanting an MBA, you also really need to spell out why specifically INSEAD can help you achieve your goals? This is where you need to show that you’ve done your homework, and convince the school that you’re not only applying because INSEAD is a highly ranked program.

  6. Please choose one of the following two essay topics:

    a) Have you ever experienced culture shock? What did it mean to you? (250 words)

    b) What would you say to a foreigner moving to your home country? (250 words)

    Both of these essay prompts try to help the admissions committee understand you a little bit better. While it’s easy to lump these questions into the “diversity” bucket, really what the school is trying to gauge is your emotional intelligence and cultural sensitivity. More than perhaps any other MBA program INSEAD truly is a melting pot of management education. You may be in study teams with people from four other continents — how well will you work with them at 3:00 AM when you have a tough final project due in six hours? A little bit of humor a humility can go a long way in answering these questions. Help the admissions committee be able to envision you sitting in a study group on INSEAD’s campuses in Fountainebleu and Singapore.

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