What are the most challenging essay questions business schools ask applicants? That’s a question we’ve been answering on a regular basis now in five parts of a six-part series. We’ve tackled the most difficult questions from Harvard, Wharton, Stanford, Kellogg, MIT and now INSEAD. Stacy Blackman, founder of the MBA admissions consulting firm that bears her name, is picking out what she considers to be the most challenging and then providing advice for how to approach each essay.
What constitutes a highly challenging essay? They may force you to be incredibly introspective, surprisingly creative or perhaps highly succinct. Some of the essays are not as straightforward as they seem, others are very straightforward, but it is tempting to stray off topic. Whatever the reason, we are here to help, with some tips taken straight from the Stacy Blackman Consulting series of school specific essay guides. Here’s the last of the series.
Most Challenging MBA Essay Question #6
Give a candid description of yourself, stressing the personal characteristics you feel to be yourstrengths and weaknesses and the main factors, which have influenced your personal development,giving examples when necessary.
Overview of the question
Self-awareness of your own strengths and weaknesses is an important aspect of any MBA application. While you have likely encountered a version of this question in the context of a job interview process, this essay treatment requires you to clearly identify genuine strengths along with your areas of development.
The ability to discuss your weaknesses candidly is a strength in itself. In general, MBA programs are seeking smart, dedicated and self-aware students who are able to see themselves clearly and improve and adapt when necessary. Your own ability to understand the areas you might be able to improve is a great way to demonstrate this ability to self-assess.
Honesty is the best policy and you should be honest about your genuine areas for improvement along with the personal qualities you are proud of. Often your greatest strength is the flipside of a frustrating weakness. For example, you are an analytical and thorough worker who is detail oriented, and yet have a difficulty seeing the big picture in a strategic way.
Avoid insincere weaknesses that are clearly strengths disguised as weaknesses. Statements like: “my driven nature sometimes leads others to dislike working with me because I am always the strongest member of the team” certainly exhibits a weakness in interpersonal skills. The candidate may have intended communicate a strong work ethic and willingness to take on additional responsibility with such a “weakness” but the attempt can easily backfire. Overall, honesty and self-awareness will be noted and appreciated in the process whatever your strengths or weaknesses may be.
If you have difficulty knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, it can help to read through past performance reviews at work, think about projects where you were particularly successful and speak with your colleagues and friends about what their perception. Often your own desire and motivation to involve yourself in a particular task can reveal the areas where you feel strong and the areas of improvement.
Yale, Kellogg, McCombs, Sloan and other top business schools are now asking applicants to complete a brief video response. Some schools give you the option of creating a video to personalize your essay response, and others ask you to complete a mini-interview online as part of your application. This can seem stressful, but is actually a great opportunity for you to personalize your candidacy. Here are tips to help you excel in MBA video responses:
Please make sure that your technology works well. Test the sound on your computer, angle the camera in a flattering way (so that they don’t just see your nose) and set up in a completely quiet, neutral location. You don’t want intrusions from barking dogs or ringing phones, and you also don’t want them to see your Justin Bieber poster in the background. Also, please wear a suit. These environmental tips apply to Skype interviews as well.
Practice Your Core Interview Responses.
Although you can’t predict everything that the school will ask (please see the next bullet) you can be pretty sure that they will ask you at least one fundamental question about your goals and/or your interest in the school. At the very least you should practice articulating your short and long term goals, your need for an MBA, and your reasons for wanting to attend their school.
As my clients know, I am generally VERY opposed to applicants reading the forums. This is one of the few exceptions – there are only a limited number of questions that the schools ask in the pre-recorded interview prompts, and people do seem to post them online. I still encourage you to start with the school’s websites (Kellogg tells you what one of the questions is, and also asks a more esoteric one, which varies. Yale is more vague but still gives you good tips.) Nevertheless, as long as you can take the forums with a grain of salt, reading them may help you to get a feel for the types of questions that you are likely to encounter.
Be Friendly and Positive.
Even though you may be nervous, it’s really important to project enthusiasm. Please be sure to smile, and keep your answers positive. Schools are adding videos in part to get a gut feeling for your interpersonal skills – this is not the time to play it cool! You want them to get the impression that you are warm, nice and excited about the opportunity to connect with them. If you have the choice between submitting a written essay and recording a video I suggest the video. It’s easier to make a memorable impact, and shows effort.
The video responses are just one small part of the process, and are a neutral part of the application for most candidates. They are also relatively new, and although schools are looking for a base level of poise and preparation they are not trying to trip you up. Think of the video responses as a great opportunity for you to differentiate yourself. MBA video essays can definitely enhance your candidacy, especially if you can relax and let your personality shine through.
Karen has more than 12 years of experience evaluating candidates for admission to Dartmouth College and to the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. Since founding North Star Admissions Consulting in 2012, she has helped applicants gain admission to the nation’s top schools, including Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Wharton, MIT, Tuck, Columbia, Kellogg, Booth, Haas, Duke, Johnson, Ross, NYU, UNC, UCLA, Georgetown and more. Over the last three years, clients have been awarded more than 10.3 million dollars in scholarships, and more than 95% have gotten into one of their top choice schools.