MIT Sloan Essays • Question 3 (2010)

Essay 3: Please describe a time when you took responsibility for achieving an objective. (500 words or fewer, limited to one page)

Huge assumption in here… “took responsibility.”

Think about it. How many people are applying to MIT? How many of those people have “achieved an objective”? Well, I’m no all-seeing deity (usually), but I can say with a certain degree of confidence that the answer is darn near 100%.

So let’s not get too excited about having achieved an objective, no matter how impressive yours might be. Remember, someone else did something more impressive.

The key here is embedded in those two magnificent words “took responsibility.”

Let’s take em one at a time. “Took.” If someone hands you a $10 bill, is it accurate to say you took it? Sort of, but not really. More accurate to say that you accepted it. If someone puts a gun to your head and says “DANCE!” would it be accurate to say that you took the directive? Sort of, but not really. You didn’t exactly control that one.

What is it about “taking” that’s so central here? Well, it’s about rising to a challenge without being asked to. Without being ordered to. Without anyone EXPECTING you to.

There has to be some element of surprise (pleasant surprise) to someone that you actively volunteered to take the reins on something. Which brings us to our second word: responsibility. A little easier, responsibility for this essay’s purposes means OWNERSHIP. It’s not quite the same as leading. It is, and it isn’t. There’s a nuance here. Had they said “took the lead” it might be a sliiiiiightly different essay.

Taking responsibility is to OWN the sucker. It’s to be responsible for the outcome. If the thing fails, it’s on you. Presumably, you’re gonna pick a success story (doesn’t have to be, but probably it will be).

So, now we’ve at least laid out what qualifies as an appropriate story, and let’s say you’ve got the story ready. Because you weren’t EXPECTED to take ownership, we need to understand fully WHY you did. So in the beginning of this essay, we need to nail the following elements:

1. Barebones of the situation. Where are we, what are the circumstances. To quote Marvin Gaye and perhaps Linda Perry if you’d like, we need the “What’s going on.”

2. Now we need to know what would happen if no one took the steering wheel. We need to know how the bus would veer off the road. The stakes.

3. Next, we need to know what your personal circumstances were that made it not particularly OBVIOUS that you’d step up to the plate (remember, if it were an obvious move, then it’s not much of a story).

Structurally, you will likely be best off introducing this sucker quickly, focusing on the idea that there was a ship without a captain. Explain why there wasn’t a captain, and further, why it wasn’t OBVIOUS for you to step up.

Then QUICKLY walking us through the actual ACTIONS of your leading this sucker – owning it – through to meeting its objective. This isn’t the essay by the way, it’s only a chunk of it.

Because then, we will want a FINAL paragraph addressing the “taking of responsibility” aspect, reflecting on what you learned about ownership, leadership, etc. We wanna learn something about the spark in you that caused you to take that initiative.

That’s what they’re looking for. The folks who have that spark: to seize an opportunity, and run with it.

MIT Sloan Essays • Question 2 (2010)