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Wharton Essay Option 2 of 4 – 2010-2011

September 28, 2010 :: Admissionado Team

Reflect on a time when you turned down an opportunity. What was the thought process behind your decision? Would you make the same decision today? (600 words)


Not the best option if you’ve never turned down an opportunity. But before we dismiss it outright, let’s give it a second.

What’s an opportunity? Couple assumptions in there.

1. It’s a legitimate offer of some kind. Yours to decide yea or nay. That someone or some “thing” (like a university or a company) made to you. Could be unsolicited, or something you applied for. That is, either they chased you or you chased them. Doesn’t matter, at the end of it, they gave you a piece of paper and said “Do you want to sign on the dotted line?” The only important point here is that it was truly YOUR choice to accept or reject. You can’t say, well I could have been a famous movie star like Tom Cruise but I decided to go into Corporate Law instead. Wait, unless you were literally offered the role for “Top Gun” or “Mission: Impossible” then, it’s not REALLY an opportunity. It’s made up, and doesn’t count.

2. Then there’s that word itself… OPPORTUNITY. That’s different from a straight up CHOICE. We’re offering you admission to Harvard University OR $500,000. You turn down the 500K to go to Harvard… that’s not really turning down an opportunity. 500K in that scenario represents a known quantity. If you’d turned down Harvard on the other hand, THAT would be turning down an opportunity. So, that word implies something open-ended. Something that allows for some growth.

3. The decision had to be reasonably difficult. If someone said “I’m gonna offer you two choices. Behind Door #1 is a chance to arm wrestle Michael Douglas for his wife, a chance to jam with Radiohead, and a chance to eat a meal prepared for you by Joel Robuchon. Behind Door #2 is a chance to sit on an airplane for 72 straight hours, filled with crying babies and unattentive mothers who are all pointing and laughing at you.” Well, it isn’t much of a choice. And won’t make for an interesting essay to dig into the rationale behind choosing Door #1. Why should we care, it’s a no-brainer. Big deal, you made an obvious choice that anyone in your situation would have. There needs to be SACRIFICE. Compromise. Something for something. This is key.

So before you begin, generate your list of contenders and make sure they pass each of those tests. The purpose of this essay is to see how you weigh pros and cons. How you make decisions. What’s important to you WHILE making a hard decision. The considerations. The process. The valuation. The “if x, then y… but if y, then z” mechanism in action.

Important tip: DO NOT get ahead of yourself. The best thing you can do is present the “choice” to the reader in a way that makes him curious to know what the final outcome was. Don’t start by saying “The day I turned down a job offer from Goldman Sachs in order to take care of my ailing mother was an incredibly hard decision.” Well, you just sucked the wind out of the entire essay. There’s an opportunity there to bring the reader INTO your shoes, without a clear outcome.

“The offer came over dessert at a local café. The VP of Goldman said three magic words: XXX, YYY and ZZZZZ. Only a fool could say no. At that moment, my cell phone buzzed. It was my mom, texting me from Franklin Hospital. This was week 3 of intenstive care. And from the brevity of the message, I knew the news was not good….” blah blah blah. Make the thing feel sticky. Pull the reader in, push your choice back as far as you can. Not tooooo far though, because the MEAT of this essay is in the analysis of why you chose what you chose and how you may or may not play it differently today. (And of course it won’t always be a choice between A and B; could simply be A versus not-A.)

All we want to see here is sound judgment. It’s okay to have made the WRONG decision. Which is to say, it’s okay to decide that “Holy crap, if I were to do it all over, no way in a million years would I have picked B over A.” That’s irrelevant. The key is the MECHANISM driving your decisions. If that mechanism is sound, over time, you’re gonna make good choices. If the mechanism is busted, then it’s a crap shoot. The guy with sound judgment is bankable.