Essay Analysis

September 4, 2023

London Business School Masters In Finance
Full-Time Masters In Finance


One word: Juggernaut. You guys familiar with that idea? To essentialize it: “unstoppable force.” Something that has a kind of momentum that seems to have a will of its own. That’s what we want here. The sense, through the way you articulate your objectives, and the action you’ve taken and are taking, that you’re not just ideas and words, but you’re a runaway train, barreling toward your objective. For many folks in life, graduate school is a fallback plan. An expensive “reset” button because real life wasn’t catapulting them toward fame and wealth as they’d hoped. They don’t want that guy. They want the guy for whom this program IS the catapult. The guy for whom the plans for “fame and wealth” or “whatever else compels them” requires a Masters in Finance as a key missing piece. That final piece of track connecting one side of the bridge to the other, so that your runaway train can sail forward smoothly.

Above all else, your plan needs to make a ton of sense. The best way to gut-check this is to run it by actual “finance” people. Colleagues, bosses, mentors, folks who are in “the know” and know exactly how people “on the inside” think, and behave. If your plan makes sense in a theoretical world, but doesn’t scan in “the real world,” admissions committees will know that you’re more dreamer than doer. If you’ve cut your teeth in this universe though, and kinda have a sense for how it all works, how people maneuver within a company, between companies, progress in the industry, advance their careers toward bigger and better things, it’ll show in the way you lay out your plan. Now is NOT the time to get creative, and force the admissions committee to have to imagine that your plan MAY be viable. It needs to be bulletproof. And it should read like a military operation, with every step making perfect logical sense with respect to the one before and after it.

In fact, in keeping with that analogy, your plan (like any good one), must have some viable alternatives. Assume your “A” plan hits an unforeseeable bump. You’re not gonna pack it in and go home and sulk, right? You’re gonna find another pathway toward your goal. Walk us through it. And then do it again. Show us that whatever curveball life throws your way, you’re poised to make an adjustment and swat the ball into play, somewhere.

As for geography, this will have everything to do with your specific goals. Again, it will benefit you to have spoken with an expert in this area, who knows exactly how the industry works, and whether the language you use to articulate your plan jibes with how THEY on the other side experience it. That guy/gal has a better chance of succeeding than the one who simply has [1] the wherewithal, and [2] an excellent plan in THEORY, that doesn’t quite sit perfectly with the game on the ground.

As structure, let’s break it down:

  1. Explain quickly where it’s headed, big-picture. And why. Without getting side-tracked, SELL us on this larger vision you have for yourself. It’ll make your shorter-term battle plan stick better if we’ve bought into the idea that you have a solid RUDDER. [75-100 words]
  2. Now, take us through a very PRACTICAL battle plan for, say, 3-5 years after your Masters. Where are you headed within that time frame, and what are all the utterly logical steps between you and that goal? More important than your actual plan, is that you convey here that you “are the type who will always have a smart plan.” So, this is where you can EXPOSE some of the calculations BEHIND your decisions, don’t just zoom to all the conclusions. We wanna see how you GOT there, because therein lies the window into your ANALYTICAL NERVE CENTER. Hit us with Plan A first. [125-150 words]
  3. Now, wow us with your alternative plans, but more so than simply tick the box that you “have a backup plan,” find a way to convince your “investor” that come hell or high water, you’re gonna find a way to get it done. See the difference? It isn’t to sell us on the strength of your backup plan(s). Rather, it’s to fill us with confidence that if you were to stumble 99 times, you still have plenty of gears to go to in order to succeed, because SUCCESS is etched into your DNA. You can achieve this by exposing “just how much thought you’ve given this,” addressing viable bumps that may await you. And to do it with confidence, and steadiness. [125 words]
  4. Finally, hit us with the geography piece, fleshing out even in more detail, why you wish to end up where you hope to end up. Explain this in two ways: [1] in a way that makes professional sense, of course, but also [2] in a way that fits in with your personal wants and tastes, enough to convince us that you are likely to THRIVE within this setting. Sell us on it. Don’t force the issue, but convince us that your “plant” will “thrive” in this environment. Is there evidence of it in your past that’ll help us see it? Great, bring it. [100 words]
  5. Now, they haven’t explicitly asked for it, but it may help your case to explain quickly why you aren’t just lunging at this plan right now. What’s missing in your skillset? Why spend the time earning a degree? If you do this right, your inevitability for success should leap off the page, such that LBS will want to ENABLE you, thus doing THEMSELVES a favor. In other words, try not to be beseeching when explaining what you need. Posture more like “listen, I’m gonna get this missing piece no matter what. It’ll be in YOUR best interest that it happen under your roof.” [50 words or so, either at the end here, or organically earlier, when discussing your short-term plans.]


Adding value. Hm. In order to hit this precisely, it helps to imagine the DELTA between this program [1] Without You, compared to the program [2] With You. The difference between those two things needs to (a) exist (ha!), but (b) be. . . meaningful. Enough for someone on the other side to say, well, we much prefer Scenario 2 over Scenario 1 because we’re clearly better off in Scenario 2. Now, “clearly” doesn’t always mean measurably. And that’s where it gets challenging. But that’s where you need to SELL like a champ, and persuade.

Start by getting a bit real. Say to yourself (even if it hurts a bit) that the difference between you and most of your competition isn’t really all that great. The stuff that any single individual brings to the table. . . I mean, how much impact on a program can one guy make, right? It’s not gonna be a big thing, in all likelihood. It may be a little thing. A subtle thing. Something you’ve experienced at work that few others have, the insider experience of which, when shared, can add value. But value, how? Be able to articulate it. Or perhaps there’s an aspect to your upbringing/childhood/schooling/work experience (cultural, geographic, other such influences) that makes your approach to something that’s otherwise conventional… somehow different. And in that difference, lies that competitive edge that makes you more likely to add value than the guy without that background. Whatever your angle is, it will help your case to be able to illustrate the precise way in which it has made a difference in YOUR life, and therefore, how that might have a ripple effect when introduced to others pursuing the same general field.

Another neat trick here is to invert the question entirely, and to think back to a moment when you have personally benefitted from the influence of a colleague, or peer, or superior, or subordinate. Identify what that “learning” was. Now, find an analog trait that YOU possess (or some kind of unique perspective through background or experience, whatever) that you believe can similarly impact someone else, or a community of folks. You may never need to draw upon the initial example, but it can help kickstart the juices.

Now, apply that to specific areas of the program that you feel you’ll be able to impact the most. Part of this will be that “thing” you’ve identified above, the source of the value you have to contribute. But that’s gonna be worthless unless it’s accompanied by the WILL to wanna share it. This is where you need to sell us on your enthusiasm for LBS, and specific opportunities that you cannot WAIT to engage with. Prove to us that this isn’t just the thing you say in an application, but “the opportunity you’ve been waiting for.” Don’t just name-drop clubs and activities and programs. Show us that you know way more about than what’s listed on a website. Show us that you’ve dug deep, talked to alums, explored it in surprisingly aggressive ways; show us you mean business!


  1. A great way to attack an essay like this is to explain what you’re looking for in “an ideal program.” Leave LBS out of it for now. Just imagine you’re being asked to “paint” the ideal program on a magical canvas. Explain why THESE opportunities at this ideal place “bring out the best in you.” Cite evidence from your past. This is an important stage-setting maneuver. [100-125 words]
  2. Now, explain how SPECIFIC OPPORTUNITIES A B and C (maybe two or three examples max) at LBS map perfectly to whatever you laid out in Section 1. Walk us through your plan for engaging, explaining how your interaction here may go beyond the casual applicant’s. Sell us on the impact/value you’re planning on dropping. [150-175 words]

Learn more and explore each step of LBS’s Masters in Finance application process here.

Read More

August 1, 2023

Given that you only have 300-350 words total in the form of required writing, we may recommend finding some ANGLE of your profile that hasn’t been exposed… that you think needs to be exposed.

Now, you’ll need a compelling REASON to air this, it needs to not be a similar attribute to anything you’ve written about your main essay. That’ll just come across as weak. Best for this to be something unusual about your profile that would move the needle somehow and make the adcom go “hunh, now that’s interesting,” something they almost certainly WON’T get from perusing your resume, LORs, or any other application materials. This is not an “anything goes” scenario, but there is probably an angle that you can write about here that would help to fill out (and ‘complexify’) your profile.

Think of it this way: they’re gonna review all your stuff WITHOUT this optional essay, and sketch a portrait of you. The thing you write about here should AFFECT that sketch somehow. If it doesn’t, skip it. If it does, find the most surprising or unusual version and give it a shot.

This is of course if you have NO red flags to address as you would normally in an optional section on a typical business school app.

Go ahead and read our team’s complete take on the idea of the optional essay, including a brief (recent) history of b-schools’ relationship with it, and how our recommendations have evolved over the years, right here.

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of Tepper’s application essays & learn more and explore each step of Tepper’s full-time MBA application process here.

May 8, 2023

Why Stanford?

Describe your aspirations and how your Stanford GSB experience will help you realize them. If you are applying to both the MBA and MSx programs, use Essay B to address your interest in both programs.

Note: Both essays combined may not exceed 1,050 words. We recommend up to 650 words for Essay A and up to 400 words for Essay B. We often find effective essays that are written in fewer words.

Same deal as Essay A, going to borrow some KEY words from Stanford: Your aspirations. Stanford.

  • This is what I want to do—and here is why YOU should be excited about it. (This doesn’t require a ton of backstory or setup—some setup, yes—you need our buy-in. If your idea is uninspired, guess what, so too are “you.” Sell it. Give us just enough background and then in simple terms, walk us through your aspirations. With surgical efficiency.)
  • I’m confident I’m going to succeed because I’m good at it, I know what it takes to succeed, and I frickin’ LOVE the thing to death. Let me show you what I mean. This is how it’s all going to look, step by step. Notice how each step as I’ve laid it out SNAPS into place perfectly. I understand the logic behind all of it because I “get” it, I “get” my vision, only people who get it so keenly are likely to succeed.
  • This confidence comes from careful consideration of how it’s all going to go down, which has led me to recognize the importance of not just why an MBA is key, but why Stanford, in particular, supports my vision the BEST—I am, in effect, turning down Harvard, Wharton, Booth, etc., you name it, because none of these places can do XX, YY, and ZZ to catapult me toward my vision like Stanford can.

That’s the essay. In a nutshell. That’s what we call “the subtext.” Underneath the actual stuff you write, this should be communicated.

In order to NAIL this essay, you must understand Stanford and what they’re all about. This may take some research on your end, and this is what Stanford is hoping—that after a TON of research, you have determined that THIS place, unlike any other, is your best fit. Articulate THAT not just when you address the “why Stanford” piece, but even as you articulate your goal. The folks who get into Stanford demonstrate a synergy with the school in every fiber of their application. It’s gotta come through EVERYWHERE.

But so, after you’ve walked us through points 1 and 2 above, let’s dig in a bit to point 3.

How to understand Stanford well enough to approach this? Spend time on the website. Read about the school elsewhere—articles, anything written by current or former students. Talk to former students. Talk to current students. Visit the campus. Lots of ways to engage—where there’s a will, there’s a way. Read stuff by current or former professors. Notice the trends of what kinds of professors came from Stanford. Notice what kinds of companies were started at Stanford. Get a sense.

Now, whatever you do, please don’t think that there is a magical phrase or a set of classes you can name drop that will trigger a successful outcome. The demonstration of “fit” here is a wildly organic one. It’s in between the lines, never the lines themselves. Stanford’s assets have to match YOU in a way that won’t necessarily apply to the guy sitting next to you. This is the whole point about “individuality” and “uniqueness.” Stanford is curious to see how aspects of its program and culture uniquely affect your appetite for an MBA, or for your career goals. It’s not “mentioning a class,” folks. Or “a club.” Or “a professor’s name.” It’s much, much, much more than that.

It’s an argument.

An argument that PROVES connectivity. Proves that there is something about Stanford that not even a place like Harvard or LBS or Wharton or Top School X can quite satisfy in the same way. That’s a great conceit to adopt here. You have a free ride to HBS. Why would you PAY to go to Stanford instead? Convince me, as though I’m your spouse, why this is not an insane decision. A great essay here can be between 400-500 words, no need for it to live outside that range.

May 8, 2023

What matters most to you, and why?

For this essay, we would like you to reflect deeply and write from the heart. Once you’ve identified what matters most to you, help us understand why. You might consider, for example, what makes this so important to you? What people, insights, or experiences have shaped your perspectives

Note: Both essays combined may not exceed 1,050 words. We recommend up to 650 words for Essay A and up to 400 words for Essay B. We often find effective essays that are written in fewer words.

This may be the hardest of all B-school essays to write, and to write well. Why? Because it’s so open-ended. They haven’t just given you a hunk of clay and asked you to mold it. They’ve given you canvas, paint, wood, sheet metal, circuit boards, copper wire, and a hundred other elements and have asked you to “generate something awe-inspiring.” While you’re painting a blue sky on your canvas paper, the guy in the station next to you is creating a computer that can communicate with aliens. Intimidating.

What are others writing about!? What are the guys who are GETTING IN writing about?

Well, let’s start there—if that’s what you’re focusing on, you’re asking the wrong question. It has absolutely nothing to with WHAT others are writing about, but HOW they’re writing. Don’t misunderstand us here; this isn’t about writing skill. B-school essays are never about mastery of prose. The “how” here refers to the manner in which the successful candidates are able to introspect, walk around an experience, assess different points of view, offer new points of view, and reveal deeply personal tales that offer key insights into what they’re MADE of. It’s not the story itself.

Some key words from Stanford’s description: insights, experiences, people. Written from the heart. Shaped your perspective.

We’ve talked about this Stanford essay a bunch before, so this time around, we want to focus on these concepts above.

Especially that phrase “shaped your perspective.” What has shaped you? Who are you today, and what process has made you that way? If you were describing the Grand Canyon this way, don’t tell us the measurements of how big it is, instead focus on the way WATER and WIND eroded and molded it (or you!). It’s the shaping, the influencing, the MOLDING we want to know about. This is more revealing than “the result.” “The thing.” “That you are awesome.” It’s all in how you got there.

Consider the following statement. “I just landed a commercial jet containing 300 passengers.” Impressive? Maybe.

Let’s consider two authors of that statement. Author 1—a 58-year-old veteran pilot with military experience, and 20 years of experience as a professional pilot. Author 1 has flown hundreds of flights every year for the past 20 years. Let’s consider the same statement, but introduce a new author, Author 2. Author 2 is 13 years old, scared of heights, and has a crippling fear of flying. He needs to be sedated every time he flies, in fact. One day, he wakes up mid-flight, due to his sedation unintentionally wearing off. He notices all of the passengers beside him unconscious, the captains of the plane incapacitated, and he turns out to be the only person on board who can communicate with air traffic control. The kid puts on the headset, now fueled by a will to survive that trumps all of his phobias, is guided by folks on the ground, and successfully lands the plane, saving the lives of hundreds on board.

Now ask yourself, which “landing of the commercial jet” feels cooler, and more revealing about THE PERSON WHO PERFORMED THE FEAT? The answer is obvious, and the example was purposely absurd to demonstrate a point. The stuff Stanford wants to know about isn’t the “landing of the aircraft.” They wanna know about the phobia. The decision to walk into the cockpit in spite of the phobia. They wanna know how someone with these fears, with zero experience, etc. etc., could pull this thing off. They wanna know about the WATER and WIND folks… that shaped the Grand Canyon. Not the canyon itself.

So, let’s bring this back down to Earth. When you’re figuring out what matters most to you, think about competing influences in your development. The strongest stories are the ones that have the most intense and compelling “arcs” where your starting point is here at point A and then somehow, things, people, circumstances, experiences, etc. SHAPED you… MOLDED YOU (like water and air) to travel to point B where you ended up—essentially—an entirely different person. We need to understand all that CONTEXT. If you’re talking about an experience that “changed” you, or that “made you who you are,” it’s only as effective as our understanding of who you were BEFORE that experience so we can contextualize the change. If a person affected you significantly, same deal—we need to know who you were BEFORE that person affected you.

“Before & After” is an incredibly powerful tool for MOST B-school essays, and never more powerful than here for Stanford’s famous essay.

Grand Canyon, ladies and gentlemen. But not the canyon itself—water and air. Water. And air.

August 10, 2022

Anderson Optional Application Essay

Are there any extenuating circumstances in your profile about which the Admissions Committee should be aware? (250 words maximum)

Read our team’s complete take on the idea of optional essay, including a brief (recent) history of b-schools’ relationship with it, and how our recommendations have evolved over the years, right here.

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of UCLA Anderson School of Management’s application essays here.

Learn more and explore each step of the UCLA Anderson School of Management MBA application process here.

August 10, 2022

Anderson MBA Application Essay 1

We have one essay question that is required for first-time applicants and optional for re-applicants: Tell us about a recent personal or professional achievement and how it connects to your MBA goals. (250 words maximum)

Strong essays describe the impact of your achievement and clarify its connection to your future MBA plans in the short- and long-term. We look forward to learning about the specific ways your achievement helped set you up for future success.

Folks, this UCLA MBA essay prompt is as “bog-standard” as it gets. But (and we hope this is the case?) assuming you’re applying to several business schools, you may find slight variations on this question. So let’s zero in on the elements you need to pay attention to here, along with the 250-word frame the MBA Admissions committee at Anderson has given us.

First, we’ve got to pick that “recent personal or professional achievement.” Given the limited word count UCLA provides for essays, a professional achievement is likely the best use of the space. But which one? Consider your “greatest hits” in the context of the prompt… which has the clearest connection to your future plans? This achievement has to both show the impact you’ve had at work, AND the impact your work has had on your future plans. If you’re choosing between a story with a slightly more impressive outcome, and a story with a more obvious connection to your future goals, pick the second one all day. With only 250 words, we can’t afford long-winded explanations: the connection has to be straightforward.

When considering your goals, the name of the game is “how good is your plan.” Put differently, “how good are you at conceiving of an objective, and then mapping out an action plan to getting it done?” There’s ONE additional layer, which is, “does this plan make sense given who you are, your background, strengths, weaknesses, etc. or… is it a stretch?”

Those are the only things that matter, folks. Notice how we didn’t say “is your actual goal interesting, or good?” Why? Because it’s actually irrelevant. No one’s going to follow-up on you to make sure you’re continuing along “the path you set out in your business school application.” This is a test. “Do you have a business school mind? Can you plan smartly? Are you logical? Is your brain efficient? are you connecting the right dots?” You get the picture. As long as you pass that test, the actual goal is immaterial. Those of you who can wrap your head around that will relinquish that vice-like grip around needing to SELL the idea itself. Again, no one cares about your idea. They ONLY care about that other stuff.

So, to review, the 250 words in Essay A should go something like:

  1. Establish the situation and challenge you faced (75 words)
  1. Explain how you dealt with it, emphasizing MBA-relevant leadership skills (75 words)
  2. Connect the dots between the story and your future, showing how the experience shaped your goals and vision for your future career (100 words)

August 1, 2022

Additional Information (Optional)

Please provide any additional information you would like the Admissions Committee to know that may be helpful in evaluating your candidacy (i.e. choice of recommenders, areas of concern in your academic record, other extenuating circumstances, etc.). This information should be provided in a written format; (200 words or less).

Read our team’s complete take on the idea of the optional essay, including a brief (recent) history of b-schools’ relationship with it, and how our recommendations have evolved over the years, right here.

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of MIT’s application essays.

Read more and explore each step of the MIT Sloan full-time MBA application process here.

August 1, 2022

Video Prompt

Introduce yourself to your future classmates. Here’s your chance to put a face with a name, let your personality shine through, be conversational, be yourself. We can’t wait to meet you!

Videos should adhere to the following guidelines:

  • No more than 1 minute (60 second) in length
  • Single take (no editing) 
  • Speaking directly to the camera
  • Do not include background music or subtitles

Note: While we ask you to introduce yourself to your future classmates in this video, the video will not be shared beyond the admissions committee and is for use in the application process only.

How on Earth can you prepare for something so open-ended!? Well, lots of ways:

Step 1: Know Your Greatest Hits. What are the absolute best stories you have, lifetime, ever? Get acquainted with them according to category. Stuff like, what are my one or two best:

  • Leadership Stories?
  • Failure Stories?
  • Funny Moments at Work Stories?
  • Funny Moments Outside of Work Stories?
  • Stories That Capture the ESSENCE of who I am?
  • Business Ideas that would change the world?
  • People I admire?
  • Favorite Movies (or books or songs or bands)?
  • etc.

Step 2: Get a feel for what 1 minute is.
In fact, get a feel for what 50-55 seconds is. Answer some of these questions within that timeframe. Write out a response, look at it on the page. How many sentences is it? Get comfortable with 1 minute.

Step 3: Record yourself ten times, answering ten different questions.

How do you look? Are you looking at the camera? Or are you looking AT YOURSELF ON SCREEN WHILE RECORDING? Are you fidgeting? Are you moving your hands too much? Are you stumbling over words? Are you reading from a script?

Step 4: Get comfortable to the point where you no longer need to feel rehearsed, or nervous.

How do you look? Are you looking at the camera? Or are you looking AT YOURSELF ON SCREEN WHILE RECORDING? Are you fidgeting? Are you moving your hands too much? Are you stumbling over words? Are you reading from a script?

Copy a list of “interview” questions, keep them hidden, and then test yourself by revealing a question, give yourself 60 seconds to come up with a response, and then record a response in 60 seconds. Do this enough times, and you’ll start to develop “IQ” for “this kind of question.”

The worst thing you can do? Seem overly rehearsed. Meaning, don’t rehearse and deliver exact sentences. It will defeat the purpose of the ENTIRE experiment. The point is to relax the bad kind of nerves to allow your free-est self to SHINE. For some folks, this comes utterly naturally, and honestly, they can skip maybe all those steps. Others might benefit from some dry runs just so that there’s a better chance at real assertiveness and confidence on “the big day.”

So, once you’ve got the presentation down, on to the prompt. You’ve only got sixty seconds to introduce yourself, “include a bit about your past experience” (given the time constraint we’re almost certainly talking ONE fact/story) and explain why you’re picking Sloan. If that sounds challenging—yes, it very much is! But not to worry, you’ve got the written components of the application to convey all your accomplishments. Here, we want to establish a VIBE.

Do NOT try and shove a bunch of different stories in here—instead, focus on the ONE greatest hit that will get the adcom to LIKE you and WANNA GET TO KNOW YOU MORE because you come across irresistible in some way shape or form. This is 90% about personality, and 10% about resume. If we watch this video and say “wow, what an impressive person!” that’s a start. If, however, we say “holy crap I would KILL to meet that person” or “Man, I’d like to invite THAT person to a dinner party,” then congrats, because that’s the best possible reaction.

If you’re not naturally gifted in extemporaneous speaking, then there are things you can do to develop some of that swagger. Those steps above may be worth considering as a starting point.

August 1, 2022


Please submit a one-page resume. This will help us easily track your academic and career path. Try to focus on your work results, not just your title or job description.

Here are some pointers on formatting:

-One page limit
-Times New Roman font
-Size 10 font
-Word or PDF formats only

Provide the following information in reverse chronological order:

-Education: Please include relevant awards, scholarships and professional societies
-Work Experience: Please include company name, title, results-oriented bullets that demonstrate your skill set, and dates
-Additional information: Please include extracurricular activities/community service, technical skills/certifications, and special skills/interests, and languages spoken (if applicable)


We have lots to say about résumés… including all the juicy nuggets contained in this entire guide we created specifically to help you write a killer one-pager. But let’s key in on a few CHOICE words from MIT here.

Reverse chronological order is fairly standard, but the fact that they’re throwing a spotlight on it is a hint that either or both (1) some folks incorrectly do it the opposite way and LEAD with earlier stuff, like college, and then whatever comes next, but maybe more interestingly (2) that the truly important stuff is the most recent few years of your life.

The dialogue in the reader’s head probably goes something like “Let me get a quick gauge about where this person is at RIGHT now, what s/he’s up to, and what s/he’s achieving TODAY. Got it, now, let me get a sense of the career ARC. Where did this person start out, what was s/he achieving at any given moment, but also, does his trajectory from one node to the next feel sluggish? Or does this person feel like a juggernaut? Is s/he just blowing out the competition left and right, or is s/he doing serviceable-level work? Where does it seem like it’s all headed?

Anyway, use reverse chronological order to offer up that initial high-level glimpse, then they can dip as far back as they need to get as much as of the story as they care to.

The other neat thing worth mentioning is the list of information they’d like included. On the one hand they’re talking about stuff like community service and volunteer activity, but also, they’re asking you to “unflatten” the 2D portrait of yourself with dimension in the form of skills, hobbies, interests, quirks; in other words “stuff that may be unique to you and/or interesting as hell to read about.” Some folks go to this additional information section FIRST before scanning the rest, to hunt for signs of life. Have fun here folks. Include FUN stuff. Include weird stuff. Cool talents, weird talents, weird anything. You’ll want someone to reel you in because you CAN go overboard. But take a swing. Straightforward and lifeless just puts that much more pressure on the REST of your writing to provide all the personality and color. This is an easy way to INSTANTLY stand out against a person with a similar “résumé.”

August 1, 2022

Cover Letter

MIT Sloan seeks students whose personal characteristics demonstrate that they will make the most of the incredible opportunities at MIT, both academic and non-academic. We are on a quest to find those whose presence will enhance the experience of other students. We seek thoughtful leaders with exceptional intellectual abilities and the drive and determination to put their stamp on the world. We welcome people who are independent, authentic, and fearlessly creative — true doers. We want people who can redefine solutions to conventional problems, and strive to preempt unconventional dilemmas with cutting-edge ideas. We demand integrity and respect passion. Taking the above into consideration, please submit a cover letter seeking a place in the MIT Sloan MBA program. Your letter should conform to a standard business correspondence, include one or more professional examples that illustrate why you meet the desired criteria above, and be addressed to the Admissions Committee (300 words or fewer, excluding address and salutation).

Let’s start by interpreting/translating that opening blurb:

“MIT Sloan seek students whose personal characteristics demonstrate that they will make the most of the incredible opportunities at MIT, both academic and non-academic.”

Basically, they’re saying: “Since résumés flatten a person from 3D to 2D, we’re hoping the essay portion will give us a hint in that direction of what your particular “personal characteristics” are. We are on a quest to find those whose presence will enhance the experience of other students, because the net effect of a single person bettering others will be nonstop betterment in every imaginable direction, the net effect of which is maximal success for the class and, most practically, of the individuals who comprise that class.”

So, MIT is going to look for evidence of two things:

  1. That you have something in your experiences, achievements, personality, leadership style, whathaveyou, that would be beneficial to others.
  2. That you seem like the kind of person who will “lean forward” to have that impact on others, and that you’re not just a taker.

Now, onto the next part of that blurb:

“We seek thoughtful leaders with exceptional intellectual abilities and the drive and determination to put their stamp on the world.”

MIT chose the phrase “exceptional intellectual abilities” on purpose because it goes beyond classic indicators of “intelligence” on a résumé, or through GMAT/GRE scores. “Exceptional” intellectual abilities includes dimensions like “thinking of stuff most other people wouldn’t have” or “questioning long-held truths because something about those truths bothers you” or “succeeding at an attempted solution where countless others have failed.” If you have evidence of THAT kind of intellectual capability, take them on the SCENIC route. They’re saying that the Sloan School of Management welcomes people who are independent, authentic, and fearlessly creative — true doers. In other words, they want to get the sense that where there’s a status quo, you’re the person who has an itch to disrupt it, and has a track record of doing so.

They want to get the sense that in a situation where others might have played it safe and tried to hit an iron shot into the center of the fairway, you put yourself on the line, took a risk, and reached for your driver, knowing that you might fail, but having the belief in yourself and the courage to follow through on your will. They want people who can redefine solutions to conventional problems, and strive to preempt unconventional dilemmas with cutting-edge ideas, because when someone is uncomfortable with “the way things are,” good things tend to happen from a business perspective. Basically they’re saying “Show us that discomfort with the status quo. We demand integrity and respect passion,” but then again, who doesn’t.


There are two themes that jump out in that intro:

  1. Intellectual Might – No real surprise here, but it’s a specific brand of intellect. The one that’s coupled with that second component:
  2. Restlessness – Sitting around, doing what you’re told to do, choosing NOT to “re-open the case because someone else said that it was unsolvable,” having a great idea, but not having the time to pursue it – these are all the OPPOSITE of the person who’s restless. The restless person is always lusting for some opportunity to improve something, change the game, break the mold.

The smart person alone who lacks restlessness isn’t all that interesting. Similarly, a restless person who isn’t a next-level problem solver is still attractive (and maybe worth taking a risk on), but MIT is lucky enough to have the kind of demand where they can screen for the guys and gals who have BOTH.


Great, so, now we have a couple themes to make sure we’re going to PROVE in our cover letters: (1) I’m as intellectually next-level as it gets, but also (2) my arch nemesis is the Status Quo. Cool so… how does one… execute… that… in a cover letter?

Awesome question. Let’s step back for a second. What’s an actual cover letter like in real life? In first-date terms, it’s the VERY first impression. The first time you LAY EYES on your date. It’s the way that person LOOKS to you. It’s the body language that sends either attractive or unattractive signals. In other words, it’s mostly animal instinct. In fact, let’s run with that. In animal interaction terms, it’s “is this other animal a harmless friend? Or a predator? What cues do I have from the LOOK of this animal, and the WAY IT MOVES to provide an answer to that?”

It’s important to consider this deeply. Because the “impression” we’re talking about happens very quickly and does not tap into the more evolved (and relaxed) part of our brains that care about nuance. Why is this significant? Because it’s different from an essay where the reader is generally poised to spot you that first impression, and “hear what you have to say.”

The cover letter is the moment before all that where you have to EARN that next part. This has implications for STYLE and HOW you write your cover letter. It’s one of the few instances on an MBA application where HOW you attack this is almost as important as WHAT you’re attacking with. You can’t just write your way into seeming like a forward-leaning, restless person. You have to COME ACROSS that way in your actual writing. You can’t take your time proving that you’re intellectually next-level over the course of four or five sentences. It has to be evident right at the beginning in “the way you look” and “in your body language.”

Writing cover letters is a true art form, and in our experience the meek and conventional are almost NEVER rewarded. Boldness, assertiveness, risk-taking, authority, confidence, borderline brazen-ness… these are all desirable qualities in a kickass cover letter. Just shy of being smug (no one likes smugness). This is the part where you smirk to yourself, and find your swagger before you put pen to paper.

Now for the actual 300 words themselves, you need to convey a bunch of things:

  • I understand what your program is, and what you’re looking for.
  • I LIKE your program and I want to be in it BECAUSE (this is the part that most people miss) your program helps me get to where *I* need to go better than any other place.
  • Now I’m going to give you just a taste that will make YOU ultimately want to chase ME, and not the other way around. Let me walk you through an example or two of what it is that I’m all about. You’ll see within these glimpses (1) that I’m a restless m*********er, (2) My intellect has a headache because it keeps hitting the ceiling, and (3) that I understand what an MBA can do for me, and that my energy right now to TAKE FROM and CONTRIBUTE TO an MBA program is a net win for everyone: me, my classmates, MIT, and eventually… the world, once I’m out of here.

That may sound like a lot for 300 words, and in some ways it is. But, if you stay intensely focused on those three bullets, no matter how long your first draft ends up being, you’re going to have EXCELLENT clay to mold. If you have a natural tendency to write in a tone that isn’t too stiff and has some personality, then great. Your work will be easier. If you DON’T have that natural flair for letting personality invigorate your prose, fret not. Stay focused on those three bullets. Try not to deviate. And you’ll end up with something that’s (at its worst) extremely targeted. Targeted = confident. There’s always room to infuse drafts with some personality, but the hard part is getting the core content NAILED.

July 29, 2022

Yale SOM MBA Essay

Describe the biggest commitment you have ever made. (500 words)

Yale keeps doubling down on its brand: social responsibility. If you want to help people, if you want to save the world through business… Yale’s the place for you. The same way that Kellogg has (for better and for worse) become the school for marketing, Yale SOM is the social responsibility mecca. (Make no mistake: if you want to end up in finance or consulting or most other traditional B-School destinations, Yale, like Kellogg, and like every other elite school, is as good a choice as any.)

They, like many others, are asking one question. Let’s unpack this sucker. What does it mean to make a commitment? What makes one commitment cooler or more meaningful or more impressive or more important than another?

Let’s look at a few sample commitments:

  • To my wife/husband, I commit to loving and protecting you unconditionally forever.
  • To my child, I commit to loving and protecting you unconditionally forever.
  • To Nonprofit Organization X, I commit $1M of my personal dollars toward your organization and cause.

The first two are kinda obvious, no? We’re not inclined to be impressed. “Wow, what a commitment! That person just committed to loving his child forever. Inspired!”

The last one seems pretty legit. Contributing $1M toward a cause? That’s unarguably a MAJOR commitment from anyone. (Right?)

What if, to that list, we added some… stuff:

  • To my wife/husband, I commit to loving and protecting you unconditionally forever, even if YOU were to hurt or betray ME. Because my commitment to you and what that commitment is serves a greater purpose; to our children, to society, and is more important than my own emotions.
  • To my child, I commit to loving and protecting you unconditionally forever, even if your sexual preferences fundamentally violate everything I believe, that our religion allows; even if your political views and your morality unravels sacrifices my parents made for me, and sacrifices I have made for you; because my commitment to you is more important than my own beliefs.
  • To Nonprofit Organization X, I commit $1M of my personal dollars toward your organization and cause. My net worth is $3 billion.

How does that change things? A lot.

Now all of a sudden those first two carry a little more weight. And that third one, not so much. Yes, $1M is a giant number to most, but to put it in context, it’s .03% of $3B. To someone whose net worth is $500,000, .03% would amount to $166. When you put it in those terms, $1M feels… less… something, doesn’t it? On the one hand it is the exact same “dollar commitment” but in a different sense it feels like LESS of a “commitment.”

What then is commitment really all about?

True commitment seems to require some amount of self-sacrifice, or putting of oneself at risk in some capacity. Someone who pursues an action or takes up a cause or embraces a responsibility, despite its being inconvenient in some way, has made a real commitment (or more of a commitment) compared to when those inconveniences are fewer or far between. This is not an absolute. Commitment, to be sure, lies on a spectrum. But, the measure of commitment maintains an inverse relationship with what we’re calling convenience. The more convenient the commitment, the less impressive. And the opposite is true: the more INconvenient, the more impressive the commitment.

Phew. Back to Earth and back to the practical task at hand: The Yale SOM application essay for 2017-2018. First things first. Dig into your personal and professional history and generate a list of things you’ve committed to. Aim for five for the first attempt. Five commitments you’ve made. Don’t overthink this first pass, just list them as you can recall them. Try not to go back too far to your early childhood (although based on the openness of the prompt, everything seems to be on the table). Now that you have your initial list, go through each one and try to quantify somehow which ones put you at risk the most. Or those items where you stood to lose the most. The ones where the stakes were somehow highest. Rank that list most to least. Now look at it. The top item, or the second item will probably be your best candidates to explore…

Once you have it, let’s consider an outline to get you on the right track:

  1. Set up the commitment – Part 1. Bring us back to whatever the circumstances were PRIOR to the moment you made your commitment. And one of our favorite tricks to keep in mind, don’t write about it using the past tense (i.e., using your modern day brain). Instead, travel back in time and imagine how the world looked in real-time, and write in the present tense. Explain what was happening, and who needed what. (Roughly 100-125 words).
  2. Set up the commitment – Part 2. Establish the stakes (explain what you were putting at risk, what you stood to lose, why it wasn’t an easy commitment to make), and then reveal the commitment you made. (75-100 words).
  3. How was your commitment tested? – Part 3. Explain the ways in which your commitment was put to the test over time. Explain the times it was difficult to remain committed. Or whatever your version is that made it not EASY to remain committed and consistent. And walk us through your resolve throughout. Or, how your resolve wavered, or disintegrated, and how you regained it, whatever your version is. Remember, if your story doesn’t include this element, it’s probably not a great commitment for this (100-200 words, possibly two paragraphs).
  4. Why is this meaningful? – Part 4. What’s the relevance of this to your future as an MBA? Finally, draw a link between this story and your prospects for succeeding in business school or in the future, or better yet, both. What were the lessons learned that have strengthened you in ways that are applicable to your business goals? (Roughly 100 words).

June 20, 2022

Personal Expression (A.K.A. "Pick Six")

Describe yourself to the Admissions Committee and to your future classmates using six images and corresponding captions. Your uploaded PDF should contain all of the following elements:

  • A brief introduction or overview of your “Pick Six” (no more than 3 sentences).
  • Six images that help illustrate who you are.
  • A one-sentence caption for each of the six images that helps explain why they were selected and are significant to you.

Note: Your visuals may include photos, infographics, drawings, or any other images that best describe you. Your document must be uploaded as a single PDF. The essay cannot be sent in physical form or be linked to a website.

It’s three sentences to tee the whole thing up and then a single sentence for each picture to help explain and bring them to life. Let’s figure out what they’re looking for here.

“Describe yourself.” To succeed at this exercise, one should be able to GLANCE at your six images (without ANY accompanying words) and be able to make some accurate predictions about who you are as a person. The closer that viewer’s “guess” is to what you’re actually like in real life, the better the execution. In fact, imagine that’s the challenge in itself. An adcom member reviews your six pictures and then says, “Okay, when I meet this person they’re going come across THIS way; they’ll be the kind of person who in THIS situation or would make THAT choice; it’s the kind of person who probably has THIS kind of story; if he were among the Game of Thrones cast, he’d be the ABC character” … Then when you meet, the Adcom member says “Wow, s/he’s exactly as I imagined.” All that means is that whatever you communicated in those six picks was unbelievably efficient and effective in conveying something about who you are, and what you’re all about.

What stuff are we conveying then? It includes hints of your:

  • Personality
  • Character
  • Quirks

Everything else BEYOND that? Is gravy. If you give us other stuff but neglect those things, then you’ve probably shanked it. This is not your resume. This is not a 6-page PowerPoint of your “Billion-Dollar Idea.” It’s six images that allow us to CAST you in the perfect movie role “because we understand who you are so well from the pictures.”

One quick word about drawings and infographics: don’t pack so much stuff INTO a single image that it defeats the point of the exercise. The whole point is to try to reduce you to your essence through an ECONOMY of expression. Otherwise, you could write an essay in really small font, take a picture of that essay, and include it here. See how that’s missing the point? It would be like watching a movie where it was just a continuous scroll of the screenplay, rather than a picturization OF the screenplay. Embrace the medium here folks. Understand the intention behind limiting it to (A) images, and (B) only six of them, total. It’s about high yield. That’s where the creativity comes into play.

What series of six images SUM to complete the most complete (and compelling) HINT about who you are? They don’t all need to interconnect on an individual level. Meaning, if Picture #1 is a photograph you once took of a SCENE IN NATURE that you really love, it doesn’t mean that Pictures #2–6 all need to conform to that general rule. The key is that they need to “sum” to something coherent. Even if the conclusion is that you’re a completely chaotic and random person, it’s possible for your six pictures to tell THAT story. Whatever it is, it needs to “work” though. If multiple people walk away with multiple impressions, chances are, it is weak. There are no points for the “everyone’s opinion is equally valid” nature of admiring abstract art. If anything, it’s the exact opposite challenge here. Your task is to make it so that multiple people are forced toward a very similar conclusion about who and what you are. Now, it’s possible that some may LIKE what that is, and others may not… the key is that they can at least all agree on what it IS.

Lots of ways to approach this so we’re just going to give you a taste of a few, but truly, there are many many many solid ways to go about it:

[1] A narrative. If you want to tell us about an evolution of sorts that shows us who/what you are TODAY compared to who/what you were “six iterations” ago, that could be cool. Six shades of YOU, where Slide 1 is You.0, then Slide 2 is You.1, etc. The idea here is that we learn something about you through the CHANGES over time. And the images don’t have to be of YOU, per se. It’s possible we can learn something about you through the evolution of your hobbies, or some other means. Lots of room for creativity here.

[2] Or, it can be a recipe for how to create “you.” Slide 1 is ingredient #1. (Imagine the possibilities, they are endless for what could go here.)

[3] You are what you eat. Six slides of foods that somehow represent every aspect of who you are: Slide 1 – Thai Green Chile Peppers (fresh, hot, unafraid to be scalding when need be). Slide 2 – XXXXX ?

The possibilities really are endless. It could be a hand-drawn comic strip that stitches together a simple story that tells us everything we need to know about who you are through a comical tale. It could be six things you’d spend money to acquire if you won the lottery. See how it’s endless? The trick is, with ANY of these ideas, it needs to convey something very clear about who you are, such that we could make some predictions about you based on those six images (and the accompanying theme/captions).

There’s not really a “wrong” way to approach this, other than the one which looks like a glorified resume, or an attempt to impress us somehow. It says more about your self-confidence, in fact, if there’s a conspicuous LACK of that instinct…

June 20, 2022

Additional Information (Optional) Essay

Please provide any additional information that you would like to bring to the attention of the Admissions Committee. This may include current or past gaps in employment, further explanation of your undergraduate record or self-reported academic transcript(s), plans to retake the GMAT, GRE, IELTS or TOEFL or any other relevant information. (250 word maximum, double-spaced, 12-point font)

Lots of room here to spill something VITAL that hasn’t been captured anywhere else. Bring the lumber! What assets of yours are needle-movers in your candidacy, those that you feel haven’t had a chance to LEAP off the page anywhere else in your application? Whatever the biggest item is, drop it here. Maybe it’s a case you need to make about how COMPETENT your quant skills are despite what your test scores (or background) suggest. Maybe it’s a leadership story that is best served here, so as to allow your creative side to come alive in the “pick six” essay. Maybe it’s a walk-through of a compelling

Whatever the biggest item is, drop it here. Maybe it’s a case you need to make about how COMPETENT your quant skills are despite what your test scores (or background) suggest. Maybe it’s a leadership story that is best served here, so as to allow your creative side to come alive in the “pick six” essay. Maybe it’s a walk-through of a compelling

Maybe it’s a case you need to make about how COMPETENT your quant skills are despite what your test scores (or background) suggest. Maybe it’s a leadership story that is best served here so as to allow your creative side to come alive in the “pick six” essay. Maybe it’s a walk-through of a compelling backup plan you’ve formulated in case your main plan hits a snag. Depending on the quality of any of these, it may deserve some airtime here. Not all will, by the way. Just because this space is open, doesn’t mean you absolutely MUST fill it, in case the thing you fill it with doesn’t actually advance your case somehow. Just be mindful of that.

Depending on the quality of any of these, it may deserve some airtime here. Not all will, by the way. Just because this space is open, doesn’t mean you absolutely MUST fill it, especially in the case that the thing you fill it with doesn’t actually advance your case somehow. Just be mindful of that.

Read our team’s complete take on the idea of optional essay, including a brief (recent) history of b-schools’ relationship with it, and how our recommendations have evolved over the years, right here.

June 20, 2022

Essay 1: Change: _____ it (350 word maximum, double-spaced, 12-point font)

In today’s global business environment, the only constant is change. Using NYU Stern’s brand call to action, we want to know how you view change. Change: _____ it. Fill in the blank with a word of your choice. Why does this

word resonate with you? How will you embrace your own personal tagline while at Stern? Examples:

  • Change: Dare it.
  • Change: Dream it.
  • Change: Drive it.
  • Change: Empower it.
  • Change: Manifest it.
  • Change: [Any word of your choice.]

Stern has gone in an interesting new direction this year, and let’s get the obvious out of the way… when someone writes “____ it,” there is one word in the English language that fits very easily in that slot. That’s not what they’re looking for here!
Despite the unconventional format, the underlying logic here is not that far off the very straightforward goals essay that used to be in this place: prove to the adcom that you have the vision and skills to succeed post-MBA. The adcom is looking for visionaries, not functionaries. They don’t want folks who just want to take on XYZ cool

role and do well in it–they want people who will shake up their entire industry, revolutionize their market, build something new out of nothing, and otherwise reflect well on Stern as alumni. In short, they want people who will make a CHANGE in the world around them.
Don’t worry about the word you’re going to put in that blank quite yet. Start by identifying the change you hope to make, then work backward to the tagline. There are many ways to approach this, but we like to consider what you’re going to do differently from your peers and predecessors in your post-MBA career.

For example, if you’re planning on creating a novel startup, or have already identified a weakness in your industry and developed a business plan for how to shake it up, then you already likely have a “change” in mind. Take some time to brainstorm what will make your company unique, and how it will stand out from existing competitors. Write down a quick summary, including whatever context someone unfamiliar with your industry (like the adcom!) would need to understand what makes your idea NEW.

If you’re following a more traditional path–for example, pursuing a career at a large management consulting or finance firm–identifying the change you plan to make may be harder. Maybe the difference is more cultural or

internal: changing the way work is done, how decisions are made, or ways of doing business. How will you influence your team or department within the larger organization? What new perspective can you offer that is currently not represented in the industry?

Once you’ve identified the change you hope to make post-MBA, consider what specific steps you’ll take at Stern to prepare yourself for that effort. That’s “How [you will] embrace your own personal tagline while at Stern” from the prompt. Do your research, and identify a few groups or people you’d like to work with and changes you’d like to

make on campus. These activities should fit with your longer-term goals, and be logical stepping stones to that larger ambition.
Now, as our last step before writing the actual essay, let’s consider what our word should be. Look at the plan you have constructed above: the steps you plan to take on campus and thereafter. What verb fits the arc you’ve laid out? Don’t worry about picking something too esoteric or unique–with a prompt like this the word in the blank is unlikely to be the thing that makes your application stand out. Instead, focus on picking a word that fits well with your ambitions.

Then let’s stitch it all together:

  1. Explain the change you hope to make post-MBA, and your vision for changing your industry. HOW will you go about this? What makes your approach new and exciting? Why is this the change you plan to devote your life to?
  2. Show how you will prepare for that visionary career on campus, both changing Stern for the better and learning the skills that will allow you to change your future workplaces and (dare we say) the world!

Your actual “Change: _____ it.” should come near the beginning of the essay, or possibly at the end. Do make sure to include your tagline–the prompt requires it!

June 15, 2022

Tuck MBA Reapplicant Essay Prompt

To be completed by all reapplicants: How have you strengthened your candidacy since you last applied? Please reflect on how you have grown personally and professionally. (300 words)

This is a typical re-applicant essay – a nice, specific question about updates on short-term and long-term career goals. It’s important to keep in mind when addressing this piece that it’s not just about the matter-of-fact update itself… we also need to assess the IMPROVEMENT you’ve pulled off.

In other words, one year later, your career plan has to become sharper or more plausible, or more exciting in some way. We need to understand HOW. And WHY. That’s the key: a crystal clear explanation of how your candidacy has improved and what it means given your (new and improved) reasons for getting an MBA. Take a deeper dive into our analysis below:

The Re-applicant Essay

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of Dartmouth Tuck’s MBA application essays.

Learn more and explore each step of the Dartmouth Tuck School of Business full-time MBA application process here.

June 15, 2022

Tuck Optional MBA Application Essay Prompt

Please provide any additional insight or information that you have not addressed elsewhere (e.g., atypical choice of evaluators, factors affecting academic performance, unexplained job gaps or changes). Complete this question only if you feel your candidacy is not fully represented by this application.

Read our team’s complete take on the idea of the optional essay, including a brief (recent) history of b-schools’ relationship with it, and how our recommendations have evolved over the years, right here.

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of Dartmouth Tuck’s MBA application essays.

Learn more and explore each step of the Dartmouth Tuck School of Business full-time MBA application process here.

June 15, 2022

Tuck MBA Application Essay Prompt 3

Tuck students are encouraging, collaborative, and empathetic, even when it is not convenient or easy. Describe a meaningful experience in which you exemplified one or more of these attributes. (300 words)

The example you pick here will say a lot, so again the CHOICE of story is 90% of it. You need to dig deep to find a moment when you helped someone else… and doing so provided absolutely NO reward or advantage to you personally.

In fact, the coolest versions of this essay are the ones where you demonstrate one of the three listed traits to your own DISADVANTAGE. That’s how committed you were to these values. When have you RISKED something in order to encourage someone else, achieve a group success, or help someone in a difficult spot? When have you been pressured NOT TO HELP SOMEONE, but did so in spite of that pressure? If it’s easy to imagine someone else doing the thing you did… chances are good that it’s not a good enough story. Don’t tell us about the time you helped a disabled child “successfully get out of the way of an oncoming train.” Congrats, you did “as any feeling person would do.” Tell us instead about the time you helped a teammate pull something off that could have resulted in a promotion for THAT PERSON, and threatened YOUR OWN POSITION, but you did it anyway because doing so (in some bigger picture calculus, the human kind), FELT like the right thing to do… “consequences be damned.” “Judgment of others be damned.”

The correct essay here should have us mutter to ourselves, “Hm, were *I* in the your shoes, I’m not sure I would have had the guts/instinct/will to do the same, given all the circumstances.” That should be a solid litmus test. And if you can get someone to have THAT reaction, congrats, you’re on your way to draft with real potential.

This is always a fantastic litmus test: how you’d behave WHEN NO ONE’S LOOKING. It usually reveals your truest nature.

June 15, 2022

Tuck MBA Application Essay Prompt 2

Tuck students recognize how their individuality adds to the fabric of Tuck. Tell us who you are. (300 words)

First off, the question here isn’t just “tell us who you are.” It’s simply impossible to summarize an entire life in 300 words, and they don’t expect to you. What they’re really asking is “tell us an interesting thing about who you are that would add to ‘the fabric of Tuck.’” Writing three hundred words about yourself is not hard—the challenge is picking the right “interesting thing.”

There are two key pieces to a successful topic selection. The first is to choose an aspect of “you” that will stand out and advance your application. If your “individuality” is shared by half the applicant pool, it’s adding nothing. Either avoid super common traits like “I’m a hard worker,” “I’m an avid world traveler,” or “I like to cook,” or provide a unique spin on them that will make your version stand out.

The second element is how your chosen topic will “add to the fabric of Tuck.” To make this case effectively, we have to prove that you understand what “the fabric of Tuck” is. Think about what makes Tuck unique compared to other top programs, and what they expect from their students that other schools don’t. Another way to skin this is to think about all the things you have to offer a business school… which of those things will Tuck receive the best? Which of those things will feed and feed on Tuck’s campus culture, making it combust in a beautiful, additive, awesome, cool new way? Based on your research, which aspects of “you” will Tuck most value? We should focus on one of those aspects.

June 15, 2022

Tuck MBA Application Essay Prompt 1

Tuck students can articulate how the distinctive Tuck MBA will advance their aspirations. Why are you pursuing an MBA and why Tuck? (300 words)

Let’s start with a little thought experiment. Think about three business school applicants you know—friends, colleagues, people you’ve read about on GMATClub, etc. You can include yourself in the mix if you want to, we just need three applicants whose reason for getting an MBA you know and understand.

Got your three applicants? Great, now imagine how an MBA will advance their aspirations. Not a Tuck MBA, any MBA. How does Generic McBusiness school move each of these three applicants to their goals? How is “Joe Applicant” better able to pull off his goals with a generic MBA?

Cool, now flow these three applicants through TUCK. What’s changed compared to the “generic MBA” scenario? How do the applicants end up achieving their goals faster/better? In what way does going to Tuck change them as people?  We’re interested only in what Tuck adds to the picture—all the changes that you identified in the first part of the thought experiment (Generic MBA) are already “priced in” and aren’t worth mentioning. What does TUCK add that “an MBA” didn’t?

Let’s visualize that value add a few ways. First fling your three applicants into the future 5, 10, 25 years. Our first task is to identify how the 25-years-later Tuck graduate’s life is different from that of the 25-years-later generic MBA alum.  For example, if applicant #1’s goal is to “help my family business do XYZ,” what might be different about her family business 25 years from now if she goes to Tuck instead of Kellogg, Stanford GSB, or CBS? Perhaps Tuck has a certain professor who has worked on a specific problem in the applicant’s target industry, giving her XYZ special advantage that she wouldn’t have had if she went to any other school. How might that advantage play out over the next 25 years?

This is the kind of thinking the adcom is looking for here. After practicing with our three example applicants, let’s do the thought experiment with YOU and your goals. Our task is to articulate how the future version of you that went to Tuck is different and better than the future version of you that just got a generic MBA. Why is the “Tuck Version of You” more exciting and compelling than the others? What’s different about his or her future career arc? What special advantages does s/he have?

Our answer should be 2-3 paragraphs. We recommend first identifying 2-3 special things that you NEED from business school. Then spend the rest of the essay connecting aspects of Tuck to your needs, showing how Tuck’s version of meeting those needs is distinct and makes for a better “future you” than any other program. Being specific is key here: it’s not “I need leadership skills, and Tuck has a seminar on leadership,” it’s “I need to learn how to manage international sales teams in order to become a (title) at (target company). Professor Smith is perfectly suited to teach me this skill, because she worked as (title) at (similar company), achieving (amazing result)….”

In short, this essay is about identifying things only you need, that only Tuck can provide. They’re trying to suss out the folks who are DRAWN to Tuck as their first choice from those who have “thrown Tuck in” to their larger basket of target schools that include mostly M7s. Suppose you were to be handed admits from all M7s… why might you elect to say no to all of them and attend Tuck instead? The answer will have everything to do with something VERY SPECIFIC you want/need, and something VERY SPECIFIC about Tuck that makes for a particularly synergistic fit.

June 10, 2022

Explain how you have reflected on the previous decision about your application, and discuss any updates to your candidacy (e.g., changes in your professional life, additional coursework, extracurricular/volunteer engagements). (250 words)

This is a typical re-applicant essay – a nice, specific question about updates on short-term and long-term career goals. It’s important to keep in mind when addressing this piece that it’s not just about the matter-of-fact update itself… we also need to assess the IMPROVEMENT you’ve pulled off.

In other words, one year later, your career plan has to become sharper or more plausible, or more exciting in some way. We need to understand HOW. And WHY. That’s the key: a crystal clear explanation of how your candidacy has improved and what it means given your (new and improved) reasons for getting an MBA.

June 10, 2022

Wharton MBA Essay 2

Taking into consideration your background – personal, professional, and/or academic – how do you plan to make specific, meaningful contributions to the Wharton community? (400 words)

The crux of the question is understanding (truly understanding) what makes a “specific, meaningful contribution.” Let’s break this down:

  • Specific: We’re not talking about character traits or general business skills here, folks. “I will bring to campus my ability to lead teams” is not going to cut it. The adcom wants to know exactly how you plan to contribute—specific events, organizations and projects where you can make an impact. Show the adcom that you’ve done your research on the Wharton community, have identified a niche where you can help, and have an actionable plan for what you’re going to do when you arrive on campus.
  • Meaningful: The worst thing you can do with a prompt like this is boldly declare that you are going to contribute something which every single student in the school is expected to have. “I will contribute my leadership skills.” Cool, so will every single other person in the class! A meaningful contribution is one that stands out and adds value that only a handful of other applicants might be able to provide. The value added should also align with Wharton’s values, and the goals of whatever specific part of the Wharton community you are planning to contribute to.

Start by doing your research. Look around the Wharton website, identifying classes, projects or organizations you’re interested in. Then—and this is CRUCIAL—leave the Wharton website and never go back! The adcom helped write that website, and we don’t want to just parrot their words back at them. Look for student blogs, the websites of student organizations and other outside sources of information. Better yet, talk to current students and alumni about the contributions you’re hoping to make. See what they think of your idea! You may find that something you thought Wharton really needs actually already exists.

Next, write down a few contributions which you feel meet the “specific” and “meaningful” criteria. List more than you’ll need to write the essay—a half dozen plus. Then flesh them out. How will your proposed contribution positively affect another individual, a group of individuals, and eventually… the Wharton community? Sell us on it. Show us in a way we can picture. We need to be able to imagine a few years at Wharton WITHOUT YOU, and then those same few years WITH YOU. And we should be able to see clearly (in our minds) that the version WITH YOU is somehow better. THAT’s your challenge here, to make that case apparent. Once you’ve done that for each of your potential contributions, identify 2-4 where the delta between “Wharton with this contribution” and “Wharton without this contribution” is largest. Those the contributions around which you should write this essay.

A few other tips:

  • Back up your promises with examples. Let’s say you plan to contribute by leading a Wharton intramural soccer team. Great! Prove that you’re the person for the job by explaining how you did a similar thing at your prior employer, leading the company team to five straight championships.
  • Aim for a bit of variety. The adcom wants us to take into consideration your “personal, professional and/or academic” background. You don’t need to have one example each or anything like that, but try not to have every single one of your contributions fit into the same category.
  • Add some fun. Show the adcom that your being on campus will be a positive for your classmates’ social lives, not just the academic environment. A lot of the value of an MBA comes from networking, and friendly, outgoing, entertaining people make networking a lot easier.

Rock and roll, comrades. Curious to see what y’all churn out.

June 10, 2022

Wharton MBA Essay 1

How do you plan to use the Wharton MBA program to help you achieve your future professional goals? You might consider your past experience, short and long-term goals, and resources available at Wharton. (500 words)

We love using “Before and After” to tease out meaningful insights into… things. Lots. O. Things. This is another good opportunity. Let’s take ten minutes to do a little exercise and see what that looks like:

Wherever you are right now (self-employed entrepreneur, consultant, banker, marketing associate, whatever), imagine the next five years of your life WITHOUT passing through Wharton Business School. Don’t just say, “K, gotcha,” actually imagine it. Write it out even. On the left side of your “paper” draw a tiny circle that says “TODAY” then draw a long horizontal line all the way to the right of the paper and draw a second circle, “FIVE YEARS FROM NOW.”

Now let’s start filling this in with additional circles, but also, with content that can be compared. You COULD describe yourself today in terms of your WEIGHT, and then project what you think it’ll be, or want it to be, five years from now. You could also do it in terms of “marathons completed.” You could do “average number of hours slept per night.” As you can see, there are many ways to define the “Today You” versus the “5 Years From Now You”—the key thing is that to show PROGRESS, we need to measure both present and future by the same metric.

For our purposes here, we wanna focus on what are you CAPABLE of doing, professionally. Let’s start with what you HOPE TO BE CAPABLE OF five years from now, that you know you CAN’T QUITE PULL OFF today. What are the three to five bullets you wanna be capable of in FIVE YEARS? What are you aiming at? Write em down. Then do the same for who you are TODAY. List a few KEY bullets about what your skill set as it is today enables you to achieve. If you’re an entrepreneur, you can define it in a bunch of ways: “I can easily manage a team of five, I can grow my business 1.5x, I can…” If you’re a consultant at McKinsey, you’ll have a different version. So, fill in that second circle, and then the first. Hopefully much or all of that future list EXCEEDS your current skill level today, otherwise, you may be flatlining (which is fine, but not quite what business schools are looking for).

Now there’s all this SPACE in between. The intervening years. Walk us through maybe two or three nodes that might reveal key turning point moments, milestones, whatever, that propel you toward that future node. A promotion perhaps to a new role with new responsibilities that will allow you to learn new skills? A gig at a new and bigger company which then allows you to… xyz? Whatever those things are, lay them out on this timeline. Keep it simple, two to three circles and maybe one or two bullets for each explaining em.

Once you’re done, you should end up with an ARC that describes where you can go in five years (rather, what professional GROWTH you can experience)… WITHOUT attaining an MBA from Wharton. This shouldn’t be a bad arc, it should be a great one. Cuz what if you don’t get in? That shouldn’t stop you from CRUSHING your aspirations.

But now, you’re gonna do this process over. But this time you’re gonna do it LEFT TO RIGHT. Start with that left circle (the present), and DUPLICATE exactly “who you are professionally today.” And now play out the next five years, but maybe in the next circle, or perhaps two circles from now, you’re gonna include a NEW circle that’s gonna change the game completely. It’ll say “Wharton” and above it, will be the word “booya,” perhaps, or a thumbs up emoji. What does the NEXT circle look like NOW? And the next? And what does the FINAL “Five Years From Now” circle look like? If you do this correctly, that FINAL CIRCLE should look somewhat DIFFERENT from the first one you made. This is where your answer to this first Wharton prompt will be revealed… “what did you gain professionally from Wharton, that explains the DELTA between the first and second versions of this exercise?”

Once you’ve gotten a sense of what that difference is, now you can apply it to the actual essay. Keep in mind that only the first sentence of the prompt is actually asking us something. We “might consider” the elements listed in the second sentence, and a good essay will likely have some of them, but there’s no need to stress about fitting all those things in. The key thing is the overall career arc:

  1. This is the problem I wanna solve, or the opportunity I’m gonna take advantage of. This is my ultimate vision, not so much in terms of job titles I want, but the impact it’s all gonna have. Lemme sell you here on what results FROM my success. [100-125 words]
  2. This is my track record to-date, skills I have, proof that I’m credible in attacking this stuff. But, in order to achieve ABC aspects of my goals, I’m lacking XYZ. [125-150 words]
  3. While I can get these things at any business school, here are the specific ways in which the WHARTON VERSION will help me develop professionally … in the most profound manner. [150 words]
  4. Once equipped with the Wharton MBA, here’s a sneak peek at a very thoughtful short-term plan that follows, and a recap of how this all propels me to the BEST version of my long-term vision. [75 words]

June 1, 2022

CBS Deferred Enrollment MBA Essays 1 And 2

Applicants respond to the two essay questions listed below if they ARE applying to the Deferred Enrollment program:

Why are you interested in obtaining a Columbia MBA in the future? (300 words)

This essay is essentially a condensed version of the first two essays non-deferred MBA candidates must answer (essays 1 and 2, the ones about career goals and fit). You can see our extended take on those ideas in the relevant sections here, but with only 300 words, we’ll have to prioritize. There are three key points to cover:

  • Why are you interested in an MBA? Hint: the answer is your career goals. You’re not at CBS to party, make friends, learn skills (though you will do all those things)—you’re going to prepare for a specific career vision. Show the adcom that your goals are compelling, rooted in your experience, and plausible given your career to date. The adcom should leave this section excited by what you will do in the future—not just the title you will hold or the company you will work at, but also what you plan to do in that role to advance your target industry. They’re looking for revolutionaries, not functionaries.
  • Why “in the future”? The adcom is excited about the vision you’ve laid out, but they’re wondering… why can’t you go and achieve those career goals RIGHT NOW? What’s stopping you? Identify the skill, knowledge or experience gaps that you need to address before you can embark on the path you’ve laid out, and show how you will use the deferral period to address them. The job that you will have between graduation and starting the MBA program could be very impressive, but that doesn’t matter if it’s not also advancing you toward your goals. Prove that it is.
  • Why at Columbia? You’ve identified your goals, the gaps you need to fill before realizing them, and how the deferral period will help. Now, wrap up by showing how the Columbia program is the best fit for someone with your goals. As we discuss at greater length in our analysis of non-deferral essay 2, the key idea here is to identify professors or specific programs.

Three roughly equal length paragraphs addressing the points we’ve laid out above is one of many ways to address this essay. All successful responses, however, will address each part of the prompt: Why you need an MBA, at Columbia, after a deferral period.


Who is a leader you admire, and why? (300 words)

Another classic prompt! Here are two quick rules of thumb:

  • Pick someone the adcom won’t know, and you can get away with somewhat conventional reasons for “why.” Don’t be too conventional—you should still find COOL reasons to admire this person—but the adcom will be a little more forgiving if you introduced them to someone new. Alternatively….
  • Pick a conventional, well-known leader… but for an unconventional reason.

If you pick someone no one’s heard of, that’s already interesting. Good! Now make a convincing argument that they’ve done something that warranted your admiring that person. By the way, this could be everyone from “my younger brother who created a successful startup.” to a person in ancient history whose leadership skills resonate to this day. One caveat: Keep in mind that the adcom will be reading thousands of versions of this essay, and probably at least hundreds from people who share your exact politics, educational background, nationality, etc. If you have any doubts about whether your leader is actually “someone no one’s heard of,” we’ll want to write as if our leader falls into category 2….

If you pick someone EVERYONE’S heard of, you’d better find a reason that no one’s thought of yet. Because if you pick a WELL-KNOWN person for an OBVIOUS reason, you have zero chance of grabbing your reader’s attention. You may very well argue the living hell out of it, and it might be compelling and crisp and logical and “correct.” But it won’t MOVE the reader. And that’s the goal. To knock the adcom off balance.

So, what are surprising reasons for admiring someone?

Well, I like THIS gal but not because of X, Y or Z (the stuff everyone ELSE admires her for). Nah. My whole thing is THIS STRANGE, WEIRD, NEVER-PRAISED trait that is super cool, underrated, and super badass. Ex. “I admire Bill Gate’s sartorial choices, because (to me) it says something powerful about how he leads. Let me explain. . .”

Or, here’s a guy I admire: XXX. That guy, the guy who famously belly-flopped as a leader. First, I’ll say that yah, I’m with everyone else on ABC bad aspect of his performance. That’s the not the part that gets me. It’s THIS oft-overlooked piece… Ex. “I admire Neville Chamberlain’s innovations as postmaster general….”

Someone has a leadership skill you simply lack, but are in awe of. It takes courage to admit to this, and humility to say that you really wanna learn how to develop a leadership skill. But it also helps justify your application: You wanna be around people who have XYZ skill so you can drink it in.  Alternatively, this could go “I’m good at XYZ, but he’s a MASTER, and I am in awe of people who excel at XYZ, because of THIS particular reason. Now, lemme explain what makes THIS guy ultra-next-level…

Organization here really depends on who you pick and why. Things can get crazy. You may start with a tasty anecdote that embodies everything you admire, and then walk us through your reasoning. It could start with what the world thinks, and then your analysis of where they get it wrong, and what you see instead. It could be a walk-through of what you value, and then a reveal of which person best represents that. Lots of structures here. The key here is to subject your final essay to the “does this surprise me” test. Is there any insight there that isn’t wholly predictable (and therefore dull)? Again, “correct, honest, and compelling” can all still be dull. The GOLD STAR version of an essay here has SOME element that contributes some new, interesting perspective. (Which will reveal something new and interesting about YOU.)

Don’t be discouraged if your initial few stabs don’t pass this test. Often times, our first (raw) instincts will fail this test. And that’s okay. That’s where you need to go into BEAST MODE at the review/rewriting stage and get super critical. If it happens on that first draft, great. If it happens at draft two, no problem. Just make sure you take the time to GET THERE.

June 1, 2022

CBS MBA Essays 2 And 3

Applicants respond to the two essay questions listed below if they are NOT applying to the Deferred Enrollment program:

We believe Columbia Business School is a special place. CBS proudly fosters a collaborative learning environment through curricular experiences like our clusters and learning teams, co-curricular initiatives like the Phillips Pathway for Inclusive Leadership, which aims to equip students with the skills and strategies necessary to lead in an inclusive and ethical manner, and career mentorship opportunities like our Executives-in-Residence program.

Why do you feel Columbia Business School is a good fit for you academically, culturally, and professionally? (300 words)

Ooof, this is a long, clunky prompt. When you boil it down, however, the last line is the only operative instruction. This is a basic MBA fit essay. All the stuff above that is basically just the adcom shouting “Please do some research on our program before answering this!”

Let’s start off our writing process with a fun hypothetical: pretend you get into ALL M7 schools. Extrapolate your future lifetime success/happiness as a graduate of each school. Let’s say each one gets a total score out of 100. They all score high, great, but Columbia’s number is somehow slightly BEYOND the rest. Why? What is it about Columbia that makes the “Columbia alumnus” version of you better than the other six hypothetical versions? What makes “Columbia you” more successful  (however you define that)? Explain what it is you’re aiming for, and then why CBS somehow leads to that best version.

With this in mind, let’s drill down a bit further. What are some dimensions along which CBS may perform better than another?

  • Location, location, location. There’s a reason this prompt asked specifically about NYC last year… it’s definitely one of CBS’s distinguishing features. But just being in the city is not enough. Maybe New York beats Boston, but would you pick NYU over HBS because NY > Boston? No, you probably wouldn’t. What really matters is the career opportunities within the city that Columbia (and only Columbia) can make available to you. In what ways are those opportunities inherently different from other top schools? What resources and programs does Columbia offer to open those doors? Is there something that happens at CBS that is game-changingly different than any other program?
  • Campus vibe. This has to be personal to you: “I do better in X environment. So, yah, I’d rather perform at Carnegie Hall in front of 10,000 than in a room with 25 people.” Explain WHY you prefer a certain type of campus experience, then show how CBS has that type of experience with specific examples.
  • Industry specializations. Does Columbia offer unique expertise in your field? The school certainly has a reputation for strength in finance, media, real estate, and other stereotypical NYC industries, but reputation doesn’t really matter here. What you’re looking for is PEOPLE—professors or alumni who worked or are working in your target firms. Keep it at the person-to-person level… “professor XYZ would be a good mentor because she did X, Y and Z, and I want to do ABC similar thing…”

The key is to develop your argument with respect to some IDEAL you have that’s already set—probably your goals. That way your reasoning maps to something. It’s meaningless to say “I feel like this fits me,” without any more context. The “fit” has to matter somehow, it has to improve your ability to succeed. Otherwise, why should you or the adcom care?

To organization. This is a two-three paragraph essay. The very first thing you need to establish in order for this to pack a punch is. . . what YOU need in order to flourish. If you explain the fit first, it has nowhere to go. First, explain what you need from ANY program. From “the best theoretical program ever.” Explain what you need, and why that stuff will make you stronger and better, and more able to succeed at your goals, and in life. Do that quickly, and in a straightforward manner. 75-100 words max.

Now, walk us through (essentially) a series of “aha, Columbia has an incredible (or the best) version of THIS thing I just talked about.” And again! Here’s an example of ANOTHER thing CBS has. And again! Do this two or three (or more, if you can) times. Spend most of your time here explaining the match, and revealing your understanding of what that CBS element is and how it connects to you. 150-200 words.

Hopefully, you have room for a final thought, a sentence’s worth, that serves to imply that you’ve done your homework, and that there are other programs that can hit some or all of the needs you just walked us through. BUT, that CBS either hits MORE and is, therefore, the best fit. Or the hits are simply BETTER and it’s, therefore, a better fit. That comparative sense will serve you well.


Tell us about your favorite book, movie, or song and why it resonates with you. (250 words)

Is the adcom slyly seeking media recommendations here? Are they looking for you to make a convincing case for XYZ book/movie/song? If you succeed in convincing them to pick up XYZ piece of media, will you get an admit? No, no and no!

This essay is not about the piece of media you choose. There may be some benefit to choosing something somewhat mature (i.e., not Barney and Friends) or unique (i.e., not Harry Potter), but a successful essay can be written about pretty much anything.  The media does not matter, it’s the second part of the question (“why it resonates”) that will determine whether or not this essay succeeds. One way to approach this is to think about a moment in your life that led to your application. Was there an experience or event that made you think “I really need an MBA”? Or maybe something like “I really want to do XYZ, and I need an MBA in order to do that”? Did that experience involve a piece of media, or lead you to consume a piece of media?

For example, maybe you became inspired to start a sustainable fishing social enterprise after reading a book about dolphins. Or maybe, after a death in the family due to medical malpractice, you began searching for a way you could improve health tech, and were lost and confused until you read XYZ book by ABC author who inspired your current goals.

Another way of writing this would be to use this opportunity to showcase your non-business interests and personality. What personality quirks will make you a fun, valuable member of the MBA class? Why would the adcom want to have you sitting next to them in that first-year leadership seminar? A piece of media can be an opportunity to showcase something interesting about the way you think about the world or yourself.

In both cases, the essay works best when the piece of media is used as a lens or framing for something you have done. We don’t want to end at “in book ABC, the author argues XYZ, and I agree with that.” “I did XYZ because I read this book,” or “watching this movie made me better understand XYZ thing that I had done,” will be more successful formulae.

June 1, 2022

CBS MBA Short Answer Essay

What is your immediate post-MBA professional goal? (50 characters)

Examples of possible responses:

  • “Work in business development for a media company.”
  • “Join a strategy consulting firm.”
  • “Launch a data-management start-up.”

That’s right, folks. 50 characters. This question used to be 200 characters. Then it was 100. A few years ago it was 75.

CBS is not fooling around – they want you to get to the point. And fast. 50 characters isn’t dinner, a stroll around the park, a lovely nightcap against a backdrop of smooth jazz, into “who knows.” It’s more… the 1-hour motel model. Lay it on ’em.

Perhaps the most liberating way to approach this is to see this NOT as an opportunity to impress, but rather to inform. All they want is a RUDDER to help frame the rest of your essays. That’s all. It’s the equivalent of “state your name and occupation” – a measure taken just so everyone has their bearings.

Ergo, don’t overthink it.

The prize here is clarity, not intrigue. Don’t feel the pressure to wow. And don’t waste precious air-time writing stuff like “My immediate post-MBA professional goal is to…” because that would have been half your response. 1-hour motel, folks. Getterdone. Résumé-like brevity, but… good-résumé-like CLARITY.

Once you lock your strategic application positioning in general, and develop a clear, precise brand for what makes you the strongest possible applicant… just say it as clearly and leanly as you can. In going from longer character allowances in the past to the current limit of 50, CBS is sending a message, which is that anything that gets in the way of their understanding of what your immediate goal is, is simply unwelcome.

Got it? Noice. Onward…

June 1, 2022

CBS MBA Essay 1

Through your resume and recommendation, we have a clear sense of your professional path to date. What are your career goals over the next three to five years and what is your long-term dream job? (500 words)

CBS has been asking this one for a long time. It’s mostly a standard goals essay, with a few subtle tweaks.

First of all, they’ve made a point to steer you away from rehashing your résumé here. “Because we can read, and have your résumé and recommendations in front of us… We have a clear sense of your professional path to date. So please don’t waste our time by repeating that stuff here, because you’ll be revealing just how much you don’t get that simple concept…” That’s kind of what the folks at Columbia Business School are really saying there. Now, there IS a reason to slip in some of your achievements, but only to the extent that doing so further CLARIFIES your goals and/or CONVINCES the reader that you have a shot at succeeding AT achieving those goals (we’ll come back to that).

Okay, so how to crush Essay #1 for CBS? Well, this may require some re-wiring of your brain, so strap in.

You want to the readers to be utterly impressed, okay, we’ll grant you that. But HOW you go about impressing them is where it gets tricky. Your instinct might be to impress through pitching the coolest-SOUNDING job/plan. In other words, you may want to tantalize these folks with a killer tech idea; or something revolutionary; or something so creative and unique, it stops them in their tracks. Nope. Don’t try to impress through the plan. Instead, impress through the INEVITABILITY OF that plan. If your background (and therefore your skill set, prior achievements, general career arc, etc.) maps perfectly to the plan you’ve laid out for the next 3-5 years, you’re going to be thought of as “bankable.”

Think about it… business schools don’t just allow for your career goals to shift, they fully expect them to. That’s often the whole point of business school: to prime “future successes” to be as mighty as possible. What they want are SURE THINGS.

This should be a game-changer as you approach your essays. You’re no longer selling “the buyer” on the quality of the plan itself, but rather, on your ability to pull that plan off, because your background and your skill set, and your interests, and your future aspirations, and your dedication to success are all in perfect alignment.

To put a fine point on it, the reader of the perfect CBS Essay #1 won’t say, “Wow, what an impressive 3-5 year plan. I hope this kid succeeds!” The perfect essay elicits THIS response: “Wow, this kid is gonna pull that plan off. Or any other plan they commit to. Let’s go get them before someone else does.” See the difference?

Now as far as the long-term dream job is concerned, don’t just talk about what that job is. Attack it from the angle of what changes (in the world, in others, etc.) as a result of your succeeding IN that dream job. Let’s say your dream job is to be the future CEO of a brand new game-changing telecom company. Don’t just tell us what that company does, and what you imagine your role to be as CEO of that disrupting change agent. Pitch us the DISRUPTION. Sell us on “the thing you dream will happen WHEN YOU’RE SUCCEEDING.” If we buy into THAT, then we’re gonna want to help you get to that long-term dream job…

As far as balance/structure goes, this will get you out of trouble for a decent first draft (as always, remember that no two applicant essays need look alike–this is just a general suggestion if you’re stumbling out of the cages):

  • Sell us quickly on either a TEASER version of your long-term vision, or the OPPORTUNITY you’re hoping to pop, or a PROBLEM that needs fixing. (50-75 words)
  • Now, quickly catch us up to speed on what you’re up to now, and how you’re hoping to push things forward in the next 3-5 years. (Important to forget business school, for a second – pretend an MBA didn’t exist for the purposes of this particular paragraph; just give us the 3-5 year plan.) But, don’t just give us the step-by-step plan. Convince us that your skill set will allow you to transition from wherever you are right now to step 1 of that plan, and then to step 2, and then step 3, etc. This is the crux of it. Remember, it’s not the plan. It’s the inevitability of your SUCCEEDING at it, that counts. (2 paragraphs, 150 words apiece)
  • Finally, expand the canvas to include your long term dream job, selling us on “the result of your succeeding AT your dream job.” Sell us on your passion for this thing. Sell on your confidence for why you’ll succeed. (100 words or so)
  • Somewhere along the way, wherever it makes sense, it won’t hurt to layer in the area or areas where you need some fortification (from, say, a top-notch business school), in order to really achieve your goals, fully. (2 sentences, max)

More important than nailing the structure on a first draft, is getting the foundation correct. So focus on making a convincing argument that:

  1. You have assessed your strengths and weaknesses with considerable thought and insight, and
  2. You have thought through your goals very carefully and have a clear sense of risk, what’s realistic/not realistic, have a back-up plan if things don’t work out exactly as you’d like, etc.

As long as you nail those two things, the rest (the rewriting process where it all starts to tighten up and get sexy) will fall into place easily.

May 9, 2022

The HBS Application Essay Prompt

As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program? (900 word limit)


A word limit! This is a huge change for Harvard. After more than a decade of open-ended responses, HBS has finally joined almost all of its peer institutions and imposed a word limit on the application essay. The adcom says they made the change to eliminate “stress about how much is too much to write.” Sure, but we’d guess the unpleasantness of throwing hundreds of novella-length submissions into the reject pile year after year also had something to do with it.

The HBS adcom never got essays like that from Admissionado clients! We’ve always recommended 600–800 words for this essay, very close to the new official limit (900 words).  What exactly do we talk about in those 900 words? Let’s zoom out a touch and consider your overall application. On a scale of zero to “President of the Galaxy” … how would you score yourself on leadership? If, on the basis of your resume, LORs, and all other aspects of your application alone, your leadership experience is plain as day, and mighty, then your need to make a point of it here in the essay may be less aggressive than the next person we’re going to talk about.

Imagine a candidate who IS a born leader, but may not have the kind of resume where such traits just LEAP off the page as readily as the first person. In this case, you’d want to lean heavily on anything and everything that helps to MAKE that quality plain to HBS. Zip forward to the end point for BOTH example candidates. The goal is for the adcom to conclude that EACH of those two candidates is “high” on HBS-style leadership. “Check!”

Let’s go back to Candidate 1. Pretend they’re a Military person with leadership screaming from every resume bullet. Maybe this person spends a touch more time revealing something sparkly about his/her personality, or future aspirations, that when COUPLED WITH the leadership that speaks for itself, makes the adcom all hot and bothered.

Candidate 2, however, perhaps an IT professional, doesn’t necessarily appear to have quite as much in the way of leadership experience on paper. Candidate 2 may want to focus less on future aspirations and more on “oh, and by the way, after you read this, you can stand me next to Candidate 1 and see that, in fact, we have a bunch more in common in the way of leadership than might have been evident on my resume. Aren’t you glad I told you that story here?” See the difference? Similar end point, but the paths might be a touch different.

HBS = Leadership.

If you can prove that you have future CEO, boss, leader, big and badass mover-shaker flowing through your blood, you will be considered strongly. Think about it for a second though. If someone tells you they’re a lawyer, do you believe them? Probably. Why wouldn’t you? If someone tells you they’re a school teacher, do you believe them? Yeah, why not? If, on the other hand, someone tells you they’re funny… do you believe them? Probably not, they need to make you laugh. In other words, you need proof.

Leadership (like funniness) is a quality, not a profession. You can’t just say it and expect others to buy in. At the same time, it’s one of those things where… the more you say, the less likely it may seem to be true. (Hence, 900 words = enough.) So, if you’re going to demonstrate your leadership chops through an anecdote, remember to focus on the types of actions that we can picture. The actions that reveal your particular leadership style and talent.

So, that’s just some general background. How do you begin to answer this HBS prompt? Work backwards. The adcom should conclude after reading your essay, in context with all the other aspects of your application that they have, that if introduced to the HBS community, you would help others to succeed, and you would benefit from others and succeed in kind. This is going to sound frustrating, but, there’s a vapor that comes off of the future “HBS admit” essay that is characterized by one word: confidence. You’re not going to get admitted to Harvard Business School to LEARN how to become a “manager.” You’re admitted because you’re ALREADY a manager, and HBS is gonna help you grow.

So, posture that way. As you write drafts (and this may melt some brains out there) posture as though you need Harvard to prove why they are YOUR best choice, not the other way around. Posture like you expect admits from Stanford and Wharton and Booth and Sloan and wherever else, and that you’re not so stuck on brand names. You’re looking for a place that’s going to be best for you to develop the talent you know you have. How does that posturing subtly affect your tone? Or your approach?

You are businessmen and businesswomen, right? When negotiating, do you ever prematurely show your hand and reveal just how badly you need the deal? Or is it a stronger move to posture the other way? “Here’s my final offer, I’m happy to walk away because… I already have many others.” You can be sure that that exact same deal weighs more than the one coming from the person who seems desperate.

So, embrace your inner badass. And be a little cocky. Be a little presumptuous. Be a little smug. (We can always dial it back to the perfect balance… but, no born leaders come to this particular game vulnerable, meek, shy, etc.) Puff your chest. And begin drafting your essay with the mentality that you already have Stanford’s “yes” in hand, and now you’re going to kick an application over to Harvard for fun, but… YOU are the one in high demand, not the other way around.

July 11, 2021

INSEAD MBA Video Interview Information

Shortly after completing your INSEAD MBA online application, you will receive an e-mail notification from Kira Talent with a unique link to complete 4 video interviews. Your link will be also available on your dashboard within the application system. The video should be seen as a unique opportunity for you to share your passions, your motivations and who you truly are. The Admissions Committee is interested in obtaining an authentic view of you as a person, to see how you think on your feet and how you convey your ideas.

The video interviews do not replace the face-to-face interviews with Alumni.

Your application will be considered as complete and ready to be reviewed only once we have received your answers to the video interviews. Please complete your video interviews at your earliest convenience and no later than 48 hours after the deadline to which you are applying. We strongly recommend however that you complete this step before the final date to allow yourself some time to prepare for this exercise.

The MBA admissions overview link includes detailed advice from INSEAD admissions covering timing, practice, and technical requirements.  Advice direct from INSEAD adcomm:

  1. Get ready by practicing. You can practice as much as you want. Practicing will enable you to convey authentic and genuine answers. Practice questions are not shared with the Admissions Committee;
  2. Test your camera, your microphone, then forget the technology and look at the camera as if you were talking to the Admissions Committee;
  3. Although we ask you to wear business or business casual attire, the Admissions Committee will not judge your look or your background;
  4. You may want to prepare a notebook next to you to write down your key ideas; you will have 45 seconds to prepare each answer; you will then have 60 seconds to share each answer with the Admissions Committee.


For something like this, where you’re going in a bit blind… the goal is to be “Stump-Proof.” What does that mean? It means, you need to show up on D-Day, and be prepared to be asked ANY four questions, and not get stumped, get all cotton-mouthed, and sweaty, and flub your way through those 60-second clips. Easy enough right?!

Hardly. Being “stump-proof” is hard. Some folks are born with it. For the rest of us, it takes some work. And luckily, there is work we CAN do to chip away at this challenge.


Practice… COLD. Get familiar with this by getting your recording device setup (it can be Quicktime, whatever video recording option you have, keep it simple), and then find a list of “interview questions” from somewhere, and keep it handy. Then, get dressed as you will be, get your room prepped the way it will be on the day you’re gonna record, don’t cheat this, take it seriously. And then pick a RANDOM question off that list, give yourself 45 seconds to prepare an answer, and then record a response in 60 seconds. Guess what, 9 out of 10, it’s gonna suck. Great. Do it again. Pick another question, ideate for 45 seconds. Not 46… 45. Then record for 60 seconds. Guess what? This one’s gonna suck just as bad. Great. Do it again. A third time. Guess what? This one may also suck. No problem. You’ve just taken a CRITICAL first step. At what? Breaking the seal. Popping the cork. Lighting the fuse. Congrats, and move onto Step 2.


Now… sit back and relax and process it for a second. Take a look at your videos, make some basic observations, but don’t get too hardcore just yet. Just focus on big stuff. Do you look confident? Do you seem likeable? Those may be the two biggest things to consider first. And then… how good is your answer? Just… observe for now. The fun stuff comes next. Did I say fun? I meant most definitely UNFUN stuff.


Now comes the part where you dig in a bit. And consider what these cats can possibly ask you. They’ve given you some clues. First, the meat itself: “share your passions, your motivations and who you truly are.” But second, “how [well] you think on your feet and how [well] you convey your ideas.” So, passions, motivations, what you’re all about. Here are some tips. Think about telling a STORY from your past (can be any story) that captures PERFECTLY… who you are, in a nutshell. Now, we used the word “perfect” to imply just one response, but actually, there are many ways to slice this. One story can reveal something about what MOTIVATES you. Another story can reveal something about what’s unique about your PERSONALITY. Another story can reveal something about what you LOVE more than anything on Earth, and what that says about you. Lots of stories. Find a bunch, that all say different things, and practice 60-second versions of them. DO NOT write down scripts, you can absolutely OVER-REHEARSE and decimate these. Just riff, tell stories, be entertaining. The point is not to IMPRESS, and it’s not to be STRAIGHTFORWARD… it’s to COMPEL. Either through persuasion or by being entertaining. There are no points for being dull. None.

Do this a bunch of times. Try to come up with twists on questions. “What citrus best captures who you are?” “Would you rather X… or Y”? “If you had one X to take to a desert island, what would it be and why?” … you get the idea, there are millions of these out there, spend a little bit of time, get into that headspace, and get acquainted with this mode of thinking. And get good at delivering a 60-second response. But, and here’s the key, your bullets should mostly be LOADED such that the question doesn’t actually matter. The goal is to be comfortable enough with your go-to ANSWERS that the questions itself can quickly be spun to get you to the response you’re already poised to give. The folks who seem like NATURALS at this? That’s what they’re doing. They’re just so good, it seems like it’s a trait. It isn’t. It’s a matter of comfort. And it’s a learnable skill.


Practice with new questions, new types of questions, and get as comfortable as you can, to the point where the prospect of being thrown a question and having 45 seconds to prepare an answer doesn’t phase you one bit. Don’t show your practice videos to a bunch of people, too much feedback can short circuit your system and cripple you. Maybe pick one trusted guy and get some insights, but don’t go beyond that.

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of  ISEAD’s application essays.

Learn more and explore each step of the INSEAD full-time MBA application process here.

July 11, 2021

INSEAD MBA Motivation Essay Prompts



This has been an INSEAD staple for a few years now. The only real change here is in word count. Now, the one thing they haven’t done here, which they should have, is to distinguish between a passive description and an active one. A passive description just tells you about something, and it ends there. “The ink stain is permanent.” “This coffee is very hot.” Thanks, but we don’t want passive. We want that other thing — the description that teaches us something. Makes us develop an ATTITUDE about the subject.

“The ink stain is permanent, and it’s a good thing—I don’t ever want to forget the day the woman I fell in love with haplessly broke the cartridge over my white shirt. Crazy as it may sound, this blemish is a living monument of her innocence.”

Oh, so… the ink stain being permanent here was a GOOD thing! Hah! Without that context, we had no idea. Context, folks. Your job here is to describe yourself… with context. Give us a reason to learn something about you. Adjectives by themselves are meaningless.

How can you figure out WHICH characteristics give you your color? Have contributed to your personal development? Make you… you? (And not just “you” but… interesting, compelling, worth meeting, etc.)? That’s the hard part, isn’t it. Here are some tips to help:

  • Has there been a moment in your life where you experienced a fundamental SHIFT in thinking? And we’re not talking about switching from Coke to Pepsi, but rather, an EPIC shift in worldview?
  • Was there ever a moment where you acted in a way that was truly SURPRISING to others? And even to yourself? Where you went against the grain?
  • Was there ever a moment that challenged you to your core? Requiring considerable strength or courage to overcome?

Defining moments that taught you something about what you were made of… really made of. Strengths and weaknesses are fair game here. Acknowledging weakness can be a sign of GREAT strength, and can be extraordinarily appealing. The guy who can introspect like that probably cares about improving. That’s the guy I want on my team, not the guy who is comfortable with finding himself to be flawless, beyond reproach, etc. Don’t shy away from this, if you have a neat weakness to talk about. Humility (especially in Europe) can go a long way.

Outlines for this essay can take many shapes and forms. But consider hitting these pieces in whatever you end up with:

  • Provide examples of the traits. In fact, walk us through an action that DEMONSTRATES the trait over merely telling us about it.
  • But then, make sure you give a reason we should care—this is the “context” we alluded to above. So what, the ink stain is permanent. Give us the VALUE.



400 words for both essays tell you something, because there are a lot of components to this one. Let’s break it down:

  1. Explain your top-most achievement (what it was, why should we impressed)
  2. Then, explain why this ranks highest among all your achievements
  3. Next explain a key failure (what it was, exactly)
  4. Then, explain the ways in which these experiences impacted your relationship with other people (this is a twist – very few schools ask about this specifically)
  5. What were YOUR lessons?

Those all need to be dealt with, and you have 400 words. So, be straightforward, folks. It’s actually a great exercise in high-yield communication. Let’s focus on #4 though. How does a success or failure leave some kind of imprint on the way in which you relate to others? This is where you need to paint by clear examples. Imagine DELTAs between each scenario. There was a before and after associated with your success story. Somehow, that success affected the way you related to people – thus, the delta between before and after. What was it? Similarly, before you failed, you related to people in some way. Then after that failure, things changed with respect to your relationships with others. What changed? Examining those DELTAs will be the first KEY step toward crushing this question, and demonstrating how thoughtful and strategic you can be.



Part I of this essay will be all about the stuff, and a very clear indication of how involved you are. Leadership roles, special awards and distinctions, etc. Anything that gives us a clue about how excited you are about any particular activity, is good. Part II is about the way in which any given activity has made you… cooler. “Enriched” you. Again, we return to the concept of deltas. Picture what you’d be like without the activity, or all of them. How different would you be? What qualities, therefore, do those activities nurture in you? This doesn’t have to be separated into Part I – Activities, Part 2 – Enrichment. They can be integrated as you’re going through each activity.

Don’t leave your passion out here. Straightforward, yes, but… if your extracurricular activities seem to be part of a checklist routine, you’re not gonna excite anyone. The idea here is to come across like a sparkplug. Someone dynamic with interests and hobbies and talents and THIRSTS for things. The awareness that is revealed through articulating just how each activity has improved you in some way is icing on top.



Standard optional essay stuff. INSEAD’s applications are famously kinda bloated, so, whereas for schools that ask for only a SINGLE essay, we may recommend seizing this opportunity, for INSEAD, we’d recommend using some caution. Sure, address red flags, but in terms of telling “that one extra story you think will push it over the top…” give a hard think, cuz if you’ve done it correctly, you’ve already found a way to weave in your “greatest hits” into your main INSEAD essay questions.

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of  INSEAD’s application essays.

Learn more and explore each step of the INSEAD full-time MBA application process here.

July 11, 2021




Okay folks, no real need to be creative here, or dramatic, or “interesting.” Why say that? Because if you attempt it, it may come across as an insecurity. You’re the guy who doesn’t understand when straightforward is actually a show of strength.

Be brief, straightforward, and get into the details…fast. One way of looking at this is simply to flesh out (somewhat) your latest entry on your resume. Just, turn it into a readable paragraph so that anyone reading it can understand exactly where you work, exactly what it is you do, and exactly what your accomplishments mean (i.e., you’ve given us enough context to be able to make sense of them). And that’s all, folks.



Assume for a minute that you are going to STAY at your current place of work for the next twenty years (just pretend). Presumably, you’ll rise in the ranks in SOME capacity. Even if you’re the CEO of a start-up, your position will evolve somehow as your company grows. Imagine that spectrum between today and 20 years from now sub-divided into five major bumps. What’s the very next one? Explain the bump in terms of what is it you do/oversee today and how it will CHANGE once you’re promoted or rise in the ranks some other way.

All we’re trying to do is understand where you are in life. That’s it. No need to explain that you truly want to do something else; we’re just getting our bearings.



This is where it starts to get real. Whereas the first few can be extremely devoid of “carefully chosen words,” here, you need to express ideas clearly, and compellingly.

…and this is gonna take some thought.

Start by explaining the context behind your very first post-graduate decision, by way of some overarching goal — as clear or as nebulous as it may have been. Given that you one-day wanted to X, you decided to pursue Y as your first official move after university. Explain your developments, skills gained, ways in which you advanced your career interests (or gained clarity on what it was you truly wanted to do), and let that guide your description of whatever major thing happened next. Presumably, you were promoted, or you chose another job, or you chose another industry, or a life circumstance spun things in a new direction, etc. Whatever it is, keep in mind that this is all part of a single narrative that connects each juncture along a single spectrum that takes us from the first job after university to wherever you are today, with your decision-making as your rudder at each key moment. We should be able to read this essay and then repeat back not just what the steps were of your career, but why you made your choices at each step.



Only answer if this one if it applies to you. If you’re explaining the “not working” aspect, be extremely straightforward. The more it seems like you’re justifying something, the “guiltier” you’ll come across. Imagine you’re re-assuring the person who just hired you why there’s this strange gap that we just noticed. Before we get cold feet, make that feeling go away quickly, with extreme confidence, clarity, and brevity.

If you’re answering the other option, CREATING a gap (whether by choice or not) that gives you the ability to spend your time somehow before the program begins, you’ll want to approach it similarly, but this time, you may need to add a touch of justification, lest it arouse suspicion. Say, for example, that gap is six months, and there doesn’t seem to be any real reason for it. Here, you may have decided to travel the world, or learn a new language, or… you get the idea. Just about anything CAN be an amazing reason, we just need to be sold on it, is all. Brevity here is your best best best friend. A long optional essay can be a death sentence. Stay crisp, aim for 150-250 words.

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of  INSEAD’s application essays.

Learn more and explore each step of the INSEAD full-time MBA application process here.

July 7, 2021


What are your post-MBA goals and how will your prior experience and the London Business School programme contribute towards these? (500 words)

This is the exact same question as last year, and more or less, the same question as the last few years. If you were to look at previous versions (“What will your future look like after completing your MBA?”) and compare it to these slightly tweaked versions (“What are your post-MBA plans and how will your prior experience and the London Business School programme contribute?”), it’s not hard to catch the vapors coming off of the LBS adcom:

“Let’s just ask the question we want to ask a bit more directly…”

What does this mean for you as the applicant? Give them what they want: a clear, precise, well-argued case for what you hope to succeed in, and why you will be successful (based on your past experiences combined with an LBS MBA). That’s all, folks. If you accomplish those two things, everything extra (“a novel idea,” “a big goal with big upside,” “a socially-responsible and inspiring vision,” etc.) will be just that… “extra.”

Most people will miss the KEY to this essay by packing too much stuff in. Slow down, take it one simple step at a time, and get the key stuff NAILED down first (you’ll be 98% done at that point).

Now, here’s the danger of going too far with Part I of the question (the GOAL part) without considering how Part II supports it. If you pitch an incredible idea/vision for the future, but have limited ability to back it up with evidence in your past experiences that convinces us that you have the necessary chops to execute on that idea… the idea may sound tasty, but it won’t be worth the risk for an elite MBA program. Remember, elite MBA programs rely on PLACEMENT statistics. Things like “how many students from the graduating class end up… employed” end up making XXX dollars in their first X years out of school, etc. Why? This affects their rankings, and rankings affect the caliber of student drawn to their program, which in turn affects the school’s ability to churn out success stories that juice those stats that then improve rankings and the future caliber of… you see how the cycle works.

So, MBA programs prefer SURE THINGS to high-volatility applicants. Given all that, the best chance you have of proving future success is to point to evidence in your PAST of success in a similar arena. Now, typically this means success in ROLE and INDUSTRY X and then pitching future success that is essentially an EXTENSION of those two things. If you’re a marketing maven, then you may have a hard time painting a picture of yourself as a logistics whiz. “Why should we believe that you will be successful here?” they will ask. This is why industry/career switches tend to be red flags, unless you’re able to convincingly draw a crystal clear connection between your success in the past and your future goals.

Start there: looking back at your career, what have you done? What have you achieved? What are you good at? What MAKES you good at the things you’re good at? Isolate it, hone in, be able to describe this to someone in ONE sentence.

“I’m the person who can mobilize a team of 50 people on ten continents.”

“I’m the person who can take ten departments’ confused and contradictory initiatives, and seamlessly cohere them into a winning, universally beneficial, perfectly aligned strategy.”

“I’m the person who…”

Find evidence in your past. Be messy at first, list ten chaotic forms of support. But then sharpen it, boil it down to three defining MOMENTS. Three episodes, where your actions PAINT A PICTURE of the value you brought.

Once you have that piece LOCKED, now we can cook up a “plan” that is a mouth-watering EXTENSION of it. Now we’re willing to go wherever you take us. If you’re Elon Musk, and you give us your resume, you better believe we will be interested when you tell us “I have an idea for how to revolutionize public transportation in third world countries.” If your background is in sales, however, we’re less interested in your “Big Idea.”

As you’re building your “post-MBA plans,” focus less on the flash of the idea, and more on the strategy behind EXECUTING it. Show us how well-thought-out the plan is. Do this with detail. Do this with evidence that walks us through how each step is necessary for the next one. Practical, pragmatic, bulletproof. This is the plan that excites MBA adcoms. You want them to say “this person is going to be successful.” Or “this person has success written all over them.”

You don’t want them to say “Wow, this is an absolutely brilliant and inspired idea! … I’m just not entirely sure s/he’s gonna pull it off.” That reaction is a potential death sentence.

Here’s the structure that’ll keep you very safe for your first pass:

  1. Hit us with a high-level sense of what kind of ISSUE or PROBLEM you hope to fix. Or an OPPORTUNITY you’re hoping to take advantage of. Quickly provide this background (sentence or two, max). Explain why solving this (or executing on the opportunity) isn’t easy. Explain why this hasn’t been done a million times successfully already. Then explain (super high-level) what your idea is. What your big picture plans are.
  2. Now take us through the story of how this all came into play. What’s the backstory? Where did you start, where did you cut your teeth? And most importantly, show us the evidence as you take us through the KEY NODES of your past, of your value. Don’t just rehash your resume. Present value-defining ACTIONS that made it very clear what made/makes you valuable.
  3. Now that we’re sold on how credible you are in this arena, give us a more detailed walk-through of your plans, showing us exactly how you plan on achieving each step. Details, specificity, show us how much thought went into it by convincing us that there are no holes.
  4. Last but not least, spend just a little bit of time making an argument for why LBS, of all the business schools on Earth, provides a few UNIQUE opportunities to propel you toward success. Don’t just explain that it’s a good B-School, or that you’re interested in LBS. You need to isolate a few idiosyncrasies of the LBS offerings, class, or setup that somehow IMPROVES the probability that you will succeed as compared to, say, HBS, Stanford, or Wharton. The coolest test to give yourself (embrace this conceit!) is to imagine getting offer letters from Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, and LBS. Make a case for why you would TURN DOWN the other three and go to LBS. All it takes is two or three bulletproof reasons and you’re home free.

June 24, 2021

CBS MBA Optional Essay

If you wish to provide further information or additional context around your application to the Admissions Committee, please upload a brief explanation of any areas of concern in your academic record or personal history. This does not need to be a formal essay. You may submit bullet points. (Maximum 500 Words)

Read our team’s complete take on the idea of the optional essay, including a brief (recent) history of b-schools’ relationship with it, and how our recommendations have evolved over the years, right here.

June 22, 2021

An MBA is as much about personal growth as it is about professional development. In addition to sharing your experience and goals in terms of career, we’d like to learn more about you outside of the office. Use this opportunity to tell us something about who you are… (Minimum 250 words, no maximum.) Length: There is no maximum length, only a 250-word minimum. We trust that you will use your best judgment in determining how long your submission should be, but we recommend that you think strategically about how to best allocate the space. Acceptable Formats: Submissions must be entered into the text box provided in the application.

This is a classic MBA application question, one you’ll probably see on other applications as well. Start by thinking about what makes your extraprofessional life exciting and interesting. What do you do that most people around you don’t? What extraprofessional activity do you do better than most of your peers in your company, industry, or country? Make a list of those exceptional activities.

Note the emphasis on things you DO. Statements of fact “I am Indian-American” or opinion “I like to watch golf” are not what the adcom is looking for here. The strongest versions of this essay will show the adcom “who you are” by portraying your actions, rather than just listing a series of traits that you have.

To illustrate the power of this approach, imagine the adcom asked a friend of yours this same question. The friend could reply “He’s an avid hiker and skilled outdoorsman.” Or they could say “Oh, her? Let me tell you about her. There was this one time when we were stranded in the Rocky Mountains, and she jury-rigged a sled from branches, and saved all of our lives…” That second version is MUCH more compelling evidence of the applicant’s wilderness survival ability, because it provides evidence in the form of an example.

In this spirit, take your list of exceptional activities from earlier, and identify one or two specific examples or achievements for each activity. So “I play chess” becomes “I won the U.S. Chess Championship in 2018… while wearing a blindfold.” Then think about what each achievement says about you and how that relates to your MBA admissions argument.

Your post-MBA goals matter here! Say you’re getting a Booth MBA in order to create a tech startup. What skills or personality traits will you need to be successful? Persistence? Curiosity? We’ll want to emphasize those particular traits in our essay, even though we’re not talking directly about your current or future work. Pick the 2-3 extraprofessional achievements from your list that you feel most exemplify the traits needed in your target industry.

Once you’ve identified the stories you want to tell, it’s just a matter of putting it all together. This could be done a number of different ways. For example, the entire essay could be built around one trait (“determination”, “resourcefulness”, etc.), with each story showing a different time you relied on that trait. Alternatively, you could tell the story chronologically, showing how each interest led to the next, and an ever-greater amount of extraprofessional achievement. The strongest versions of this essay often do both of these things at the same time, creating a narrative where the candidate’s extraprofessional achievements build on one another and leave the adcom facing the unavoidable conclusion that this candidate has the “right stuff” for whatever career path they have chosen.

June 22, 2021

How will the Booth MBA help you achieve your immediate and long-term post-MBA career goals? (250 word minimum)

Response Guidelines:

  • Length: There is no maximum length, only a 250-word minimum. We trust that you will use your best judgment in determining how long your submission should be, but we recommend that you think strategically about how to best allocate the space.
  • Acceptable Formats: Submissions must be entered into the text box provided in the application.

Check out our suggested offline exercise for this Wharton question. Essentially, the idea is to plan out your next five years of growth WITH and WITHOUT the Booth MBA, and then examine the delta between the two paths. This will be useful here as well. In fact, regardless of your interest in Wharton or Booth, you should go through the process of imagining this exact same timeline for MULTIPLE schools, with the intention of “ending up slightly different” five years from now in EVERY VERSION because the experience(s) at each particular school will alter your trajectory, somewhat.

250-word MINIMUM is also an interesting signal. Generally, when no strict word limit is given, we recommend landing somewhere around 500-600 words. Why? Cuz that’s the amount of space most “M7 MBAs” need to make their case.

Try this format, and what you SHOULD end up with is a QUALITY first draft that’s well on its way to being dissected and remolded into Rodin-esque mastery:

  1. Sell us on the OPPORTUNITY or PROBLEM you wanna solve. What is it you’re trying to achieve? Why? What will the impact be? Why should anyone care? Convince us this is a cool idea or problem to fix, and convince us that your vision is sensible and achievable. [75-100 words]
  2. Great idea, but what business do YOU have attacking it? Convince us. Walk us through a few KEY highlights of your past that put your credibility here on full display. Focus on only the stuff that allows us to say “Yah, this is the kind of person and these are the kinds of skills that translate PERFECTLY to solving the problem you’ve identified.” At the end of this section, explain what things you are MISSING that prevent you from attacking these goals today. There have to be SOME, otherwise, why bother wasting two years? Describe the stuff you need IN GENERAL, as if from “any MBA.” [125-150 words]
  3. Now, map specific things at Booth to those deficits in your skill set. Don’t point out things that exist at Booth that are theoretically valuable. Create “proofs” for how those “things” AFFECT you in a way that results in “skill set boostage” … aka, “improved ability to achieve goals.” Show us how specific aspects of Booth will TRANSFORM you from “guy who can’t quite achieve ST and LT goals” into “guy who can.” Until you make that “chemical reaction” clear, you haven’t quite nailed this section yet. And this is hard, so there’s a 97% chance you’ll get close on your first draft but won’t quite nail it. Don’t be discouraged. It’ll get there! [100-125 words]
  4. Finally, lay out the BLUEPRINT of specific things you plan on doing in the short term toward your long-term goals, once you’re equipped with that Booth MBA. Prove to us that you’re likely to achieve all those steps, and make sure the logic and sequence of it is all plain as day. We need to prove that your short-term goals are the BEST POSSIBLE stepping stones between the MBA and your long-term ambitions. Then segue seamlessly into a more far-off look at the horizon: Where it’s all headed longer-term, and what it all means, why this is meaningful to you, why these ambitions are not a flame that’s gonna burn out anytime soon. [125-150 words]

Depending on your individual case, [3] and [4] can sometimes flip.

June 14, 2021

Kellogg MBA Essay 1

Kellogg’s purpose is to educate, equip & inspire brave leaders who create lasting value. Tell us about a time you have demonstrated leadership and created lasting value. What challenges did you face, and what did you learn? (450 words)

Tricky one. Created lasting value? First of all, that’s some serious sh*t. Second, how would you know if you actually created lasting value? It’s one thing to think that that’s the case. It’s another thing for it to be true, persistently. First thing’s first, we need to identify our story before anything else…

Creating lasting value implies bringing something new to the table. You changed a company’s algorithm for hiring: previously they’d focused on X, you inspired them instead to focus on Y. Or, you pursued a growth opportunity no one had ever considered before. It worked, and now it’s a stable and NEW source of revenue. There are a million versions. Whatever it is you did … it can’t have been in the job description. It can’t have been something that was expected of you. It has to be something YOU brought to the table in a somehow surprising way. Think of your best few examples of that, a good starting point.

Now, let’s talk about how you LED the thing. This particular leadership example requires proactively doing something that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. What were the stakes? What stood in your way? Why was it difficult? What were your personal risks? What propelled your forward in SPITE of those challenges? What were you hoping to achieve? Take us through your actions, bringing us into your thought process along the way. Let’s see how your gears work.

Finally, what did you learn along the way? Did everything work out as expected? Congrats, you didn’t learn anything. There must have been twists. An instance when you were WRONG. An instance when you made a bad call. An instance when a certain challenge was HARDER than you expected. An aspect of yourself that you had rated too highly, or not highly enough. Something that bumped along the way. Take us through the “before” and “after” here. Somewhere inside that delta of where you landed AFTER this experience should have POSITIVE implications for your NEXT leadership adventure. If you have an example, even better. If not, throw it into the future regardless, forecasting how you’ll APPLY some of the lessons learned here.


Part I – Setup the Situation. Explain the status quo you were hoping to disrupt. Or the boss’s directive. Whatever it was that led to your stepping into a leadership role and ultimately delivering something cool and NEW to the table. Set it up by explaining what the goal was, what the challenges were, why it was important, and what you stood to gain or lose. End this section laying out what would be required for “someone” to step in and lead this thing to success. (100 words)

Part II – Explain the leadership stuff. Take us through the “what you did” piece, step by step, decision by decision. Conflict to conflict. Inner debate, weighing options, eventual decisions. All of it. Lay it all out. (125 words)

Part III – How did this create lasting value? Now comes the tricky part. Where’s the evidence that this “was bigger than you,” and actually fundamentally changed things? First, we need to learn of this in some verifiable way other than “you think it created value.” How did you come to learn of it? Walk us through that, and then explain in plain terms what that value actually means, in the simplest of terms we can understand. (100-125 words)

Part IV – What’d Ya Learn? This is reflection time. Time to expose some of those bumps. Bad calls. Incorrect assumptions. Doesn’t have to be “bad” but something that convincingly outs you as a REFLECTIVE individual. Put yourself on trial here, throw yourself under the microscope. Make a case for why the version of you at the END of this experience is better than the guy at its BEGINNING. Try to wrap your mind around that… Something shifted along the way to IMPROVE you. What was it? Take your time to identify what those things might have been, and try to articulate it all as simply and clearly as you possibly can here. (100-125 words)

June 9, 2021

What makes you feel alive when you are doing it, and why? (300 words maximum)

This question certainly stands out compared to the common MBA essay fare. One cool way to start is to establish a FEW things you really like to do, and are good at. Think about them, and what makes you really enjoy them. Write it all down and make a list.

Now, look at that list… which of those activities/processes/things makes you feel MOST ALIVE? You have a sense of the status quo, of what you enjoy, but one of these things is special. More exhilarating, somehow. How is that NEW THING different from the rest? This exercise should help you zero in on the key element of an activity that makes you, personally, feel alive. That element will be different for everyone, you just need to identify what it is for you.

We want to open with that key difference between “things you enjoy” and “things that make you feel alive.” After you’ve established that, now we need to know why we should care. Well, let’s put that differently… this section should leave us wanting you to BE IN THAT “ALIVE” STATE. We want to convince the adcom, through your sincerity and passion, that enabling you is likely to lead to good things. That’s the cynical read here, folks. People who are really truly passionate, people who can get into a flow state… don’t quit. That’s what you’re REALLY conveying here. That when the going gets tough, you’re the kind of person who will stick with the MBA and not withdraw (costing the school a bunch of money).

So, initially you’ll explain what makes you feel alive, and here in “part 2” you’ll explain the “why.” But as you do, keep in mind that sincerity will beat melodrama, flowery tear-jerking or inspirational prose any day. Just be clean and earnest, and try to put your finger on what gets activated in you and why.

June 6, 2021

Kellogg MBA Essay 2

Values are what guide you in your life and work. What values are important to you, and how have they influenced you? (450 words)

This is a new essay for Kellogg this year, replacing their longtime “growth” essay with something that closely resembles Stanford’s classic “What matters most to you and why?” This type of essay is HARD. It’s so easy to think you’re making an awesome point here, but end up coming across as canned, out-of-touch, disingenuous, etc. The problem is that most values are pretty much universal, so appealing to them directly sounds pat. “I value family,” “I want to make the world a better place,” “I believe in truth and integrity”…. These statements are all so common that they have essentially no meaning.

For example, comforting a grieving parent who lost their child in some horrible accident doesn’t reveal an impressive set of values. What the hell ELSE might you have chosen to do, NOT comfort them? The same goes for NOT cheating on a test, or NOT stealing credit from a coworker on a shared project. Of course you don’t do those things—but that’s just the baseline expectation of being a decent person, not an interesting statement about your values.

The best way to ensure that you don’t fall into this trap is to find a moment where you came upon a dilemma, a FORK in the road where you were tempted to pick fork A, but something about your values compelled you to take fork B instead, when many people would have chosen fork A. INSTEAD is the key word—there needs to have been a real temptation to have gone fork A, or a bunch of reasons why the choice was “good” for you (promotions, money, advancement, stuff that would appeal to most people), BUT because of your value system, you put a greater weight on something else. It’s challenging questions, with no obvious “right answer,” that illustrate your value system.

When answering this, it will serve you well to explain what all the options/choices were, and to SELL US on why the alternatives would have been perfectly acceptable, strong, even expected choices. Why did you opt to do THE OTHER THING? We might spend roughly one third of the essay describing the dilemma, one third describing what you did, and one third explaining how the values this decision demonstrates have shaped your goals and career choices to date.

March 1, 2021

Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?


If there’s one phrase to focus on in this prompt, it’s: “in a surprising way.”

The easiest thing to do is imagine things others have done for you that may have made you happy or thankful. A gift. A helping hand. A shoulder to cry on. A laugh. There are lots of things people do regularly that can elicit feelings of gratitude in you, the recipient. But what does it mean for such a gesture to SURPRISE you?

Careful. There are two versions of this, and only one of them will count for this essay.

Version 1 – A gesture you weren’t expecting, but one you already regard as a nice/positive thing, that pleasantly surprises you.


  • You are stuck in a tricky interpersonal conflict and would kill to have someone work it through with you. You can’t ask your friends, or your favorite aunt, because it’s personal, they’re busy, you don’t want to burden them. But, they volunteer anyway. Wow! You’re so, so, so grateful. “Happy.” “Thankful.” And surprised that they would give their time and soul to you so generously.

Nope. Doesn’t count.

Version 2  – A gesture you weren’t expecting to be happy about, or grateful for, but… found yourself reacting that way. Your happiness and thankfulness was the thing that surprised you. (Bingo.)


  • Leave me alone, Mom. I do not want to talk to you. If you force this conversation I will resent you for it, and be even unhappier than I am now. Understood? (Mom sidesteps your warning, engages in a conversation with you anyway.) And you’re poised to be angry about it. However, a weight lifts. And you feel happier, despite your expectation for the opposite reaction.

Your reaction of happiness is the surprising element here, not the gesture. Now let’s examine why this would be interesting, and how to write about it. A change from something (A) to something else (B) can show many things: growth (obvious), but also increased self-awareness (that you were able to detect and talk about that change). Either way, your ability to identify this “surprise” goes to one of the most important traits any college applicant can have: MATURITY. That’s why the common app is offering this prompt.

First things first, you need to find a time when YOUR REACTION (of happiness/gratefulness) came as a surprise to you. You were expecting to feel the opposite, or at least something wildly different, but didn’t. Generate a list.

Now, what reaction were you EXPECTING to have originally, and why? Make a sincere case here. Meaning, go back in time to this “Previous You” and explain why you expected NOT to be happy/thankful for whatever was about to come your way. Sell it. Sincerely, thoughtfully. Really… sell it. After reading this paragraph(s), we should not only understand why you expected NOT to be happy about the upcoming gesture, but perhaps buy into your argument fully.

But then, a thing happens, that causes a surprising response. It must (by definition) be something that happened on an unconscious level, without your brain’s permission. After all, if your body listened to your mind, you wouldn’t have been thankful, remember? That’s the premise, here. So, unconsciously, emotionally, viscerally, you feel some kind of positive, happy, grateful emotion. And this confuses your brain. It’s tempting to dwell on the thing the “other person/people in this story” did or said. And yes, we will need the appropriate detail, but we don’t need all that much.

What we want to dwell on is that cognitive dissonance between your happy response, and your brain feeling CONFUSED by that reaction. Explain what you were feeling, and walk us through the CONFUSION. What did THAT feel like? What questions were you all of a sudden asking? What assumptions did this ruffle? What ELSE might you be wrong about if Action X, that was supposed to lead to a not happy or neutral response, instead leads to a POSITIVE one? You may not have been aware of it in the moment (or perhaps you were), but there was a dialogue happening that led you to CHANGE your mind. We wanna see that dialogue play out on the page, right here.

Now do some analysis on what this revelation propelled you to do, or not do, afterward. Did it lead simply to a change in the way you perceive certain input? Did it propel you to take any kind of action? What changed as a result of this “new you”? Give us some examples. This doesn’t need to be a big thing, folks. It doesn’t need to be that you went from “not wanting to solve world hunger, to having a revelatory new mission in life to solve world hunger.” The differentiator here is going to be your thoughtful analysis of what changed, and why that mattered to you.

You can consider this kind of structure to get your juices flowing on a first draft:

  • Situation/Setup. Explain what your expectations were, and why you were pretty confident that if any of the following kinds of things were to play out in XYZ way, you weren’t gonna be all to thrilled about it.
  • Then, someone did something, and your REACTION surprised you. Very quickly and efficiently, tell us about the thing, but don’t dwell. Dwell instead on your reaction, and why this was nothing like how you were expecting to react.
  • Now, give us that dialogue between your brain and this NEW REACTION it was trying to process. The “what else does this change, if this is how I reacted here” inner dialogue.
  • Now explain why any of this matters. What happens now, on account of this episode, that is fundamentally different from how it would have played out had this not happened? And why do we prefer this SECOND version? Where’s the value in it for you?

Check Out Admissionado’s Analysis of ALL SEVEN of The Common App’s essay prompts:

June 30, 2020

Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.


This may seem like a golden opportunity. “What could go wrong, if it’s my own answer to my own question?!”

Answer? Lots.

But rather than go through all the ways in this could go sideways, let’s skin it the other way, and try to examine what approach would work WELL for this type of open-ended- come-what-may prompt. The first thing that springs to mind is something deeply, deeply personal. A story about dealing with a tough issue. An experience that haunts you. An experience that changed everything. A family member whom you’ve had to take care of, robbing you of your childhood. A family member whom you’ve had to take care of, opening you up to a world you would have otherwise never known. You get the idea. We talked about this earlier, but a good litmus test for this particular approach is how hard/easy it is to write about. If it’s easy, it may not be the greatest topic (it might be, there are always exceptions). But generally, the harder it is to bring yourself to write about it, the better the chances it has “electric” potential.

What else could it be though? Another angle could be something flat out humorous. A rant. A soapbox session. A “thank you letter to Howard Taft.” (Why would anyone… I’m already interested – see how that works?) This could be a chance for the witty ones among you to tee off here. And there are no rules for what you can or can’t do. As long as it’s genuinely funny/witty. If it isn’t, don’t be married to it; it’s okay to junk an idea that simply isn’t working well. Have the courage to try, but have the sense to kick it to the curb if another tack works better.

Here’s another approach (and bear with us): the… unclassifiable approach, because, by definition… no one could have predicted it, perhaps because it isn’t a thing. This is for the real visionaries among you to “paint” with this open canvas somehow. Now, this is a huge risk/reward play. If you produce something truly artful and inspiring and “difficult to comprehend in a way that great abstract art makes the viewer work” then… kudos. If, on the other hand, it’s just hacky, allow yourself to take a mulligan and try something else. Have someone you TRUST, who isn’t afraid to tell you that the thing you produced is “garbage” without hurting your feelings, look at it. And tell it to you straight. Every now and again, someone produces a “not quite an essay but rather an… I don’t know what this is” that’s SO GOOD, it hurts. If you have it in you? Go for it. You can always try another approach if it ain’t achieving lift off.

Honestly, there are too many possibilities yet to cover, for how you can approach this question with (deliberately) infinite possibilities. The key is that it has to fulfill all of the following: It has to:

  • Engage your reader (if it’s self-indulgent, Strike 1)
  • Demonstrate thoughtfulness (if it feels like something you could have slapped together in a few hours, not gonna fly)
  • Show evidence that you really cared about what you were doing, and that you seem like someone who has a deep potential for losing yourself in a passion (Why? Because that kid is gonna grab life by the horns and hook into the next passion, and the next, and the next…)
  • Show a kind of maturity (intellectual OR emotional) that’s unusual for kids your age
  • Be so winning somehow (whether through humor, or somehow else), that we just can’t help but wanna meet you

Any combination of those things, and this prompt could be a good bet. But don’t force this one. If a fantastic response occurs to you immediately when scanning the other prompts, at least do yourself a favor and take a stab at it. Get one down on paper. You can always take a swing at THIS one after that. If, on the other hand, nothing lights anything up when scanning the other prompts, but there’s this THING you wanna do in this space, there’s your green light to waste no time in taking a stab. Don’t worry at all about what it is, just transfer that energy to the page as quickly and completely as you can. Then, we can work that hunk of clay into something brilliant. But get it all out first.

Check Out Admissionado’s Analysis of ALL SEVEN of The Common App’s essay prompts:

June 30, 2020

Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you losetrack of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?


Ooh, this is a tasty one. But it’s also a little dangerous. Lots of applicants will get very excited about running wild on something they find engaging, but their reasons for why it’s engaging (or captivating) somehow fall flat. Unlike some of the other ones, the actual content here DOES matter. You CAN tell us a passion that strikes us as … uninteresting. Or it’s a passion that feels obviously written to impress. Or, it’s something YOU think is common, but isn’t, and your unawareness of that can almost serve as a strike against you. So, yes, on the one hand the open-endedness does create some opportunity here, but at the same time, that same open-endedness comes with some risk. Our recommendation here is this: if you’re feeling inspired, take a huge swing and try to sell us on it. But be open to the possibility that it’s not your best essay topic choice. In other words, realize there’s a very good chance we’ll say “valiant effort, friend! But your winning application essay resides in a different topic.” If you’re cool with that, we’ll cheer you on with gusto. No shame in taking a swing, but ultimately deciding on another topic (or prompt).

So, what’s the secret to passing OUR test for a cool topic here? (Because our test is the same as the adcom’s test, naturally.) Hard to say in a practical, actionable way, but let’s at least drop a few ideas here:

  • A take on something common, that’s UNCOMMON. So, maybe there’s a standard debate in politics and the majority of folks believe X. Perhaps you have a CONTRARY/CONTRASTING take on it. Or it’s a popularly held idea in regular life, or in pop culture, or in the arts… and you have a take that goes against the grain.
  • An area of study, a field, a hobby, an interest, a whatever… that we’ve never heard of. Humans like learning, and we often feel indebted to those who teach us, so if you can pull of “teaching” your adcom reader something, it can pay off. (Just be sure it’s actually as unique and weird as you think it is.)
  • You’ve taken an interest that normal people take to maybe a 5… all the way to 11. So, most people like potato chips. Fair enough. But you like them so much, you’ve figured out a way to create 50 variations on the classic potato chip. Or, you’ve found a twist to making a potato chip that even “Big Agri” hasn’t caught onto yet. (Common/Uncommon theme, again, here.)

These are just some frames to get your juices flowing. The trick is to find some “edginess.” Something borderline extreme, pushed to the limits, to make it interesting. It can’t just be that you really like reading Twilight books, like a lot-a lot. It has to border on some kind of obsession that’s also cool to hear about. Extremes are your friend here.

Now for that end part, “What or who (whom! Damnit CommonApp!) do you turn to when you want to learn more?” The coolness here has less to do with what or whom it is, and more HOW you’re utilizing that person or thing. “It’s not the tool, it’s the carpenter.” Not quite the way that expression is normally used, but the idea here has more to do with how you approach resources at your disposal. We wanna see evidence that you are a CLOTH-WRINGER, you’re the guy that juices the orange until it’s bone dry. You know how folks in other cultures don’t just use the fine cuts of meat and then toss the animal carcass away forever, but instead, find ways to use every single part of the animal? Meat for food. Hide for furniture coverings. Wool for cloth. Etc., etc. “Cloth-wringer.” We want to see evidence of that kind of ingenuity in you, when driven by a passion. Where do you turn, and how do you wield that thing to your advantage? Thinking of it THAT way will help you worry less about “talking about your grandma” because you think it’s going to be inspirational to hear about that, and more, how you learned Spanish because that’s the only language your grandma knows, and that’s what it took to hear HER stories about the great depression because that era fascinates you, and you weren’t satisfied with the history books version. That’s… cloth-wringing.

So pick a killer topic (that’s passes the Admissionado cooooooolness test), and show us you can wring cloth until it’s so dry it’s a fire hazard…

Check Out Admissionado’s Analysis of ALL SEVEN of The Common App’s essay prompts:

June 30, 2020

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.


This one is tricky because first drafts for this type of prompt end up being ridiculously predictable. [We read hundreds (thousands) of these each year from the world’s sharpest high-schoolers, it’s true.] Students (and – ahem – parents) who gravitate toward this essay tend to see those words “discuss an accomplishment” and Bang, starter pistol goes off, and it’s a race to “how quickly can we talk about that thing we achieved that we think is going to be our ticket to Harvard.” In fact, and as always, forgive the brazen tone here, but no college cares about any high-schooler’s accomplishments to-date. A lick. Whatsoever. Nada. Achievements say very little. It’s that second part of the prompt – the part most folks didn’t even read because they got so excited by “Discuss an accomplishment” – that separates the contenders from the commoners.


What’s so special about growth? Well, simply put, evidence of growth here, at this stage of a student’s life, is an incredible indicator for FUTURE growth. And that’s what college applications are all about, folks. It’s not a contest over who scored highest on yesterday’s SAT, or whose GPA was most impressive these past four years. It’s a contest over whose performances and experiences thus far SUGGEST TO US (the admissions committee) which among these applicants has the greatest chance of FUTURE SUCCESS. Once you understand that concept, it’s going to be a game-changer for how you approach your college applications.

Okay, back to the issue at hand. Growth. New understanding. The key issue here is. . . “delta.” As in: ∆. Change. Difference. From X to Y. Before I was this, After I was that. Before I saw it this way, afterward I saw it that way. Without that kind of an arc, the “accomplishment” is worthless. Worthless!

When in your life did something change for you? Here are some examples:

  • I used to believe this. Then XYZ happened. And that belief changed.
  • I used to think THIS about myself. Then XYZ happened. And my understanding of myself changed.
  • I used to think I was limited in X realm. Then I set out to accomplish Y, even though I knew there was a better-than-not chance I would fail. But I didn’t. And I learned Z about my limits. And more than that, I realized that I was thinking about my own limits all wrong.
  • I used to believe with every fiber in my body that PERSON X was XYZ (nasty, lovely, mean, brilliant, hateful, special, etc.). But then THIS happened. And that belief was shaken. I realized that PERSON X was in fact ABC.

These are meant to just get the juices flowing for the “pattern” of how you can turn inward to source some great potential stories. It’s all about “I used to think X, but now I think Y.” This essay is about the journey you went through to get from X to Y. The journey. We don’t really care where you end up. We don’t care about the “what” at all, in fact. We care about your ability to introspect and examine the elements at play. We care about how you’re grappling with those elements, and what you’re choosing to do with them. We care about that gear-churning. It’s going to tell us that “this is a future CEO.” Or, “this is a future innovator.” Etc.

The tricky part with an essay like this is remembering what it was like to “not know” what you know today. It’s hard. Real hard. Do you remember what it was like before you knew the alphabet? Impossible, right? Well, luckily it won’t be quite as hard. But you’ll have to train yourself to ALLOW yourself to “regress” a little, and return to a time when your views on something (or someone) were a little different. Sure, maybe your views today are better, and you’ve worked hard to wean yourself OFF of that old way of viewing things. But for this essay, you’ll need to bring that OLD SELF back. Such that we can really understand where things started, and how drastically they’ve changed.

If you’re at all able, try to write in first person and in present tense when describing that before picture. How the world looked to you before you changed. Writing in present tense will force you not to get ahead of yourself, because you’ll have a natural tendency to exert your modern-day knowledge onto your earlier self. Don’t, if you can help it. You can always finesse later drafts and adjust tenses and the writing style to bring out the most from the content, but initially, just focus on letting your pen fly. Embrace your Past You. Take us through the thing that changed it all. And show us how you struggled, coughed, sputtered, and uncomfortably went from Past You to Present You.

Check Out Admissionado’s Analysis of ALL SEVEN of The Common App’s essay prompts:

June 30, 2020

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?


Another great prompt.

Imagine looking at a photograph of an average-looking person, under average lighting, on an average day, with average-looking skin. “Normal-looking skin” by most standards. Imagine you were asked, what do you think of that person’s skin? You might answer, “Uh, it looks perfectly average to me. Not a single thing out of the ordinary.” And in one sense, you might be right.

But imagine if you then found out that that person had recently been involved in a horrible plane crash, barely survived, having clawed his way out of a crumpled fuselage engulfed in a fireball, had third-degree burns all over his body, was told he might not survive at all, let alone look anywhere close to normal ever again, underwent major reconstructive surgery…

… Let’s ask it again: “What do you think of that person’s skin?”

Looks a touch different now, doesn’t it? What changed your conclusion? Not the picture, but rather, the context.

Back to Common App Essay Question #3. Before we can appreciate your questioning/challenging a belief or idea, we need CONTEXT first. Setup. Background. Establish the status quo. Establish the normal.

Let’s look at another example. Say the coach of the high school basketball team is known to be incredibly tough, borderline mean. But ultimately respected and revered. Parents, teachers, students, and players all agree that while the coach can be tough, his intentions are sound and his methodology, while challenging to endure, is ultimately better than others’ who have come before him. If, under those circumstances, you were to take a stand against the coach somehow, it may beg the question, is this an act of short-sightedness? Immaturity? Etc.

Let’s replay the scenario. Let’s say that the coach were incredibly tough, borderline mean, but not respected by everyone. Universally disliked in fact. But no one said anything because he had influence (somehow) over the principal, and over teachers. If under those circumstances, you were to defy the coach and take a stand – where others had the exact same instinct, but lacked the courage to do so – now all of a sudden, you’re a hero of the people.

See the difference? See how pivotal the background is? So, context is the first essential component for a great answer to this essay prompt.

There’s another key aspect though. The most compelling version of challenging a prevailing belief or idea includes some element of INCONVENIENCE to the challenger. Some potential cost.

When Copernicus challenged the belief that the sun revolves around the Earth, he was taking a huge risk positing that. (Want proof? Homeboy ended up in jail for suggesting it!) That risk made his stance that much more compelling.

Without the inconvenience, it won’t weigh as much. If you challenge the idea today that the sun revolves around the Earth, no one will care. Why? Because it’s the popularly- held belief. It isn’t “inconvenient” to you in any way to hazard the theory that it’s the other way around. So, a good test of whether your story makes for a good response here, is whether the STAKES were high. What did you stand to LOSE if things didn’t go your way? If you stood to lose something, but you acted in spite of that risk… now we’re getting somewhere.


Step 1 is to set the stage. Establish the “normal.” Or, establish the “before” picture. Create an itch in your reader by making us feel what you felt. If you do this correctly, we will develop the same desire to spring into action the way that you did.

But go slow, don’t get ahead of yourself. Consider how this situation looked from other angles. Try to see it the way OTHERS saw it—others for whom it was reasonable NOT to challenge in some way. Explain that rationale, if you can. (This is a muscle “smart people” use … walking AROUND a problem, trying to develop a 360 ̊ view.)

Then, after you’ve established the “normal,” now reveal some kind of dilemma. Something giving you pause about acting/challenging. There must have been SOME cost, otherwise (as we suggested earlier) it won’t make for much of a challenge story. Explain what you stood to lose. Reputation? Respect from some people? Breaking a promise? Hurting the feelings of someone along the way? Something else? Walk us through the inner dialogue:

  1. “Here’s why I should challenge this thing.” (Your Reason for Challenging)
  2. “But I’m afraid XY and Z might happen if I do.” (The Cost)
  3. “But I’m willing to risk all that, because I feel more strongly about X than Y.” (The Tilting Factor)

Walk us through the actual act of “challenging” the belief/idea. Take us through it in real-time (as though it were happening now), and let us hear your thought process while it’s all happening. (This is a neat writer’s trick, writing in present tense for this kind of material.)

Which brings us to the final section, the outcome. Part of it is simply what you’d expect on the face of it, “how did it literally turn out”? Just so we get a sense of the facts. But then, there’s another layer, the one we’re really interested in. The deeper reflections:

  • Would you do the same thing again?
  • Would you approach it differently?
  • Did it indeed come at a cost, and was it worth it?

It’s okay if the answer of whether you’d do it again is “no.” Maybe you were impulsive and acted hastily. Maybe you didn’t act impulsively enough. Maybe time has taught you a lesson that casts this experience in a different light. Patting yourself on the back for handling the situation perfectly the first time around isn’t necessarily the most impressive response. In fact, it can be somewhat predictable. Ideally, there’s SOMETHING you’ve learned along the way that imbues this moment from your past with richer insight. Bring it. Let’s see that you’re someone who matures. And grows. Life is gonna grow more (not less) complex. Show us here – in this reflective moment – that you can wrap your head around these complexities, such that the next time you meet a challenge, you’ll be that much better equipped to battle it.

Check Out Admissionado’s Analysis of ALL SEVEN of The Common App’s essay prompts:

June 30, 2020

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?


This is simply another way to discover “what you’re made out of.” It’s a cool little prompt to help that along—nothing more. Don’t get fixated on the pathway; if this leads you to a super cool insight into what makes you tick… follow it.

Now, don’t fall into the trap that most do and mask a SUCCESS story as a failure. “Oh there was that time I broke the world record at the Olympics, but I didn’t beat my personal best! Woe is me!” In other words, “I’m going to talk about my failure, but my real hope is that you take notice of that amazing achievement I mentioned!” Gimme a break.

Challenges, setbacks, and failure need to be real. To “not win in the finals of Wimbledon” while you played in peak condition, isn’t the same as spraining your ankle before the match and entering into the arena at a major disadvantage. The first one is what it is, but the second one is a legitimate setback/challenge. Working toward a common goal and dealing with an unusually stubborn teammate is a challenge. Wanting to pursue a hobby, but needing to work and earn money to support your family because your parents are not around or unable to provide… that’s a challenge. Performing at a recital and flubbing half the piece, that’s a failure. What’s the common ingredient here?

The answer has something to do with expectations and likelihood of outcomes. It is generally expected for a finals match in a tennis grand slam to be a real contest, equally-matched, etc. Sure, one player might have slightly better odds of winning for a number of reasons, but it usually isn’t expected to be a cakewalk. Therefore, to lose a match like that isn’t really a failure, because it was understood to be a very legitimate outcome. Now, to continue with this analogy, imagine a fairytale scenario where a not- very-good player somehow makes his way to the finals (every opponent along the way had to retire due to injury, thus explaining a not-great player making it to the end). In this case, it is reasonable to expect the other guy, say a Top-10 player, to absolutely demolish this opponent who is significantly out-matched. We might consider it a real failure for the top-ranked player to lose to a Qualifier in the finals match. But not the other way around. If the Qualifier lost to, say, Roger Federer, no one would consider it a failure. Because it was expected. It was the overwhelmingly likelier outcome.

Let’s go to one of the other analogies. Let’s say you’re on the newspaper committee at school, and you’re expected to publish feature articles once a week, for every week you’re in school. Let’s say it’s a committee of three who get to decide what subject to feature. Now let’s say that in Week 1, prior to the deadline, you want to run a story about X, but one person on the committee disagree passionately. Let’s say that you’ve decided to adopt a “unanimous” vote protocol. And you and another person agree on Subject X, but the “contrarian” in the room says “nope, I wanna write about this other thing instead.” The process gets gummed up and you miss the deadline. Happens again, Week 2, no feature article because this one person disagrees, and prevents the process from moving forward. Can this be considered a setback or a challenge? Absolutely. Why? Because in the history of this school’s newspaper, there hasn’t been a single missed deadline, and it is generally assumed that this group of three will reach consensus after healthy debate.

Let’s switch the circumstance though, and take this idea to congress! Imagine ten different bills being debated on the floor. Can you imagine a scenario where ten different debates result in ten different stalemates? Absolutely. In fact, it’s almost expected! The more surprising outcome would be for there to be widespread agreement. So it would be a bad example of a “setback” to suggest that the bill you presented to congress, that you expected to pass, died on the floor because of a lack of consensus. See the difference? Same general idea of “disagreements” between people, but one version is a setback and the other isn’t, when you factor in that crucial variable of expectations. Let’s do one more…

If you or I have never touched a cello before, ever, and we somehow find ourselves in the spotlight at Carnegie Hall, in front of thousands of attendees, would you consider it a failure if we played a few wrong notes in our attempt at a performance? Would you consider it a failure if we played every single note incorrectly? Probably not. We might find ourselves saying, “Well, what did you expect!” But let’s switch the player. Let’s put Yo-Yo Ma in the same seat. Mister Ma is feeling healthy, and is about to perform a piece he has performed hundreds of times before flawlessly. Oh and also he is generally considered to be one of our generation’s great cello players. But on this night, Mister Ma plays half of his notes incorrectly. Just misses the notes, plays the wrong ones, bows them incoherently, whatever the case, he absolutely butchers the song, trying desperately not to. Would you consider that a failure? Yah, absolutely. Because we expect someone of Mr. Ma’s virtuosity to play… flawlessly. So a performance that betrays that expectation matters.

What does this all mean? All setbacks and challenges and failures are not created equally. An action that leads to an outcome for one person may be a failure, but for a different person it may not be a failure. As you’re combing through possible storylines here, remember to examine the expectations at the outset. And then make sure that the thing you’re considering a setback or challenge or failure somehow RUPTURED those expectations. It’s not always clear cut, but that’s a nuance that most applicants miss when approaching this type of question.

Once you’ve chosen a story that passes the test, it’s time to execute. Two major tips:

  1. Write it in the present tense, as though it’s happening now. In other words, take us back to the moments, and relive them AS THEY OCCURRED. Don’t RECOUNT the events from today’s vantage point. This will force you to not get ahead of yourself. This is crucial; we want to experience the stuff as it happened. And then to experience your reactions, your highs and lows (in real time). Why? This technique helps you to deliver a more dramatic ARC. Let it hang, folks. Expose the emotions and nerves, and leave it raw.
  2. When addressing the “how did it affect you” and “what did you learn” pieces of the prompt, remember to grapple with EXPECTATIONS. In almost all instances, you likely started out with a certain set of expectations that were disrupted. Identifying that disruption is usually the “X” that marks the spot of how this experience affected you. The next part – what you learned? – will write itself from there…

The most successful approaches to this essay are the most honest and revealing. Don’t hide from that ugliness, embrace it. Your ability to EXPOSE and DISCUSS unsavory aspects of your skills or personality or circumstance or whatever it is – by themselves – speaks volumes. Trust us. The mere act of ADMITTING uncomfortable things tends to have the opposite effect, and demonstrates incredible maturity. And strength. The ability to introspect and self-analyze, coupled with the desire to self-correct, are amazing attributes.


Check Out Admissionado’s Analysis of ALL SEVEN of The Common App’s essay prompts:

June 30, 2020

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.


This is how they phrased the same prompt last year: “Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”

This year, all they did was include a few extra colors to your palette as a painter. But really, underneath. As a student, you have a “special something” that – if not featured – would render your application incomplete. What is that something? Well, last year they steered you toward “background” and “identity”; this year, they’re adding a few terms like “interest” and “talent” to liberate your options. First, let’s get inside what each of these words/ideas means.


When you think of background, think about it in terms of “influencers.” External pressures that helped shape you in some way or another. It could be a person. A relative. Extended family. But it could also be… nature, circumstances, things. Could be the neighborhood you grew up in. It could be a country. It could be your socioeconomic status. It could be your peer group. Some set of external influences that (if replaced) would have molded you into a different person. Here’s the trick with this one.

There must be some aspect of your “background” story where the status quo is ruffled in some way.

If you grew up in a perfectly middle class, white American suburb, and you’re a more or less normal white kid, it’s not that interesting of a story. Unless… for example, you wanted OUT from day one, and it was a deeply emotional struggle. Or, perhaps you were a minority within that white suburb, and were made to feel like an outsider. Let’s say your influencers were a set of quirky grandparents. By itself? Not a good enough topic. Think about it. How many other students could ALSO lay claim to having unusual grandparents? (Lots.) So, what’s your angle? Where are the jagged edges of your story that make it sharp, dangerous, unpredictable? Maybe over the course of your childhood your grandparents broadened their view on race relations. Maybe your grandparents opposed 95% of the decisions your parents made, and that conflict in “elder” messaging was confusing for you. See what we mean by “ruffling”? This will be a theme throughout. Unless there’s something unusual, chances are it’s not college application-essay-worthy.

Why? Because admissions committees (adcoms) are not actually interested in your story! Yup, you read that correctly! What they care about is how potent your mind is. How sophisticated is your thought? Are you capable of grappling with contradictions? Is your level of thinking sharp and refined? Is your perspective considered and original? You can best demonstrate how impressive your mind is by showcasing how you deal with conflict.


There’s no single way to define identity. Which is to say, the way you put your own jigsaw puzzle pieces together to form your sense of self can be very personal, and unlike the way someone else does it. For some folks, religion plays a big part. For others, lack of religion plays an equally big part. For some folks, the style of dress, that may imply irreverence or counterculture leanings, is a big part. For others, taste in music or food is a big part of how they define themselves.

But once again, we’d like to douse you with some icy cold water.

Your identity isn’t all that interesting, no matter what it is, unless the circumstances of your identity formation are sizzling.

Or unless your aspirations, given your identity, are utterly surprising. Otherwise, congratulations, you dyed your hair black and wear black nail polish. Or, congratulations, you like Gregorian chant while all your friends like Drake. Or, congratulations, you’re an only child to immigrant parents who don’t speak English. Guess what, not a single example here is unique, numbers-wise. But, any of these could be amazing essays if couched properly.

Let’s just take one example. Let’s talk about the kid who loves Gregorian chant. If he showed up in class normally just like everyone else, and for basketball practice like everyone else, and band practice like everyone else, and earned A’s like his other ambitious friends, then… so what? This becomes the equivalent of “he wore a red shirt while his friend wore a blue shirt.” Big deal. Now, let’s say this kid was made to feel like an outsider because Gregorian chant is considered lame. Let’s say he never got a date for prom because he was known as the freak who liked monk music. And let’s say that in spite of wanting all those things like every other teen, he didn’t care, and continued to love what he loved. Now we’re getting somewhere. (Do you see why?) Now, we’re learning something about this kid that has implications for what he’s going to do in life. This could be a kid with killer convictions. Who has so much self-confidence that he loves what he loves, and doesn’t mind much what others think. That, my friends, is an identity worth reading about. What makes that identity worthwhile, in this example, are the circumstances around it that shaped it, not the identity itself. That’s the take home.


Similar theme here… more ice water for you. No one cares what you’re interested in! Let’s look at it a few ways. The percentage of adults who are pursuing (or have pursued) the exact thing they were interested in when they were high school seniors is unimaginably low. College is going to change you. And then it’s likely to happen several more times after that. Adcoms appreciate it. And, frankly, they’re counting on it! Because one of the premises of college is that the experience will broaden your exposure to other ideas, other fields… giving birth (potentially) to new interests. So, why then are they asking you to write your main college essay about your interests if we’re saying they’re not actually interested in them?

Simple. Your interests (if you write about them correctly) can say a lot about you. But we must warn you.

There is an excellent chance that the thing you’re excited about isn’t wholly unique. There is an excellent chance that dozens (hundreds) of others are not only interested in the same stuff, but are writing about it, too.

Which is why… you need an angle. There needs to be something cooooool about your interests. Or the circumstances that led to your interests. Or, the thing you plan to do with your interests. And what any of those things says about you. You need to find the uncommon in what is probably common.

Say you’re an environment freak. There must be some way in which your personal passion for clean air or clean energy is somehow different from “the other guy.” As an exercise, humble yourself for a second and come to terms with the reality that there are dozens of folks out there who share your interest. Now, figure out all the ways in which you are different from those guys. Is the action you’re taking different? Is the level of commitment different? Is the philosophical approach somehow different? There must be some kind of delta, otherwise, you run the risk of an adcom member saying “I’ve seen this before so many times (and have therefore not LEARNED anything about THIS applicant).”

So just be careful with this one. There may be better ways to demonstrate your uniqueness, unless your interests and the way you write about them are incredibly unusual and compelling. You’ll know you’ve achieved that when someone who knows you well reads your “interests” essay and says “wow, that actually surprised me!”


More cold water (aren’t we just the best?). Chances are, the adcom is going to see plenty of evidence of certain talents through your activities lists and accolades. We’re going to create an imaginary (bizarro) bell curve to illustrate a point. In the middle are your boilerplate set of talents: musician, athlete, artist, etc. Now, the far right of our imaginary bell curve represents exceptional, rare, “national,” professional-grade talents. Beyond all-state athlete, future pro-bowler. Beyond award-winning musician, Julliard- level, virtuoso. Let’s forget about those folks. Or, if you’re one of those, then by all means, you have earned the right to use this space to talk about talent, and we will read with rapt attention. But now let’s go to the far left. Remember, this is an imaginary bell curve. We’re gonna call these talents… ridiculous talents. Absurd, unusual, maybe even silly talents. Talents that might have the capacity to make us smile when reading about them. Talents that won’t mean much toward future careers, but might be a very neat window into who you are.

Imagine writing about your talent for wooing the opposite sex. How fun could that be? Or a talent for manipulating your parents into getting them to do exactly what you want. Or a talent for angering every single Starbucks cashier because you smile a certain way. See where we’re headed here? There’s room here for… some creativity. A non-literal take on this (if executed sharply) could be dynamite. Because it may tell us something about you as a person. Even the act of taking a creative approach here will say something. There’s something so decidedly dull about a student who talks about how proficient he is with violin or piano or baseball or cross-country running, etc. Especially if the talent isn’t all that unusual. It’s a very safe, and therefore, dull approach, and a signal that the author may also be dull.

So, figure out where you are on that bell curve. If you’re on either side (rare, exceptional talent, or silly/creative/unusual talent) then you may have the makings of a killer essay. If you’re in the middle (even if you are incredibly talented in your own right), our recommendation would be to think twice before spending your big essay opportunity on that.

Check Out Admissionado’s Analysis of ALL SEVEN of The Common App’s essay prompts:

June 14, 2020

Kellogg MBA Video Essay

Kellogg introduced the video essay several years ago to provide the chance to “meet” our applicants around the world. It also lets us assess your communication skills through a medium that has overtaken the business landscape. Our Career Management Center is even seeing companies such as LinkedIn Amazon, Apple and Uber use video interviews during recruitment. For those who may be apprehensive about this section, the application suggests some sample questions that you can use to warm up and familiarize yourself with the format and technology. You will have 20 seconds to think about the question and up to one minute to give your response.


There are two things we want to convey with a question of this type. First, we need the basics: your name, where you’re from (and/or living currently), what you do for a living. Second, we should get a sense (somehow) for what you’re like as a person, stuff like “ah, she’s really funny” or “ah, he’s really likeable” or “ah, you just made me love EVERYTHING ABOUT YOU.”

How to convey these two pieces? To begin with, it’s important to recognize what you can and can’t control. Some people walk into a room, and it’s impossible NOT to like them. Others just don’t have the rock star personality, stage presence, likeable smile, etc. needed to blow people’s minds in a one-minute video. There are tons of things here that are simply outside your control—but you can control whether or not you worry about them. So relax, be yourself, and don’t panic trying to manipulate the X factors here.

Instead, focus on what you CAN control. For example, if you slip in a humorous anecdote that reveals very succinctly exactly who you are, you’re at a huge advantage over the guy who just recites the bare facts. For example, let’s say we’re trying to prove that a guy named John is strong. Which is a more interesting way of conveying that fact: “John can deadlift 650 pounds” or “John once arm wrestled a grizzly…. and won”? Obviously, the second one, because it plants a vivid, memorable image in the listeners’ minds. We want to do the same with you: you are “the kind of guy/gal who would XYZ.”

With any video response, practice with another human is KEY. You won’t get an opportunity to “read the room” with your video response, so it’s important that you practice with “a room” before you do the real thing. Find a trusted friend or advisor who won’t sugarcoat things—someone comfortable enough to tell you “cut out that horseshit ending, dumbass. it makes you look like an idiot.”


This is very much in line with a typical written vision/ST goals/”why us” MBA essay question. So write it out and just read it, right?


You’re in a different medium now, comrade, and the packaging needs to adapt.  Be very careful with questions like this that resemble essays you have likely already written for one or more MBA applications. It is ABSOLUTELY possible to say all the right words that would have KILLED on paper, but for those to not quite LAND when spoken, either because you need to infuse it with cadences and tonal modulation, or because you need to speak in a more conversational tone that would not have been appropriate on paper. You’re now “speaking to a person,” so even a pretty straightforward “goals essay” like this needs to adapt.

You can start by posing a problem or question that keeps you up at night (in a good way). ”I was at a board meeting when the room unanimously shot down idea X because of reason Y, and I wondered… who said that was a RULE? Ever since then, I’ve been hell bent on blah blah blah….” This is the problem you want to solve or opportunity you want to seize. Then, for the remainder of the response, we work back from there to show the career steps you’ll take: First your long-term goal/role, then the ST steps, then the Kellogg MBA. What you can prepare here is research—you need to sound incredibly knowledgeable about your topic, like you have thought through every nook and cranny of your goals and can identify the precise ways in which Kellogg’s version of an MBA (and which specific program) is a distinctly good partner for you.


The open questions in a video essay prepare you nicely for the skills you’ll need for your interviews. To wit: knowing your stories, and the “business school value” of each, so well that you can field ANY question thrown your way. You need to instantly connect the “what are they really asking about here” to “that aspect of one your greatest hits” and then… spin a yarn that mostly writes itself, because you’ve prepared correctly. Really, what we’re ultimately after is “how you’ve handled a challenging situation.”

So, you know the drill: What are the best stories you could possibly share with Kellogg that reveal your most badass self? Your best leadership stories, your best overcoming adversity stories? Collect ‘em, rank ‘em. Then focus on the tippity top of that list and isolate the aspects where you had to handle a challenging situation. Not all your stories will have a clear challenge. That’s okay—move on to the ones that do and drill down haaaaard to really grapple with the challenge. What was the real challenge? Was it a challenge that anyone would have felt? What made it particularly hard? If you understand the key story elements, you can quickly reframe them to suit pretty much ANY permutation of a “tell us about a time when” question.

Here are some more video essay tips to guide your overall preparation:

1) Practice Practice, Practice: Like anything else, the more you practice, the better you will become. It’s just like the GMAT, the TOEFL, or any other test—crushing this video essay means preparing for it, and the first step is recognizing the types of questions that are asked. Go through the questions from previous years, and prepare one-minute answers to them. Sure, you will get a different question, but the practice will be invaluable. Ideally, you will not only practice the questions with a timer, but record yourself, watch it, show to others, analyze it, and make corrections. Get comfortable with the type of questions that have been asked and your ability to craftily articulate an answer on the spot. The trick is to not seem rehearsed. Get comfortable answering the same question in five different ways, using different words, different segues, different energies, but landing in the same place. This is like any other muscle. The more you practice, the more you NOTCH GROOVES that will come in handy when you don’t have time to think. Your body will know how to help you out, by sheer memory.

2) Keep your goals in mind: Let’s not forget that no matter what the question is, this is still a business school essay, and business school revolves around one main thing – you getting better management roles in the business world. That doesn’t mean you should answer any question asked by blurting out what your goals are, but it does mean that you should always keep them in mind no matter what question you’re asked and incorporate them or speak to them whenever possible. That’s the point of the entire application, and that always remains the same whether you’re writing a response or recording yourself speaking.

3) Watch the Time: Probably the biggest challenge the first time you will approach this live video essay will be getting out a logical answer within 60 seconds. It’s not easy, but practicing with a timer will help you get there. One nice method to help with BOTH the timing and the structure is to break up the answer into parts. Regarding timing, it’s much easier to stretch out a single 20-second idea into 60 seconds than to try to take a 3-minute story and squish it down.

4) Watch the lighting, background and overall look: Schools might tell you that production doesn’t matter, but come on. Of course it does. As anyone who’s been involved with a semi-professional shoot knows, when it comes to making a video, it’s the little things that can make the biggest impact on quality. Try out a few different lamps and light sources to see which ones seem the most reasonable, without any MAJOR glares, shiny spots, or dark spots. Try to avoid contrast with super bright sections on the screen and super dark ones too. The best way to achieve this is to face the camera AWAY from bright light sources (like a window); in other words, do not put BRIGHT windows or lights into the camera frame behind you. The camera will adjust to the light, and your face will go completely dark. Instead, let the light live BEHIND the computer/camera so that YOU are well lit, but it’s not in the frame of the camera. Beyond that, try to have the LEAST amount of stuff in frame. While an all-white wall behind you is boring as hell, it may be better than a background that for whatever reason pulls attention AWAY FROM YOU and ONTO IT. The blander the better here.

5) Dress professionally: What does this mean? When in doubt, steer toward the side of formality and go with business casual attire. Shirt, maybe jacket (but that might be a little fancy), professional attire folks, come to play.

6) Test the equipment: The worst thing that can happen is that you realize your camera isn’t working or your mic isn’t picking up sound when you’re sitting down for the main event. So test your equipment thoroughly DAYS IN ADVANCE. Not “day of.” This is obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people go into freak-out mode because something goes wrong and are forced to write an apologetic email to the admissions committee.

7) Keep eye contact with the CAMERA: Yeah… this is one of the hardest things to get used to and subsequently, a very good thing to keep in mind while you’re practicing. Most people will get stuck looking at their own image on the screen while they’re recording. Eye contact works. In real life and in the virtual world. So focus on the tiny dot that is the camera.

Need personalized care and advice? Explore our MBA consultation to ace your admissions process.

Oh and … smile. The last thing they wanna see is an uptight stuffed shirt!

June 11, 2020

Think about times you’ve created a positive impact, whether in professional, extracurricular, academic, or other settings. What was your impact? What made it significant to you or to others? You are welcome to share up to three examples. (Up to 1500 characters, approximately 250 words, for each example)

The two required essays shed light on who you are and how you imagine Stanford will help you achieve your aspirations. We are also interested in learning about the things you have done that are most meaningful to you. In this section, we provide an optional opportunity to go beyond your resume to discuss some of your contributions more fully.

Please do not include your short-answer response in your essays upload; use the text boxes provided in the application.

Most people applying to Stanford GSB have had a positive impact somewhere. So no matter what your story is, there’s a version of that story that most other capable ‘born MBAs’ would have done in your exact same situation. Think about what those stories would be. You should be able to imagine variations in both APPROACH (leadership style, methodology, vision, etc.) but also results (big/small, more/less impressive, whatever). For now, mentally score all versions as AWESOME, GREAT, A+. “More or less the same.” Anyone would be happy with any of those versions.

Now, consider your version of the story. Your version includes an extra little something. A little harmless-looking egg that over time cracked open to become a fierce “dragon” of “additional impact.” Lasting, permanent impact. The gift that keeps on giving.

What we want to get into is WHAT WAS IT you saw that “above and beyond what those other MBA candidates would have”? Was it, indeed, above and beyond? Or in your mind, was this the only logical approach? Why do you think YOU saw this unique path, where others might not have? What is it about the way you thought through this challenge (or think through “any” challenge) that CONSIDERS lasting, positive impact in a way that others do not?

The key to impact stories is the “above and beyond” portion. The stuff you didn’t need to address, and the project would have STILL been a success—but maybe not as impactful. Here’s a rough structure for each 250-word response:

  • Establish the “good enough” version … the “If I had addressed the challenge with THIS solution, it would have been an A+.” Establish that first.
  • Next, tell us what in your estimation was MISSING from this “good enough” solution. What did you see that no one else saw? Why bother with this extra step? who would benefit? And why would that be important in the long term?
  • Was there a risk to addressing this “extra” piece? If so, explain the cost-benefit that led you to go for it. If it didn’t come with risk, explain why no one else thought to do this. There must be SOME “friction” here. Usually, it’s either (a) Perceived as too hard, not worth the risk, but you disagree and found a smart way to tackle it; or (b) Others just never realized the opportunity, but you did (perhaps due to some rare/unique aspect of your background or leadership approach).
  • Tell us what you did and how you did it. Tell us how it worked, why it worked, and why it’ll continue to be valuable.

October 10, 2019

Applicants submitting the Coalition Application or Common Application will select from the following topics:


There needs to be some element of “surprisingness” or “unusualness” here. It can either be the idea or topic itself… or the “why you’re drawn to it” piece. If your idea/topic is likely to be chosen by someone else, you MUST present a fresh angle for why YOU’RE drawn to it. It almost HAS to be different from how everyone else’s will read, otherwise, even the best idea and the best reasons behind your interest in it, will fall flat. It’s just human nature. One exercise you can use (not that you’d say this necessarily in your essay, more like, something you do on the side in draft-mode…) is to say “whereas many people are interested in X topic because of A B or C, my interest is a little different. You see… blah blah blah.”

Now here’s the real trick, and most folks are gonna miss this: You need to PROVE that you’re drawn to it. It’s not enough to just claim it. Anyone can say… anything. But where’s the evidence to back it up? What is it you DO in response to being drawn to this thing? You answer should be something we can picture. Something you do that no one told you to do, but that came out of… “being inspired by the thing.” Walk us through the thing that RESULTS of your being drawn to this thing. There is a huge distinction here between just saying “Hey I’m inspired by the debate around climate change. So inspired!” … and “Hey I’m inspired by the debate around climate change, so I poked around and discovered that I could get the attention of local congressmen to sit down and talk to me if I approached them THIS way instead of THAT way. And so I did. I wanted to see what was underneath the debate from both sides, from legislators’ perspectives. And… blah blah blah.” You believe THAT guy’s interest in this more than the guy who just talks about it, right? So your essay here will be a two-parter.

  • Part 1 – Walk us through the thing you’re drawn to. And why. What’s your “unusual” thing or angle? (Remember, either will work.) Emote, let your passion fly here. Make it so that it’s impossible for the reader to not be right there with you by the end of it.
  • Part 2 – But… you’re not finished, that’s just the setup (for most applicants that’ll be everything, and this is where you push past them). Now, take us through the actions this had inspired. Describe actions we can picture that show us that you are truly drawn toward this thing. That action doesn’t need to be exhausting and physical. But it does need to be SOMETHING beyond just the claim THAT you’re drawn toward something. Think about it as “being drawn to this led me to… {do… something}.” What fills that in?

With those two pieces, you’re on your way to a solid first draft.


A cool one. But not so easy. First of all, we need to know what your community is, and depending on what that is, an explanation for how you define it. If it’s self-explanatory, no need. But if you define your community in an unconventional way, help us understand how that came to be.

Next up is this idea of contributing. This is all about the “delta.” Imagine this community completely “without you,” y’all never met, period end of story. Now, imagine the real-life version that you know well, the one you’ve lived, where they DO know you, and you have interacted with them however you have. Now, the fun part: How are those two pictures different? This is the coolest way to isolate what it was you, specifically, contributed to this community. Think of a dilemma, or issue, or something, that this community would have dealt with HAD THEY NOT KNOWN YOU. Imagine what they’d say, how they’d react, how they would decide, how they would grapple with it, etc. Now imagine how they would deal with that exact same issue TODAY, given your “contribution” TO this community. How is this second version different? Why is it better? What was it you did that led to this difference? We must understand the delta in a way that’s similar to this to understand what your contribution was, and why that was a good thing.

It should be the case that if it hadn’t been you, it’s not necessarily the case that someone else would have come along and made that contribution eventually. It should be the case that you SPECIFICALLY changed the way someone thought, which had a ripple effect, either through your behavior, or through persuasion, or through some other means, that led to some kind of SHIFT.

  • Part 1 – Quickly define your “community.”
  • Part 2 – Next, establish the status quo. The version of this community that “was” (pre-your-influence). Use an example to illustrate their approach to something, or whatever metric you need to establish the “before.”
  • Part 3 – Now, take us through the way in which you became a CHANGE AGENT. either through action, or simply by being different, however it happened. That led to a SHIFT/EVOLUTION of some kind. This is your contribution. Make us understand what exactly it was.
  • Part 4 – Finally, sell us on why this was a positive/good/meaningful thing. Why should we care that you made this contribution to this community? How might this impact something/someone beyond that particular community?


This assumes that you’re not just gonna THINK about this issue, and debate it for fun with friends and loved ones. This assumes that you’re gonna actually do something about it. And further, that the version of that that occurs through Yale is somehow more appealing to you than anywhere else. (Take a minute to process all that, it’s important.)

Okay, so, with all that above as a PREREQUISITE for this response, let’s dig in a little deeper. First up, imagine tackling this issue… ever, at all, by yourself, as you would today. “Well, go do something about it.” What is it? What might you do? What are the actions? What’s the plan? What will that plan lead to, if you’re successful? (Remember, for this first step, we’re talking about the steps you’d take TODAY, having not gone to college yet.) Kewl. Now imagine a revamped version of that master plan, but this time, you get to attend Yale. Hopefully, that alone made your mouth water a bit. Because that made you say something like “Holy crap, if I could approach this same thing, but I get to go to YALE, well that changes everything… because NOW, I would do THIS STEP differently in THIS WAY, and I’d add THIS OTHER THING which wouldn’t be possible otherwise, and then I’d take advantage of THIS THING at Yale which feeds directly into my plan and then… (and so on).”

See how that works? This is a neat way to, once again, isolate the variable we’re interested in, which is “what is it about an amazing college experience, that will help take your plan to the next level.” This shows us how you’re planning on taking advantage of college. How well do you understand what the opportunities are? The more detailed your plan, the more viable it is (even if you don’t actually pursue it), the more likely the reader is to feel like there’s forward momentum with you, and that’s the name of the game. “This is the kind of kid that’s gonna grab life by the horns.” Our advice? Go smaller, and more bite-sized on the goal/issue itself. Or, let the ultimate goal be HUGE, but focus YOUR efforts on something small enough that you can reasonably pull off. Put differently, the more LIKELY it feels you are to pursue (and succeed at) it, the more credible your case will be.

Applicants submitting the Common Application: Please choose two of the topics above and respond to each in 250 words or fewer.

Applicants submitting the Coalition Application: Please choose one of the topics above and respond in 300 words or fewer. In addition to writing on your chosen topic, upload an audio file, video, image, or document you have created that is meaningful to you and relates to your essay. Above your essay, include a one-sentence description of what you have submitted.

The best thing you can do here, honestly, is to have ALREADY created this item sometime in your recent past (possibly earlier childhood). Why? Because when you created this thing, you did it without consideration of the Yale application. You created it because (presumably) you were driven by a real interest in this topic, whatever it is. Sure, it’s possible the thing resulted from an assignment, but maybe that assignment STIRRED something in you and gave birth TO a more lasting interest in this thing. It’s so much stronger to do it that way, and have this essay reflect your CURRENT THINKING, and for the thing you upload simply to demonstrate a real connection between the two… than to have clearly generated some kind of thing purely for the purposes of your college application to Yale. It won’t matter how impressive it is, if the motivation behind it doesn’t stem from something real, it’ll read.

Now, if you can’t find something from your recent past, it’s possible to dip back a little further to show that whatever the theme is inside that creation, still lives within you. There will be times when in fact this is an even STRONGER play than something super recent that might be tied to a high school assignment. Speaking of which, the coolest creations will be the ones that came from pure passion. Things you did for yourself, that might never have been noticed by anyone else. Those often provide the cleanest insights into what’s stirring inside. Which is ultimately what this question is getting at.

Please limit your upload to the following file types: mp3, mov, jpeg, word, pdf. Note that advanced editing of audio/video/image/documents is not necessary. While we are not providing limits to the length of the material you upload, the Admissions Office may not have time to review the entirety of your submission. Sometimes, less is more.

Uploads provided via the Coalition Application will be reviewed by the Admissions Office only. If you wish to submit material that may be evaluated by Yale faculty, please see our Supplementary Material instructions.


If you selected one of the engineering majors, please tell us more about what has led you to an interest in this field of study, what experiences (if any) you have had in engineering, and what it is about Yale’s engineering program that appeals to you. Please respond in 300 words or fewer.

{We’re gonna borrow liberally from our analysis from the Princeton engineering question because it’s more or less the exact same thing.}

You may wanna address the elephant in the room, which is… “are you pursuing engineering because your parents made you”? hahah. It’s either gonna be EXACTLY your situation (you wanna be an artist but your parents say “Nuh Unh”), or the exact opposite (your parents want you to be an artist, and YOU say, nope, I like engineering), or it’s somewhere in between. It doesn’t matter which one it is. What matters is emerging with the reader saying “this kid is GENUINE about it.” More often than not, the argument you THINK makes for the most compelling sell on why you’re interested in something (in this case engineering), is the least convincing. Usually, because it makes… too much sense. Sounds too perfect. Is too predictable. The best arguments are the ones that are surprising, unpredictable, off-balance somehow.

“Hey so, both my parents are engineers and have kinda insisted that I also be an engineer and have threatened to disown me if I don’t become an engineer, so that’s part of it. I decided to do it, but I decided that I would HATE it. Because I’m a kid and that’s what kids do in response to anything their parents say. So that’s what I did. I took classes with a “Harumph” arms-folded attitude, cuz it’s all I had. The thing is? No matter how hard I tried, I frickin loved it. DAMNIT! Must. Not. Let. Parents. Win. …” yada yada. It’s possible to take what COULD have been a predictable version (parents said I had to) and turn INTO something a little surprising.

You just need to find the element that’s true to YOUR experience, and bring it front and center. All that selling of YOUR draw toward engineering, your plans, etc., should take up maybe 70% of the thing. The final piece is convincing us that of all the engineering programs out there, somehow the one at YALE snaps into place with you and your interests and skillset… differently and better than others. In order to make that argument, you need to map specific elements of the Yale engineering program to specific aspects of what YOU NEED in order to excel… the most. This isn’t easy. And it’s all about specificity and making those connections. Not simply in IDENTIFYING aspects of the programs which seem promising or noteworthy. Gotta connect to something specific about you.

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of Yale’s application essays.

Learn more and explore each step of Yale’s undergraduate application process here.

October 10, 2019



So, the first is straightforward, on purpose. Just… indicate… which areas light you up the most? Cool. The next part is where things get interesting. And there’s a giant clue in the prompt to help you NAIL this, but you gotta look carefully…

Yale assumes (as they should) that your interests will evolve, and probably change altogether. That’s their hope anyway. After all, they’re not a trade school, taking your proficiency in one thing, and ADVANCING it along an exact, fixed trajectory. If they do their job correctly, by exposing you to different types of students from different walks of life, who have different perspectives, along with a wide array of courses and activities … they HOPE that that will all sum up to blowing your mind. The whole point is to expand your horizons until you’re poised to pursue… anything, even if it’s different from what you thought it might be back when you were a senior, applying.

So, why go through all that? Because the key isn’t to sell them on your interest in THE AREAS THEMSELVES, but rather, the significance OF that interest. What’s the underlying itch that interest is scratching? That’s what we wanna learn more about – the part that persists even if that surface interest were to look a little different in a few years. When you talk about your interest in Global Affairs or Cognitive Science or Music or … whatever… you need to talk about it abstractly enough that were your “subject” interests to change, your ultimate reasoning stays INTACT, because the ITCH can be applied to many things, the itch is “scalable.” What they REALLY need to be convinced of is that your interests won’t flame out.

In the third piece, the part about “Why Yale,” you need to come up with reasons that aren’t obvious. “Anyone” would wanna attend Yale, cuz, it’s Yale, right? Think about it this way… if you were to get accepted to Harvard and Stanford and Princeton, why might you choose Yale OVER those? What aspects of Yale have convinced you that the combination of You + Yale is more appealing than You + Harvard, or You + Stanford, etc.? Be specific. Be authentic. Your reasoning may even be irrational, emotional, based on gut. The one thing it can’t be is applicable to other folks as well. It’s gonna be some kind of sacred (anticipated) connection between you and Yale.

Applicants submitting the Coalition Application or Common Application are also asked to respond to the following short answer questions:

  • What inspires you? (35 words or fewer)

Remember, 35 words is a sentence, or two. This isn’t the time to be cute, or burn time on clever setups. The challenge here is to laser into the thing itself, fast. Try to capture both what inspires you, and what that means. X thing has Y impact on me. Or, X thing inspires me to do Y thing differently or in THIS PARTICULAR way. You get the idea.

  • Yale’s residential colleges regularly host conversations with guests representing a wide range of experiences and accomplishments. What person, past or present, would you invite to speak? What question would you ask? (35 words or fewer)

Please don’t indicate an OBVIOUS person and ask an OBVIOUS question. You can do a BIZARRE/INTERESTING person and ask an OBVIOUS question, or an OBVIOUS person and ask a BIZARRE/INTERESTING question. But not Obvious-Obvious. Also, if it’s not evident from the combination of Person + Your Question WHY you’re asking that of that person, and you feel like you need to explain “because I’d want to hear so-and-so’s take on blahhh…” your combo of person and question isn’t as good as it could be. The cooooolest version here is the one where your choice of Person + Question makes it crystal clear what you had in mind when putting those two things together.

Also consider that whatever this person says in response to your question must be of theoretical value to the Yale community (or any college community). If it’s only of significance to a narrow band of people, it’s not gonna fly. What combo would cause the most meaningful STIR?

  • You are teaching a Yale course. What is it called? (35 words or fewer)

Here you have enough room to TITLE the course, and then “blurb it.” When we say “blurb” we mean to explain it in terms like “Course will examine BLAH BLAH.” Some advice: um, make sure Yale doesn’t already teach it? Also, make sure it would be of interest and value to someone other than yourself? A very cool version would be something that seems obvious precisely BECAUSE it feels immediately interesting and valuable, but isn’t taught. If the reader has to wonder why this might be an interesting class, you can still win that person over in your “blurb.” But, the coolest version is one where they don’t even need to READ the blurb and they go “Wow, of course, sold, don’t even need to read on.”

  • Most first-year Yale students live in suites of four to six people. What do you hope to add to your suitemates’ experience? What do you hope they will add to yours? (35 words or fewer)

Because you need to address both, and you have 35 words, again, you need to be FAST and to the point. It’s actually a cool question. You can be critical here (of yourself) and point out weaknesses, gaps, things you’re hoping to get from your college experience. Be careful not to suggest something that only a handful of potential roommates could make good on. It should be the kind of thing that almost ANY roommate (or group of roommates, together), by virtue of being students at Yale, should be able to fulfill. Otherwise, what does it say about you that if that group of people CAN’T do the thing you’re hoping… then what? Same works in return. It shouldn’t matter what kind of people your roommates are, the thing that YOU have to offer should be helpful to just about annnnnyone imaginable.

Need more expert advice? Take a look at our admissions consulting advantages.

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of Yale’s application essays.

Learn more and explore each step of Yale’s undergraduate application process here.

October 10, 2019

Essay 2

At Penn, learning and growth happen outside of the classroom, too. How will you explore the community at Penn? Consider how this community will help shape your perspective and identity, and how your identity and perspective will help shape this community. (150-200 words)

For students applying to the other coordinated dual-degree and specialized programs, please answer these questions in regard to your single-degree school choice; your interest in the coordinated dual-degree or specialized program may be addressed through the program-specific essay.

Strong cases here tend to be grounded in prior experience. Walk through an example or two when you “learned and grew” outside of the classroom at your current school. If nothing else, this exercise will reveal how to structure your answer when looking ahead to your time at Penn. However, more often than not, it’ll also lead you to either (a) find killer insights from one of those experiences that you can use to “shape your community” at Penn, or (b) discover a hidden learning/growth moment that might not have been at the tip of your tongue, but will serve you well right around now.

What is growth? It’s always some kind of change FROM some state TO another, caused by some kind of external force/pressure. One interesting way to grapple with this is to imagine several doppelganger versions of you, all of whom grew up in vastly different environments. Imagine how they might have turned out differently. Think about it. Study it. And you’ll start to develop an awareness of what YOUR COMMUNITY/ENVIRONMENT was like such that you turned out the way you did.

In order for these growth tales to count for anything, we need to understand the starting point (the stuff that “was” BEFORE the community influences had their evil way), and then the ending point (a very different version compared to that starting point). And then, we need to see you walk us through the precise ways in which the community exerted the pressures that caused that delta.

This isn’t easy. And it’s not easy to do succinctly. But that’s the task at hand–we’ve got 200 words. It’s possible, just not easy.

Next, you need to suggest that you’re looking forward to a similar KIND of lesson/growth from a different community, specifically the one you’ll find at UPenn. Now, in order to do this properly, you’ll need to demonstrate an understanding of what makes the UPenn community distinct from another Ivy (for example), and also make the case that your immersion in this community will result both in your learning from, and contributing TO… it. Easy as pie! Just kidding!

Yeah, in 200 words, you need to do a lot of work. Here’s an outline to help that first draft:

  • First, give us a taste of when you’ve grown in the past at the hands of a community. Do this quickly, revealing how the change happened, and also why this turns out to have meaning for you. Why was it a good/positive thing? Do this inside 75 words.
  • Next, make an argument, using that previous example as your launching pad, about how you’re hoping to change and grow but in a different way, because something about the UPenn community presents a new and different opportunity for you. In order to do this, you’ll need to identify some aspect of the UPenn community that is new to you, and enticing. Figure another 75 words or so.

Finally, give us a taste of what it is that you might have to offer on campus. In other words, flip the script, and now imagine what it’s like to be a part of the community, influencing another individual. What is it that YOU have that might help someone else to grow? Walk us through how that might look. 50 words.

October 10, 2019

Essay 1

How did you discover your intellectual and academic interests, and how will you explore them at the University of Pennsylvania? Please respond considering the specific undergraduate school you have selected. (300-450 words)

Let’s focus in on that word “discover.” In order to truly discover something, there must be some aspect of it that was unexpected, unplanned, surprising, etc. And there also has to be a “first”-ness aspect to it. You can’t forget that you hid a $100 bill deep into your sock drawer and then “discover” it a few years later, when you were cleaning it out and were “surprised” by it. That’s not quite a discovery, and not what we’re after here. Here’s another example of what DOESN’T qualify: imagine that classic overbearing parent who pushes his kid into… whatever, baseball, football, science, you name it. Suppose the kid really takes to it, and becomes amazing (Andre Agassi talks about this in his autobiography). It’s still not a discovery if it was forced upon you! If it never caught, it would have been forgotten. If it does catch, it still reeks of inevitability.

The coolest versions of discovery are the ones where you’re deliberately heading in one direction, toward a specific thing, and then something HAPPENS along the way to divert you, and an interest is BORN. Suppose you’re a young kid, in music class, and you love the idea of playing a musical instrument. If you honestly give a fair shake to a few different instruments and detect a real affinity for one of ‘em, and that becomes “your thing” over time, sure, that qualifies, because you were at least as likely to have fallen in love with one of the other instruments you attempted. It wasn’t pre-ordained.

A more exaggerated example (but not necessarily the ONLY way forward here): Your dad tells you, “Good news, sonny boy! This Saturday, you’re gonna help me clean the gutters!” This means you’re going to miss Brian’s birthday party, and a whole bunch of other fun stuff. You kick and scream and try like hell to do anything OTHER THAN help your dad clean the gutters, ‘cuz who on Earth wants to do that job. But, you do it. And you realize it wasn’t so bad. Maybe the next time your dad asks, you aren’t so hesitant. Something clicks, and all of a sudden you “discover” an interest in … geology. Or construction. Or nature. Or . . . human psychology. The point is, you went in with your fists up, aiming to “get through this treacherously boring and unglamorous task,” and you emerged being SURPRISED by something else along the way. That’s the “diversion” that took you off course. Those are amazing “discovery” stories because they truly caught you by surprise. We know they’re genuine.

So once you’ve given this some thought and brought us to the origin of your top interests, your next task is to talk about how you’re going to “explore” them at UPenn. Who were the famous “explorers” back in the day? Guys like Magellan, Columbus, etc. What did they have in common in terms of their “interests?” They’re always fascinated by the “stuff they don’t know… and want to know more about.” Right?

So, putting it all together, we want to hear about the surprises, the unexpected, including the breakthroughs and disappointments, that have led you to decide to devote your life to the study of… XYZ. =

Presumably you’ve pushed to the edges of your interest given what’s available to you in high school. And now you have this amazing “sea” of opportunity at UPenn to set sail into uncharted territory. What are you hoping to learn and discover? How? By doing what? What’s your plan? What classes are you going to take? What clubs are you going to join? Why is your chosen school at Penn uniquely suited to your specific interest?

When linking your academic interest to your chosen school, it’s important to demonstrate that you know what makes that school unique. If you say “I’m interested in physics, and I’m really excited about Penn’s ‘Intro to Physics’ class,” you’re not responding to the prompt. Every university has an introductory physics course—that’s not an exploration that’s unique or interesting. Instead, say something like “I’m interested in working with Professor Smith on XYZ project” (related to your specific interest in physics). THAT is a reason to pick your chosen Penn school over any other university.

Here’s a suggestion for nailing a first draft:

  1. Identify the “how you discovered” your interests piece up front. Sell us on the fact that this is a genuine passion. [150 words]
  2. Now get more specific about the stuff you DON’T KNOW that you want to know more about. What are the gaps that are causing you to lean forward with curiosity? [75-100 words]
  3. Now, explain where at Penn you’re hoping to find the answers, and how you’re gonna go about it. [175 words]

October 10, 2019

Additional Essays:


Elaborate. . . yeah but, how, and to what end? Remember our talks on the 5-Pointed Star approach to college applications? (If not, email us at and ask us about it!) Well, this is an example of where they’re begging you to come out with it. If an extracurricular activity, as it shows up in redux form on your activities lists, or as a resume bullet, or whatever shortened form “tells everything you need to know about that experience,” then great, skip that one, and find the one that doesn’t NEARLY convey everything that’s cool about it.

Suppose you’re the captain of your volleyball team, but your captaining and leadership and skills and achievements – while impressive in their own right – are still garden variety. There’s little be gained from elaborating on THAT one here. If, however, you overcame a physical injury in spectacular fashion, or an emotional obstacle against all odds, and ascended to captain level, that is PRECISELY the kind of story “captain of volleyball team” does not adequately convey.

This is your opportunity to REVEAL something about your appetite for challenges, your risk-seeking nature, your fearlessness, your self-awareness, your unusual perspective, your unusual skill sets (and skill gaps). This is the place where you can “signal” meaningful indications of future success to the adcom. It begins with picking the right stuff to talk about, and then focusing on the 5-Pointed Star facets.



  • Unusual circumstances in your life

Great one. The trick is: don’t count on your “unusual circumstances” to be relatably unusual to anyone and everyone. It’s possible that YOUR situation was quite NORMAL to someone else. So if your focus on the unusual-ness is in a universal sense, you may be sunk. Instead, focus on why this unusual WITH RESPECT TO YOUR OWN status quo. Establish what should have been the normal way of things for you, and then how that was disrupted, and why that disruption was so powerful. No one can take that away from you, but t’s important to be mindful of how others will probably have experienced, endured, and potentially not even FLINCHED at… MORE UNUSUAL circumstances. If you can present this with a clear sense of humility, you will be golden.

The next key is to not be afraid of showing you at your vulnerable moments, times you may have almost failed (or even failed). And to show how you dealt with it all, the strangeness of it, the challenges, etc.

And finally, you’ll wanna indicate what you’ve taken away from it. Are you glad these were your circumstances? Or would you trade it for another version? It’s okay for it to be either. The way you grapple with this is the key, not the precise conclusion you reach.

  • Travel, living, or working experiences in your own or other communities

Again, however badass you think you are for having living in X exotic country, or A B C D E F G other countries… someone next to you has an even MORE EXTREME/IMPRESSIVE example. This isn’t a contest of volume or amplitude. It’s a contest of “how has this impacted your perspective”? It’s “how that the result of all this enriched the way you process information, interact with people, understand the world, etc.” Consider our favorite trick: examining the delta. Imagine what your life would have been like had it been settled in only ONE place the entire time, without ANY travel? And then replay that, except with all the experiences beyond your hometown or home country. What’s different about YOU and the way you understand things as a result of that SECOND version? To what can you attribute that difference?

  • What you would want your future college roommate to know about you.

This is a tricky one because the temptation is to write about thing you want “the admissions committee” to know about you. And so, we more often than not see forced, unimaginative first drafts. If you’re gonna live with someone (for only one year, mind you), a person who may or not be a friend, a person you may or may not interact with much AFTER first year… what would you want him/her to know about you? Well, you’d have to have a reason this person would need to know this, otherwise… what’s the point? Think of it this way, if your roommate were to NOT KNOW this thing about you… something could go wrong. (Rather than… it would be a missed opportunity.) Play with that version, see if it reveals something deeply personal.

  • An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper, poetry, or research topic in engineering, mathematics, science, or other modes of inquiry) that has meant the most to you

The key here is to write this out, and then imagine showing it to someone who knows you really really really really well. And for them to read it, look up at you stunned, and say “Um, holy crap, I had no idea.” Because you REVEALED something that wasn’t plainly obvious to someone else already. Why are we saying that? Because chances are, that “obvious” stuff, which may very well be one of the central THEMES of your profile, will probably be plain in many elements of your application: your personal statement perhaps, some of your LORs, activities lists, your transcripts, etc.

The real opportunity here is to reveal personal, probably-not-publicly-known connections to intellectual areas that are not heavily emphasize in the rest of your application. One, it’ll seem more authentic. Two, it’ll give the reader the impression that you dance to your own tune and that you’re not afraid to pursue your interests, regardless of whether someone else is looking or not. That’s the kind of person that typifies the Harvard student. The self-starter. It’s a neat test, to actually have someone close to you read this and see if they knew about it already, or not. If not, you’re on the right track.

  • How you hope to use your college education

For 9 out of 10 applicants we’d recommend steering clear of this one, because invariably it’s gonna be a trite response that’s designed to impress the adcom. Most people who have traveled the normal pathway and are generally a part of the typical trajectory toward college and beyond, skip this one.

If, however, college – let alone Harvard – was never an obvious part of your future, for whatever reason, then you may have something to write about. If there was a better than zero chance that you might not have even gotten a CHANCE to attend college (let alone Harvard), and your life was barreling toward some other pathway… and the opportunity to go to a place like Harvard is something you made possible by sheer will and determination, then yah, we’re interested to see how YOU hope to use your college education because it means something deeper to you. If that sounds like you, then be sure to lay out what life “could have been without college” and then let loose on what you are determined to do now that it’s very much in play…

  • A list of books you have read during the past twelve months

If you’re a voracious reader, go buck wild here. If there’s no variety in your list at all, it’s probably not a great idea to go with this one. If on the other hand your list is all over the place, it could be great. Every now and then, we may recommend deleting a few, in case those few distract from a cooler narrative created by the remaining list, in terms of what they say about you. There’s an art to that, not easy to prescribe by way of a formula.

Again, the only reason you wanna pick THIS one over others is if you’ve read a TON of books, and they’re cooooool. And show that you’re interested in STRETCHING. (And not just being cozy in your favorite genre.)

  • The Harvard College Honor Code declares that we “hold honesty as the foundation of our community.” As you consider entering this community that is committed to honesty, please reflect on a time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty.

Great one. But only if there’s a real choice. It can’t be something like, “I saw someone robbing an old lady at gun point, and so I wondered whether or not I should call the police. I decided to call the police. Yay me!” There has to be a very compelling rationale for you or the actor to be DISHONEST. If there isn’t, it’s not a real dilemma, and it’s no longer impressive that you or someone chose the action with integrity or honesty. It has to be the case that it could have easily gone the other way, and that quite possibly, no one would have really held it against him/her/you.

Here’s another way of putting it. If the choice to act with integrity was in any way INCONVENIENT… now we’re cookin. If it were convenient, not a good example. Yawn. It has to have been a decision that came with real personal RISK of some kind. That’s the perfect litmus test for this one, something that many applicants will miss.

  • The mission of Harvard College is to educate our students to be citizens and citizen-leaders for society. What would you do to contribute to the lives of your classmates in advancing this mission?

Another tricky one, and again for 9 out of 10 folks, we may recommend going with another choice. However…

Is there something you do, by example, that is a part of you, that has impacted others throughout your life, that you intend to carry through in college… BECAUSE it has become an important part of who you are? Be careful not to be presumptuous here, and to assume that you possess something (a trait, a belief, etc.) that others simply MUST adopt because … well, that would make you seem unbelievably arrogant. A good version of a contribution is something someone made that YOU benefitted from, that you are paying forward. That’s a little more bulletproof. Still, we hate to say it, but this wouldn’t be our first choice for prompts.

  • Each year a substantial number of students admitted to Harvard defer their admission for one year or take time off during college. If you decided in the future to choose either option, what would you like to do?

You should only choose this if you have a damn good sense for how you’d spend that year, and the “five-year” version of Harvard has a serious value-add compared to the normal “four-year” version. It’s easy to “come up with” a way to spend a year, and fill it with cool-sounding, enriching stuff. But, if it doesn’t feel very specific to YOU and your interests, it won’t resonate the way it needs to.

The coolest response here is the one that demonstrates a mature understanding of how the four “normal” years at Harvard will enrich you and propel you toward the next phase of your career and adulthood, but also makes a convincing case for a way in which time off during college can further improve that already damn-near perfect experience. Or, how a deferred year prior to matriculation is necessary given your goals. In every case, we need the reader to see not only (a) that it’s an interesting idea and pitch for how to spend that time, but also (b) why it’s necessary.

  • Harvard has long recognized the importance of student body diversity of all kinds. We welcome you to write about distinctive aspects of your background, personal development or the intellectual interests you might bring to your Harvard classmates.

We’ve got to be really careful here. If you claim something as distinctive, and it’s actually very common in the application pool, it can backfire and reveal just how out of touch you are and the extent to which you haven’t engaged with the world (through reading, exploring, etc.). Generally speaking, it will help your case if there’s some kind of track record of “something about you is different from others.” Let’s say you’ve been ostracized, marginalized, subdued somehow, outcast, excluded, or the like… it’s pretty hard for someone to argue with your case that there’s something distinct about you. Because not only can you claim it, you can talk about what it’s like to experience it.

Is there a version that isn’t “negative”? Like, what if you’re quirky, and you know it, and everyone around you knows it, and you’ve never been made to suffer on account of it… sure, there’s a case to be made here. But, still, we need to see “proof” of this thing manifesting somehow. In other words, to use that tired old writing adage, “show don’t tell.” This goes for something like “intellectual interests” in particular. Show us that your version of an unusual intellectual interest is going to be a value-add to the Harvard community by showing us how it has been already in your high school community.

It’s a much harder case to make (and usually a weaker one) to say simply “hey so I’m interested in this weird thing, and man, trust me, it’s gonna blow the doors off the Harvard campus, just you wait!” It goes down better if you can say “so, I like this bizarre thing that everyone in my class thinks makes me a total lunatic. But lemme tell you this story. One day when I blah, this thing happened, and then everyone’s lives changed one day later. They still think I’m from planet Mars, but they’re also waiting for the next occasion when I XYZ.” If we see it in action, we’ll be able to imagine it impacting Harvard that much more. See how that works?

  • If none of these options appeal to you, you have to option to write on a topic of your choice.

Whether you’re stating it outright, or you achieve this through implication only, the goal here is to demonstrate that you are a dangerous intellect with a unique mind, unique skills, and tons of potential energy to unleash onto the Harvard campus. Great, easy!

Ha, if only. To pull this off, you need to have a very keen sense of what the rest of your application is doing for you, and what’s missing that needs addressing RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW. That, my friends, is not easy. In order to do THAT, you need to understand what makes your candidacy particularly dangerous, and to understand precisely what needs to be conveyed that isn’t being adequately conveyed elsewhere.

Again, if you miss the mark, it can backfire. If you pick something that isn’t very cool, it can send an undesirable signal that we’ve reached the END OF THE LINE and this is it—you didn’t really need this essay! Whereas, if you absolutely crush your choice of what to talk about here and how to talk about it, the reader should be left wondering “man, does this kid’s talents and potential ever end? This kid is just endlessly exciting…” Now, offering advice to HOW to achieve that is damn near impossible in a space like this without understanding exactly who you are and therefore to help you decide which “facet” to your candidacy needs some airtime. But hopefully, framing it this way helps you begin the process and understand the inherent challenge of an open-ended prompt.

October 10, 2019

Your intellectual life may extend beyond the academic requirements of your particular school. Please use the space below to list additional intellectual activities that you have not mentioned or detailed elsewhere in your application. These could include, but are not limited to, supervised or self-directed projects not done as school work, training experiences, online courses not run by your school, or summer academic or research programs not described elsewhere. (Optional – 150 words)

It’s not the “what” here that matters… it’s the implied “why.” There’s a clue in that first sentence, did you catch it? It’s all about that word “requirements.” Things you’re required to do, you may do amazing things with, or not, but regardless—you did ’em because it was expected of you. With the world as your oyster, with an infinite number of things you can do, how do you enrich your INTELLECTUAL LIFE when no one is forcing you to? Because they’re asking for a list, you shouldn’t elaborate with explanations. But, you should aim to put together a list that has the following characteristics:

  • Doesn’t seem random and utterly disconnected (it shouldn’t seem surprising that the same person pursued all those things).
  • Isn’t too long. You may want to DELETE a few pieces to draw attention to something on here that ADDS to your well-rounded-ness, rather than falls into step with what’s been established. Quality over quantity.

October 10, 2019

Duke University seeks a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience; we believe that the diversity of our students makes our community stronger. If you'd like to share a perspective you bring or experiences you've had to help us understand you better—perhaps related to a community you belong to or your family or cultural background—we encourage you to do so. Real people are reading your application, and we want to do our best to understand and appreciate the real people applying to Duke. (250 words maximum)

Duke’s commitment to diversity and inclusion includes gender identity and sexual orientation. If you would like to share with us more about either, and have not done so elsewhere in the application, we invite you to do so here.

Most applicants are gonna approach this one incorrectly. How? They’re gonna focus on the SURFACE-Y thing, and not the UNDERNEATH thing. It’s all about the stuff you CAN’T see, but we’ll get to that in a sec.

What do we mean by “SURFACE-Y” things? Well, it’s the labels. Stuff that can be used to classify, segment, identify. Race is an example. I’m a “Caucasian American” or “African-American” or “Latino” or whatever. Religion is another obvious example. I’m “Greek Orthodox” or “Jewish” or “Muslim” or whatever. Sexual orientation, geographic origin or Nationality, lots and lots of ways people can define themselves. Guess what? (And this is gonna sound weird) … those labels aren’t what’s important. Yah, that’s right. None of that – BY ITSELF – should mean ANYTHING.

The REAL key here is the celebration of a diversity in PERSPECTIVES and EXPERIENCES. Consider a room with 100 people. Handful of Asians, handful of African Americans, handful of people from the south, north, east, west, handful of LGBTQ, handful of rich, handful of poor, you get the idea. Seemingly (seemingly) diverse bunch of people right? Now, what if they all agreed… on everything? Imagine that, on the topic of gun control, for example, 100 people agreed on the exact same stuff, 100% of the time. On the topic of affirmative action, imagine they all did a blind test and arrived at the EXACT same positions on the issue. Imagine that this occurred time and again on every topic. Is this diversity?  Some might argue yes. We would not.

Now imagine a room with 100 LGBTQ. Or 100 African Americans. Or 100 Caucasian Atheists. Imagine that on these same issues, there was a WIDE VARIETY of perspectives and opinions and angles? For each and every topic, very little obvious consensus on anything. Or, perhaps there’s a general consensus, but the consensus is the aggregate of many unique perspectives. Is that not diversity because everyone looks the same? Or is it an even BETTER VERSION of diversity because of the diversity in perspectives?

These are two exaggerated (and unrealistic) examples to illustrate a point: In reality, the best way to achieve the RESULTS from “Room #2” above is to INCLUDE the people in “Room #1”, who are LIKELY TO HAVE EXPERIENCED life in different ways… such that… their perspectives can’t all be the exact same. Now, a good shorthand for this MIGHT BE to use those “identifiers” for efficiency sake. Hey listen, if we grab some from this group, and some from that group, and some from that other group, we are MORE LIKELY to achieve this MIX of perspectives, than if were to select from just one group.

The point here is that, while you may have no control over your demographic background/labels, the PERSPECTIVE that you bring is the thing that makes you “diverse” – and you have 100% control over that. Now, if that “label” aspect is INEXTRICABLY LINKED TO the development OF that perspective, then it becomes vital to an essay like this. But, it’s possible that as a member of the LGBTQ community, the thing that gave birth to your unique perspective was NOT your sexual orientation, BUT, the fact that you lost your parents tragically and were forced to raise your siblings by yourself starting at age 11. See how that works? Or, just because you’re Jewish or Muslim or an Atheist, doesn’t mean that that is THE ONLY THING that informs your world view (right?).

The key thing to identify FIRST is ––– what’s your unique perspective? Where does YOUR lens on things diverge from the typical applicant’s? Once you’ve identified perhaps a few of these things which start to round out to paint a picture of “how you process things in life” … NOW you can start to get into HOW THIS EVOLVED.

It’s possible that being gay, or the child of bi-racial parents, or whatever IS THE LEAD ACTOR in your story, the main driver of why your perspectives are what they are. But it’s also possible that it is only PARTIALLY responsible, or not at all. The coolest responses here (in our experience) demonstrate a clear, thoughtful engagement with what it means to have a unique perspective on things, and the ability to accurately trace where that might come from.

It’s too easy to pin on those labels. And often it doesn’t make for as good of a story.

October 10, 2019


If you are applying to the Pratt School of Engineering as either a first-year or transfer applicant, please discuss why you want to study engineering and why you would like to study at Duke. (150 words maximum)

When a high school student announces a potential major (career path, even), it is often the case that “things will change once college starts.” In fact, it’s generally assumed. Kinda like “Hey six-year-old, cool that you wanna be an astronaut, but I won’t hold it against you if somehow, things should go a different way.” The one exception to this might be the kid who knows he’s gonna pursue engineering. Why? Because you kinda can’t decide to pursue this one late in the game. Engineering is such that if you’ve wandered this way and that for two years into a wide variety of liberal arts courses, you will find it difficult if not impossible to decide at THAT stage to begin a focus in engineering. Why? Because the requirements are so… many, that you need to focus from the very beginning. Day 1, pile it on, let’s go. And you need to stay on that train all the way through.

So, the question then becomes… how could you possibly be so sure of this at such an early age?

  • Scenario 1 – The typical (real) reason is that your parents have given you no other choice. If this feels like you, you may not wanna hide from it. You may wanna declare it outright that this is exactly how it STARTED. But, you’ll wanna prove that somehow along the way, you flirted with the idea of other things, or hated it initially and now love it–something, anything, to suggest that now this passion is YOUR OWN.
  • Scenario 2 – Or, it’s the opposite. Your parents had zero influence, and you came to this realization on your own. That’s easier. Simply, walk us through it.

(If you’re a transfer student, you might have a cool “Hey I started here, but whoa Nelly have I had a change in heart, and engineering is now what I wanna do, and boy is Duke’s version of this the ONLY thing that attracts me for XY and Z reasons.” A turn like that can make for a great story.)

In either case, the most helpful way to FRAME an interest in Engineering is to project into the future a bit, and sell us a vision you have for yourself, either accomplishing something very specific (building electric self-driving flying cars!), OR, being involved in a very specific PROCESS that might not have a narrowly defined outcome. Either way, describe what aspects motivate you, and why. Then, you can link it back to why ENGINEERING feels like the smartest and best way for you to engage with that goal. (A neat twist is to engage with the idea that there might be OTHER avenues to pursue that could tickle that itch, whether through entrepreneurship, or some other way, but that ENGINEERING is something you connect with more. Explain why.)

Now, the harder part. You can study engineering just about anywhere. What is it about Duke’s program (or Duke itself) that you feel will bring out a BETTER VERSION of you as an engineer? Or will lead to an improved likelihood of your future success, given the specific goals you’ve identified? Assume you’re gonna be able to succeed anywhere, at any school’s engineering program, some way, somehow. (We hope that’s true.) Now, imagine the version that passes through DUKE’S program in particular. What does this version have that others don’t? Or what aspects connect better with specific aspects of your learning style, or skills, or future plans? If your reasoning can be applied to a different program at a different school, you haven’t dug deep enough. This is hard, folks. You need to have researched Duke closely to be able to answer this credibly.


If you are applying to the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences as either a first-year or transfer applicant, please discuss why you consider Duke a good match for you. Is there something particular about Duke that attracts you? (150 words maximum)

This used to be a fairly standard question in supplements, but less so in recent years – adcoms get bored too! So, the “why are you attracted to ME” question. It seems like two questions (why is Duke a good match, and also, what about Duke attracts you), but really it’s one question: Why will the combo of YOU + DUKE be better than the combo of YOU + ANYWHERE ELSE? That’s it.

Here’s a cool trick. Imagine you get accepted to Stanford, and Harvard, and Yale, and Princeton, and Duke. Try to come up with reasons why you might REJECT all those admits, in favor of Duke. What would be your reasoning for saying no to schools that are not only in Duke’s peer group, but arguably higher up on the totem pole? This approach forces you to assume SOME version of success through those other programs. But, is there a chance that the version that passes through Duke has something positive that the others don’t? Something unique to Duke that connects with YOU in particular? Why might the combo of You + Duke lead to sparks that no other combo could produce? In order to make this argument, you need to find examples of things that can’t be applied equally to another program. Imagine saying “I choose Duke because there I’ll be able to take college courses!” Um, awesome? Except, you can do that anywhere and that’s therefore not a compelling reason, right?

Think about “matches,” not the pyro kind, the connection-between-two-things kind. Usually, a good match is mutually beneficial. Owning a bird is GREAT for the owner, great match! But… awful for the bird, who now lives in a cage? You wouldn’t necessarily call this a great match. If both needed EACH OTHER, however, and both provided the things needed BY each other, now we’re getting somewhere…

What is it you think Duke needs? What seems to be characteristic of their students? What direction does the school seem to be going in? What do they seem to be all about? And why, therefore, do you feel like you would be able to build on aspects of that in a way that’s beneficial to Duke? Are you prepared to ARGUE this convincingly? You’ll need specificity.

Now flip it. What is it that YOU NEED from a school? Lay this out in a general sense. Here’s what I’m looking for in an IDEAL PROGRAM. Now explain WHY you’re looking for those things. What’s gonna happen when you GET all that? What’s the “chemical reaction”? What results from it? Cool, sold.

Now connect the two, and explain how you both benefit, making it a good match. This is not easy folks. Most applicants (undergrad, MBA, you name it) get this wrong on the first attempt. In 150 words, you don’t have too much room, so you’ll need to cut to the chase VERY quickly. Here’s one way to approach it:

  1. What is it you need from a school? Explain WHY these things will help you flourish. Prove it. Sell us. [50-75 words]
  2. Explain how Duke fulfills this better than anyone. Specific things about Duke that either no other school has, or are better versions than another program’s. Connect each thing to something specific about you (and how will flourish, precisely). [50-75 words]
  3. Finally, take a crack at what you believe Duke is looking for, what will benefit DUKE the most, and make a case for why YOU (better than others, or in a way no one else can fulfill) are the ideal guy. [A few sentences only.] [25-50 words]

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of Duke’s application essays.

Learn more and explore each step of Duke’s undergraduate application process here.

October 10, 2019

Please choose one of the following prompts and respond in 250-300 words:


Kind of a cool question. Dartmouth is generally good at making thoughtful, cool questions. Noice. Now, be extremely careful here because this question is RIPE for a fundamentally YAWN-WORTHY response. Let’s do… not that, shall we?

Let’s do it the COOOOL way instead. Think about a few BORING versions of family history. Think about someone telling you their family history in a way that would utterly bore you. Seriously, imagine versions of exactly how that would go. What would make you go, “Um, is that… uh, anything else besides that enormously predictable thing you just said?” or…. “Is that literally everything you can tell me about your mom and dad and grandparents and great-grandparents? I’m all caught up? … Thanks?”  Try it on your own, and try like hell to imagine boring versions. Here’s what you’ll find. The one thing that will be common to EVERY story that’s boring is… LACK OF CONFLICT.

If your dad was an army general, that might be amazing, but what if he loved being in the army? And wanted to be in the army from a very young age? And made it through without much hassle? And then went and had a great career? And didn’t see any action but had a great time, and came back and lived a great life? Well, good for him (it’s actually GREAT in reality), but for an essay like this, it’s the worst story ever.

Instead, if you found out that your great-grandfather emigrated to this country by pretending to be a woman, because that was the only way he could get by “a Gestapo-like force” … now we’re getting somewhere. Your ears immediately perk up, you probably have TEN questions loaded in the chamber. “Conflict.” “Challenges.” “Obstacles.” These are the key components of an interesting story.

So, first things first, find the conflict! Find what made any aspect of your heritage… tricky. But while this might be interesting as hell on its own, remember, we need to segue into what YOU are all about in relation to all this. Don’t force a connection by the way. Just because your great great-great-grandmother did X Y and Z legendary thing, doesn’t mean your conclusion needs to be “AND THAT’S WHY I FIND MYSELF DOING A B and C TODAY!” It can be connected directly, or it could even be “um, given all that, how crazy is it that *I’M* the current issue of all that!” Or it can be a different relationship entirely, that’s where your creativity will come through. And there’s an art form to making a smart connection OF SOME VARIETY. But you do need to connect it all somehow.

Now, what do you do if there’s no CONFLICT in your family history? Well, then YOU need to be the interesting one against a background of plainness. You are the Technicolor character in the black and white movie. In this case, you need to represent CONTRAST to something.

OR——if neither of those leads anywhere good, your final option might be, if you and your family are fairly even and aligned in most ways, the CONTRAST between y’all, and other peeps (the community, whomever), may be the answer. Contrast of some sort usually needs to be a part of the soup here.


The operative word here is ACT. The question is not, which of the world’s troubles… troubles you? There may be TWENTY answers to that question. Twenty things that boil your blood, incense you, shape your world view, blah. Congrats?

But which one has ALREADY compelled you to TAKE ACTION, or CHANGE COURSE, or RESPOND in some way? And that you plan to continue acting on?

Don’t shoot too high here, folks. If you seem like a get-it-done guy with a practical brain, that will carry more weight more than the guy who’s “outraged … more” with “the grandest designs to solve everything” but… with very little evidence that there will be any action behind the intention.


Can you make something that’s beautiful and simultaneously doesn’t feed the world? Sure. You can think about that as “something that is beautiful only to you, the absence of which would not affect anyone or anything else positively or negatively.” For example, I just went into the kitchen, and with a broom swept the dirt and dust on the floor into a pile in the corner. I made that. I find it beautiful.

Um, congratulations? Now, imagine I don’t tell anyone about this inch pile of dust, and that life continues exactly as it has been. This may tick one of the boxes, but it doesn’t really tick the other one. The opposite version can be true, too. There may be something that you “do” that is wildly important and feeds the world somehow, but is also something you didn’t truly “make.” Imagine yourself as “Person Number 64” in a giant assembly-line, whose end product is some kind of essential nourishment that allows mankind to survive. Important? Yep. Feeds the world? Yep, literally. But did you make it? Naw.

So, what we’re talking about here is something that originated from within you. An idea that you brought forward in some way. It doesn’t have to be a physical thing. It could be a “party game” that’s really fun to play and ends up leading to an unusually interesting psychological exploration that expands the minds of everyone who plays it. Or it could be a methodology—how to “sweep the kitchen floor”—that allows a single parent to shave five minutes from that task and apply those five minutes to “spending time with their children” or “self-care.” Something you made, that feeds the world? Hell yeah.

Of course it can ALSO be physical. The thing you need to grapple with is where did it come from, within you? What needed to come out? Why? Why is it a good that it DID come out? One way to help get to this is to imagine what might have happened if you were PREVENTED from “issuing” the thing (whatever it is). Why would the world have been worse off? Explain it. When people HAVE experienced it, or have been “kissed” by it directly or indirectly, how are they “better” for it?

A good answer here reveals a sense of what a constructive contribution is, which requires an understanding of what “the world needs” which is . . . rather tricky. Because, who the hell are YOU to tell the world what it needs? If you’re not careful, you’ll overplay your hand and describe a thing YOU think is beautiful and elegant and feeds the world, but that the adcom doesn’t quite buy. So, if you’re going for this one, you need to spend a little bit of time EARNING it by building a case for why the world needs the thing you’re about to bestow on it (or have bestowed). Without that argument, your essay might not play.


This one’s all about the word “reveal.” If you took that word away, it would be a very different question. Books and stories that “capture our imagination” are not hard to find. For a work to be revelatory, it has to have a much bigger impact than just drawing you into its world for the hours you’re reading it. Imagine yourself as an object in motion along some path, a “road” say. You’re traveling along, and as we’ve learned from Newton, you’re gonna keep heading in this direction, because that’s how physics works. Unless… something external forces a CHANGE in your direction. Or, a NEW path reveals itself. Or, an unexpected FORK IN THE ROAD interrupts your path, forcing you to MAKE A CHOICE.

When did a book or story REVEAL an idea to you (or way of thinking) that went AGAINST something you’d believed up until that point? Or inspired you to see something a different way? Imagine you never read the book or story, and continued on as you were, without being exposed to whatever ideas were in it. If your life would have ended up more or less the same, either the example isn’t the right one, or you haven’t dug deep enough to figure out how it changed your path.

Once you’ve identified that revelatory work, we can start writing the essay. The key idea here is that the essay is NOT, repeat not, about that book or story itself. It’s about the IDEA the book revealed to you and how you interacted with it. We don’t need a plot summary, a book report, or a review. Instead, focus on the conflict between you and the idea the book interested. The story here is “I thought ABC way, then I read this book, and learned about X idea, and at first I was like ‘that’s wrong,’ but the more read, the more I realized… maybe I was the one who was wrong! Now I think in XYZ way.”

Once you’ve identified that change in your thinking, we can wrap up the essay by connecting it all to your desire to go to Dartmouth. How does “thinking XYZ way” instead of “ABC way” lead you to Dartmouth? In what ways did the ideas revealed in this work lead you to take action or change your goals? Prove to the adcom that you can engage intelligently with ideas, and plan to continue doing so on campus.


Here’s what’s going to happen. A hundred people are going to put their curiosity on display here, and only a few of them are going to GRAB THE READER, and make them excited to meet this applicant. The others? They’ll give perfectly reasonable examples, genuine, all that, and yet… ho hum. What’s the secret? How to make sure not to be ho hum, and instead light a fire?

Well here’s a big part of it: by itself, curiosity doesn’t matter all that much. Think about it: anyone can be curious about many things. But it’s only when that curiosity MOTIVATES you to ACTION that things get interesting. It’s not about the curiosity, it’s about the ACTION. That’s the difference between “guy who watches Shark Week each year” and “gal who became a marine biologist and is actually in the cage with the Great Whites.” Not just evidence “that you have curiosity” or “are curious in theory,” but WHAT ACTIONS IT LED TO – and those things you did are what makes the curiosity meaningful. Now you’ve created a distinction between you and the next guy, who only had the curiosity, but didn’t do anything about it. What we need to see evidence of, is how you respond TO YOUR “CURIOSITIES.”

Let’s take it one step further. If you establish your curiosity well enough, your reader will automatically IMAGINE what actions should follow. If your actions MATCH those predictions exactly, you’ll be right back into ho hum territory. “Hey so I was curious about the REAL depth of Lake Superior.” Okay, we understand the curiosity. It would be “reasonable” to expect that curious person then to… Google it? Or, ask his Earth Sciences teacher? If those were the next steps, um, who cares? What if it went this way instead:

  1. I was curious about the REAL depth of Lake Superior
  2. So, naturally, I attempted created a mock Great Lake in my bedroom. Needless to say, it was a complete bust, but I’ll walk you through my approach…

Doesn’t even matter what the student writes next, we’d be sold. No one could have predicted THAT. Can you see why this is more compelling evidence of “curiosity”?

So to recap, you need two things. (1) Evidence of things you’re curious about, and (2) UNPREDICTABLE/UNUSUAL/INTERESTING actions that resulted FROM that curiosity. If you can provide an example or two of those two things, you’ll be in a rocking position.


It’s one thing to be an arm-chair expert and talk a big game from the sidelines. It’s a whole other thing to hurl yourself into the fray, put yourself on the line, and walk the talk. In order for an essay here to work, there needs to be plenty of reasons why it would have made sense for you NOT to have done what you did.

Imagine an old lady is crossing a street, stumbles and falls, and can’t get up. The light is still red so there’s no real traffic, but at some point, sure, maybe a car will head in her direction. There’s plenty of time for you to rush into the middle of the street, help her to her feet and to safety. Imagine using that as an example of “and that’s when I decided to take action!” Um, it’s not that brave if “anyone in their right minds would have done the exact same thing, and you didn’t really have that much to lose.”

While this is an exaggerated example (on purpose), there IS a tendency of folks to overrate actions they’ve taken because they had a big impact. But that’s not what this prompt is looking for: A truly brave act, one that’s worthy of inclusion here, is one that required some fearlessness, that included a high potentiality for failure of some kind. Failure that had stakes.

“If I didn’t {insert action}… then THIS NEGATIVE THING would have resulted.”

“I decided to go forward with it, even thought I stood to lose THIS IMPORTANT/SIGNIFICANT THING.”

“In spite of the headwinds, I persevered and committed, because I knew that if I didn’t try XYZ thing would have happened.”

These kinds of statements may be useful in helping you find (and frame) a topic for a solid response here. There needs to be CONFLICT, and your success needs to have been DIFFICULT.

That’s ingredient #1. Ingredient #2 is your PASSION. I.e., “I did something because I care about XYZ… and if someone didn’t care about XYZ, they wouldn’t have done the same.” This reveals the other problem with the old lady example above—it’s safe to assume that everyone thinks old ladies shouldn’t be run over by cars. Everyone is passionate about “people not dying.”

In this essay, we want to identify something that you are passionate about that many (perhaps most) people aren’t. Then show how that interesting passion led to action in the face of adversity. The bigger the adversity, the more impressive (and passionate) you look overcoming it.

October 10, 2019

While arguing a Dartmouth-related case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1818, Daniel Webster, Class of 1801, delivered this memorable line: “It is, Sir. . . a small college. And yet, there are those who love it!” As you seek admission to the Class of 2024, what aspects of the College’s program, community or campus environment attract your interest?

Why would they phrase the question this way? It seems to be marked with both pride and… mild defensiveness?! “Yes, we know that people prefer OTHER schools to Dartmouth for understandable reasons but WE LIKE IT HERE!” Something about that idea, that everyone there is really INTO it (for whatever reasons) seems to be a part of what makes Dartmouth tick. So, when you’re identifying aspects of Dartmouth that attract you, there are two ways to NAIL it:

  • Option 1 – Find things that other candidates might find UNAPPEALING (who, because of these things, might prefer ANOTHER Ivy League school), and explain why – in contrast – you’re actually EXCITED by them…
  • Option 2 – Find things that only exist at Dartmouth, and nowhere else. Or things whose VERSIONS at Dartmouth are unique somehow, and therefore (because of reasons X Y and Z) snap into place with YOUR needs and wants… better, and therefore, whereas others might choose another Ivy because of these quirks, you’re eyeing Dartmouth BECAUSE of them.

See the difference here? Between either of these two options and simply trying to identify “thing about Dartmouth that attract you”? If you’re not careful, and you take that question at face value, you’ll end up identifying stuff that’s ultimately common to many Ivys, and your UNUSUAL connection to Dartmouth won’t be as apparent.

100 words is a paragraph, so if you take a stab at either of those options, you should be well on your way to a decent first draft.

October 10, 2019

The primary focus of your college interest essay should be what you intend to study at Cornell. In the online Common Application Writing Supplement, please respond to the essay question below (maximum of 650 words) that corresponds to the undergraduate college or school to which you are applying.


Why are you drawn to studying the major you have selected? Please discuss how your interests and related experiences have influenced your choice. Specifically, how will an education from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and Cornell University help you achieve your academic goals? 

For this one, imagine getting accepted to Cornell, but in the WRONG COLLEGE. If you’re an Agriculture and Life Sciences gal/guy and end up in Hotel Administration, think through all the ways that would upset you to your core. “Wait, but if I’m in College X, I won’t be able to …” Won’t be able to WHAT? The first step is to capture whatever finishes that statement.

Now, zoom out a bit to consider your life, and your background. What led to this trajectory? What experiences made you realize you DIDN’T like Undesirable Field A, and preferred Desirable Field B? There are likely several experiences along the way. Don’t just include the obvious ones that we could have predicted. It’s neat to see a complete picture. Was there ever a time you dabbled in anything else? Have you truly HATED some stuff? What is it that really inspires you about Agriculture and Life Sciences? We want to see where the momentum comes from, and we want to believe that your commitment to this field of study is real and exciting.

One thing to remember. What if you get rejected from Cornell and this particular school, and, oh well, you end up getting into Harvard and Stanford instead? Will you not go because you have no ability to succeed at a “normal liberal arts school”? Of course not (we hope). The best way to mentally frame this question is to imagine multiple paths to a future ambition of yours. One of those might pass through Cornell, others will not. The question you need to really ask is… why does the version that passes through Cornell and this particular college OF Cornell, excite you in specific ways? Building off of that, what stuff in your past (do you think) has led you to conclude that? See how that’s different from “this is my destiny and nothing else will work!”?

650 words is a LOT of words. Most supplementals are in the 250-word ballpark, so this is a proper essay. As such, you’ll wanna really develop your arguments well. Here’s an outline to get you going:

  1. Establish a quick vision of where it’s all headed. What’s a VERSION of your ultimate vision? What inspires you? What kinds of things do you wanna be doing/achieving? Be quick, be straightforward, but give us a sense of your passion. [50-75 words]
  2. Now take us through some highlights of your life so far that have played a significant role in steering you in that direction. Two or three examples should be good enough, but even one great one can suffice. It should be clear here not just WHAT intrigues you, but WHY (through these examples). [175-225 words, one to two paragraphs]
  3. Explain briefly, what it is you hope to achieve in college, and then perhaps a few years out of college. And therefore what it is that would make for an ideal education IN GENERAL (forget Cornell, for now, just talk generally). What things in a college experience will bring out the BEST in you? [125-150 words]
  4. Now, talk about specific aspects of Cornell and THIS SCHOOL IN PARTICULAR that tie to specific aspects of YOUR SKILL SET and AMBITIONS. Make it clear that THIS ENVIRONMENT might just deliver a better version of success for you than another program at another school. [125-175 words]

These are rough wording guidelines that’ll at least get you a serviceable first draft. From there, lots can happen (and WILL, in our experience). You’ll probably end up expanding the essay beyond the word limit, and then paring back down later – that’s a healthy part of the writing process.


Describe two or three of your intellectual interests and why you are excited to pursue them within your chosen major in AAP. What personal experiences, background, or future goals will you bring to your scholarly and artistic pursuits at Cornell?

[See above, and substitute in Architecture, Art, and Planning.] But also add in an argument about why the offerings at Cornell are likely to propel you forward somehow BETTER than another school that offers the same stuff. What makes this program unique, given your specific interest within the AAP umbrella?


Describe two or three of your current intellectual interests and why they are exciting to you. Why will Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences be the right environment in which to pursue your interests?

Same basic idea here as with the first two, except this addresses a broader crop of applicants. “What interests you and why Cornell specifically?” The key here is to explain what fuels you, and what you need to succeed optimally. And then MAP that to specific aspects of Cornell to demonstrate that the combination of you + Cornell ultimately leads to a better result than you + Another School.


Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management: How have your interests and experiences influenced your decision to study Applied Economics and Management? Describe how you would take advantage of the Dyson School’s unique opportunities, for example, its affiliation with both the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Same basic idea here as with the others, except you now have to grapple with this relatively new program and demonstrate that you’ve researched it thoroughly. Here’s one cool way to go about it: Whatever your business/econ goals are, imagine SUCCEEDING at them AT A DIFFERENT SCHOOL (pick a school, any school). Spoiler Alert: You’ll be able to succeed (we hope) at many schools OTHER than Cornell. (Right?)

Cool, now imagine one more version of success, this time, the one that passes THROUGH this program at Cornell. What’s different about THIS version of success for you? Why? What is it about this program, and YOUR GOALS SPECIFICALLY, that makes the collision of YOU + THIS PROGRAM a particularly dangerous combination? If you can’t make a compelling argument here for why THIS combo is necessarily better than You + UPenn (Wharton) or You + (any other Ivy), it’s not gonna land. There’s gotta be a compelling set of arguments. Find em. Approaching it THIS way is a great way to get unstuck if you’re having trouble developing momentum.


The global hospitality industry includes hotel and foodservice management, real estate, finance, entrepreneurship, marketing, technology, and law. Describe what has influenced your decision to study business through the lens of hospitality. What personal qualities make you a good fit for SHA?

Same general idea here as with the others. There needs to be some magnetic force between you and this specific college at Cornell. Walk us through the events and experiences that led to your decision to pursue this field. But then, convince us that among all the folks out there who share equally compelling reasons to pursue hospitality degrees, YOU deserve a seat in particular. What about YOU should convince the gatekeeper that your future is brighter in this arena than someone else?


Cornell Engineering celebrates innovative problem solving that helps people, communities… the world. Consider your ideas and aspirations and describe how a Cornell Engineering education would allow you to leverage technological problem-solving to improve the world we live in.

We have a slight twist here, and it’s a cool one. They want you to pitch an idea. Neat. (Or, simply to express your interest in engineering.) Honestly, pitching a specific idea here is likely to be much cooler than expressing a more generic interest in engineering, so we recommend going with that.

Has there ever been a moment where you’ve considered something engineering-related where you’ve speculated about doing it a different way? Or exploring an idea that might improve upon something? Or revolutionize it? Anything that has STUCK with you, that has led to gear-churning (related to engineering), that has fueled your interest in this field, is a GREAT opportunity.

The next step is to MAP that idea to specific opportunities at Cornell that have inspired you to pursue an education here, over other programs. Be specific. Once again, our favorite tactic is the use of “DELTAs.” Imagine navigating through engineering programs at, say, five other Ivy League universities (doesn’t matter which ones). Now, let’s say you get into ALL FIVE. Make an argument here for why the version that passes through Cornell somehow fits you better, or leads to a cooler outcome, or both. Is there anything about Cornell’s offerings that have FURTHER inspired twists and evolutions to your future ideas? (This could be a great way to tackle it.)


How have your experiences influenced you to apply to the College of Human Ecology? How will your choice of major impact your goals and plans for the future?

Same general idea as the others. Walk us through your specific inspiration for this field, and why pursuing a college at Cornell that focuses on this is preferable to a broader education framework elsewhere.


Tell us about your intellectual interests, how they sprung from your course, service, work or life experiences, and what makes them exciting to you. Describe how ILR is the right school for you to pursue these interests.

Same general idea as the others. Walk us through your specific inspiration for this field, and why pursuing a college at Cornell that focuses on this is preferable to a broader education framework elsewhere.

Learn more and explore each step of Cornell’s undergraduate application process here.

October 10, 2019

Tell us about a place or community you call home. How has it shaped your perspective? (250 word limit)

Once again, this comes down to “did this kid write this expecting/hoping me to be impressed?” Or… did this kid actually just write an authentic, thoughtful answer to this question? That second one is GOLD. The first one, garbage. Out of 10 attempts at answering this question, how many do you think answer it “the garbage way”? Seriously, take a guess.

Answer: 9.7 (at least)

That’s right, it is the absolute EXCEPTIONAL APPLICANT who doesn’t write this FOR an admissions committee reader. Most do, and it’s always trash. Very, very, very few applicants have the courage to write truly authentically. Maybe that’s why admissions rates are so low (stands to reason).

Don’t try to sound poetic here, folks. Don’t try to be Johnny Deep. That isn’t to say “be straightforward.” That’s not what we’re saying at all… It’s possible to be earnest AND thoughtful. Let’s dig in a bit.

First things first. Let’s get our heads around that word “home.” What does that mean? It’s not purely a physical dwelling, cuz, enough people will have that same essential answer, which therefore tells us nothing about any single individual, right? And that’s not what Brown is going for here.

Each individual’s interpretation of the word “home” will vary (we hope it does!). For some it might mean “where do I feel safest.” For others it might mean “where I feel most myself.” For others it might be “where I feel most emotionally secure.” Could be “most relaxed.” Can be lots of things. While it would be inefficient to go through each possible interpretation, one thing we CAN do is talk about the TYPE of answers that are most effective here. Answer? The ones that are REVEALING…

One of our favorite “tips” at Admissionado is to find an answer here that might SURPRISE a reader who is very close to you. Who knows you the BEST? Mom? Best friend? Sibling? Imagine someone asked them this question on your behalf. In other words, someone asked them to guess what YOU would define as “home.” They take their best guess based on how ridiculously well they know you. If you were to show them your answer, here’s what SHOULD happen… they should finish reading and say “Holy crap, I thought I knew you!” That would be amazing. Not necessary, but that’s one way to test whether you’re on the right track.

Here’s another cool test. If you think you have a good answer for this question, but you worry that “someone else reading this might have a hard time understanding what you mean” … that’s a FANTASTIC sign. Those often make for the BEST essays. Don’t worry, you’ll make it understandable through the re-writing process, but as a “soul” of an essay, one that “someone else” will have trouble accessing immediately… is gold.

The flip side to all this is true also. If others reading this would correctly predict your topic, and others reading it would easily understand where you’re coming from, chances are… you haven’t dug deep enough. Or, you’ve dug plenty, and your response simply isn’t coooool enough (not your fault, but you may have to get creative here).

[It’s possible to have a lot of FUN with this one, too. Of all the prompts that are ripe for cheekiness, this one’s ripest of them all. At the core, however, there must be evidence of some serious, “intellectual” thought. It doesn’t matter how creative the style is—there has to substance too.]

Now, let’s just dig into organization briefly, because there are two pieces you need to hit (and not necessarily in this order):

  1. What “your” perspective is, such that it might have been shaped by something. We need to understand how your perspective differs from someone else’s. So imagine a thing that most people have a standard way of perceiving, or describing, or experiencing. And now imagine how YOUR version is somehow a little different. Our first challenge is to identify WHAT is different about, and be able to describe it.
  2. The second task is to figure out what the “winds” were that shaped that perspective quirk to begin with. Once you start to get a handle on this, it should give you clues about the overlap areas between the perspectives that define you AND the “place/community” you call home.

Keep in mind that not all things that shape you are welcome/pleasant. And some things that have shaped you may very well belong to a category you decidedly feel is the OPPOSITE of home. That’s useful to keep in mind as you wrap your mind around the stuff that shaped you AND is also is very much linked to the place/community you consider home.

October 10, 2019

Brown’s Open Curriculum allows students to explore broadly while also diving deeply into their academic pursuits. Tell us about an academic interest (or interests) that excites you, and how you might use the Open Curriculum to pursue it. (250 word limit)

There are three pieces to this sucker:

  1. Demonstrating that you’ve researched and understand WHAT the Open Curriculum IS.
  2. Showing some enthusiasm about taking ADVANTAGE of this offering.
  3. And generally demonstrating that you have a cool brain, with a cool perspective based on what interests/excites you (and why).

So, let’s take these one at a time.

Piece #1

What IS the Open Curriculum at Brown? Well, in a nutshell, it’s the opposite of the CORE CURRICULUM that you’ll find at other schools. Is it better or worse… that’s for others to debate. Brown is giving you a blank canvas. Sorta. There’s a common misperception that the Open Curriculum is literally open season on taking whatever you want, whenever you want, throughout your four years at Brown. Not so much. You will still have to declare a Major (they call it something else at Brown, usually “Concentration”), like anywhere else. And that Major (and Minor, if you do more than one thing) will require a long set of classes in order for you to graduate successfully.

So not really “open” in the literal sense. The true spirit of the Open Curriculum lies in the freedom afforded to every student to find their own way TOWARD their “area of focus.” Brown requires that you get focused by the end of your sophomore year. They just don’t give you many rules about what you have to do in those first two years. With the exception of Engineering majors, you are free to take courses in any area, whenever, however, etc. There’s also the ability to potentially create a curriculum of your own, but there’s a process for that, and not everyone’s idea gets approved.

There’s more to be said about the Open Curriculum, and you should do some reading on it, as well as chat with Brown alums (no better way than that) and get THEIR take on the reality. The key for our purposes though is that it’s kind of Brown’s “thing.” Something they’re famous for, even if other schools have similarly lax restrictions on what courses you can take.

Piece #2

The next issue is, why is this appealing to you? Why does your passing through this kind of opportunity enthuse you more than a more traditional curriculum at a school of equal quality? Why does the idea of a curriculum that’s not “open” feel less inspiring to you than Brown’s?

Be careful. If you go too far, you may seem disingenuous. If you make it sound like the Open Curriculum is THE ONLY THING on Earth that inspires you, and it’s the only way you know how to flourish… and you’re simultaneously applying to places like Princeton, or Columbia, or “just about anywhere else,” you will seem insincere. If you don’t get into Brown and you DO get into Columbia, you’re gonna go there, right? And I hope your plan is to “flourish” there too? Because you really, really can! Just ask all the wildly successful Columbia grads who end up in the same (or better) places compared to Brown grads.

See what we’re getting at? The best answer here conveys a sense of drive that exists IRRESPECTIVE of the curriculum rules, but that might flourish in a particularly interesting way in Brown’s environment. It’s not that you will ONLY succeed with the Open Curriculum, it’s that your version of success might be different here, in a way that’s appealing to you.

Here’s a cool way to tease out that distinction. Imagine getting accepted both to a place like Columbia AND Brown. And for our purposes, let’s call Columbia’s curriculum more rigid and Brown’s less rigid. You’re holding admit letters to both. And again, for argument’s sake, let’s just stipulate that either program will bestow upon you the same “buying power” in the job market. Why might you gravitate toward Brown’s open curriculum? Explain why that path brings out a better (or simply different and possibly more appealing) version of you.

Piece #3

The third piece of the puzzle here is to weave in what interests you, but to do so in a way that reveals the specialness of Brown’s open curriculum. Let’s say that another way: you can (a) have a very cool, unusual, inspiring, impressive, exciting academic interest, and (b) demonstrate a very clear understanding of what the Open Curriculum at Brown is… but these pieces are meaningless until you connect them together. The trick is to demonstrate your understanding of the Open Curriculum opportunity THROUGH your academic interest, and what you plan to do with these two things, when you marry ‘em.

Let’s use Columbia again as a counter-example of a school that has a more rigid curriculum (comparatively). Your academic interests won’t change right? And there’s a good chance you might end up pursuing the exact same interest beyond college and well into your lifelong career, correct? The prospect of marrying your academic interest with ANY top-tier college curriculum should enthuse you, because you’re fully dedicated to success no matter what life throws at you. (You’ll want to convey that, always, in your college applications.) However, when you consider the prospect of combining your academic interest with the opportunities that Brown’s Open Curriculum affords you… an additional buzzer goes off inside you. There’s something unusually interesting, or possible, in this scenario. Let’s hear it.. If you do this correctly, we’ll get the sense for all of the following:

  • Your success is not dependent on an “open” curriculum
  • And yet, there are a few KEY ways in which you have imagined taking ADVANTAGE of this opportunity: A, B, C, etc.
  • These “deltas” between Brown’s open curriculum opportunity versus any other program’s, make you. . . excited, inspired, leaning forward, etc.

250 words is not a lot. It’s two beefy paragraphs, maybe three lean-ish ones. Here’s one way to consider a first draft:

  1. Explain what interests you, and why. (75 words)
  2. Now explain what an ideal curriculum might look like, and how you might take advantage of it. (Forget Brown for now, just describe an “ideal” curriculum.) (75 words)
  3. Now explain why Brown’s Open Curriculum fits the bill perfectly, given your interests and goals. (100 words)

That’ll get you going and give us a solid first draft to work with.

October 10, 2019

At Brown, you will learn as much from your peers outside the classroom as in academic spaces. How will you contribute to the Brown community? (250 words)

Well, actually, we would argue that you stand to learn MORE from your peers outside the classroom than inside, but that’s a discussion for a different day!

Rather than use this space to demonstrate your interest in Brown, and to reveal things you know about Brown, our perspective here is to TURN THE TABLES. Some folks may have a different take here. (But ours is better, haha.)

Let’s think about this critically. Presumably, you have tons to give, right? Presumably, you have cool perspectives on things shaped by the circumstances of your upbringing (where your family is from, specific family dynamics, geography, socioeconomic status, whatever other influences exist that can shape a human). You have your talents, your interests, your passions, your personality quirks. You’re like a tightly wound coil, brimming with potential energy. Will that change if you end up at . . . Harvard? Or Yale? Or Stanford? Or Columbia? Or Cornell? Why would it? I mean, it’s possible that you’ll adapt to an environment that’s different, as anyone would, but would your contributions TO that environment fundamentally shift? If so, doesn’t that make … what you have to give… kinda flimsy? Shouldn’t your offerings be… your offerings… REGARDLESS of where you end up?

The badass answer here is yah, you’re going to contribute a ton of amazing stuff to WHICHEVER SCHOOL *YOU* END UP CHOOSING. This is the part where you (a) reveal what that is, (b) make Brown want you to contribute that stuff to Brown and NOT another program, so they can have you all for themselves.

Rather than go too hard on why you want to make that contribution to BROWN and not another school, go hard on what it is you have to contribute, and what it is you’re hoping OTHERS have to contribute that’ll enrich YOUR experience. It’s almost like you’re laying down YOUR demands to Brown here and challenging them to make you want THEM over another option.

Now, how do you do all that? Well first you have to establish what it is you’re hoping to get out of the “learning from peers” aspect. Can you point to a time when you’ve been better off for having been in the presence of others, in an outside-the-classroom situation? Something where, had you experienced it alone, you might have still succeeded or had a positive outcome, but it wouldn’t have been as rich? You’ll want to establish (from experience) your humility, and awareness of how much others can contribute to your own growth, and to explain what qualities made that possible. Once you’ve established that, now it’s time to offer a kind of quid pro quo, as if to say, “and now for MY part in this bi-directional peer-to-peer learning exchange!” This is what *I* bring to the party: A, B, C, etc.

What’s “A B C, etc.”? Well, it’s different for every individual. That’s the whole point. There has to be a way for you imagine how others experiencing college without you ends up being an A-, say. But that an alternate version that includes you along the way, elevates that “same” experience to an A+. What was in that you were able to provide, by way of fresh perspective, or talent, or energy, or an unusual passion, or your way of thinking, that could possibly have a rub-off effect like that? This is your opportunity to showcase how you’ve influenced others thus far, and what specific qualities you have to continue to contribute to the Brown campus. (Or any campus, for that matter.)

September 20, 2019

Describe the world you come from; for example, your family, clubs, school, community, city, or town. How has that world shaped your dreams and aspirations? (200-250 words)

This is a tricky one. Kind of. But we’re going to make it un-tricky. Let’s reverse the prompt, as far as your approach goes. Begin with identifying what your dreams and aspirations are. Focus less on the actual end, and more on the underlying nature of it. For example, you’d want to avoid saying “I want to be the CEO of Apple” and instead say “I want to lead a tech company that pushes the world to dream, daily.” That way you don’t box yourself into a narrow definition and you allow yourself to achieve that vision in a variety of ways.

Once you have a vague sense, try to trace your influences (don’t skip ahead yet, for now just think about the few significant people or things that helped inspire these goals). This can happen in a variety of ways, by the way. There may have been people whose examples inspired you to follow in their footsteps and build upon things they’d already done. Or, it could be oppositional. Your influences may have been people doing things that drove you insane and inspired you to counteract them, as your life’s mission. Or anywhere in between. Try to “materialize” those influences though, in the form of a few bullets along a timeline that charts the evolution of your aspirations.

Great. This isn’t easy, by the way. And as a soon-to-be college student, you’re not expected to have your life mapped out. (In fact, the coolest kids are the ones just brimming with potential who have yet to discover their true callings.) Now… try something interesting. Imagine the world you come from. Family, clubs, school, community, city, town, all those things, and REPLACE IT ALL with a starkly contrasting alternate version.

Go with us here. Could be fun, could be tedious, but try it. Imagine it. “Try on a different race. Or socioeconomic status. Or neighborhood, or size of house you grew up in, or what your parents did for a living.” Imagine it all differently. A good way to do this is to swap out your material circumstances with a friend’s, or someone you know. Someone who grew up with different influences.

Now take another look at your list of bullets from earlier. Which of those disappear? Which of those would look COMPLETELY different now that all your “environmental” stimuli have changed? Which ones stay the same, meaning, no matter WHAT the circumstance would be exactly as they are cuz they are not vulnerable to environmental stimuli? This may help reveal which stimuli (in the form of people or things) helped to shape your goals, and allow you to formulate clear crisp explanations of exactly how that shaping took place. Walk us through a few great examples. Struggling to come up with examples? You can consider getting guidance from our admissions consultants.

(Depending on your particular story, you can order this either way: start with your aspirations and then walk us through the influences. Or, start with the influences and lead up to your goals. Either can work, you’ve just got to find the version that makes your story pop the most.)

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of MIT’s application essays.

Learn more and explore each step of MIT’s undergraduate application process here.

September 20, 2019

Please write a short essay in response to each of the three essay topics below. There is a 100-word minimum and a 250-word maximum for each essay.

First, let’s briefly get a sense of what 250 words means. It’s two average paragraphs, or three lean paragraphs. Also known as: not a ton of space! The burden is on you to think about the meatiest point you need to make, and then to build your surrounding elements strategically, so that they help you deliver that point with maximum impact, concisely. It’s not as easy as it may sound. For our analysis, we’re mostly going to dig into the “meat” aspect.


Strangely, this one rides or dies on the PROOF that you’re actually, truly, genuinely excited about learning. What serves as proof? Action. The stuff YOU DO in response to the stuff you’re inspired by… that demonstrates it, and makes it real. Anyone can CLAIM to be super inspired by X Y and Z and talk about it. But if all they do is talk, does it really matter? Not exactly the world’s sexiest Zen koan, but you get the idea.

Something to consider here – something common to folks who are genuinely excited about learning – is an unusual comfort level with being WRONG. A thirst for learning is predicated on (1) acknowledging that you don’t know everything already, and (2) that the stuff you may THINK you know, is wrong or incomplete. Why mention this? Cuz it can help your case to give EVIDENCE of that. Have you ever been wrong about something, and were THRILLED to discover what ended up being a BETTER WAY OF LOOKING AT SOMETHING? Walk us through what it felt like, why it might have felt bad at some point, but why it felt GOOD eventually to have developed, improved, evolved. We need to really PROVE that you’re turned on by learning, and admitting that you’ve been wrong (and loved it), is an excellent way to do so.

Another way, alluded to earlier, is purely through action. Is there evidence of “tirelessness” when you’re attempting to learn something? We need to see ways in which you pursue this thing, especially when it’s INCONVENIENT to do so. In other words, if your pursuit is compelling, but kinda expected, it won’t weigh as much. If you decided you wanted to get some cereal, and then went out and bought yourself some cereal… um, okay? But if on the way, it started to rain, and a hurricane arrived, and the store closed, so you hitchhiked to another location, and that store was closed too, so you decided to call your friend you know who happened to have an extra box, but he wasn’t home, so you decided to……. [yada yada]…. You ended up with your box of Crispix. Now THAT GUY’s interest in “cereal” seems unimpeachable, no? Show us how, when pursuing something for the sake of learning, you’ve done it (1) when no one else was looking, or (2) when it became inconvenient to do so, but you still did it, or (3) when the risk of continuing to do it started to outweigh the benefits, or… you get the idea.

Most students will focus on THE THING they’re excited about, rather than proving their excitement through action. It’s that second group that ultimately wins, because we now have reason to believe that they have that forward-leaning trait which will carry them through college and beyond. (And that’s whole point of this question – to make sure you won’t drop out in freshman year when you take a class that’s harder than any class you’ve ever taken before.)


Classic Stanford undergrad question. The mistake we see 95% of the time on first drafts is the impulse to try to “slip in” resume highlights. As if this is a veiled attempt by Stanford to get those highlights, instead of, you know, just asking for them. The way to impress Stanford here is through honesty and charm. But mostly honesty.

Indulge us here and take two swings at this. On the first attempt, get it out of your system, whatever letter you want to write, just take a crack and then file it away for the time being.

On your second attempt, go with us on a little journey. Start by creating a roommate, leaving everything to chance (the same way it’ll more or less work out when you’re actually assigned a roommate in your freshman dorm). For starters, your roommate will almost certainly be the same gender. Now, generate a bunch of parameters, like ethnicity, height, weight, athletic/ musical/etc., liberal/conservative, east coast/southern/west-coast/etc., affable/surly, cool/not-so-cool, American/foreign-born/etc.…. Don’t spend too much time, because it doesn’t really matter much. Give this guy or gal a name. Again, don’t get stuck on this, the idea is to paint a vague picture. But once you have this picture, commit to it for a second. Imagine a real person on the other end.

Now, you’re gonna address a fresh new letter to this person. If the open-ended-ness of the Stanford prompt leaves you stuck, consider some of the following ideas. Write the letter using one of the following:

  • What if your roommate just confided in you, and told you an incredible secret. Something that leaves your roommate in an extremely vulnerable emotional state having just put him/herself on the line. What might you reveal about YOURSELF in response? “Hey, so here’s something most people don’t know about ME…” (What might follow that up?)
  • Treat it as though it were a dating profile. What kinds of preferences would you reveal about yourself that might give the BEST clues about what you’re all about? Think about quirks and specificity here. If you were to say “I like Chinese food” it doesn’t say all that much since so many different types of people would fall under that same category. If, however, you were to say you absolutely HATE the HBO show “Game of Thrones” that would have the opposite effect since “most people are obsessed with that show (INCLUDING ALL OF US AT ADMISSIONADO, SO WATCH YOUR STEP!).” Can you stack up a few such preferences that, when summed, may help someone get a sense for what you’re all about, and even better, become more curious to get to know you better?
  • You know that classic question “if you were stuck on a desert island forever, what album would you bring?” … You can put a twist on it here. Name a few KEY possessions you’re gonna bring that’ll be essential to your comfort. Forget bland necessities like “a toothbrush” (since everyone will be packing one of those). More like, the “sounds of the rainforest” you use to lull yourself to sleep every night. Stuff like that. And possibly even suggest a few things you DON’T have that your roommate may bring to complete the set for total roommate symbiosis. You don’t need to follow this conceit exactly, but maybe this gives you an idea from which you can springboard to help show us something about who you are exactly, and what makes you … you.


Ha, in 250 words… you’re asked to grapple with one of life’s more challenging questions. A fitting test for a place like Stanford. Let’s start with what NOT to do.

Extinguish the desire to imagine what Stanford wants to hear. If you pen a response that you BELIEVE will put you in good stead because you think it shows maturity, or emotional intelligence, or whatever else… you are in for a crash landing. Or, tell you what, let’s a make a deal. Write that version, and keep it handy. Now write ANOTHER version that may never ever see the light of day. Think of this as a private diary entry. An exercise that may lead to something. But take the pressure away that someone might read it, so be more honest than you might want to be otherwise.

For this version, imagine you’re addressing a  huge crowd (as if you are the Pope, or MLK), and it’s a crowd of people who… aren’t really contributing all that positively to society. Maybe they’re lazy. Maybe they’re irresponsible. Maybe they’re disaffected. Maybe they’re dangerous. Let’s just call them the folks who aren’t model citizens of the world.

What might you say to inspire these folks? Think about it. If you were to say something obvious, wouldn’t it run the risk of not having much of an impact? Make it less about you (just for a second), and instead think about what you might say to inspire this crowd. If you were to say “say no to drugs” or “do unto others…” or “cherish each day as though it were your last” … hasn’t everyone heard it already? If they haven’t internalized those ideas, they’re certainly not gonna do so just because YOU said it, right? But they might if they hear something NEW, something fresh about what matters, in a way that may cause them to re-evaluate things or see things through a new lens.

Obviously, you won’t want to write about something trivial, like “driving a nice car matters because the value of a smooth ride is more pleasing than a bumpy one.” Unless it’s a cracking metaphor, something like that might make your message seem like you didn’t give it a whole lot of thought, or, worse, you’re someone who’s so privileged that that type of material comfort is truly something that matters more than deeper, cooler things. So, it probably will have to do with human interaction, or a way of approaching things, or a state of being, or the like. Think about where others are going wrong. What are others MISSING, in a way that leads to irresponsible behavior, actions, attitudes, etc.? What matters to YOU that makes you feel like your compass is pointed in a better direction?

This conceit (of addressing a crowd) is meant to unlock ideas, not for you to embrace the idea too literally. You’re not proselytizing. So, if it helps, use your imagination of the crowd to help the ideation process, and then if you find a neat germ of an idea, you can build on it and then personalize it and develop it in a form that’s more suitable for this 250-word space. If you’re having a writer’s block and there’s no hope in sight, consider taking advantage of college admissions assistance.

Above all, be interesting here, by taking some risks. If you write something that you think someone else might ALSO say, torch it. Do it over. Keep doing it until you’re convinced that no one else will be writing about this idea. Or, write about a common idea in an uncommon way. Push yourself here, and avoid “predictable.”

Learn more and explore each step of Stanford’s undergraduate application process here.

September 20, 2019


Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences that was particularly meaningful to you. (Response required in about 150 words.)

Suppose you start by listing out ALL your extracurricular activities or work experiences. Just list em. Here are two interesting ways to play this:

Option 1 – “When you look at my profile at a glance, you’d probably guess that the most MEANINGFUL of these activities was Activity/Experience “C” and that would be a fine guess! And don’t get me wrong, I do love that one for all the reasons you’d expect. But, honestly? The most MEANINGFUL one of those is actually “E” … (gasp). Surprised? Reasonable. Well, lemme explain why…”

Option 2 – “When you look at my profile at a glance, you’d probably guess that the most MEANINGFUL of these activities was Activity/Experience “C” and that would be a fine guess! In fact… you are CORRECT. But… it’s meaningful to me NOT for the reason you may THINK it is………..”

Why do we like either of those options? Because when our natural instincts and assumptions are checked, we take notice. And as an applicant, trying to get the attention of a reader who is reading thousands of similar-looking responses, this is a really good thing.

But besides that, after you’ve primed your reader to take notice, whatever you say next will likely REVEAL something about you. It’s inevitable. “I thought you were going to say X, but then you said surprising thing Y… hunh, this doesn’t fit with my expectations… you, sir/madame, just got more interesting…” is what plays through the reader’s mind. So, you can play with that a bit, and quickly lay out what you believe the predictable version might be, and then spend the remaining 100 words or so THROWING YOUR READER A TWIST that makes him/her take notice.

The best test for whether the “meaningfulness” is there is how obvious and predictable is it to have said that what you did was meaningful. “It was meaningful to me that I saved that kid’s life from an oncoming train.” Yah, but what monster WOULDN’T feel that exact same thing? It’s not to say that it’s not “the correct” emotion or relationship with that event, but it’s not revealing that you think it to be meaningful, because… it’s expected. The “revealing” test goes positive when there’s an aspect of it that ISN’T expected. Test your potential answer for that… see what happens.


Please tell us how you have spent the last two summers (or vacations between school years), including any jobs you have held. (Response required in about 150 words.)

One cool way to set this up and make ANYTHING you ultimately did seem interesting is… lay out some of the OPTIONS you considered. Not theoretical options that applied to others and not you, actual options that you MIGHT have pursued.

Then, explain what you actually did. And why. And here’s the trick: Prove that you chose to do those things for reasons OTHER THAN in anticipation of this application! Because for many, that’s absolutely why they chose to do certain things, “because it would look good on a college application.” The trick is to convince the reader that you would have done it even if it HURT your chances, because you were unusually committed to the thing, or were hopelessly passionate about it… sell us. Make us believe that your engine operates according to its own will, and not in response to what it thinks admissions committees want…


  • Your favorite book and its author
  • Your favorite website
  • Your favorite recording
  • Your favorite source of inspiration
  • Your favorite line from a movie or book and its title
  • Your favorite movie
  • Two adjectives your friends would use to describe you
  • Your favorite keepsake or memento
  • Your favorite word

Be quick. Don’t get too wordy. Embrace contradictions. If you’re the withdrawn “I hate everything” Goth type, it’ll blow people’s minds to see “Justin Bieber” on this list. Contradictions can happen along MORE THAN ONE dimension here. One version is simply, a contradiction with “a predictable response.” So, if you pick an UNUSUAL example at all, that counts.

But it can also be a contradiction with respect to the image you’re developing overall in your application. If you’re the ATHLETE, or the SCIENCE GUY, or the CLASS PRESIDENT/VALEDICTORIAN gal, or the whatever… it gets MUCH cooler if something on this list BETRAYS our predictions for what “that type of kid” would probably write.

There’s one more. A contradiction WITHIN THIS LIST ITSELF. So, if most of your answers are offbeat… it can be refreshing to have one completely DOWN-THE-MIDDLE response because that will (counterintuitively) be the most daring thing on the list!

Long and short of it is… knock people off balance a bit. But you gotta do this deliberately. There’s an art to it. In other words, there IS a way to swing and MISS, so don’t just put completely random things down.

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of Princeton’s application essays.

Learn more and explore each step of Princeton’s undergraduate application process here.

September 20, 2019

In addition to the essay you have written for the Coalition Application, the Common Application or the Universal College Application, please write an essay of about 500 words (no more than 650 words and no fewer than 250 words). Using one of the themes below as a starting point, write about a person, event or experience that helped you define one of your values or in some way changed how you approach the world. Please do not repeat, in full or in part, the essay you wrote for the Coalition Application, the Common Application or Universal College Application.


This is already baked into the main question. If you can quickly pin some evolution in your “rudder/worldview/etc.” to a person, this is a great, simple one to use. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you can win points through your choice of person here. It’s ALL about the values shift, and your ability to allow yourself to have had your values… shifted. That all make sense? It says something about you if you can demonstrate the capacity to see something in someone else, or let someone else’s approach affect you in a way that contradicts (or affects, somehow) your pre-existing take. It shows you can introspect. Of all high school students applying to badass colleges, only a few score high on THAT PARTICULAR THING.

Again, Princeton isn’t gonna admit “your awesome grandfather” based on his insane story that changed your life. Pick your person, and then dig into YOUR PERSONALITY before and after you interacted with that person. You were something BEFORE this person influenced you in some way, and then you were CHANGED in some way after it. There’s a delta there. That delta is what this essay is all about. And the process by which you went from X to Y. No points for what X is, or what Y is, or who Change Agent Z was. It’s all about the progression from X… to Y.


So, when you think about how you view the world, ways in which you’ve evolved on something, something stirring in you, etc., is there a connection between that and “disparities” that Wasow might be obliquely referring to? (May help to watch the speech, by the way.)

As with any quote like this, you’ll need to devote just a bit of time interpreting it, and then use it as a REFERENCE to the main question. Always remember the main question here is “write about a person, event or experience that helped you define one of your values or in some way changed how you approach the world.” Don’t just leap into unpacking the quote. But also, don’t leap into your story and ignore the quote. A few sentences remarking on what Wasow might have meant, and then diving into why this connects with your response to the main question, that’s what we’re going for here.


Same deal here. A few sentences on what Rosen meant, your take on it, and then, circle it back to the “main question,” the stuff we talked about earlier. Any jumping off point like this should somehow connect to someone or some event or experience that shaped you. Don’t forget that.

And remember the “delta” principle here. Does this quote remind you of a moment when you went from ONE way of thinking to ANOTHER? Or evolved from a 2 to a 10 along some continuum? It’ll only be truly compelling when we can peek into the way you USED to construct an issue, to how that changed to a NEW/EVOLVED way you constructed the same issue. Presumably on account of an event, series of events, some kind of change agent in the form of a person, whatever.


You’ll need the quote NOW, by the way. If you have to thumb through essays and books to find it, chances are, the quote doesn’t mean enough to you and this isn’t the best prompt to use. This prompt will either make you think of a quote immediately, or not. If it DOES make you think of a quote that jolted you somehow… hold onto it. Explore it. If it doesn’t, keep fishing around these five prompts and feel the one giving off the greatest amount of “heat.” Which one… just feels like the one that makes you think about your values, people in your life who have influenced you, experiences you had that were “defining”? Zero in on those because that visceral feeling will be your best guide.

Once you lock into your jumping off point, just find an efficient way to connect it to YOUR story, and then simply build a rough draft based on walking us through a portrait of “Version 1 You,” the influence that then somehow shaped you in some way to “Version 2 You.” Walk us through “the shaping.” This is the key, folks. Then in a final short paragraph, tie it all up. Why did you just tell that to us? Why was that transformation meaningful? What will you take with you? Why will any of it matter?

At the end of that exercise, friends, you will have… a first draft. That’s when the fun begins.

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of Princeton’s application essays.

Learn more and explore each step of Princeton’s undergraduate application process here.

September 20, 2019

If you are interested in pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Engineering degree, please write a 300-500 word essay describing why you are interested in studying engineering, any experiences in or exposure to engineering you have had and how you think the programs in engineering offered at Princeton suit your particular interests.

*This essay is required for students who indicate Bachelor of Science in Engineering as a possible degree of study on their application.

You may wanna address the elephant in the room, which is… “are you pursuing engineering because your parents made you”? hahah. It’s either gonna be EXACTLY your situation (you wanna be an artist but your parents say “Nuh Unh”), or the exact opposite (your parents want you to be an artist, and YOU say, nope, me like engineering), or it’s somewhere in between. It doesn’t matter which one it is. What matters is emerging with the reader saying “this kid is GENUINE about it.” More often than not, the argument you THINK makes for the most compelling sell on why you’re interested in something (in this case engineering), is the least convincing. Usually, because it makes… too much sense. Sounds too perfect. Is too predictable. The best arguments are the ones that are surprising, unpredictable, off-balance somehow.

“Hey so, both my parents are engineers and have kinda insisted that I also be an engineer and have threatened to disown me if I don’t become an engineer, so that’s part of it. I decided to do it, but I decided that I would HATE it. Because I was a kid and that’s what kids do in response to anything their parents say. So that’s what I did. I took classes with a “Harumph” arms-folded attitude, cuz it’s all I had. The thing is? No matter how hard I tried, I frickin loved it. DAMNIT! Must. Not. Let. Parents. Win…” yada yada. It’s possible to take what COULD have been a predictable version (parents said I had to) and turn INTO something a little surprising.

You just need to find the element that’s true to YOUR experience and bring it front and center. That’s your ticket into to SELLING your interest in engineering, your plans for it, your love of the study OF it, etc.

All that selling of YOUR draw toward engineering, your plans, etc., should take up maybe 70% of the thing. The final piece is convincing us that of all the engineering programs out there, somehow the one at PRINCETON snaps into place with you and your interests and skillset… differently and better than others. In order to make that argument, you need to map specific elements of the Princeton engineering program to specific aspects of what YOU NEED in order to excel… the most. This isn’t easy. And it’s all about specificity and making those connections. Not simply in IDENTIFYING aspects of the programs which seem promising or noteworthy. Gotta connect to something specific about you.

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of Princeton’s application essays.

Learn more and explore each step of Princeton’s undergraduate application process here.

September 20, 2019

In 150 words or fewer, please list a few words or phrases that describe your ideal college community.

What’s the point of college (for you)? In other words, why bother at all? What are you hoping to develop in the next four years, and what are you hoping to DO with all that?

Once you’ve wrapped your head about where you are generally headed, now you’re in a position to say whether College Experience A is better or worse than College Experience B in preparing you for that future. This isn’t to say that you need to know exactly where you’ll be in five or ten years, but it helps to have at least a vague sense of even the KIND OF success you’d like to experience in life. What would be the ideal college community, to support all that? What stuff will make you flourish the most? What stuff will bring out your best? What stuff will propel you forward in the coolest, most exciting way?

It may be useful to think about some of the things you know to have the OPPOSITE effect. Where do you find your energy and intellectual curiosity and general drive… suffocated? What are the conditions you HATE? What are the conditions you know yourself NOT to succeed in? You can work backwards to find out what’s common to the environments where the OPPOSITE happens. The components of the environment that provide constant sparks that STIR something in you.

If it seems like you’re trying to write a love letter to Columbia here, it’ll be too obvious and get lost in the herd. If, however, it seems like you’re describing things you know to be true contributors to your INEVITABLE success, you will effectively FLIP THE SCRIPT and make it so that Columbia wants to NOT LOSE you to a competitor. This answer should be all about explaining in a very straightforward way what your ideal surroundings are, because as soon as SOMEONE ELSE can prove that they have those for you, that’s whom YOU will choose as your partner in crime over the next four years.

Structure-wise, this is one large paragraph or two crisp ones. You’ll wanna stay focused on two things: [1] Clearly establishing what environmental factors bring out the best in you, and [2] Revealing how exactly you’ll respond to those factors on Columbia’s campus. Do this a few times (a few separate examples), and you’ll end up with a taut 150 words piece.

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of Columbia’s application essays.

Learn more and explore each step of Brown’s undergraduate application process here.

September 20, 2019

For the four list questions that follow, we ask that you list each individual response using commas or semicolons; the items do not have to be numbered or in any specific order. No narrative or explanatory text is needed. It is not necessary to italicize or underline titles of books or other publications. Author names may be included, but are not required. You do not need to fill the entire space or use the maximum number of words; there is no minimum word count in this section, so please respond to the extent that you feel is appropriate.

Please list the following (150 words or fewer for each question):

  • the titles of the required readings from courses during the school year or summer that you enjoyed most in the past year;
  • the titles of books read for pleasure that you enjoyed most in the past year;
  • the titles of print or electronic publications you read regularly;
  • and the titles of the films, concerts, shows, exhibits, lectures and other entertainments you enjoyed most in the past year.

This is just a list, friends. Don’t overthink it. Depending on what your list actually looks like, you may want to make some intelligent trims to make sure the balance doesn’t work against you in any direction. Say you’ve read 100 graphic novels and three incredibly unusual biographies. You may wanna trim that list of graphic novels down so that the biographies shine a bit more. Find the balance that is most reflective of your unique preferences.

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of Columbia’s application essays.

Learn more and explore each step of Brown’s undergraduate application process here.

September 20, 2019

Please answer the following short answer questions (300 words or fewer for each question):


The stuff you value about Columbia will be meaningless unless you show those things will somehow benefit you, and inspire you to do great things. You simply MUST make this connection for us:

Part I: I find XYZ aspects of Columbia University (in particular) appealing.

Part II: [This is key.] And this is why those things, when they mix with ME, will lead to greatness…

Think of it like a chemical reaction. Imagine you’re some kind of reactive substance about to be introduced to a bunch of different environments. Columbia is one of them. Why is THIS one the most explosive? Maybe the others foam and sizzle a bit, but when introduced to Columbia, you positively will explode (in a good way). Why? How? What is it about Columbia and NYC that will enable this?

Also, if your reasoning can apply equally well to NYU or another New York City school, it won’t fly. Or if your argument can apply equally well to another student, it won’t fly. It has to be specific on both counts.

As you’re structuring this, one very cool way to establish credibility is first to explain what it is (IN GENERAL) that helps you flourish. Give us evidence while you’re at it. Now, we must assume that many schools OTHER THAN COLUMBIA have some VERSION of these necessary ingredients, right? It can’t be that your future depends on Columbia, or else you’ll shrivel up and wither. Naw, you’re gonna be fine wherever you end up. You just have an opportunity to explain why Columbia’s VERSION of those ingredients is particularly exciting to you. Connect those Columbia traits to the stuff you established already. Do that a few times, and your 300 words will write themselves. So here’s an outline:

  1. Establish the circumstances under which you THRIVE… best, the most, etc. And prove it with an example or two. [125 words or so]
  2. Using two (maybe three) examples, identify SPECIFIC things UNIQUE to Columbia that map to traits you established in Part 1. Be ridiculously specific. [175 words or so]


A somewhat disappointing question from Columbia… we believe that it’s always a bit weird to ask someone entering college about their chosen major. It’s the equivalent of asking four-year-olds what they want to be when they grow up – there probably won’t be a meaningful correlation to what actually ends up happening. But consider it. The folks who wrote this question aren’t exactly dummies. They know what they’re doing. So why are they asking you to talk about your target field when they know it will probably change?

It’s all about the reasoning behind the reason here. “Ah, I like your approach. I like the way you think about your future. Wonderful, now go on and do whatever it is you end up doing, I trust you’re going to make cool choices and succeed.” That’s what it boils down to.

So, with that in mind, worry less about the “what” and pay more attention to the “why.” Justify your reasoning for pursuing a field (or fields). Make a nice clear argument. Explain where the passion comes from. Explain your attachment to the pursuit itself (less the specific outcome). Convince us that your plan is to succeed no matter what, even if your path ends up looking different, or even if your goal shifts a bit. Talk about your approach. Talk about process. Talk about the ASPECT of the field that energizes you. These are all “scalable” things. This is where the gold’s at.


Challenge yourself and try this out. In your “rough draft/ideation” stage, pen some thoughts about what you expect OTHERS will write. Do this two or three times. Almost smugly, quickly summarize the most predictable answer you can imagine here, that everyone under the sun will use. If it helps, label your scratch paper thusly:

Predictable Answer 1 – My interest in BLAH attracts me to Field X. (Boring.)

Predictable Answer 2 – My interest in BLAH attracts me to Field Y. (Boring.)

Predictable Answer 3 – My interest in BLAH attracts me to Field Z. (Boring.)

(Fill those “BLAHs” in, obviously.)

Now sit back, having gone through the motions of mindlessly capturing the most obvious responses here, and start YOUR version with the following phrase: “My attraction to Field X is actually an unusual story…” Or, “Most people don’t believe me when I tell them that my interest in this field comes from THIS.” Or, “The steps leading to my interest may make sense, but wait until you hear about my FUTURE PLANS…”

Where does it go from there? The more unusual, the more likely we are to BUY it.

This is important folks: Don’t make up an unusual origin story for your interests if you truly don’t have one. If your journey to Field X falls in line with what others are likely to write about, then you still have some strategies you can use. You may even call yourself out on it. “By all appearances, I must look like the quintessential {insert Nationality} kid with parents who are {insert parents’ engineering backgrounds}, who was encouraged to pursue the same field. Here’s the thing, I actually love it. Here’s the proof.” You can still make a convincing argument that way. But whatever you do, we need to buy it. In fact, imagine someone asking you this question out loud, you answer, and then they say in response: “I don’t believe you.”

What would your response be? It would go something like: “You don’t believe me? Well let me prove it to you. After I walk you through these three examples, you will be convinced.” (Go from there, see where it leads.)

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of Columbia’s application essays.

Learn more and explore each step of Brown’s undergraduate application process here.

September 20, 2019

We know you lead a busy life, full of activities, many of which are required of you. Tell us about something you do simply for the pleasure of it. (100 words or fewer)

Only a few of you will have the natural instinct to be 100% honest here and let loose. The REST of you are likely going to ask yourselves some version of the following: “what can I say here that will impress the admissions committee the most”? Dear, dear applicant… this is your opportunity to unclench, and let loose. If your answer here is boring, guess what that says about you. If your answer here feels overly manufactured, guess what that says about you.

MIT has the luxury of picking out, from among the smartest candidates on planet Earth, the individuals who ALSO have a vibrant personality that will synergize well with other geniuses. So they get to take 100 over-qualified candidates, and find the 5 or so that light it up for them the most. Don’t blow these opportunities to be cool and likable. The way to be likable is to make honest admissions here, and prove that you’re unafraid to do so.

So, what stuff actually gives you pleasure? What stuff lessens stress? What stuff makes you smile? What stuff makes you giddy? What stuff makes you feel alive? Make a list. Aim for ten items. Ten things that no one around you necessarily knows about. Maybe they do, but maybe they don’t. Maybe these things that you do for the pleasure of it are private or hidden escapes that don’t appear on any bulletin boards in your school. Doesn’t matter. Make a list of ten.

Okay, phew. Hopefully, that was fun. In fact, hopefully, it became MORE fun once you started to get into the groove a bit. But now, you have a list of ten things. Which of these things do you think someone else MIGHT write about? Cross it out.

How many items are left? (If you have zero items left, we have another plan for you which we’ll get to in a minute.) Of these remaining items, which one feels the most unusual, or the one that is most “you”? Which one has a unique story behind it? Which one CONTRASTS with your profile the most? Let’s say your resume is chock full of science awards… imagine how boring it would be to learn that in your spare time, you like to experiment with growing plants. Good lord. It would be much cooler if instead you talked about how you are obsessed with costumes. Costumes in movies, theatre, Halloween… anything involving a costume, you’re all over it. (Weird! And cool!) Or, that you are determined to make a new flavor of soft drink, and in your spare time, you combine different fruit juices and vegetable extracts and other ingredients. Or, you’re extremely obsessed with Asian pop music, and you’re a blond-haired blue-eyed Alabaman with an uncomfortable history of not-so-open-minded grandparents.

Conflict is interesting. Clashes are interesting. Surprises are interesting. Think about what your “resume” says. And then see if anything on your list of genuine hobbies or interests somehow draws a contrast to it or “adds dimensionality.” It’s boring when everything you do feels predictable. Think about the best books or movies. Did any of them lack conflict?

Oh, and as promised, for those of you who lined-out all ten possibilities, fret not. Either you can take another swing with an additional five. Or, you “un-cross-out” those ten and look at them another way. Instead of asking whether someone else may talk about these, ask yourself if your particular relationship with any item on your list is somehow unique. For example, yes, I’m a Marvel comic book geek just like a million others, but… not in the same way. My obsession is with … {insert unusual twist that dismantles the possibility that someone else will write about the same thing}. This way, you can write about something someone else might, but in a completely different – and surprising – way.

Once you lock the thing or things you’re gonna write about, here’s a way to structure it:

  1. Two options for opening this sucker. You can either tell us about the thing straight away: What it is, what you do, how you got into it, why you like it, etc. Or, you can set up what kind of stuff your “busy schedule” is chock full of, and what’s MISSING that’s CRUCIAL TO UNDERSTANDING YOUR SOUL. This will SET UP your reveal for “the thing you do purely for pleasure.” Either way will work just fine. [40-70 words]
  2. For Part II, you’ll wanna make mention of how this activity fits into your overall picture. Does this fill a void? Does it counterbalance something else? If you took this AWAY, what do you think would happen to your state of mind and emotional balance? Hopefully… something. This is your chance to identify what that something is, and explain it to us. [30-60 words]

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of MIT’s application essays.

Learn more and explore each step of MIT’s undergraduate application process here.

September 20, 2019

Although you may not yet know what you want to major in, which department or program at MIT appeals to you and why? (100 words or fewer)

For this sucker, spend less time extolling the virtues of a department and certain professors and all that jazz and spend MORE time (all of your time, actually) examining what aspects of the anticipated “learning” connects best with you.

One cool way to look at is this: imagine someone said “Congratulations! You get to go to MIT, but only through this bizarre roulette system where you’re gonna end up in one random department that you won’t get to choose, but you’ll have to stick with it for four years.” And let’s suppose that you ACCEPT that offer, for argument’s sake. What do those paths all look like? Do they fulfill more or less the exact same thing for you? Do you like each potential option equally? We certainly hope not! Hopefully, among the options, one or two stands out as being part of your overall future plan, fitting in with your skillset, desires, and goals… better. What are the elements that make that so?

“This is the subject matter that sends a bolt of lightning through my system, here’s why, here’s what I hope to do with it, and here’s why this particular department is the one that’s gonna combine with my passion, and vision, in the most meaningful way…” essentially.

See how that argument goes? It’s not quite as strong when you start by praising the department itself. Those arguments will be weightless without the more important context of what YOUR nature is, what your GOALS are, and therefore how and why this particular environment at MIT will help you fulfill those.


  1. First, establish what you WANT in a program. And what you NEED. Be specific.
  2. Now, explain why one or two SPECIFIC aspects of a specific department/program at MIT MEETS those wants and needs better than (or differently from) other schools/programs.

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of MIT’s application essays.

Learn more and explore each step of MIT’s undergraduate application process here.

September 20, 2019

At MIT, we bring people together to better the lives of others. MIT students work to improve their communities in different ways, from tackling the world’s biggest challenges to being a good friend. Describe one way in which you have contributed to your community, whether in your family, the classroom, your neighborhood, etc. (200-250 words)

Be careful not to do the humblebrag thing here. Don’t talk about the way you improved the lives of others, based on some amazing quality of yours (if this were a business school application, that WOULD be how you’d want to approach it – kind of).

But here, your focus has to be on what it was that made you act in the first place, and it should be the case that not everyone would have sprung into action at all, or in the same way. If a nearby child fell onto train tracks, presumably ANYONE AND EVERYONE would quickly leap into action to rescue the child, no? So, to claim that as a time when you “stepped up” and did something (brave) for the betterment of the community, falls a bit flat. “Who wouldn’t have done that?” The cooler version is the one where others, if given the same circumstances, might have either NOT THOUGHT to help, or would have thought about it but not acted. And perhaps you fought some demons in the middle of it as well, the more conflict the better. But ultimately you decided to do something. Walk us through it. Why was it difficult? What made it “questionable” or “not an obvious” thing to have done?

It should be clear that you didn’t NEED to do this. That no one was looking, and that you didn’t do it out of obligation, or guilt, or because you knew you’d be measured by others in this moment. That you “acted, even though no one was looking, and no one might ever even know” … is the truest evidence of genuine morality.

  1. So, to structure this, you’ll first wanna establish the status quo, the way things were BEFORE you did whatever you did. Take yourself out of it, what would have continued to happen? What was the normal way of things? Set it up. Establish the normal. [50 words]
  2. Next, lay out the choices you felt you had. One of those choices MUST have been not to act at all. And surely there were other options available to you as well. Walk us through what the tricky ones were, and why it wasn’t an obvious/easy decision. Explain what might have caused another otherwise ” decent” human being NOT to have acted in the way YOU ultimately did. What were the stakes? What would happen if you didn’t do anything? Who would care? [75 words]
  3. Walk us through what you did, whom it affected, how it all went down, the impact of it (so far as you could tell/measure). [75-100 words]
  4. And finally, why did you think about THIS moment in particular? What’s the significance of it in a bigger sense? [25-50 words]

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of MIT’s application essays.

Learn more and explore each step of MIT’s undergraduate application process here.

September 20, 2019

Tell us about the most significant challenge you’ve faced or something important that didn’t go according to plan. How did you manage the situation? (200-250 words)

One key word to consider here: vulnerability. We need to hear about a time when you were knocked off balance. A time when you were absolutely uncertain of the outcome. When you doubted yourself. Maybe even when you lost faith in yourself. Certainly, a time when you felt like you didn’t know the answer. Or a time when you “did” know the answer… and you were wrong. The more willing you are to admit any of these, the more likely you are to seem like someone who has the ability to grow, and to play in the big leagues.

Your first challenge is to pick one example of when you made the biggest miscalculation of your life, or felt the most unsure of yourself… list a few examples that come to mind, and then focus on the one that represented the biggest “belly-flop.” The biggest blunder. The worst mistake. The most vulnerable moment, etc. Extremes are our friend here.

Take us quickly through your initial objective, and the challenges that were in your way, and your reasoning for pursuing whatever actions you initially took. Tell it to us in real time as though you were recording your thought process while it was happening; in other words, back when it all seemed like a good idea, or the correct way forward. This is key.

Then explain what went wrong. Don’t dwell on the details much, just give us the gist. More importantly, reveal how you PROCESSED this twist. This is the part where you talk about feeling weightless, disappointed, angry, no longer confident, whatever the cocktail of emotions was… we want to know it all. Take your time, be honest and admit to it all, fully.

Now, walk us through the “pull yourself up and fix it” plan. Perhaps you didn’t fix it, and that’s okay. But presumably, you attempted to rectify it somehow. Explain the internal (and/or external) conflicts. Walk us through those complicated emotions. And explain how it ended, remembering that a positive result isn’t the goal, but rather, a solid “life lesson” that made YOU stronger somehow.

This essay is all about “can this kid handle major curveballs”? And not just can you handle em, but maybe… have you learned from enough curveballs in the past that now you CRAVE them because that’s how you grow and develop the best? We hope you’re familiar with curveballs and know how to hit em, because your first year MIT (or any college, frankly) is going to be one giant curveball.

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of MIT’s application essays.

Learn more and explore each step of MIT’s undergraduate application process here.

September 20, 2019

There is also one final, open-ended additional information text box, where you can tell us anything else you think we really ought to know.

The only thing that should go here is a FACET to your overall profile that’s utterly MISSING from your application. Or, a red flag in your profile that needs addressing (bad test scores, a blip in your grades, something that you believe doesn’t represent you properly). Other than those two things, don’t just flesh out something that they’ve either “gotten” already, or worse, doesn’t advance their understanding of you in any way.

If your application is ridiculously lop-sided in ANY direction, and there’s MORE dimensionality to you that absolutely MUST be conveyed, find a coooooool way to convey it. This is gonna vary from candidate to candidate, but this extra thing MIGHT be the kind of thing you can just state outright and it’ll work beautifully. Or, you’ll need to package it ever-so-carefully (like in a humorous or creative way, or something), to make it WORK. Impossible to give examples because it’s all part of a complex, holistic assessment of what the REST of the application sums to say about you, and what’s missing, and therefore… what to include and how to include it.

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of MIT’s application essays.

Learn more and explore each step of MIT’s undergraduate application process here.

August 17, 2019

Cornell Johnson MBA Impact Essay

At Cornell, our students and alumni share a desire to positively impact the organizations and communities they serve. How do you intend to make an impact during the next several years of your education and/or career? (350 words maximum)

This essay is designed to explore the intersection of engagement and community culture. Whether during the program or following graduation, our students and alumni share a desire to positively impact the organizations and communities they serve. To help you explore your potential for impact, we encourage you to engage with our students, alumni, faculty, and professional staff. You may choose to connect with them via email or phone or in person during one of our on campus or off campus events. As you seek their input and insight, please be respectful of their time and prepare a few discussion points or questions in advance.

Johnson is looking to kick a little bit of ass. Maybe they’re niggled by being ranked lower than they believe they deserve. Maybe it’s simply a mission to RISE UP for its own sake. Regardless, it’s clear that the way they wanna do that is by screening for your SPIRIT DRAGON score with respect to Johnson specifically. The thinking being… the more you’re utterly DEVOTED to Johnson, and only Johnson, the more likely you’ll dig your heels in, and energize the guy next to you, and the gal across the way, and through cohort cohesion, and passion, the likelihood for future success, and stronger “word of mouth” for top talent to “also that for themselves” … goes up.

Your mission here, like it or not, is to demonstrate (not argue)… demonstrate that you’ve come to the CONCLUSION that the best version of your future self passes through the Johnson MBA, and you’ve come to that conclusion over the course of some serious research which includes some level of contact with folks who are at Johnson presently, or alums in some capacity. We prove that conviction by showing that your values align with Cornell’s stated values—i.e., that you have a clear plan for how to make an impact at Cornell and beyond.

To be clear, this isn’t a test on whose “case for impact” is most compelling. This is a test for whose “case for impact is compelling enough that we know this kid is going to kick ass?” See the difference? You’re not going to win points by selling them on a CAUSE or IDEA, and proving that “compelling impact with respect to that cause” is a good thing. No. You’re going to win points by the way you talk about your plan, by proving just how thoughtful you are ABOUT impact, and how SMART you are about your plan for impact, and how DEDICATED YOU ARE TO SEEING IT THROUGH. The plan isn’t nearly as important as the thought process you reveal while discussing it.

Keep in mind: no one is going to follow up on whether you deliver on this plan. They don’t give a rat’s ass if you stick to the goals you lay out here—if they did, they would lock you into a certain major/concentration and track your progress. It’s not about your plan, or the societal problem you hope to solve (though both of those thing should be rock solid, of course)—the real magic is when the adcom realizes “this kid, based on the way he talks about impact, clearly GETS it, GETS what it takes to get it done, and is going to succeed.”

Why does it matter to understand it this way rather than the other way? ‘Cuz now you’ll focus less on selling them on the importance of the “idea” or “concept” or “problem” and focus instead on YOUR dedication to getting it done, and on the logic behind your solution.

Here’s an example structure:

  • Establish where it is you wanna make an impact and why. Cool trick: imagine two kinds of success: (a) “good enough success, major win, great job” and then (b) “all of that, plus……. IMPACT that goes above and beyond, elevates an organization, provides a mechanism for LASTING/CONTINUED success, etc.” What’s the difference? That’s where we need to focus. Give us a sense of BOTH of those (possible in two paragraphs) and why you’re so committed to the latter. Where and why did you decide that THAT was your bar for success?
  • Then, briefly, tell us how you’re gonna do it, and why those things will have the intended outcome. Get specific. Finally, close with a line that captures your passion and reminds the adcom of how you think about impact.

August 17, 2019

Cornell Johnson MBA Park Fellowship Essay

What is your greatest example of leadership and what personal qualities helped you succeed in that role? Please limit your submission to 500 words or fewer.

The Roy H. Park Leadership Fellows Program is a two-year full tuition fellowship award for Two-Year MBA candidates in Ithaca who have demonstrated outstanding leadership potential and who are committed to making an impact within their communities. Each year it is awarded to up to 25 incoming students, with the expectation that they will participate in additional leadership and personal development activities outside of our regular curriculum, serve in leadership roles within the school, and complete a public service project by the time they graduate. The Park Fellowship is only available to U.S. citizens applying for the Two-Year MBA program.

Honestly, this seems like it might require something special, but at the end of the day, for those who qualify (U.S. citizens, etc.), this is just about being as convincing as you can that you not only (1) have OODLES of leadership experience emanating from every pore in your background, and (2) OODLES of leadership plans in life AND during the MBA program (both on campus and OUTSIDE the program, engagement with the community, etc.), but also (3) that you have a particular affinity for Cornell… because of this opportunity.

Now, the trick is, all of that needs to be the vapor that comes off of an essay that deals with “none of that directly.” Instead, your task is to convey these ideas THROUGH your recounting of the “greatest” leadership example in your past, and what PERSONAL qualities of yours led to your success. But –– while you’re doing that –– you will also be HINTING AT the fact that your reason for telling this story isn’t to impress on the merits of that specific leadership tale or achievement. Rather, the story’s power is what it IMPLIES about how dedicated you are to leveraging those skills, and your impulses, toward OTHER, FUTURE… stuff. It has to be clear what the value of this story will be to future applications of that leadership DNA.

Don’t go too deep into it, perhaps just devote a few sentences toward the end to give the reader a sense that you’re not just proud of this achievement for what it was, but for what it implies. Give us that sense. What does this hint at about your future? Where does it go from here? Thinking about it in this way SHOULD help you frame your story in ways that highlight “scalable” leadership traits.


Read more and explore each step of the Cornell Johnson application process here

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of Johnson’s application essays.

August 17, 2019

Cornell Johnson MBA Back Of Your Resume Essay

The front page of your resume has given us a sense of your professional experience and accomplishments as well as your academic summary and extracurricular involvement. If the back page reflects “the rest of your story,” please help us get to know you better by sharing ONE example of a life experience, achievement, or passion that will give us a sense of who you are as a potential community member.

This essay is an opportunity to present yourself as an individual. We encourage you to think about your proudest accomplishments, interests and passions, and personal highlights that will help us to get to know you as a person and potential community member. We value creativity and authenticity and encourage you to approach this essay with your unique style. Alternative submission formats may include a slide presentation, links to pre-existing media (personal website, digital portfolio, YouTube, etc.), as well as visually enhanced written submissions. Maximum file size is 5 MB. If you choose to submit a written essay, please limit your submission to 500 words or fewer. Multimedia submissions should be under 5 minutes.

Let’s see what this Cornell Johnson essay question is really asking. First of all, let’s get one thing straight: this “back page of the resume” will never (and should never) COMPENSATE for a weak front page. You may be the coolest cat in town, but if your “front page” is a “B-” then none of it matters. The front page must kick considerable ass. Here’s the thing though… for every ONE seat available at Cornell, there are SEVERAL folks out there with killer “front pages.” And so, one way to think about it, is that maybe those killer front pages all cancel each other out. {Or at least, use that as a CONCEIT for a second.} Your task is to introduce a NEW layer here that will PROPEL you ahead of the guys and gals next to you, who have the same level of “front page.”

What kinds of things will do that?

Well for starters, it can’t be boring. If it seems like you didn’t fully embrace the open-endedness of this, and instead, went for yet another “front page” bullet that you could flesh out, it is likely to work AGAINST you. In fact, one of our favorite “tricks” is to imagine a few other candidates who have MATCHING resumes. This shouldn’t be that hard to pick because there’s a very good chance it’s ACTUALLY TRUE, ha! Picture someone with the exact same GMAT, same GPA, same work experiences (and even if not the same work experiences, the same SKILLS SETS from two different paths), same achievements, same level… everything. Absolutely everything. Clones. If there’s a task that needs doing, any ONE of you could do it. At least, imagine it that way. Imagine there are FIVE OF YOU. And the admissions dean has some kind of BUSINESS challenge they need to solve: whether it’s a leader they need, a problem solver, a visionary, a whatever. Now imagine that ALL FIVE OF YOU could theoretically do it, and do it well.

Great, so the admissions deans could have his problem solved by any of you five… but would he WANT to have YOU be the one? What is it about you that makes you more APPEALING than the next guy? Why are you more interesting? Why are you cooler? Why are you preferable in any way? This is a challenge, to make us SMILE after learning something about you. Or be WOWED after learning something about your past, your experiences, your influences, your interests, your whatever. Or surprised. Anything that elicits a reaction of: hunh, I kinda WANT this guy on campus based on this story.

Another way to think about it: imagine five guys with the exact same resume, skills, all that stuff, same as before. Now tell us something about you (that we weren’t able to glean from the front page) that all of a sudden makes YOUR version a bit more interesting. So, let’s say you achieved a score of “10” and another guy achieved a score of “10.” But let’s say he grew up a rich kid with access to everything imaginable, and let’s say YOU grew up poor, lost your arm in a horrible farming accident, found a way to support your family after your parents died unexpectedly at a premature age, and still managed to get that “same” “10.” Not so “same” all of a sudden! If your story here ALTERS the very nature of your “front page,” that’s another way to propel you ahead of the competition.

These approaches may lead to two different kinds of stories, and either can work. There are of course other ways to skin it, but at the very least, these two should get you thinking in the right direction. It’s open-ended enough that the proper execution of a version that’s not mentioned here can absolutely work. The trick of it all is that it has to make sense that you’re telling it to us, whatever it is. It has to move the needle somehow. Whatever we learn about you MUST elevate your candidacy ON ACCOUNT OF THIS STORY. If not, it’s probably not a good enough idea. Keep hacking away until you find something that your application would be weak… WITHOUT.

August 17, 2019

Cornell Johnson MBA Goals Statement

Use this short answer question to succinctly share your short and long-term goals. If invited to interview, you will have the opportunity to elaborate further and should be prepared to connect your prior experience with your future aspirations.

“Connect your prior experience with your future aspirations.” It’s as though this was written by a former Admissionado client. (Was it, Cornell? We salute you either way, and couldn’t have said it better ourselves!)

A statement of your goals will begin a conversation that will last throughout the admissions process and guide your steps during the MBA program and experience. To the best of your understanding today, please share your short and long-term goals by completing the following sentences and answering the enclosed short answer question (250 words maximum):

Immediately post-MBA, my goal is to work as a(n) ____[Role]____ at ___[Company]___within___[Industry]___.
Targeted Job Role:
Target Job Company:

In 5 – 10 years post-MBA, my goal is to work as a(n) ____[Role]____ at ___[Company]___within___[Industry]___.
Targeted Job Role:
Target Job Company:

How has your experience prepared and encouraged you to pursue these goals?

Now it’s getting a little creepy. It’s one thing to be our fan, Cornell, but now you’re making us BLUSH. We kid, but what the minds at Cornell have done this year is to almost force-feed PRECISION into your answers, and steer you away from veering off into the “woops how’d I get here” abyss. This first “just fill in exactly what we tell you to fill in” section is the equivalent of the lawyer in a courtroom drama interrupting a loquacious witness with “please just answer with a simple ‘yes or no.'” Translation: “that’s all we need to know at this time.”

Fill out the top section, exactly as they ask. Don’t elaborate, nuts and bolts folks. For the 250-word follow-up, they’re FOCUSING you again. So, follow their lead, and commit your response to proving the following TWO things:

  1. That your background (key career experience to-date) has made you CREDIBLE in whatever it is you’re pursuing. That is, your prior experiences provide a logical basis to assume success in achieving your future goals. It’s all about “where in your background can we see that you’ve learned/earned/developed/mastered the necessary skills?”
  2. That your prior experiences COMPELLED you toward these goals. It’s one thing to have mastery in something—that convinces us you can THEORETICALLY succeed. But, do you even WANT to? Cuz if you don’t, none of it matters. It’s like the dancing frog from the WB. Is that too old a reference? Must be. Damnit. The point is, the second KEY component to all this is proof that your engine is revved, that you plan to devote your career to this stuff, with or without Cornell, with or without an MBA, with or without… anything that could stand in your way. Convince us you want it. Show us when you went from either NOT being passionate about this thing to SUPER passionate. Or the time you almost lost heart, but episode X breathed NEW LIFE into your commitment. Or the things that simply INSPIRED you and fortified your resolve in an additive kinda way along your journey. It’s always helpful to consider all of this in terms of “where is my passion today, where was it X years ago, and assuming my passion is STRONGER today than before, when and how did that happen?” Try to pin the evolution to some key moments, even if it’s been gradual.

Two paragraphs here, you can even split em cleanly into:

  • Paragraph 1 = Here’s why I’m credible with respect to my goals, proof that I CAN succeed at em.
  • Paragraph 2 = Here’s why I WANT to.

One last tip. Try to frame the “want” in terms of something more root-level than mere success at the specific idea you talk about in your ST and LT goals. The assumption is you might change your idea, so it’s useful to see what makes you tick on a level that encompasses these specific goals, but also speaks to a broader aspiration. For example, if someone is passionate about “improving healthcare in rural India,” and their current plan to start a health tech startup falls through, there are still a lot of ways they can succeed (product management at an established company, investing in health startups, etc.).

One way to test that, imagine yourself navigating through the Johnson MBA program and … changing industries altogether, and pursuing an entirely different track. Reread your “how have your experiences motivated you to achieve your goals” response… it should still mostly hold up. (Neat, right?)

[Cornell, we’re warning you, if that shows up in next year’s essays…]


Read more and explore each step of the Cornell Johnson application process here

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of Johnson’s application essays.

August 17, 2019

Cornell Johnson MBA Optional Essay

You may use this essay to call attention to items needing clarification and to add additional details to any aspects of your application that do not accurately reflect your potential for success at Johnson (500 words maximum).

If you are reapplying for admission, please use this essay to indicate how you have strengthened your application and candidacy since the last time you applied for admission. Please also review our Admissions Policy for additional information about re-applying (500 words maximum).

Reapplicant Essay

This is a call for updates on short-term and long-term career goals. It’s important to keep in mind when addressing this piece that it’s not just about the matter-of-fact update itself… we also need to assess the IMPROVEMENT you’ve pulled off.

In other words, one year later, your career plan has to become sharper or more plausible, or more exciting in some way. We need to understand HOW. And WHY. That’s the key: a crystal clear explanation of how your candidacy has improved and what it means given your (new and improved) reasons for getting an MBA.


Read more and explore each step of the Cornell Johnson application process here

August 10, 2019

Anderson MBA Re-Applicant Essay

Please describe your career progress since you last applied and how you have enhanced your candidacy. Include updates on short-term and long-term career goals, as well as your continued interest in UCLA Anderson. (750 words maximum)

This is a typical re-applicant essay – a nice, specific question about updates on short-term and long-term career goals. It’s important to keep in mind when addressing this piece that it’s not just about the matter-of-fact update itself… we also need to assess the IMPROVEMENT you’ve pulled off.

In other words, one year later, your career plan has to become sharper or more plausible, or more exciting in some way. We need to understand HOW. And WHY. That’s the key: a crystal clear explanation of how your candidacy has improved and what it means given your (new and improved) reasons for getting an MBA. Take a deeper dive into our analysis below:

The Re-applicant Essay

Read more and explore each step of the UCLA Anderson application process here

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of Anderson’s application essays.

August 9, 2019

At Berkeley Haas, we are redefining leadership. We value different opinions and perspectives, recognizing that we always have more to learn about others’ lived experiences and histories. We encourage speaking up and listening, and courageously use our power to address barriers and drive change for positive impact. Tell us how a Berkeley Haas MBA would enhance your leadership profile, incorporating specific examples. (300 words max)

Wow. That is one hell of a trick question. These guys don’t just drop words in for fun. If you were to answer the actual question-question (“Tell us how a Berkeley Haas MBA would enhance your leadership profile, incorporating specific examples”) without paying much attention to that preamble, you could very easily go off on a VERY different (and potentially disastrous) path.

A good answer here MUST be characterized by HUMILITY and the capacity and desire to listen and learn from others. That’s what this question is all about. You need to explain how you’re gonna grow as a leader… by being a better LISTENER and OBSERVER and “EMBRACER” of people who have different backgrounds and perspectives. Because doing so will make you better at leading.

Or we can say it the other way, people who exhibit a LOW capacity or desire to consider the perspective of others (especially the perspectives of those with different backgrounds and influences) are likely to be “bad at leading… because of that.” Why? Well, for one, think about why Haas might believe that leadership needs “redefining” in this way. For example: “The world is more global today than it was several decades ago. Being stuck in a particular mindset can therefore be a real liability in the world of business.” See how we brought it back to business? Yes it’s Berkeley, but it’s still business school, folks. They want you to kick ass in the BUSINESS WORLD not in the “hug it out and sing kumbayah world.”

So, in 300 words, we need to know (a) Where you need to be stretched in this area, where can you improve; (b) Specifically how will Haas help you achieve that needed growth; and finally (c) What might YOU have to offer others? That last part is a bonus piece that many will miss. Don’t just get all high and mighty and tell us how you plan to GRACE others with your amazingness. Instead, talk about this as though your contribution were simply part of a chemical reaction where… the interaction w OTHER AGENTS (your cohort) will combust somehow and lead to something where everyone profits. So this isn’t you talking AT people about your experiences doing ABC cool thing. It’s “by contributing that kind of thing in a class filled w XYZ type people, I hope [ABC cool thing] happens.” This all ties to the ways in which you’re hoping to STRETCH as a leader, but the key aspect is that it’s mindful of others (and people’s impact on each other) every step of the way.

August 9, 2019

Optional Essay #2

This section should only be used to convey relevant information not addressed elsewhere in your application. This may include an explanation of employment gaps, academic aberrations, supplemental coursework, etc. You are encouraged to use bullet points where appropriate.

The optional essay and our stance on it has changed over the years (for more on that, read this). Years ago we’d say to do it always-no-matter-what. Then schools seemed to make a POINT of not wanting stuff they didn’t specifically ask for. And now, given the trend toward shorter and more targeted applications, it can go either way.

Generally, if a school gives you a berth, take it. Haas is giving you that berth here, so, if you have something to say that hasn’t been covered elsewhere, say it. (If you’re working with a solid admissions consultant, you may want to run it by him/her to get a seasoned opinion.)

For those whose quantitative abilities may be questionable, either through a not-mind-blowing GMAT score, or through a career arc where those abilities aren’t necessarily evident, this is an excellent space to make a great case for yourself.

But even beyond that, the best way to approach this is to consider all the dimensions which give your candidacy real MIGHT, and differentiation power against the competition. Then review what stuff you’ve covered in your other essays, and where there are HOLES, it MAY be something you can address here. It tends to be less helpful when you double-up on a trait, with presumably a not-as-good-story-as-the-one-you’ve-already-told-elsewhere. A “second” impact story, for example. It’s more powerful if you’ve come across as the Indian IT tech guy with mad quant skills, but you also have this insane depth of experience with volunteer/community work that looks completely different from the typical MBA applicant. This could be a place to explore that. Or if you’re Chinese with an interest in finance, is there some aspect to your international travels that makes you seem utterly different from your demographic? This could be a spot to explore that.

Whatever you do, don’t play defense here and say stuff just to say stuff. More like: imagine a blank canvas and a shot to say EVERYTHING AWESOME you need to say; imagine it’s FIVE things, and you’ve been able to cover THREE of them in the other essays. Great, pick one of the two things you haven’t covered (whichever promotes your multi-dimensionality the MOST), and dig in right here.

Whatever you do, this is NOT the place to meander and be verbose. The optional essay is all about extreme efficiency, and matter-of-fact-ness.

August 9, 2019

Optional Essay #1

We invite you to help us better understand the context of your opportunities and achievements.

This is an interesting one, and we’ll have more to say about it once we get to part #6 (the essay question part of the prompt). For reference, here are the first five parts:

  1. What is the highest level of education completed by your parent(s) or guardian(s)? 
    • Did not complete high school
    • High school diploma or equivalency (GED)
    • Associate’s degree (junior college) or vocational degree/license
    • Bachelor’s degree (BA, BS)
    • Master’s degree (MA, MS)
    • Doctorate or professional degree (MD, JD, DDS)
  2. What is the most recent occupation of your parent(s) or guardian(s)?
    • Unemployed
    • Homemaker
    • Laborer
    • Skilled worker
    • Professional
  3. If you were raised in one of the following household types, please indicate.
    • Raised by a single parent
    • Raised by an extended family member (grandparent, aunt/uncle, niece/nephew, cousin)
    • Raised in a multi-generational home
    • Raised in foster care
  4. What was the primary language spoken in your childhood home?
  5. If you have you ever been responsible for providing significant and continuing financial or supervisory support for someone else, please indicate.
    • Child
    • Spouse
    • Sibling
    • Parent
    • Extended family member (grandparent, aunt/uncle, niece/nephew, cousin)
    • Other
  6. Please elaborate on any of your above responses. Alternatively, you may use this opportunity to expand on other hardships or unusual life circumstances that may help us understand the context of your opportunities, achievements, and impact. (300 words maximum)

Okay, so first of all, for those first five, treat em like “filling out your basic information when you visit the dentist.” Nothing fancy, just simply answer the question.

For number 6, this is where it gets somewhat interesting. Here’s the thing, you should either write about stuff, or not, depending on whether your story TRULY ADDS VALUE TO YOUR APP. We can’t make a blanket statement about what kinds of stories warrant inclusion compared to others… without knowing the full story. So, it’s a case-by-case thang. Here’s what we CAN say, in case it’s helpful:

  1. Regardless of what your “status” is in life, whether socio-economic, or measured in some other way, if you have been on a certain trajectory, and then some personal, life circumstance KNOCKED YOU OFF OF THAT TRAJECTORY, and you succeeded IN SPITE OF IT, that may be a good indication of a publish-worthy story here. This shouldn’t be seen as a contest of whose life is most fraught with challenge. It has more to do with the EXTENT TO WHICH YOUR PROGRESS IN LIFE AND ALONG YOUR CAREER TRAJECTORY HAS BEEN FRUSTRATED by obstacles thrown at you, and only you. (In other words, obstacles that affect other folks, your competition, equally, don’t count here.)
  2. Some stories that can and should be elaborated on here aren’t necessarily “overcame hardship” stories, but rather, super cool explorations of … something so cool and unique that that experience has given you SOMETHING valuable (1) for yourself and with respect to your own path, and also (2) that can be shared with your classmates, to their benefit. Again, what’s “cool” versus “not cool” in this context? “We’ll know it when we see it.” We wish we had a magic answer, but this is one of those rare instances where you just need a good eye to know what’s awesome and what FEEEEELS awesome, but is actually common, or worse, “not as compelling as you think it is.”
  3. One guiding principle you can use is that IF you choose to write about something, it should build on your application strengths, and not just be an “oh, by the way, thought you should know this–––in case that’s of interest” kinda thing. The take-home MUST make the reader feel MORE confident about your “stock’s value” than the version that didn’t include it.

August 4, 2019

Additional Information (Optional) Essay

Is there any other information you believe the Admissions Committee should know about you and your application to London Business School? (500 words)

Read our team’s complete take on the idea of the optional essay, including a brief (recent) history of b-schools’ relationship with it, and how our recommendations have evolved over the years, right here.

July 21, 2019

Fuqua MBA Short Answer Questions

Answer both of the following questions. For each question, respond in 500 characters only (the equivalent of about 100 words).


Most people already have a sensible answer to this question. Making sense at all is good, but we’re not interested in good. We’re interested in ADMIT-good, top MBA-good, good enough to beat a lot of “good” competition. To get to that level, there’s a key component you have to get right: “Why next?” (aka, why NOW?)

This is the part many people will miss. To answer this question “correctly” is to demonstrate an absolutely inarguable grasp of what YOU need to in order to achieve the BEST possible version of your future goals. Think about that for a sec. There are other ways to achieve your goals…. Probably some that don’t even include business school… but maybe those versions aren’t as good. Here’s a neat trick to tease that out: Imagine NOT pursuing an MBA as the very next thing you do. Pretend you do thing X next, and then maybe thing Y, and THEN you get your MBA (from Duke) and then pursue your goals exactly as you’d need in order to “win it all.” Where does the best version of that end up? Picture it. Now, articulate to us right now why that version is LESS GOOD than the version where the MBA is the very next thing you do. Show us the delta, in terms of future impact.

Once you have a clear idea of that, now you need to find a way to convey it in 100-ish words. Ouch. Well, the good news is that exercise in teasing out the reason TIMING matters will help you HOME IN on the key nugget faster. You may not have the space to lay out the whole delta for us, but if you do this correctly, we should be able to extrapolate what that delta is, based on your response.


Start by stating your goals in a VERY straightforward way, space is limited. “I want to be an X at a company like Y doing Z awesome thing.” Then, establish what your first choice plan is (tightly) and quickly establish why that’s the best version (speed? Amplitude of success? Some other measure of greatness?). Use the same logic here as we discussed above for the first question: what’s the delta between your preferred plan and your alternate plan? Identify it, and explain how it makes your first choice plan BETTER.

Then, explain how that’s not the only way you could get there, and that alternate plan X is another way. Even if the alternate path is not quite as awesome, it should still be a rock-solid way of getting to that same end goal.

July 21, 2019

Fuqua MBA Optional Essay

If you feel there are circumstances of which the admissions committee should be aware (such as unexplained gaps in work, choice of recommenders, inconsistent or questionable academic performance), please explain them in an optional essay. Please do not upload additional essays or additional recommendations in this area of the application, and limit your response to one page.

Read our team’s complete take on the idea of the optional essay, including a brief (recent) history of b-schools’ relationship with it, and how our recommendations have evolved over the years, right here.

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of Fuqua’s application essays.

Learn more and explore each step of Fuqua’s full-time MBA application process here.

July 21, 2019

Fuqua prides itself on cultivating a culture of engagement. Our students enjoy a wide range of student-led organizations that provide opportunities for leadership development and personal fulfillment, as well as an outlet for contributing to society. Our student-led government, clubs, centers, and events are an integral part of the student culture and are vital to providing you with a range of experiential learning and individual development experiences.

Based on your understanding of the Fuqua culture, how do you see yourself engaging in and contributing to our community, outside of the classroom? Your response should be no more than 2 pages in length.

Your ultimate goal here? To elicit a reader response that goes something like:

  • “Yep, this kid clearly bleeds Duke.”
  • “Yep, this kid is gonna light a fire here.”
  • “Yep.” {Translation: I believe the commitment behind his/her words here.}

The key to this question is… are you convincing? This is the part, folks, where what you say matters less than how you say it. It is very possible to say all the right things. To indicate that you are going to start Club X, and to engage in Duke Thing Y, and to contribute Awesome Thing Z thing to the Duke community. But how? By doing research, by organizing your arguments so that they are logically sound, seem well considered, etc.

But… if the Adcom thinks that you would probably pick, say, Darden or Ross or Yale SOM over Duke, none of those arguments will weigh much. What you need to achieve is the exact opposite. Let’s take those statements above and ADD another crucial one:

  • “If we admit this kid, there is an unbelievably good chance he’s gonna accept, regardless of where else he gets in.”

If you establish THIS as your burden, it will (it should, anyway) focus your approach to this response in an excellent way. Imagine, for example, that your reader does NOT believe that you are sincere in your stated desire to attend Duke. How would you use this essay prompt to convince him/her otherwise? Address the elements in this question, but in reality, prove to the reader that no matter how many acceptance letters you receive, Duke is the place you are going to engage with the most.

Now. How exactly do you do that? Well for starters it helps if that’s actually the case, ha! But let’s suppose your are business-school-agnostic at this stage, and simply want to attend whichever TOP MBA program accepts you. Allow yourself to APPEAR to be that first guy, the one who would rather attend Duke than Harvard. In order to achieve that, you need to demonstrate two things:


In other words, if the Duke experience is supposedly different from the Yale experience, or the Ross experience, how so? (And then map those differences to things you need – THROUGH your explanation for how you will engage in the Duke community.)


Show how Duke fulfills something inside you that another school doesn’t. Or, why Duke’s version is somehow more appealing to you. This is art, not science. Do you have a girlfriend? Boyfriend? Husband? Wife? Child? Can you explain to someone why you like this person? Try it. Do it on paper. Maybe it starts with “quantifiable” traits. But hopefully, at some point, you reach a moment where you find yourself… unable to quantify the way a loved one makes you feel. Try – like hell – to explain IN WORDS what that thing is. What your emotion is, and how this person elicits that emotion. You won’t be able to, or you may discover a way to. It’s all gold. All of it. Take a look and see what that looks like, and then see if you can adapt it to the Duke community somehow.

When you put all of that stuff together, you should end up with some interesting stuff in your first draft. Here’s one version of an outline that may help kick things off:

  1. Establish what you’re looking for in a B-school. Establish the experience you’re hoping for, and how this corresponds to optimizing your personal potential to succeed (and perhaps to help others succeed).
  2. Now explain why certain opportunities at Duke afford you the ability to not just experience these things, but quite possibly the best version of them. If you can indicate contrasts to other schools, do it. If it’s just highlighting something unique to Duke, do it. As always, relate each example back to something you specifically need, and be very specific about the ways in which you are going to engage.
  3. Lastly, see if you can somehow explain where this sense came from. Give us a taste of the research, the “due diligence” that led to your conclusions. This is also the section where you may wanna “fumble” around those inexplicable reasons that are emotional at their core. Let us see the genuine-ness of your words here.

Organization-wise, it doesn’t necessarily need to follow that order. And to be sure, what we’re calling “Section 3” here is truly something that should be interwoven through the essay. But separating it out this way may at least give you a target for your V1.

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of Fuqua’s application essays.

Learn more and explore each step of Fuqua’s full-time MBA application process here.

July 21, 2019

Fuqua's 25 Random Things Essay

Fuqua believes different types of people, points of view, and experiences bring out the best in everyone. And above all, we place a premium on succeeding while making a positive impact on businesses, organizations, and the world. These ways of thinking set the Duke MBA experience apart, and this concept 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.

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 two pages.

Random, folks. The absolute worst way to play this is to “clearly not have fun with it.” If you take this too seriously, and look at it like an opportunity to impress them with more achievements, you’re going to bore them to tears, and potentially turn them off. To avoid having fun with it will almost GUARANTEE that they conclude that “this is the type of person who is incapable of having fun.” That person is going to be a net negative on campus. We’re looking for “wins.” People who ADD to the community. Those people have personalities. Charm. Wit. Playfulness. Spirit. If this isn’t in you… you’d better get it fast.

Random doesn’t mean “by itself.” It has to tell us something about you. Example:

“A hummingbird flaps its wings about 70 times in a second.”

Great. But… this tells us what about you?

The random thing must give us a key to your coolness, your quirkiness, your… self. Somehow.

“When I was nine years old, in charge of “snacks” for a class camp out, I brought croissants. That was the day I realized I was not only born on the wrong continent, but in the wrong century.”

See the difference? This is revealing. Endearing. Self-deprecating. Tells us something about the author. 25 things like that.

Also, don’t be afraid to get creative. Make up your own conceits to GET you to a place of 25 random things:

“If I had to pick five celebrities to start a brand new civilization, they would be: Person (witty reason), Person 2 (witty reason), etc etc.” Don’t steal that, cuz it’ll look suspicious when several people submit the same thing! But you see the IDEA here, that you can literally invent ANY NUMBER of cool premises to help you reveal something about yourself and your attitudes.

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of Fuqua’s application essays.

Learn more and explore each step of Fuqua’s full-time MBA application process here.

July 20, 2019

McCombs MBA Essay 2

Picture yourself at graduation. Describe how you spent your time as a TexasMcCombs MBA, and how that experience helped prepare you for the post-MBA world. (500 words)

Start thinking about this essay with a very specific (and crucial) premise: “I am not able to achieve or even pursue my short-term goals effectively today because…” Because what? Generate a list. Are they skills? Is it a lack of certain experience? Is it a lack of plain, hard knowledge? Is it a lack of network? Got that list ready? Proceed…

Let’s play pretend one more time. Let’s say you’re like most MBA applicants and are applying to 7-10 programs. Pretend that three of those are ranked in the Top 10, and that 3-5 of those are ranked below #20. UT Austin is right smack dab in the center of it all. Admit-time rolls around and you receive invites from 100% of the schools on your list. Now YOU are in the driver’s seat. What is it about two years at McCombs that might address the items on your list in a particularly appealing way? This is the part where you need to dig deep. (Mind you, we haven’t done a THING toward writing a response to this essay yet; this is all crucial prep work.) What extracurricular offerings does McCombs have? What is it about the campus culture? What is it about certain professors? What about folks who recruit there? What is it about Austin? What is it about…. anything and everything you have researched and know about this program that has convinced you that MCCOMBS IS THE ONE to advance your objectives powerfully? This is the part where you make a second list. And even better, a second list that’s connected to all the specific items on that first list. Once you have these elements secure in your mind, now you’re ready to generate a draft because the essay has already – by now – written itself.

This essay should read a lot like a military battle plan. (You’ll hear us say that a lot, and there’s good reason for it.) This should NOT come across wide-eyed and dreamy and speculative and wishy-washy and general. It should instead feel like the result of someone with laser focus, with ultra-clear objectives, a well-thought-out plan of attack. Bonus points if there’s dried-up drool on this sheet of paper. McCombs wants feral beasts who are salivating at the opportunity to ATTACK the program, and EXTRACT. And that only happens when people have real INTENT. “Motive.” A battle plan. This is your chance to lay out that plan.



First up, we need to understand your goals, your existing skill set, and therefore, those GAPS. Best thing to do is start off with a VERY brief overview of where this WHOLE thing is headed, your overall vision. Within a sentence or two or three, we should have a decent sense for where you hope to be in twenty years. Now, walk us through what you need to do in the VERY near-term (first five years after your MBA, say), in order to get you on that overall/LT path. Remember, think militaristic. Step A leads logically to Step B which then leads to Step C, which then enables us to consider and pursue Step D. That kind of thing. Explain the stuff you need to do, and the skills required to pull that all off. (100-125 words)


First explain BRIEFLY some of the “thus-far” achievements that have brought you to 80% of the way there. Give us a sense for the stuff you already HAVE, skills-wise. Be efficient here. Now explain the stuff you need. This is that GAP section. From that first list you generated. Don’t just explain these gaps in a vacuum, explain each one within the context of why they’re relevant specifically to your goals. This context is absolutely key, because now you’re not just generic-MBA-person, you’re salivating-feral-beast-person with lusting after PREY, locked in your sights. I needed “X in order to then pursue Y aspect of my short-term goals for Z reason.” That kind of thing. (125-150 words)


This is the part where you catalogue your experience at McCombs (as though in retrospect, as though it actually happened, etc.). Take us through experiences with specific classes, professors, clubs, off-campus activities, internships, socialization opportunities, anything and everything you can think of that might advance you from your 80% starting point on Day 1 to the 100% version at graduation. Explain what you did to narrow that 20% gap, bit by bit.

The key isn’t to actually write your future accurately, no one’s gonna ever check. The key is to indicate that there’s CLARITY in the way you can establish an objective, and then design a plan of attack to achieve it. Generally that comes from a plan that is detailed, and rooted in logic. As long as it makes sense, and seems achievable, the admissions committee is going to buy it. Now, if you can do that, and also let slip your passion for the program, bonus points. (200 words)


The best way to send this sucker home is to give a brief description of what happens immediately after graduation. No need to spend too much time here because you’ve already laid SOME of this out in previous sections when establishing your short-term goals. You may just want to close with a hypothetical “I will be starting as an X at Y company this fall, where I will notch Step 1 toward my short-term goals.” You can even have fun with what you plan to do in the few weeks between graduation and when you start your job, or some other character-revealing fun reveal, like marrying one of your b-school cohorts named Z that you met along the way, yadayada. (50-75 words)

Now that we’ve handled that, need to look back at Essay 1?

Read more and explore each step of the Texas Mccombs full-time MBA application process here.

July 20, 2019

McCombs MBA Optional Essay

Please provide any additional information you believe is important and/or address any areas of concern that you believe will be beneficial to the Admissions Committee in considering your application (e.g. gaps in work experience, choice of recommenders, academic performance, or extenuating personal circumstances). (250 words)

Read our team’s complete take on the idea of optional essay, including a brief (recent) history of b-schools’ relationship with it, and how our recommendations have evolved over the years, right here.

You can also read our team’s analysis of the rest of the Texas McCombs MBA application essays.

Read more and explore each step of the Texas Mccombs full-time MBA application process here.

July 20, 2019

McCombs MBA Essay 1

We will learn a lot about your professional background through your resume and letter of recommendation. We want to get to know you further. Please introduce yourself.

Select only one communication method that you would like to use for your response.

  • Write an essay (250 words)
  • Share a video introduction (one minute)

Introductions can take place in a variety of ways. Standing in a circle of a few at a cocktail party. In a one-on-one interview. First day on the job.

The version we’re after here is much different. McCombs just handed you a mic, dimmed the house lights, and threw a spotlight onto you. This is your time not just to introduce yourself, but to perform. A performance is artful. And requires a special type of messaging. Your challenge isn’t to hold the attention of the guy sitting across the desk who is usually forced to tune in. Your challenge is to capture and sustain the attention of a room full of people, whose magnitude (by itself) tends to make it an uphill battle from minute one.


Dullness is deadly.

Don’t be dull. Don’t be quiet. Don’t be average. Don’t be monotone. Don’t be… safe.

Now’s your chance to tap your inner Louis CK. Your inner MLK. Your inner Seth Macfarlane. Charm. Wit. Risk. Energy. A deviating from that safe, straight, center pathway.

Whether it’s an essay or a video, the very first thing you need to do is grab your audience’s attention. There’s no real room for a slow burn here. If this were a two hour movie, and you had a proven track record, maybe an audience would spot you an unceremonious beginning, trusting in a future payoff. You have no such luxury here, my friend. Your cohort doesn’t know you. You need to be spectacular and attention-worthy from second 1.

What makes for a good opener? Well, practically speaking, “it” can be absolutely anything, which is to say it can take the FORM of just about anything. But what most great opening moments have in common is this: they knock the reader/audience off balance. For most of you, that may sound great, but it still may not mean much. “How the hell am I supposed to throw the reader off balance?” Well, one way to think about it is to leave some stuff OUT. The more buttoned up your opening is, the more likely your audience will feel secure. And secure—for now—is lethal. Bad.

“My name is Craig Blodgitsnick. I am 27 years old. And I’m a banker.” Great. Super clear. And therefore… too clear? It’s all buttoned up. The audience needs a reason to hear more. With an opening like that, however, we’re left with no such desire. Here’s an alternative.

“I make people cry for a living.”

Um, say what? What the hell does that mean. Did he just say that? I have no idea who this guy is, I have no idea how I feel about him, I have no sense of whether that’s a good or bad thing. What I do know… is that I’m dying to hear more. Success. This speaker has the audience in the palms of his hands.

“Pond. Cigarette. Abandoned BMW. These three things almost got me arrested, led me to my future wife, and ultimately set me on a path of world domination.”

Huh? I mean, I couldn’t be more in. Who the hell says that? How on Earth are those three things connected? After everyone gives their boring standard speech, I can bet you money I’m gonna remember the person who said THAT.

Throw your reader off balance. Give them a reason to want to read more. Now, not to scare you, but this isn’t easy. It is a touch risky, and it requires some finesse. But it is absolutely worth working toward. But just for a moment, let’s talk about the downside…

If you can’t quite pull it off, and it seems forced and inauthentic, then you run the risk of seeming like you’re trying too hard. And that’s a liability. So, get a gut check from a second set of eyes (doesn’t have to be a pro, could be anyone—see if they buy it). If it’s just not passing muster, there is recourse. Which is to tell a very honest, earnest story. Your story, a personal story. But, it’s gotta be a cool story. If it’s a straightforward, you are toast. There’s gotta be some GRIT in there, some adversity, some uniqueness. That can be equally compelling.

“Hi, my name is Glenda Crevitz and I became an adult when I was five years old when I was separated from my parents and grandparents. My first job was…”

Yah, I’d listen to that person. (But did you notice how even here, the author has thrown the audience off balance? This is not happenstance.)

Whichever medium suits you best, take advantage of it. Don’t choose the video if all you do is read an essay. If you use video, it has to be because there’s something about your look and body language and visible energy that communicates something a written essay can’t quite capture. If you choose an essay over video, it’s gotta be because there are certain things you’re able to do with the written word that would be MORE effective than a video version.

Keep your audience on the edge of their seat, though, by throwing them off balance.

Now that we’ve handled that, onto Essay 2?

Read more and explore each step of the Texas Mccombs full-time MBA application process here.

July 17, 2019

Darden Short Essay 4

Tell us what you would want your learning team to know about you – personally, professionally, or both? (100 words)

Have you seen THE AVENGERS? Or THE A-TEAM? Or “any heist movie ever”? If so, you’re familiar with the concept of individuals with special talents contributing to some group goal. The brute force guy: Hulk. The leader: Captain America. The espionage badass: Black Widow. The guy with remarkable six-pack: Thor. You get the idea. Each person should be capable of something that s/he can do better than just about anyone else on the squad. “Specialists.” It’s not that that’s the ONLY thing they can do, it’s just a more interesting proposition when you utilize everyone’s specialty and sum it all up.

The same idea applies to the “learning team” at Darden. It’s… pretty much exactly what it sounds like. You can read about it here. A half dozen students from different backgrounds and different first-year sections work together to prepare for class discussions and group projects.

On the one hand, you could say something funny here that endears you to your teammates. Or you could wow them with some incredible thing you accomplished somewhere along your road to Darden. But, neither of those will necessarily help you as a crew “achieve your max potential as an Avengers-style squad.” In order to do that, you need to reveal what your “super power” is and how it will be of use to the CREW when the time comes. If you’re Iron Man, for example, it isn’t useful to talk about your preference for Tom Ford suits. It WOULD be useful to talk about how quickly you learned astrophysics, because THAT SKILL may come in handy in a “group mission.”

What’s the mission? You’re gonna be dissecting cases at Darden. What is it YOU BRING TO THE TABLE that would be of interest to your mates? Be sure that this thing isn’t something someone else might ALSO have, or it won’t prove useful in this setting.

In 100 words, spend 50-60 describing THE SKILL, and then use the remaining 40 or so to explain how this will be useful to the group. Without that piece, it won’t sing as loudly.

July 17, 2019

Darden Short Essay 1

Darden strives to identify and cultivate responsible leaders who follow their purpose. Please provide an example of a situation in which you have made a meaningful impact. (200 words)

Ah, impact. Lots of people attack this with excellent intentions and write killer essays… but, not ones that are truly about IMPACT. Here’s where most folks go astray:

Let’s say you’re working at a consulting firm, or a bank, or a retail outfit. And you outperform folks who have come before you, to the point where upper management goes “wow, you are killing it in XYZ ways! Thank god we hired you, you’ve been an absolute game changer. What an impact you’ve had on… operations, morale, sales, boy oh boy!”

Cool. Here’s the thing, let’s say you leave, and an alien revisits that organization, say, five years later, and does a thorough audit of sales, operational fluidity, morale, everything. If ultimately, the findings are more or less the same as they were while you were there, and as they were five years prior… then while the things you did may still have been INCREDIBLY IMPRESSIVE, and MEANINGFUL TO THE BOTTOM LINE, you have not necessarily made an impact.

Think about impact like a tattoo that doesn’t wash away. A shift in something (operations, supply chain, culture, something) that STAYS the way a tattoo does. Forever. No going back. That’s the kind of story we wanna hear about. Not just wild success. Success that left a mark. A thing that the guy who followed in your footsteps now adheres to because of something YOU did.

“This company now does this thing THIS way which has had X benefit, and that thing exists because of THIS STORY I’M ABOUT TO DROP.”

“This team USED to do X but now they Y because I led an initiative to change it because THIS STORY HAPPENED THAT I’M ABOUT TO TELL.” 

“I set out to change the way the company used to ABC, and HERE’S HOW I WENT ABOUT GETTING IT DONE.”

Any of these will work, among others. However, to satisfy the “leader who follows a purpose” part of the question, your version also has to include something… extra. Something not REQUIRED to meet the bar of success, but that brought forth additional impact that was meaningful for a higher, non-monetary reason. “Not required” is key, because this type of purposeful social impact is strongest when it’s generated from a place of “it was just the proper, or correct, or smarter thing to do, for the good of… future generations, longer-LASTING support, etc. Find your version, and spend some time grappling with why we should care about any of it. Both in terms of why it was important to YOU, but also, what we learn about how you approach new challenges.

  1. Take us through an experience, explain the objectives, the challenges, and what was going through your mind at the time. Explain how you pulled it off, and also how you measured the fact that there was an impact after the fact. [100-125 words]
  2. Give us a reason to care about this. Why tell us? What does it say about your motivations? What did you learn here? Were you humbled? Did it affect the way you define or measure goals/success? Give us some kind of take home… [75 words]


June 24, 2019

Upon reflection, how has your perspective regarding your future, Chicago Booth, and/or getting an MBA changed since the time of your last application? (300 word maximum)

This is a typical re-applicant essay – a nice, specific question about updates on short-term and long-term career goals. It’s important to keep in mind when addressing this piece that it’s not just about the matter-of-fact update itself… we also need to assess the IMPROVEMENT you’ve pulled off.

In other words, one year later, your career plan has to become sharper or more plausible, or more exciting in some way. We need to understand HOW. And WHY. That’s the key: a crystal clear explanation of how your candidacy has improved and what it means given your (new and improved) reasons for getting an MBA. Take a deeper dive into our analysis below:

The Re-applicant Essay

Read more and explore each step of the Chicago Booth MBA application process here

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of Booth’s application essays.

June 24, 2019

Additional Information (Optional Essay)

Is there any unclear information in your application that needs further explanation? (300 word maximum)

Read our team’s complete take on the idea of the optional essay, including a brief (recent) history of b-schools’ relationship with it, and how our recommendations have evolved over the years, right here.

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of Booth’s application essays.

Read more and explore each step of the Chicago Booth MBA application process here.

June 17, 2019

Darden Short Essay 5

What is your short-term, post-MBA career goal and why? (150 words)

Very straightforward. Always remember, the key here is that you’re not going to win anyone over with just a killer idea, or a killer goal. It has to be the combination of a killer goal and a convincing argument that YOU’RE GONNA SUCCEED AT IT…

Let’s take that one step further. If you can give off the vapor that you’re THE KIND OF GUY/GAL who will likely succeed at whatever your stated goal is… OR ANY OTHER GOAL SHOULD IT CHANGE ALONG THE WAY, now you’ve basically printed your ticket to a top b-school. THAT’S what they want to see. Why state it this way? Because it SHOULD affect the way you approach this kind of essay. It will force you to emphasize and flesh out CERTAIN details and relax your focus on others. (If you’re ever interested in seeing this for yourself, check out successful essays from top b-school admits. What you’ll notice is that there is confidence oozing off the page, always, and clear indications that these guys have success etched into their DNA.)

Okay, so, how do we do this in 150 words? Well, for starters, try to keep the MAIN focus on the short-term goal. That doesn’t mean you can’t ALLUDE to your long-term goal. In fact, we often find that the most effective way of selling your plan for your short-term goal is to place it within the CONTEXT of an overall vision. The point is not to DWELL on the LT piece here.

  1. Indicate the problem you want to solve, or the opportunity that intrigues you. Explain not just what the goal is, but also the “what’s the impact when you succeed at it” … in other words, the “who cares” factor. If you succeed, how will things change? Do this relatively quickly. [25 words]
  2. Now, studiously, rich with detail, take us through the steps, one by one, of how you’re going to GET. THIS. DONE. Starting POST-MBA, what comes next? How did you come up with that first step to begin with? Why is it important? What do you need to accomplish INSIDE that first step? And of course, what purpose does it serve within a “four-step” ST vision? (We just made up “four,” it can be any number.) Each step should logically lead to the next, and we should be convinced that you have thought through not just what the steps should be, but also how you will NAVIGATE those steps. For example, if you were to say “in order to have an impact on telecommunications, first I’ll get my MBA from Darden and then I’ll grab a post as CEO of a place like Google and then I’ll drop some major impact, yo!” …it may be true that the guy who travels that path can indeed make an impact, but… is it likely? If not, the plan itself is garbage. The PATH needs to make sense, AND your ability to travel it as well. [75-100 words]
  3. Quickly, like, really quickly, leave us with a sense of why this matters to you, not because we want to feel fuzzy about it, but because we want to see “skin in the game.” If you’re motivated by this thing, it’s going to suggest that you have the drive to succeed (even if your path changes) and that’s what we’re after. [25-50 words]

June 17, 2019

Darden Short Essay 3

The Batten Foundation Worldwide Scholarship provides all Darden students in our full-time MBA program with an opportunity to participate in a Darden Worldwide Course. If you could choose any location in the world, where would you want to travel, and why? (50 words)

It’s always fun to talk about travel! But there should be a CLEAR difference between the way you answer this question as an applicant to business school, and the way any random person off the street would answer the question ‘Where would you want to travel, and why?” For example, does traveling to this place connect directly to your business aspirations in some way? Tell us how. If it isn’t directly connected, find a connection to something you’re curious about on a deeper level (spiritually, philosophically, sociologically, etc.) that… indirectly connects to aspects of your business goals!

In other words, say your business goals are to “lead a startup in Silicon Valley that has something to do with pharmaceuticals.” You’ve been dying to visit MONGOLIA for some time now. Does it connect to your pharma goals? Nope. People there you can network with? Nope. But there’s some aspect of the terrain and culture that has always fascinated you. In other words, this trip might make you a better person, which will make you a better leader. Or, this trip will fill out your understanding of how people in a different culture deal with XYZ circumstances which will benefit you in some surprising way ABC. Don’t force this connection. The point is this: your answer should feel SOBER. Thoughtful. Part of some master plan.

Big picture, there are two options:

A Place You’ve ALREADY Been

If you go this route, there’s got to be a reason you want to go back with a group of Darden classmates. Why do you want to do that? This is important… this is the part where most applicants say something they think Darden wants to hear, and that doesn’t work.

So, find that voice in your sub-conscious and um… extinguish it, kindly. Instead, ask yourself, why would you truly, genuinely want to go BACK to Country X with these Darden fools? What do you have to gain from that? It can’t be because you want to share some experience with other people, isn’t that kind of a waste of time FOR YOU, and sort of disingenuous deep down? Sounds weird, but there’s got to be some selfish motive. Figure out what it is, and sell us on it. It doesn’t have to be “serious” and “save the world” worthy. Just needs to be honest. The adcom wants to know what’s motivating you.

A Place You HAVEN’T Been

If this is an “I’ve always wanted to” story, it had BEST include some version of “but I never did it because going by myself or with Crew X wouldn’t be nearly as good as going with team Darden. Darden mates represent the best version and so BAM, SIGN ME THE EFF UP, because here’s what I’d want to get out of it, and boy oh boy am I excited about this opportunity.”

50 words folks. Zip in, zip out, make your point, be matter-of-fact, be honest. If the adcom smells a rat (aka, they detect you’re writing for the benefit of the reader), they will call you out hardcore…

June 17, 2019

Darden Short Essay 2

Diversity and inclusion are critical to our mission, and they work best when they are an integral and celebrated part of our community. Read University of Virginia’s Diversity & Inclusion Vision Statement. Share a time in which you engaged with a perspective, identity, community or experience that was different from your own and how it impacted your worldview. (200 words)

This is a classic diversity essay. A common response is to look for a story where you were open-minded and went in looking to learn from an “other” perspective, identity, community, or experience. Nothing wrong with that, if that’s all you have.

However, the coolest versions of this essay are the ones where the lessons DON’T come easily. Where the “other” wrecks your expectations, ruffles your status quo, knocks you off balance, etc. “Wait, I thought everyone on earth believed that the correct attitude toward X was Y—Am I… different from everyone else here? Oh no!”

If you learned something new and beautiful from this experience, great! But it can also be the case you were once exposed to something dark, ugly, disgusting, disappointing, etc. and that THAT impacted your worldview. Be careful with this one, though, you want to avoid stereotypes or generalizations when talking about the problems in a group of people (whether it’s a cabal of cigar lounge political fixers, or simply a community with a troubling attitude toward something).

No matter how your story develops, one way to make this type of essay effective is to avoid the temptation of “giving away the ending.” Establish the “before” up front: the idea you were confident about (and why), the perspective you had initially (and why), the attitude toward X you had originally (and why). THEN, drop us into the situation that challenged it. Explain the cognitive dissonance. Isolate the friction, explain why it was so shocking. Show how you processed the new information. And then (in the third section, if we’re counting), assess it all, with 20-20 hindsight. What does it mean for your future? In summary: before, after, conclusions.

June 17, 2019

Optional Statement

This section should only be used to convey information not addressed elsewhere in your application, for example, completion of supplemental coursework, employment gaps, academic issues, etc. Feel free to use bullet points where appropriate.

Because Ross has afforded you some space to cover a decent amount of stuff (including your personality), take them at their word here, and don’t volunteer another essay unless it meets the criteria of the prompt.

Read our team’s complete take on the idea of optional essay, including a brief (recent) history of b-schools’ relationship with it, and how our recommendations have evolved over the years, right here.

June 17, 2019

Part 2: Essay

Michigan Ross is a place where people from all backgrounds with different career goals can thrive. Please share your short-term career goal. Why is this career goal right for you? (300 words)

Kudos, Ross, for providing a slight twist on the classic MBA goals essay question. Let’s be verbose for a second. On purpose. Same question, rephrased, all stretched-out-like:

“Michigan Ross is a place where individuals from different nations, different walks of life, different socio-economic strata, different cultural influences, different exposures, and different conditions (whether inspiring or depressing)… come together. Now, each of these individuals has a career goal of some kind. That career goal itself might be completely unique (‘I’m going to start a business that specializes in teleporting unwanted winged bugs to the Upside Down’). Or, that goal may be shared by many (‘I’m going to be a killer Strategic Management Consultant’). Either way, whether unique or shared, given that each individual’s background is necessarily distinct, each person’s goal will, therefore, end up somewhat different. We wanna peek into YOUR version of YOUR goal. And also, we want to know what compels you toward it.”

Think of it this way: As soon as you land at Ross, you meet four other classmates who all have the exact same 5-year plan as you do. Literally, on paper, it’s the exact… same… plan. Whatever your plan is (even if it’s to take over your family business), spend some time imagining this in the abstract.

Given all that BACKGROUND stuff (influences, nationality, peer groups, tastes, experiences, circumstances, all that jazz)… what makes YOUR version DISTINCT from those other four? Isolate whatever that is: your slant, the thing that makes your version better, or even just different… get it good and clear in your head… and now: Walk us through your short-term career goal, infusing it with THAT STUFF YOU JUST FIGURED OUT, such that we not only understand the goal very clearly, but also, your version of it.

We should walk away saying to ourselves: “That’s not only a well thought-out plan, but I’m particularly interested in THIS GUY’S VERSION of it.” You’re selling someone on a role, and if you do it correctly, you’re making it hard for someone to cast someone OTHER THAN YOU.

Let’s talk structure:

One Version (doesn’t have to go this way, exactly, but it can be a useful place to start)

Paragraph 1: I have a very cool and interesting background. I can capture it quickly with an anecdote, or simply just a few incredible descriptions, such that you quickly get a sense of where I come from, what my circumstances and influences were. Those things all led me to THIS long-term aspiration (ya herrrrd right, long-term). [75–100 words.]

Paragraph 2: Here’s a very detailed road map of what I plan to achieve (not hope to… PLAN to) in my first five years out of business school, step by step. Here are the reasons these steps matter, this is why they are necessary building blocks, and these are the reasons I expect to succeed at every turn because I understand what’s needed at every step, and have thought through a solid plan for every stage of it. [100-150]

Paragraph 3: I love this industry/environment/field/thing for these reasons. It’s the milieu that brings out the best of me, proven time and again here and here. If I’m going to succeed anywhere, it’s here, because I’m passionate about achieving THIS thing and/or to devote myself to THIS PROCESS for THIS REASON. And that’s why this is the right choice for me. [100-150]

June 17, 2019

Part 1: Short Answer Questions

Select one prompt from each group of the three groups below. Respond to each selected prompt in 100 words or fewer (<100 words each; 300 words total).

Group 1

  • I want people to know that I:
  • I made a difference when I:

Group 2

  • I am out of my comfort zone when:
  • I was humbled when:

Group 3

  • I was aware that I am different when:
  • I was challenged when:

Don’t overthink this. As we always say, don’t pick the question, pick first from your “Greatest Hits” – the stories you need to tell, the traits you need to reveal that show you’re marked with future success … no matter what. Then find the questions which provide the cleanest opportunities for you to tell those stories.

“100 words or fewer” (for each of the three responses) is the real trick. That’s just not a lot of words, folks. We’re at 86 words so far by the way (92 if you include this parenthetical). Adds up, fast. (95.)

You’ve really only got a couple sentences and that’s hard as hell. But it’s also helpful in some ways. You’re actually unable to get too stuck. You need to be seriously efficient with your words. So let’s go through each prompt and figure out where to focus your attention.


I want people to know that I:

Think about this one carefully. It shouldn’t be “an impressive resume bullet.” That would be more appropriate for something like “It would be nice if people happened to find out X about me.” Right? Isn’t that how a REAL badass approaches things? It’s always the quiet guy/gal who decidedly DOESN’T give you his/her resume, but you end up finding out somehow else, and go “holy crap, I had no idea.” So much cooler.

Have fun with this one. Think of this more like “These people will never know this STRANGE thing about me unless *I* tell them right now. So, strap in folks, and try not to smile and LOVE me after I tell you this thing.”

It can be an honest admission of … something funny, charming, silly, embarrassing, weird.

Example 1:

“I want people to know that I do not like nickels. Can’t stand em. Thickness. Worthless amount. I like Jefferson. But I don’t love Jefferson. I’d rather be poor than have a billion nickels. What else. I’m trying to find a way to fill my 100 word allowance, but I can’t say it better than that. I hate nickels. If you give me change, and there are nickels present, I’m an adult, and I’ll seem composed, but inside, as small part of me will weep a little.”

Example 2:

“I want people to know that I genuinely don’t know if I’ve ever sneezed properly. I’ve observed people sneeze so loud that they injure themselves, or at the very least, a sneeze that warrants an “Excuse me.” Is it possible I’ve never sneezed before? On the one hand I feel like it may mean that I’m some kind of X-Men-esque inevitability of evolution. Mankind’s 2.0. And while that’s a fun thought, I can’t help but wonder, what have I been missing all these years? I’m tired of wondering. I’m going to go inhale a cloud of black pepper. Pray for me.”

Example 3:

“I want people to know that I really like Justin Bieber. I want people to know that I don’t care what YOU think of him, or what you think of people who typically like him. The kid is rad. Fact. I like his hair. I like his muscle T-Shirts. Before you decide things about my musical taste, consider this: I like Nirvana. I like Dre. I even like Mahler. But, yeah, also, I like Justin Bieber. I don’t know what it means, but I know is it’s 100% true.”

See the pattern? There’s something about “not taking yourself too seriously” that can make someone want to take you… more seriously. Ironic how that works out right? As opposed to the guy who pulls up in an electric blue Lamborghini and announces with chest puffed: “I want people to know that I bought this Lamborghini after I closed the deal of a lifetime–” (if anyone is still listening to that guy speak, I’d be surprised).

So the safe bet here: don’t take yourself too seriously. If you do it right, it should have the opposite effect. It’s not always true, there is an art form to it, so give it a whirl, see where it takes you.

I made a difference when I:

We need a clear understanding of what things would have been like WITHOUT YOU. And then we need to appreciate the delta that resulted after you were added to the equation.

First, paint the picture of “If I hadn’t done X, this is how things would have gone.” Then take a few sentences and show us how the thing YOU did made a meaningful difference.

This question lives and dies by our understanding of that delta. Without the context, your accomplishment may seem… kinda impressive? But we won’t know much about how much of a DIFFERENCE you made. It’s inside THAT aspect that we can gauge just how much of a change agent you can be. And based on that, ponder what your future potential is like.


I am out of my comfort zone when:

The key here is that you have to be comfortable ADMITTING to something. Meaning, if there isn’t any discomfort along the way, you’re probably not doing it right. We need to feel uncomfortable – as you did – when you take us through the quick version of this story. We need to understand where you were comfortable, and why you felt uncomfortable when pushed outside that zone. It’s not enough to drop us into the “outside of comfort zone” and just tell us THAT this thing was outside your comfort zone. We need to know what it means, and the only way to do that is for you to establish the “normal” first. (Or whenever, but at some point.)

I was humbled when:

You need to open your kimono up a bit here and expose yourself. You need to get comfortable revealing a belief or position you once held that later proved to be wrong. Or, the equivalent of that. If not a belief, then an attitude you had about yourself that was shattered.

This one (similar pattern as the others) lives and dies by the contrast between the post-humbling moment and the BEFORE picture. If it was overconfidence, let us see it. Whatever it was, allow yourself to look bad for a second. The fact that you can admit that you were humbled will quickly have the opposite effect, and make you stronger (instantly) than the guy who is afraid to admit being on the wrong side of an issue.

This one takes some courage, and says something about those who GO for it, and go for it all the way.


I was aware that I am different when:

The moment they’re asking about has to have been something of a SURPRISE to you. If you set out to be different (in some way), and then it proved to be true, that’s not exactly what we’re going for here.

It’s almost needs to be the opposite. Either you tried to be SIMILAR to others, or weren’t conscious of it at all… but discovered (inconveniently, or simply in the form of a discovery) that your version of whatever it was, was different. Walk us through that realization, that discovery moment. And then how you reacted, what happened next.

Remember, 100 words, this can’t be a richly textured narrative. So, whether you like it or not, you will HAVE to be efficient. The key is to establish the thing that was to be expected and then dwell on the realization that something about you (or your choices, or whatever) made you different.

I was challenged when:

We need to mull this one a bit. On the one hand, you can take this prompt at face value and talk about a garden variety challenge: this was the challenge, and this is how I dealt with it. But who the hell wants garden variety?

We’re gonna suggest a few other angles:

“I was tested when”:

“I didn’t realize what a real challenge was until”:

“I discovered what it felt like to NOT know how to solve a problem when”:

To answer any one of THOSE questions is to isolate a particular “lesson” or “reckoning” that is more closely aligned with what Ross is truly after. Well, let’s say it differently. Ross’s prompt is perfectly good enough. The problem is, it’s just open-ended enough to allow applicants with truly killer stories to potentially lay an egg, take those words at value, and choose a less-compelling story by accident. In the normal course of things, everyone is challenged in some way. Isn’t that life? Swatting the endless onslaught of flies that life throws at you? It’s useful to be cognizant of that because if you describe a challenge that feels too commonplace, you might seem out of touch, not that observant, not that worldly.

“Oh so you needed to meet a tough deadline? Congrats! That makes you just like… approximately 98% of your competition!”

“Gee, you had to step up and pitch something to the Board of Directors?” Congrats! Haven’t heard that one!

Now… if your situation is different, and starts to hit on one of those alternative, Admissionado Twist prompts… now we’re getting warmer.

“I was tasked to pitch something to the Board of Directors. Except, I was stepping in for someone in a different department, and had to present on a topic I knew nothing about, and I had 24 hours to make it happen.” (that might hit all three actually)

If your story options meet the “I was challenged when” but don’t quite meet any of those three alternatives, keep digging.

June 14, 2019

Kellogg MBA Optional Essay

All applicants have the opportunity to provide explanations or clarification in Additional Information:

If needed, use this section to briefly describe any extenuating circumstances (e.g. unexplained gaps in work experience, choice of recommenders, inconsistent or questionable academic performance, etc.) (no word count)

Read our team’s complete take on the idea of the optional essay, including a brief (recent) history of b-schools’ relationship with it, and how our recommendations have evolved over the years, right here.

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of Kellogg’s application essays.

Read more and explore each step of the Kellogg full-time MBA application process here.

June 14, 2019

Since your previous application, what steps have you taken to strengthen your candidacy? (250 word limit)

This is a typical re-applicant essay – a nice, specific question about updates on short-term and long-term career goals. It’s important to keep in mind when addressing this piece that it’s not just about the matter-of-fact update itself… we also need to assess the IMPROVEMENT you’ve pulled off.

In other words, one year later, your career plan has to become sharper or more plausible, or more exciting in some way. We need to understand HOW. And WHY. That’s the key: a crystal clear explanation of how your candidacy has improved and what it means given your (new and improved) reasons for getting an MBA. Take a deeper dive into our analysis below:

The Re-applicant Essay

June 4, 2019

The Optional MBA Essay

If this were an Agatha Christie novel, we’d title it: “The Case of the Missing Facet”

We’ll get to why in a sec…

First, a brief recent history of b-schools’ relationship with the optional essay, and how our recommendations have evolved over the years:

2007ish – Generally, b-schools would say “Use this space… if you have anything else to add. Cool?” So, our recommendation was essentially “Always do it, no matter what. You’re given a choice to fire another bullet, why on Earth would you not take it!?” Simple enough.

Early 2010s – But then, an interesting trend emerges. Several top b-schools start to make a point of saying “Please, for the love all that is holy, don’t use this space to slide in an extra essay. ONLY use this space to explain away major red flags. Like, seriously dude, don’t test me on this.” It’s as if these people were saying, “If you don’t heed our warning, we’ll count it against you.” Naturally, our recommendation was (a) to read each school’s wording carefully, and (b) generally to avoid the optional essay UNLESS you had a red flag you needed to explain away, in which case, absolutely use this space to address possible negatives, efficiently and confidently. This was also happening at a time when schools were generally starting to shrink word counts from 3000 or so to 2000 and in several cases 1000 or fewer. Clearly, they were getting more words than they wanted, so the game was more about who can say everything they need to… concisely?

2016, 2017, 2018ish – Nowadays, we’re starting to see a return to open-endedness in the way the Optional Essay is worded. And we’re taking it as a signal, since their wording is usually pretty deliberate, year to year. It’s as if they’re now saying, “Aight, we’ve asked what we wanted to ask. You got somethin’ else to say? Do it, if you want.” This shift in tone (and wording) that we’re seeing almost across the board is significant. It seems to be opening a door that was once almost noisily closed SHUT. You’ll find that the wording is usually more restrictive on longer applications: if the optional is one of two essays, they’ll let you write almost anything; if it’s the ninth essay on the application, they’ll discourage material that’s not 100% critical to understanding your profile. What are they signaling, exactly?

Well, our take at the moment is this: unless the wording is clearly aggressive in the direction of “don’t use this space EXCEPT for explaining away problem spots in your profile,” then… we recommend USING it to round out your profile in whatever way adds the most value.

This won’t always mean walking the admissions committee through your best leadership moment or talking about some obvious resume bullet point you weren’t given the opportunity to talk about in the rest of your essays. It’s much more complicated than that. The trick at this point is to add up everything you’ve got: GMAT/GRE, the story your resume tells, the stuff your LORs will likely contain, your transcripts, your other application essays, all of it, the totality of your entire app. Look at it from a distance, and reduce it down to an essence. One way to do this is to coldly, robotically, without emotion, describe that person (you) – this redux version – using single-word-descriptions, pick maybe five. What words do you end up with?

Cool, now ask yourself… is anything vital MISSING from that redux list? What is a key part of what makes you an amazing candidate that hasn’t been adequately captured yet? It’s possible that adcoms will GET your leadership abilities at a glance from your resume, and possibly from one of your recommenders. But perhaps your resume doesn’t tell us that you have an INSANELY international perspective based on the consistency of geography and work experience. Imagine someone coming to the WRONG conclusion and assuming that to be a major weakness, when in fact, it’s the opposite! Now would be the time to use this Optional Essay space to make a point of that in whatever the most compelling way would be for YOU. Maybe it’s an anecdote, maybe it’s simply matter-of-factly explaining it away.

This part is important: it is possible to paint the perfect picture through the rest of the application. Such that, if you’re given this opening, and the BEST possible thing you can come up with here is REDUNDANT (captured BETTER elsewhere/already), or, a second-rate item on your resume, then you may actually risk WEAKENING your profile by overstaying your welcome. Use this space only if NOT using it might result in the admissions committee missing something vital about your candidacy.

Don’t just lob in a great story, because you can. Lob in a missing FACET to your profile. A facet that – when added to the rest of the facets captured by the rest of your app – now sums to something that may be MORE compelling than a competitor within your demographic, or (even better) simply lift you a head and shoulder ABOVE the entire playing field.

Find your missing facet.

And then use this space to bake it in. Think of the Optional Essay as an opportunity to COMPLETE your application, not “BOOST” it.

To make a culinary analogy, the “boosters” end up with a dish that they then say, “Damnit, it was perfect before I added that extra pinch of salt.” Or, “Damnit, I shouldn’t have added that lemon zest, now it’s too lemony.” Instead, it’s all about the chef who tastes the almost-finished product, and is BOTHERED by the absence of something, “It’s almost there, it’s just missing… some kind of acid/sweetness/spicy kick/etc.” And THEN they add whatever is missing to bring it home. Those people… usually pick wisely.

June 4, 2019

Usually goes something like: How have you strengthened your candidacy since you last applied? Please reflect on how you have grown personally and professionally.

Who here has seen the movie Iron Man?

Well for those of you who haven’t seen it, (1) see it, it’s pretty tight and (2) here’s a bit of background before I make my patented absurd (but well-intended) analogy. Tony Stark is a pre-eminent industrialist, with an unusual brain for science and mechanics. He makes his fortune as CEO of a company that manufactures and distributes military weapons. Caught in the cross-fire of an unanticipated ambush, Stark’s body (and heart) is riddled with shrapnel. A hare’s breath away from death, a device connected to his heart (powered by an external battery) keeps him alive, barely. Trapped in a cave and held hostage by terrorists, he’s forced to build them a weapon of mass destruction. Instead, he (a prodigious inventor/savant) builds himself a suit made out of iron… and escapes from the clutches of the extremists. The suit that he builds under duress, is JUST GOOD ENOUGH to enable his escape, but is worthless afterwards. It was clunky, bulky, inefficient… but barely worked. Time passes, and safe at home now, Stark sets his mind to building a NEW SUIT. This time, now that he knows what he is capable of, he does everything perfectly. And the suit is lean, efficient, has new capabilities: it’s an absolute thing of perfection.

Phew. Now, for all you re-applicants, here’s what happened. The first time around, you guys built a suit that was juuuuuust good enough to get yourselves out of that cave. But it was clunky. Bulky. Inefficient. Lacking somehow… but…. someone read through it. It worked, but not well enough. Here we are, one year later. Two years later. Whatever it is. And you have….

Figured. It. Out.

You are going to build a suit that looks and feels so different, it is almost unrecognizable. You’ve tinkered with the joints. You’ve understood how to make the breathing apparatus more comfortable. You’ve realized that aerodynamics are a function of XXX and not YYY. You’ve changed just about everything.

The key is demonstrating not just THAT you’ve changed (of course people are going to look different a year from now—that’s just nature), but rather… how SIGNIFICANTLY you’ve changed. This is the thing to capture. What is it you’ve learned since last time? And why should we care? What have you done toward addressing that?

Okay okay… how do you actually DO IT???

Look back on the application you submitted the first time around. Look at the person THEY saw.


If you’re doing this correctly, you should be nodding a knowing nod, saying “Hm. They made the absolute correct decision. Look at this kid. He didn’t have XX. He was weak in YY. He just didn’t have clarity in ZZ. Wow, they were WISE to have dinged the crap out this kid.” It may hurt to see yourself in this light, but this is crucial. This exercise will unlock the best possible version of your essay imaginable. Because now you have a frame of reference, against which you can compare “the new you.” The biggest mistake you can make is to say, well you fools didn’t see it a year ago, and this time I’m gonna yell a little louder and push harder to MAKE you see it.

No. They saw it just right. At least, that’s the way you need to approach it.

Acknowledge it even. Talk honestly about how, wow, one year ago I was confused about XX and it manifested itself THIS way. One year later, on account of this incredibly full and productive year or two, I now see it THIS way. Be earnest, admit to the fact that you have improved. But to do that, become comfortable with the idea that you weren’t quite there on that first application. Admit to yourself that that original suit was a great idea…. but a failure of execution. And you’re able to see that now, with some perspective. Build yourself a new suit by acknowledging what was wrong with the first one.

December 19, 2018

Masters Of Science In Business Analytics


250 words is either a beefy two-paragraph affair, or a lean and mean three-spot. That’s for later though, let’s dig into the meat first. There are two key words in here: “next” and “logical.” Let’s translate what each of those means.

“Next” = Why does a one-year stopover, scooping up a Business Analytics degree make sense for your plans, as the very NEXT thing? Why now? Why not wait two years? Or four? Might you not get more out of the program with a few extra years of work experience under your belt? Your future plans a little more fleshed out? The answer has to be no. And you gotta be able to sell it. No, waiting will only delay my ability to. . . what? Achieve X, develop Y, attack problem Z, etc. Your need for a BA degree is now because you’ve pushed yourself as far as you can, and now’s the time you need a boost of “nitro.” Your version, of course, will reveal all sorts of details about your goals and plans that are crucially missing here.

Neat trick: it’s always cool to get the sense that doing it now isn’t do or die. Do or die is actually a really WEAK position. Your posturing should be the opposite. You’ve got plenty of options. Why? Because one way or another, you’re gonna achieve your goal, and barrel forward because you’re a juggernaut. So yah, there absolutely IS a possibility of waiting a little while longer (Path B), or doing XYZ for a little bit and THEN getting this masters (Path C), or… you get the idea. The thing is, while viable, they aren’t as GOOD as Path A which is to nab this sucker NOW, for THIS and THAT and THE OTHER reasons. That argument feels badass and confident.

“Logical” = Okay, let’s say we’re sold that now’s the time for you to do . . . something other than stay on the track you’re currently on. Sell us now on why a degree in Business Analytics specifically makes sense over some alternative? First of all, what ARE the alternatives? Doesn’t have to be a degree necessarily, surely there exist other paths to get you to where you need to go (right? maybe not, you’ll tell us). Neat trick to crush this section: same deal as before, be comfortable with alternative pathways that’ll get you to your ultimate goal. Play them out mentally, and as an exercise, get EXCITED about some of em. Imagine you had to sell someone on one or two alternative paths. Cool, now stack those alternatives against getting this particular degree. And it should be plain that THIS version is way better than those other ones, even they’re all viable. This is an argument that comes from a position of STRENGTH, not weakness. The approach that is beseeching will make the admissions committee wonder if this is an application by way of last resort. Bad. Go the other way. You have TONS of options, but this degree, at this time, makes the most sense, as anyone can plainly see. That’s what we should feel after reading your actual argument.

Let’s look at a potential structure for this:

Part I

  • Good way to start is to paint the scene for where you’re headed, big picture. Why? What’s driving it? Do this quick, couple/three sentences.
  • Now, paint a clear picture of what you need to achieve in the SHORT-TERM to get you on the right track, figure a 3-5 year outlook. Walk us through specifics of how each stage logically leads to the next, advancing you along your trajectory. The crispness of this logic (when executed correctly) should reveal how much thought you’ve put into this plan, kinda like an engineer’s step-by-step protocol.
  • By now, we should be mostly sold that you know what you’re doing, you’re the kind of guy/gal who’s gonna nail it, even if “it” changes over time. This is the part where you reveal the answer to “well, why are you wasting time writing to us, when you could be out there working on that brilliant plan?” Answer? You’re missing some key pieces. Some skills. Some knowledge. Some. . . thing. Boom, a perfect bump and set to the second part of this essay.

Part II

  • At this point, probably you’re around 125-150 words in. You’ve established what you need, and where you’re falling short now. Now, simply explain in two or three clear examples, precisely how the Texas MSBA will help plug all those gaps in your particular profile. Don’t just talk broadly about what “anyone” can expect to gain from a program like this. Think of Texas MSBA as an ENABLER that will help you do something you’re unable to do today. How does that work? Take us through it. Find a few specific classes, opportunities, elements of the program that help enable you to get from A à When executed correctly, these examples shouldn’t apply to “any” other applicant, nor should they apply to ANY other Business Analytics program. They should be specific both to McCombs AND to you. If you can pull that off, now you’re playing with the big boys and gals. This should take another solid 125 word or so.

Depending on your goals, this can either be two or three paragraphs. Doesn’t much matter for your first stab it. As long as you nail the above elements, you should end up with a decent hunk of clay to mold.


Let’s start with a basic assumption: so far in your life, you’ve solved more than one problem. Phew. Now we have choices. And now the fun can begin. . .

Okay, so what makes for a good problem to pick here? Or a bad one?

Let’s take a step back. What are they getting at here, ultimately? Obviously, they don’t wanna know that you’re able to solve a problem, “at all.” Lots of people can. They don’t even wanna know that you “got the right answer” even to a ridiculously difficult question. What’s more revealing about your MIGHT is the WAY your gears churned to get you TO the solution. Couple indicators that you’re on the right track:

  • Did others attempt to solve it, but couldn’t? (good indicator)
  • Was your METHOD of solving it somehow unusual, or unexpected? (good indicator)
  • If you revealed your methodology to someone senior to you, would they impressed? If so, why? Assume that they would have gotten to a solution as well, and possibly a BETTER / FASTER one. Would there STILL be an element to your methodology that would impress them? (good indicator)

If you find yourself checking against this list and coming up empty every time, keep digging. By the way, it doesn’t need to be FLASHY. Unusual can also be “unusually” simple and clean: “Whereas others would over-complicate this by doing X Y and Z, I decided to do simply . . . Q, and voila.” Or, unusual can be the opposite: “While everyone else was obsessed with looking for the most elegant solution, I was just looking for … the solution. It was messy, but I got it done. Here’s how.” The key lies in how your brain (how “you”) kick into action when faced with a lock you can’t easily pick. Whatever you do, your story can’t leave the interviewer underwhelmed. You wanna elicit that reaction where the corners of the mouth bend down, eyebrows go up, as if to say “hunh! interesting!” The “Robert DeNiro” face.

Let’s talk structure:

  • First, give us the circumstances around how the problem came up in the first place. Don’t just throw us into the problem without any sense of who needed what, and why, and what was at stake. Set it up.
  • Now, explain what made this problem not easily solvable. Or, explain simply why it wasn’t getting solved. Maybe it had the appearance of being easily solvable, and yet, people kept failing. Or, it was obviously challenging to begin with, and freaked everyone. . . the hell OUT. Explain what wasn’t quite right.
  • Now explain what was going through your head. Did you know how you were gonna get from A to Z from the very beginning? And did you hit a major brick wall at E? Or did you not know how to even get from A to B? But figured it out eventually? Take us through those gears. Let us into your head.
  • If there was an “Aha” moment, there must have been time BEFORE that moment that was “Pre-Aha” right? Take us through THAT, a bit. And then, if you’re able, describe that light bulb moment, how it arrived, or how you “arrived it” by sheer will, whatever the case. This is the real key to it all. Showing us all the ways in which your brain works. Btw, the quantitative reasoning piece methods piece will naturally spring forth this way. But don’t rush to get to that stuff. It’s the stuff BEFORE it that counts just as much.
  • Finally, have a good answer to the question “why did you choose to tell us THIS story”? You should have an awareness of what made this particular problem-solving episode noteworthy. In a sentence or two, walk us through it.


Dear god whatever you do, don’t be boring and straightforward. This is your opportunity to sprinkle a little personality into the mix, and make yourself memorable, inside one simple minute. Yah that’s right. One minute. It’s not enough time to spin a serious yarn, but it’s enough to have some fun. Even just a little. Let’s pull back a second though to get a sense of what we’re truly after here.

What would you want to learn from watching a one-minute video of a classmate? What about ten classmates? Would you most wanna know about what cool things these guys have achieved? Would you most wanna know which one of them is cool and approachable? Has a background that complements yours? Is someone you may wanna one-day start a business with? Or work within some capacity? The answer may be a blend of some or all of these. But whether we want to admit it or not, the “cool and approachable” one may just be a necessary conduit to ALL of the others. Maybe it’s best to think about it the other way… imagine someone who scores high on all the OTHER STUFF, but seems very UNCOOL and UNAPPROACHABLE. Taints it, right? Another scenario tends to be possible also: someone comes across kinda cool, but as of yet, you’re unsure of what else that guy/gal has goin on. Doesn’t matter, the groundwork is set to wanna learn more. That’s a positive outcome. That’s kinda what we’re going for. That at the end of watching this video, the viewer should wanna learn more, or wanna hang out with you TO learn more. This is why affability, approachability, sense of humor, a relaxed vibe… are KEY.

Couple things to keep in mind:

  • If you’re telling a redux about something you’ve been doing thus far in your career, or something you’ve achieved, it can’t JUST be about that thing. Rather, what will almost always make that approach COOLER is to give it some kind of twist. Could be anything. A hilarious/memorable blunder you made, something like that. Shows you’re able to poke fun at yourself and aren’t just trying to impress others.
  • Another approach is to talk about something insane, unusual, super interesting in your personal life that simply must be told. Something you’re sure will get a reaction out of a room listening. Again, the idea isn’t to elicit a “wow, that’s impressive!” It should be more of “wow, I gotta meet this guy/gal!”

Don’t try to be too creative here, after all, it’s a one-minute introduction. If you try to get all “Godard” you’re most likely gonna look like you’re trying really hard, and it’s just not the venue for it. Be charming in a way that’s appropriate with the simplicity of the task. Less is more. It should be 70-80% straightforward, and 20-30% . . . spirited.

Read more and explore each step of the Texas Mccombs MS in Business Analytics application process here.

December 19, 2018


One word: Juggernaut. You guys familiar with that idea? To essentialize it: “unstoppable force.” Something that has a kind of momentum that seems to have a will of its own. That’s what we want here. The sense, through the way you articulate your objectives, and the action you’ve taken and are taking, that you’re not just ideas and words, but you’re a runaway train, barreling toward your objective. For many folks in life, graduate school is a fallback plan. An expensive “reset” button because real life wasn’t catapulting them toward fame and wealth as they’d hoped. They don’t want that guy. They want the guy for whom this program IS the catapult. The guy for whom the plans for “fame and wealth” or “whatever else compels them” requires a Masters in Finance as a key missing piece. That final piece of track connecting one side of the bridge to the other, so that your runaway train can sail forward smoothly.

Above all else, your plan needs to make a ton of sense. The best way to gut-check this is to run it by actual “finance” people. Colleagues, bosses, mentors, folks who are in “the know” and know exactly how people “on the inside” think, and behave. If your plan makes sense in a theoretical world, but doesn’t scan in “the real world,” admissions committees will know that you’re more dreamer than doer. If you’ve cut your teeth in this universe though, and kinda have a sense for how it all works, how people maneuver within a company, between companies, progress in the industry, advance their careers toward bigger and better things, it’ll show in the way you lay out your plan. Now is NOT the time to get creative, and force the admissions committee to have to imagine that your plan MAY be viable. It needs to be bulletproof. And it should read like a military operation, with every step making perfect logical sense with respect to the one before and after it.

In fact, in keeping with that analogy, your plan (like any good one), must have some viable alternatives. Assume your “A” plan hits an unforeseeable bump. You’re not gonna pack it in and go home and sulk, right? You’re gonna find another pathway toward your goal. Walk us through it. And then do it again. Show us that whatever curveball life throws your way, you’re poised to make an adjustment and swat the ball into play, somewhere.

As for geography, this will have everything to do with your specific goals. Again, it will benefit you to have spoken with an expert in this area, who knows exactly how the industry works, and whether the language you use to articulate your plan jibes with how THEY on the other side experience it. That guy/gal has a better chance of succeeding than the one who simply has [1] the wherewithal, and [2] an excellent plan in THEORY, that doesn’t quite sit perfectly with the game on the ground.

As structure, let’s break it down:

  1. Explain quickly where it’s headed, big-picture. And why. Without getting side-tracked, SELL us on this larger vision you have for yourself. It’ll make your shorter-term battle plan stick better if we’ve bought into the idea that you have a solid RUDDER. [75-100 words]
  2. Now, take us through a very PRACTICAL battle plan for, say, 3-5 years after your Masters. Where are you headed within that time frame, and what are all the utterly logical steps between you and that goal? More important than your actual plan, is that you convey here that you “are the type who will always have a smart plan.” So, this is where you can EXPOSE some of the calculations BEHIND your decisions, don’t just zoom to all the conclusions. We wanna see how you GOT there, because therein lies the window into your ANALYTICAL NERVE CENTER. Hit us with Plan A first. [125-150 words]
  3. Now, wow us with your alternative plans, but more so than simply tick the box that you “have a backup plan,” find a way to convince your “investor” that come hell or high water, you’re gonna find a way to get it done. See the difference? It isn’t to sell us on the strength of your backup plan(s). Rather, it’s to fill us with confidence that if you were to stumble 99 times, you still have plenty of gears to go to in order to succeed, because SUCCESS is etched into your DNA. You can achieve this by exposing “just how much thought you’ve given this,” addressing viable bumps that may await you. And to do it with confidence, and steadiness. [125 words]
  4. Finally, hit us with the geography piece, fleshing out even in more detail, why you wish to end up where you hope to end up. Explain this in two ways: [1] in a way that makes professional sense, of course, but also [2] in a way that fits in with your personal wants and tastes, enough to convince us that you are likely to THRIVE within this setting. Sell us on it. Don’t force the issue, but convince us that your “plant” will “thrive” in this environment. Is there evidence of it in your past that’ll help us see it? Great, bring it. [100 words]
  5. Now, they haven’t explicitly asked for it, but it may help your case to explain quickly why you aren’t just lunging at this plan right now. What’s missing in your skillset? Why spend the time earning a degree? If you do this right, your inevitability for success should leap off the page, such that LBS will want to ENABLE you, thus doing THEMSELVES a favor. In other words, try not to be beseeching when explaining what you need. Posture more like “listen, I’m gonna get this missing piece no matter what. It’ll be in YOUR best interest that it happen under your roof.” [50 words or so, either at the end here, or organically earlier, when discussing your short-term plans.]


Adding value. Hm. In order to hit this precisely, it helps to imagine the DELTA between this program [1] Without You, compared to the program [2] With You. The difference between those two things needs to (a) exist (ha!), but (b) be. . . meaningful. Enough for someone on the other side to say, well, we much prefer Scenario 2 over Scenario 1 because we’re clearly better off in Scenario 2. Now, “clearly” doesn’t always mean measurably. And that’s where it gets challenging. But that’s where you need to SELL like a champ, and persuade.

Start by getting a bit real. Say to yourself (even if it hurts a bit) that the difference between you and most of your competition isn’t really all that great. The stuff that any single individual brings to the table. . . I mean, how much impact on a program can one guy make, right? It’s not gonna be a big thing, in all likelihood. It may be a little thing. A subtle thing. Something you’ve experienced at work that few others have, the insider experience of which, when shared, can add value. But value, how? Be able to articulate it. Or perhaps there’s an aspect to your upbringing/childhood/schooling/work experience (cultural, geographic, other such influences) that makes your approach to something that’s otherwise conventional… somehow different. And in that difference, lies that competitive edge that makes you more likely to add value than the guy without that background. Whatever your angle is, it will help your case to be able to illustrate the precise way in which it has made a difference in YOUR life, and therefore, how that might have a ripple effect when introduced to others pursuing the same general field.

Another neat trick here is to invert the question entirely, and to think back to a moment when you have personally benefitted from the influence of a colleague, or peer, or superior, or subordinate. Identify what that “learning” was. Now, find an analog trait that YOU possess (or some kind of unique perspective through background or experience, whatever) that you believe can similarly impact someone else, or a community of folks. You may never need to draw upon the initial example, but it can help kickstart the juices.

Now, apply that to specific areas of the program that you feel you’ll be able to impact the most. Part of this will be that “thing” you’ve identified above, the source of the value you have to contribute. But that’s gonna be worthless unless it’s accompanied by the WILL to wanna share it. This is where you need to sell us on your enthusiasm for LBS, and specific opportunities that you cannot WAIT to engage with. Prove to us that this isn’t just the thing you say in an application, but “the opportunity you’ve been waiting for.” Don’t just name-drop clubs and activities and programs. Show us that you know way more about than what’s listed on a website. Show us that you’ve dug deep, talked to alums, explored it in surprisingly aggressive ways; show us you mean business!


  1. A great way to attack an essay like this is to explain what you’re looking for in “an ideal program.” Leave LBS out of it for now. Just imagine you’re being asked to “paint” the ideal program on a magical canvas. Explain why THESE opportunities at this ideal place “bring out the best in you.” Cite evidence from your past. This is an important stage-setting maneuver. [100-125 words]
  2. Now, explain how SPECIFIC OPPORTUNITIES A B and C (maybe two or three examples max) at LBS map perfectly to whatever you laid out in Section 1. Walk us through your plan for engaging, explaining how your interaction here may go beyond the casual applicant’s. Sell us on the impact/value you’re planning on dropping. [150-175 words]
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