September 23, 2018

Carnegie Mellon Tepper Business School MBA Essay

CMU Tepper

CMU Tepper MBA Essay

At Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School, we love to tell our story. Below is your chance to tell yours. Please select only ONE of the options below to complete the essay requirement (maximum 300–350 words).

Not only is it “the” essay requirement, it’s a lean 300-350-word ditty. Which means, they’re mostly looking at other stuff, folks. Resume, GMAT, LORs, etc. But that doesn’t mean they’re ignoring this one either.

Part of the strategy here is gonna be picking the prompt with which you can deliver a knockout blow. If you’re a fan of Admissionado, and who isn’t, you may have heard us talk about the “Greatest Hits” approach to answering application essays, or preparing for interviews, etc. The idea is, load your chamber with only the stories that reveal your strongest traits, assets, achievements, etc. Then, working backwards from there, find the essay prompt that provides the most elegant opportunity for you to use that story. Don’t do it in reverse order, and pick a nice-sounding prompt that ultimately leads you to tell your 4th best story, when you only have ONE SHOT as you do here. See the difference? Whatever you do, figure out a way to get to tell your BEST story. Period.

We’ll break each one down now to help you frame whatever your A-story ends up being, for maximum impact.


Option #1: Carnegie Mellon University is an institution that never stops looking and moving ahead, pioneering the next way forward with technology, business and research to answer questions big and small. Personally or professionally, in what way have you been a pioneer?

It’s a big word, gang. Pioneer. Not to be taken lightly. To be a pioneer, you need to have been the first at something we now take for granted. Something useful, important, etc. Think about that. If you were the very first person EVER… to jump up and down and throw an egg against the wall and have it not break while shouting “Go Red Sox!” … um, congratulations? You may very well be the very first person to have ever blazed that trail, but sorry sweetheart, there isn’t a single person behind you, following you in your footsteps. This may make you …….. “special”? But it doesn’t make you a pioneer.

Similarly, you may have created an unbelievably incredible device that allows you to search the web 100x faster than anyone else, and download and upload things 100x faster than anyone else. Congrats, that may make you “better at making that machine that already exists… work faster…” but it doesn’t make you a pioneer.

So, it needs to be both those things. You need to have been the first to do it, and enough people need to have been excited about it that they care that you did it. Now, how narrow is that definition here? Maybe not quite so tight. If you were the first person to have done something WITHIN YOUR COMPANY, even if that thing had been done elsewhere… that may indeed make you a pioneer… at your company, in a very particular context. We’ll allow it. Don’t get too hung up on that definition, but keep it in mind all the same. It’s useful.

Okay, so, look at your greatest hits lineup. Looking specifically at your top two or so “things you’d ever wanna talk about in your b-school application.” Is there an aspect of your process, or achievement, that made you a pioneer in some way? If the answer is a clear and emphatic no, then skip-a-dee-do-da to the next prompt. If there ARE elements of pioneering, halt! Let’s dig deeper.

  • First, we will need to establish the thing that needed doing, and why.
  • Next, we need to explain either (1) how others had tried to tackle it and failed, and why they failed, or (2) that no one else had ever CONSIDERED tactic X.
  • Then, you need to explain HOW you arrived at your decision to pursue tactic X, and why, and then… how you went about executing on it. Tell us what made it uniquely challenging. Hopefully, this is the part where there’s no “book” you can consult because such is the nature of pioneers… they’re the first ones doing it, by definition. So, help us understand the peculiarities of the most challenging problems, and how you went about untangling them.
  • Finally, and this is a strange way to end an essay, but it works nicely here… tell us what was at stake had you NOT pursued this thing. Presumably, you had something to lose, and you forged ahead anyway. Walk us through the significance of it all, and why the risky attempt was worth it to you, win or lose.

This is the version where you have ONE pioneering story to talk about. If, somehow, you have MORE than one, that’s a whole other thing. If your resume is LOUSY with one pioneering story after another, allow THAT to take center stage. Your task there will be to establish that being a pioneer is something (1) you seek, (2) are good at, (3) is a defining characteristic, etc. But you’ll need to prove it. So you’ll want at LEAST two examples. Three is usually a solid number. If you have just two, it MAY be best to go deep on the better one of the two. If you have more than two, then you may wanna “make a thing of it” and assert yourself as “Johnny Pioneer.” Your structure there might go something like:

  • Example 1 – Diving right in, there was this time X needed doing and no one (1) noticed that this was a problem, or (2) they noticed but didn’t/couldn’t do anything about it. Not me. I decided to act, and so here’s how I figured out how to solve the thing: X, Y and Z.
  • Example 2 – Then, in a completely different setting, with completely different circumstances, it happened again. In this instance… it was because of “some other cause” that nothing was happening. But, again, I was most focused on getting to the desired outcome and was not scared off by the fact that it hadn’t been done before. So I just figured out how to do it, and did it.
  • Example 3 – And again, here’s a third example. Slight difference once more in the circumstances and nature of the thing that needed doing and why nothing had been done prior, but the one thing that binds ALL these stories together is the idea that I could imagine the result and work backwards to forge a way ahead. And I did. Here’s how that one worked.
  • Button it all up with the common element being that you’re a guy who isn’t afraid of “not having a rulebook to consult.” But this is the part where you’ll need to get a little more specific and personal about what it is that compels you, drives you, makes you tick. If you do this correctly, this paragraph should not resemble a single other person’s who attempts to answer this prompt.

Option #2: Amidst the ambiguous and unchartered nature of change, Carnegie Mellon University students and alumni rise above to envision and create. Discuss how you have anticipated change in your professional life. In what ways did you effectively collaborate to create your desired outcome?

The keywords to home in on: “Ambiguous and unchartered nature of change.” “Anticipate.” And then a strange one… “collaborate.” We’ll save “collaborate” for the end, damnit Tepper! Let’s focus on the other stuff instead, the main stuff.

The most important words to focus on here are the ones that are IMPLIED. “Discuss how you have anticipated change” … “that no one else anticipated” or “that others may have anticipated but chose not to act on ” … and walk us through all the cool stuff that happened after that. That’s the real question. It’s all about getting a sense of what you might have keyed into that others didn’t. Or ways in which you RATED the potential of a particular change HIGHER than others, and were therefore prepared to respond when it became a reality. This is about paying attention. It’s about having a backup plan mentality. It’s also about dealing with “non-believers” whom you’ll have to somehow “get on your side.” This is likely where the “collaboration” element kicks in.

In order for your story to really work here, though, you need to have anticipated something that either (1) others didn’t, or (2) chose to not take seriously. In either case, at some point when you made your concerns known, there must have been opposition, which gives you two challenges now. Let’s go through them.

Challenge #1 – Dealing with the “curveball.” Something unanticipated was on its way and threatened to ruffle the plan you had in place. It would require adaptation, changing the plan, possibly sunk costs, all sorts of stuff. But also…

Challenge #2 – There had to have been people who didn’t believe you when you said this storm was comin’. Or who acknowledged that while the storm would indeed come, it wouldn’t throw the original plan off track. And you believed it would. And… in order to meet the objective, you would need their buy-in at some point.

In order for this story to work best, you need to have gotten folks onto your side at a moment that was INCONVENIENT for them to make that change. In other words, if you anticipated a hurricane, but no one else believed you, and the hurricane did end up coming… it doesn’t really count if DURING THE STORM all the non-believers all of a sudden line up to volunteer to hand out bottled water to folks who lost power. Of course they’d do that. The real trick is in getting them to move to that position BEFORE the storm hits, because you were able to pull that off tactically somehow. That’s where your chops as a businessman and as a communicator can be showcased. So remember that the “change in attitude” of the person you’ve convinced needs to have occurred at a moment that was not expected, and resulted from your persuasive talents.

So there are two pieces here, and you have 300-350 words. Here’s how you can structure this:

Part 1 – Explain “the thing” and what “everyone saw and thought and expected.” Now quickly introduce the “unanticipated” thing YOU saw that others didn’t, or didn’t care much about. In order for this story to hum, these need to be crystal clear. Explain why it would be difficult to move these folks OFF their position, what you had to risk if you were WRONG, etc. [75 words]

Part 2 – Next, explain the tactics you employed to get people to collaborate with you on your once-unpopular position. How did you move people from “disbelief” to “belief”? Did you sputter along the way and get better at it over time? Walk us through those decisions, and the reasoning, and what you’re learning all the while. [100–125 words]

Part 3 – Now walk us through how you dealt with the actual unanticipated thing, and what all was required in the form of tweaks and adjustments to the original plan and why it was much harder than it would have been otherwise, and how you were able to usher in success. [100–125 words]

Part 4 – Briefly (don’t dwell here), discuss some kind of shift in attitude that you have toward PLANNING and FORECASTING and MODELING now that you’ve been through that version where the unexpected wreaked havoc on “the original plan.” Moving forward, how will that affect the way you “plan” for … anything? [50 words]


Option #3: At Carnegie Mellon University, our difference is what we imagine for the world and how we answer its challenges. What impact have you had on the world around you?

Impact questions are tricky. You don’t wanna overstate it, cuz if you’re all jazzed about Impact X, it’s possible that someone else has made an even more substantial impact, and not even noticed it. So, you need to toe the line between (1) humility, and (2) awareness that you’ve made some kind of impact, which is almost inherently contradictory to that. It’s possible, though.

First off, let’s get inside “impact” itself. The best way to tackle this is to run two scenarios in your mind:

Scenario 1 – The version where you were NOT AROUND to do whatever it is you did. What happens in that version? Play out the results. Extend the timeline. Imagine “the world” if you hadn’t been around. Quantify it however you need.

Scenario 2 – Now, play out the version that should be more familiar, the one that actually happened, where you DID the thing you did, which led to a DIFFERENT outcome. Quantify THAT version as well.

Now you have two tasks. First up, we need to describe the DELTAS between those scenarios: it’s the stuff that resulted ON ACCOUNT OF YOUR INTERFERENCE. Task 1, just… describe it. What it was. Don’t comment on it yet, we just need to understand what the “impact” was, at all, period.

Cool, now that we have a sense of the what, we need to get into Task #2, which is the “who cares” piece. Why is this meaningful, desirable, better, etc.? Anyone can have “impact” which leads to a different outcome. I’ll show ya.

I’m gonna dump a tray of ice cubes somewhere. I could do it in the kitchen sink. Or I can dump it off the balcony into the dirt patch next to my building. Are those two scenarios different? Yep. In one scenario, a cup or so of frozen water is dumped into the plumbing system, kinda like regular water is expected to be. In the other scenario, a bit of frozen water finds its way outdoors, possibly to melt into the dirt. This ticks the “Task 1” challenge above of “what’s the difference.” But… it most certainly fails “Task 2” which is… does anyone care? Will there be a huge demand in the future for that guy to dump ice cubes outside versus in the sink? Probably not. The delta needs to matter to folks other than you. This is KEY, but it’s one thing that most folks MISS.

One of the best ways to “prove” that this is a desirable thing is through its LONGEVITY, lasting power, permanence. If the thing you introduced, or changed, continues to be in effect, and continues to be creating the “impact” it did when you began, that’s a fairly decent indication that the change was a welcome one.

So, if you can satisfy all those conditions, you’re in a great starting place. Now, let’s structure this bizzo.

Part 1 – Establish the status quo. This is the way things were going BEFORE you introduced “the change.” What was happening, what was the result, and why was this sub-optimal? What was either the PROBLEM with this, or the MISSED OPPORTUNITY? Explain it. [75 words]

Part 2 – Now, since we don’t have much room to explore a ton else, let’s skip to THE THING you did that changed the game somehow, and led to a disruption to that status quo. Explain it, and walk us through all the DELTAS between “what was” and “what it changed to.” [100 words]

Part 3 – Next, prove to us that this was something people –– other than you –– cared about, welcomed, appreciated, etc. There needs to be proof, and it can come in a million different shapes and sized so you’re on your own in finding the supporting evidence for your particular story. Remember, one of the ways to do this is to indicate the ways in which this change lasted BEYOND your initial involvement. If that change was a one-off thing, that’s not really impact. There needs to have been a ripple effect that continues to this day, either because the mechanism itself changed, or because the single impact of that one-off thing continues to have an effect, which is also possible. Either way, prove that anyone should care about this. [125 words]

Part 4 – A cool way to button this up is to indicate somehow that your incentive for participating in this impact was not entirely self-serving. Some selfishness is unavoidable, so don’t get too hung up on the purity test, but if there’s a version where your efforts were compelled by some kind of internal motor, reveal it here. It will have the counterintuitive effect of convincing the adcom that you’re a guy/gal with an unwavering sense of follow-through, and for a future player in the business world, that’s a meaningful attribute. [50 words]


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

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