Acing the MBA Essay Questions – Tips & Reviews

Focusing on Harvard Business School application essays written by candidates who won admission, our previous guide in this series presented general principles for writing compelling long-form MBA essays. However, this guide takes a different approach. In this article, we present specific tips for writing short-answer essays constrained by tight word limits.

The current trend in favor of the short-answer essay continues to gain momentum. Schools that currently require short-answer essays include the Harvard Business School, the Columbia Business School, and the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. Harvard only requires a 400-word short-answer essay from joint program applicants. At Columbia and Darden, all applicants must submit short-answer essays, and the word limits are brutally tight. For example, one Darden prompt imposes a 50-word limit, and one of Columbia’s questions only permits a 50 character response.

Below we present some effective strategies for writing short answer essays required by a popular MBA program: the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We selected Kenan-Flagler for several reasons, not the least of which is that UNC provides a good example of a school with a tradition of exclusively requiring the short-answer essay format for the past several years.

Moreover, Kenan-Flagler offers MBA@UNC, one of the finest online MBA programs in the world which currently holds the #1 ranking from U.S. News and World Report. But another benefit that makes UNC especially attractive to online MBA students involves the school’s liberal GMAT waiver policy. As we discussed in this guide, all applicants to UNC with five or more years of work experience automatically qualify for waivers, and 86 percent of a recent UNC incoming class of online MBA students won admission without either a GMAT or a GRE score.

For these reasons, the best-qualified candidates who are committed to the benefits of online graduate management education apply to UNC. In fact, data from U.S. News shows that UNC’s MBA applications during 2022 exceeded the school’s two closest competitors in the publication’s online rankings. About 45 percent more candidates applied to MBA@UNC than applied to the University of Southern California online MBA program, and more than four times as many applied to UNC than to Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School Online Hybrid MBA.

Clearly, a lot of applicants to both UNC’s on-campus and online MBA programs care about how they might win admission. Writing effective short-answer essays comprises a critical component of these candidates’ strategies.

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General Tips for Short-Answer Essay Writing

“Short” hardly means “easy.” The word limits often make writing compelling responses far more challenging. Here are a few general tips:

  • Activate! Using active verbs, recast as many passive voice sentences into active voice as possible. The passive voice introduces inefficiency into writing.
  • Cut redundancies. Essays within the application need to complement each other, and candidates may need to express some points in longer essays or interviews because no room exists within short-answer word limits.
  • Cut unnecessary examples and anecdotes. There’s generally insufficient space for numerous examples in short essays. And adhering to one of the structured response techniques we discussed in our guide How to Crack the Personal Interview for the MBA (e.g., STAR, PAR, or CAR) can tighten up examples.
  • Ruthlessly edited for the economy. Effective editing can often shorten essays by as much as 50 percent. Candidates without college or graduate training in advanced expository writing or editing may need to work with an admission consultant or a professional editor to achieve this result.

Case Study: UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School 2018-2019 Short-Answer MBA Essays

Question 1: Required (500 words)

Please respond to the questions below that will assist us in learning more about you:

  • Part 1: Tell us what your immediate career goals are and how you will benefit personally and professionally from earning an MBA at Kenan-Flagler Business School.
  • Part 2: As the business world continues to evolve, circumstances can change and guide you in a different direction. Should the goals that you provided above not transpire, what other opportunities would you explore?

Part 1 Analysis

More than 40 percent of MBAs switch to unanticipated industries after graduating, according to a 2022 report from the Graduate Management Admissions Council.

Given this new research we first reported on in our Guide to MBA Careers, it makes sense that admission committees would cut questions about long-term career objectives and ask about short-term objectives instead. The prompts about short-term goals like this one from UNC and other schools like Columbia reflect admission officers’ up-to-date awareness of this trend.

Nevertheless, this prompt contains a couple of hidden questions. Ostensibly the prompt only asks about short-term goals. However, it’s not effective to talk about short-term objectives without at least briefly suggesting how they fit within a larger, long-term context.

In the first sentence or two, candidates need to present a big-picture vision into which their short term objectives will fit. Then they need to declare their short term goal and establish a rationale for why that goal is necessary for them to achieve their long-term objective.

We agree with MBA Mission’s analysis that UNC next wants evidence from the candidate that they have thoroughly considered business school as their next career step, and the school expects the candidate to explain some very clear, specific reasons why this is a necessary step for them at this time.

The candidate needs to be careful not to discuss their background and explain how they reached such a choice; the question doesn’t ask about those aspects, and any more than briefly establishing a long-term context up-front will waste badly-needed space. However, an effective transition to the next section might talk about how the candidate’s career progress will continue to be hindered by personal and professional deficiencies that only the UNC MBA program can remedy.

The second hidden question amounts to asking, “Why UNC?” We would even suggest that most candidates will not be able to effectively write a compelling narrative that satisfies this admission committee without visiting the business school, attending several classes, and talking with professors and student ambassadors at some length. Indeed, this kind of trip seems even more essential for candidates applying to online MBA programs like MBA@UNC.

Furthermore, the narrative ideally needs to cite competitive advantages unique to UNC and emphasize that other business schools offer no viable substitutes that will benefit this particular applicant in comparable or better ways. The applicant should also portray how they aspire to interact with these features of the program and the benefits these features provide the candidate that will help them achieve their objectives.

Part Two Analysis

This question asks about a candidate’s “Plan B” career choice in the likely event that the “Plan A” short-term objective no longer seems attractive or satisfying.

The committee wants assurance, in the words of MBA Mission’s analyst, not only that “you are prepared to switch gears and recommit to a different path, if necessary, but also that you are fully capable of doing so.” That means the fallback career needs to appear “just as connected to your skills, interests, and ambitions as your original plan.”

In other words, the committee probably does not want to read that if a planned career as a management consultant with McKinsey fizzles, the candidate always wanted to write mystery novels, anyway. No, instead they want reassurance that the Plan B career plan is closely related to the original plan to seem practical and realistic.

For example, one possible option might involve a move to an internal consulting role working for a McKinsey client in the same industry sector in which the applicant practiced.

Question 2: Required (250 words)

The UNC Kenan-Flagler community lives by its core values: excellence, leadership, integrity, community, and teamwork.

  • Pick a core value that resonates most deeply with you.
  • Identify the most challenging situation that you have encountered and how you responded while upholding that core value.

This is a difficult topic made even more challenging by the severe 250-word constraint.

Like the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, Kenan-Flagler is a values-driven school. The committee wants assurance that a candidate will fit with these values as Kenan-Flagler defines them, definitions which potentially differ somewhat from those that candidates might assume. For that reason, applicants first should study the school’s statement, Core Values in Action, and reflect on situations that had involved values defined in these ways. The prompt does not rule out interactions from one’s personal life as well as career.

Candidates need to select one of these five values with which they most deeply resonate—and that a particular challenge has threatened. Then, they need to explain how one or more potential ways of overcoming this challenge would have compromised their value. However, the candidate needs to illustrate how they didn’t back down, didn’t take the easy way out, and instead took steps that—despite added costs or consequences—upheld that value while nevertheless overcoming the threat.

The best situations show the candidate to be adept at managing tradeoffs by balancing business considerations with their values. Extremely imbalanced situations where the candidate displayed value leadership along with severely compromised business judgment probably will not offer the best choices for this narrative.

This is the kind of essay that lends itself to shocking introductions that grab the reader’s attention, as described in our previous essay guide. In other words, a dramatic moment of recognition might offer an effective plot device. Detailed narratives that explain one’s thought process, analysis, or considerations before key decisions or actions would also work well.

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

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