Decoding 10 of the toughest MBA essay questions

When it comes to writing MBA application essays, some topics are straight-forward.  That doesn’t mean that they’re easy to write — life would be too easy if you could get through an application essay without significant introspection and hair-tearing — but at least you know what they’re looking for.

“Give us an example of a situation in which you displayed leadership.” ~Berkeley Haas

Easy enough.  The essay topic basically says it all.

But compare that with Stanford’s infamous no-word-limit “What matters most to you and why?” and it’s immediately apparent that some essay questions are an entirely different animal.  They’re the type that makes you squint and scratch your head in confusion, that inspires disjointed thought-fragments but no clear direction, and that causes you to question whether you really liked that school so much in the first place.

Well fear not, we’re here to help you decode 10 of the toughest, most mystifying, MBA essay questions.

1. “What matters most to you and why?” ~Stanford GSB
This one is about values and their role in shaping your current aspirations, including your decision to pursue an MBA — although it’s tempting to look at it and just yell “Getting into business school dammit!”  What values?  Ethics, honesty, creating something, giving back to your community…  A lot of things work, as long as they relate back to your career path and depict you as somebody who is driven by more than just a desire for money, power or success.

2. “Introduce yourself in 100 words or less.” ~Ross School of Business
Grab our attention!  Don’t over-reach on this one and try to explain your entire life story.  Focus on a couple of aspects that make you unique and that will entice the adcom to read the rest of your application.  It’s definitely a great opportunity to show some personality.  And don’t be daunted by the word limit; you’ll be able to provide more detail in the other, more standard, essays.

3. “What have you learned from a mistake?” ~Harvard Business School
This one is a staple at most schools.  There are three qualities that can really shine through from “mistakes” essays: self-awareness, ability to learn from experience, and resilience.  Make sure to demonstrate at least two of those in your essay.  Be very careful about sounding bitter or defensive — common pitfalls in this sort of essay.

4. “The Blank Page.” ~Chicago Booth
This one causes many applicants to panic and draw a complete blank, primarily because it is so open in scope — you can use the page however you like — but also because most applicants second-guess the invitation to be creative.  But trust us, this truly is an opportunity to showcase a different side of you so don’t waste it with more on your professional achievements and career aspirations.  Have fun with it.

5. “Describe a personal or professional setback.” ~Marshall School of Business
Also an essay about resilience.  The focus here should not be the set back itself, but what you learned from it and how you bounced back.  Make sure to stress the emotional side of this essay — how you felt, what you learned, where you found the motivation to keep going.  Also, in these difficult recessionary times, this essay topic is an admission on the part of adcoms that it’s okay to be unemployed or to have accepted a less ideal job to make ends meet, as many applicants have had to do.

6. “Please describe a time when you convinced an individual or group to accept one of your ideas.” ~MIT Sloan
A variant on the leadership essay, but the important thing to note here is that it’s an essay about people.  It’s definitely not an essay about being right and convincing people by the logical force of your superior argument and intellect.  Use it to showcase your teamwork and consensus-building skills.  The story need not end with you being the undisputed winner: you gain points for showing a willingness to compromise and to incorporate other people’s input in a way that builds upon your original idea.  Even better, show how you motivated the team to commit to and execute on the idea, which spotlights your potential as a manager and leader.

7. “Describe a formative or significant event in your life and then explain how this event has influenced your subsequent thoughts and actions.” ~Boston University School of Management
This is a values question, similar to Stanford’s “What matters most to you and why?” essay, only it asks you to begin at its genesis.  Transformation stories work well here, and the narrative sequence can be roughly as follows: event → change in values → practical change in goals or action.  Just make sure to relate this back to your professional goals and career trajectory.

8. “What is something people will find surprising about you?” ~UCLA Anderson
This one is similar to the Chicago Booth “blank page” essay, and can be submitted in audio, video or essay format.  The same rules apply: use this to showcase a side of your personality that doesn’t otherwise come through in the rest of your application, and feel free to be creative.

9. “Please describe a challenge faced in the workplace and the steps you took to resolve it. Would you make the same decision again? If not, what would you do differently?” ~Cox School of Business
Again, resilience and self-awareness.  You want to show your ability to deal with challenge, but also the self-awareness to look back and reflect on what you could have done better.  This isn’t an essay about your best decision (“I did X and it was the best thing I could have done. I wouldn’t change anything! Hooray for me!”).  It’s an essay about a decision that you learned from, that gave you new and valuable tools that you didn’t previously have and that you would be able to leverage now if faced with a similar situation.

10. “If you had the opportunity, what would you ask the president or leader of your country, and why?” ~IE Business School
This sort of question is much more typical among non-U.S. MBA programs, and it’s a great opportunity to highlight your awareness of broader economic and political issues.  It’s an essay that invites you to think big, and you should take it up on that invitation, especially since many MBA programs believe that a global perspective is an important characteristic for business leaders.  Just make sure to stay away from unnecessary controversy.

Have any other essay questions you’d like decoded?  Email us at with “Decode this essay question” in the subject subject line.

For more on how to write the best MBA application essays, you can check out our Quintessential MBA Essay-Writing Guide.

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