Prepare for Short Answer MBA Application Essays

MBA essays
Brainstorm before writing to keep business school essays concise.
This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on

Ten years ago, lengthy MBA essays were a staple of business school applications. Flash forward to today, and admissions departments worldwide have reduced the word count and number of essays candidates must tackle. Whether the influence is social media, with its condensed communication style, or simply that the admissions committee has grown weary of reading thousand-word essays from thousands of applicants, it seems short and sweet is here to stay.

Many applicants struggle with short-answer essay questions because they feel like they cannot adequately convey everything they want the admissions committee to know in so few words. The challenge of these brief prompts is to give the admissions committee what they ask for while still providing a compelling snapshot of yourself.

I always advise applicants to do two things as they work on their MBA essays: make sure to answer the question asked and spend a lot of time brainstorming up front. You would be amazed at how many applicants start to answer an essay prompt and veer off-subject entirely. With such a limited word count, even answering a “why” question with a “how” response will be a turnoff to the admissions officer reviewing your application.

 The brainstorming phase is the same whether you have a word count of 750 or 200. First, find a theme, or a couple of main points, you want to convey. Consider the essay set for each MBA application as a whole, and make sure your answers do not overlap but rather build upon each other. Then whittle away anything non-essential, and always avoid the passive voice as it eats up valuable space in your allotted word count. Whenever possible, share details that show a glimpse of your personal interests or something amazing that you have done.

The Columbia Business School application, for example, asks this short-answer question: “What is your immediate post-professional MBA goal?” With a maximum of 50 characters, applicants must distill their responses into something that makes a tweet look verbose.

Though a simple question, it requires that you condense your career goals into one clear career vision statement. Rather than submitting a generic phrase like “work in finance,” the aim is specificity. Something like “real estate finance at a private equity firm” tells the admissions committee far more about your interests and goals.

The career goals essay remains ubiquitous at business schools, though the question’s presentation is evolving. At Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, for example, the essay is broken into three parts, each with a 500-character limit, or about 100 words. First, you need to describe what you plan to do immediately after your MBA. Then you’ll explain the long-term vision for your career. Finally, since many career paths are forged through circumstance, determine what is your Plan B.

Think big picture and focus on the overall story trajectory. What would be the most logical – and interesting – progression from your current skill set and MBA education? How will your next step flow from the combination of those experiences? Ideally, your alternative path is not a massive departure, but simply shows the areas you could see yourself exploring if your primary plan doesn’t materialize.

You’ll have to boil your ideas down to a clear statement of what you plan to do, but if at all possible, the information provided in your resume, recommendation letters and other essays will logically support those plans.

It can be a challenge to show off your personality, accomplishments and aspirations in fewer words, but the short answer essays offer MBA applicants a chance to demonstrate top-notch writing skills. One of the most valuable skills in business is the ability to communicate precisely and concisely, so make sure every word counts.

Image credit: Flickr user Daniel Foster  (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


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