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April 29, 2014

The "Hidden Essays" in Recent MBA Applications

One marketing gimmick, used the world over, is tell potential customers/applicants/survey test takers how easy it is to complete an application for whatever.  I can’t prove that the Business School Admissions offices that I mention in this post had car insurance ads or membership card applications or “Please Take this Survey” requests in mind when putting together their applications.  Still Booth Chicago, Cambridge Judge, Harvard Business School, IMD and Oxford Said  all have “hidden essay” content, that is to  say, they require essays which they don’t call essays.  I expect this trend to continue in the coming years.

I think most of this is done to somehow create the appearance that applicants will have to do less writing than would otherwise be the case.  Each of these school’s applications has its unique way of hiding essay content that is actually really important.

One downside of hidden essays is that applicants can easily underestimate how much time will actually be required to effectively complete an application.  As anyone who has ever completed an application form for a top MBA program can tell you, it is time consuming.

Another downside of hidden essays is that applicants will not take really important content as seriously as they should because they somehow think application form content is not as important as essay content.  Underestimating the importance of applications is actually a mistake.  Schools take their application form content seriously and information on an applicant’s past academic, extracurricular, and professional background is a core part of the evaluation process.  I regularly review my clients’ application form content because it is an important part of the application process. Even more so when the content is extensive and contains answers to questions related to goals, why MBA, and accomplishments.

While applications are sure to change in a variety of ways for 2015 admission, let’s  take a look at some some of the hidden essays used for 2014 admission.

1. The Mini-Goals/Why MBA Essay of HBS and IMD
HBS eliminated even an optional full-length Why MBA/Goals Essay a couple of years ago.  For the last two years, they have been asking for a 500 character statement  in the application form:
Employment Section
Intended Post-MBA:

Commercial Banking
Community/Economic Development
Computer Software and Services
Consumer Products
Diversified Communications
Diversified Financial Svcs/Insurance
Energy/Extractive Minerals
Food Service/Lodging
Health Services
High Technology/Electronics
Highly Diversified Manufac and Service
International Development/Relief
Internet Development Services
Investment Banking
Investment Management
Legal Services
Machinery and Indus Equip Mftrs
Medical/Health Care Devices
Other Non-Profit
Paper and Forest Products
Private Equity
Public Relations
Real Estate Development
Real Estate Finance
Sales and Trading
Venture Capital


Finance: Corporate Finance
Finance: General
Finance: Investment Management
Finance: Lending
Finance: Mergers and Acquisitions
Finance: Research
Finance: Sales and Trading
Finance: Treasury/Analysis
Finance: Underwriting/Advising
Finance: Venture Capital
General Management
Human Resources
Information Services Mgmt.
Investment Advising
Legal Services
Marketing: Brand/Prod. Mgmt.
Marketing: Communications
Marketing: General
Marketing: Research
Marketing: Sales
Medical Services
Product Development
Professional Advising-Religion
Project Management
Public Relations
Research and Development
Strategic Planning

How does pursuing an MBA support your choices above? 500 characters.

Quite similarly IMD (My of IMD’s essays can be found here) provides two 200 character statements:
What is your career goal post IMD?
What are the skills you need to develop in order to achieve your goal?

IMD gives even less character count than HBS to explain why you need an MBA and what you intend to do post-MBA.  This is a major  topic, which might be central to an interview at either school and will surely be a basis upon which an applicant will be judged, so it highly likely that an applicant will spend much more time thinking about the answer(s) than on the writing.   This really is a “brevity is the soul of wit” situation: An applicant needs to think deeply and explain as succinctly as possible why they need an MBA to achieve their goals.

2. Cambridge Judge: Somehow make the distinction between “MBA Essays” and “Career Objectives”
My Analysis of Cambridge Essays can be found here. Anyone who thinks that the Cambridge only has has two essays is in for a bit of surprise when they actually look at the Cambridge Judge Online Application because there are actually 5 essays, not two.  Strangely, a 500 word Career Objectives statement is not an “essay.”
One  "Career Objectives" Statement
Please provide a personal statement. It should not exceed 500 words and must include the following: 
  • What are your short and long term career objectives?
  • What skills/characteristics do you already have that will help you to achieve them?
  • What do you hope to gain from the degree programme and how do you feel it will help you achieve the career objectives you have?

I am not sure what sort of bureaucratic mind is at work that differentiates between this statement and the essays, but clearly this is an essay and a core part of the Judge application.
3. Chicago Booth: Break-up an essay into two pieces and just don’t include it in the essay section.
Booth is not as confusing as Judge, but clearly doing something a bit odd.  You get 700 characters each for these two application form questions:
What is your short-term post-MBA goal?
What is your long-term post-MBA goal?
It seems clear enough from their application form that Booth modified what HBS had been doing.   The thing is, HBS gives 500 characters, which is about 75-125 words and clearly a very mini-essay.  On the other hand, Booth is giving 700 characters each for the above, which amounts to about 125-150 words each, so between the two applicants  had about 250-300 words, which is actually the length of a small essay.  Clearly Booth was just moving around content to make it appear that applicants have fewer essays to write than  they actually do.
4. Cambridge Judge and Oxford Said: Combine essay content with a standard employment description
I have already mentioned Cambridge labelling only two of its five essays as “Essays.”  Their other non-essays are:
What is your most significant challenge within your current company? (1000 Characters Maximum)
What is your most significant accomplishment within your current company? (1000 Characters Maximum)
1000 characters is 150-250 words, so again small essays. These two non-essays are clearly on important topics for assessing an  applicant’s past experience.

Many applicants to Cambridge Judge also apply to Oxford Said (My Oxford essay analysis is here)  and “coincidently” Oxford as the following non-essay questions:
Please list your main responsibilities, your most significant challenge and your greatest achievement  (5000 Characters including spaces, which means about 1000-1250 words maximum for answering all three of these).
These are three separate topics.  The first one is simply standard current position application content, while the other two topics are actually the same non-essay questions that Cambridge asks.   I think it is fine to include this sort of content in an application form, so please note that I  am not criticising this, but rather simply pointing out that these are major topics for evaluating an applicant and should be taken seriously.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet -W. Shakespeare 
B-schools can call them essays, application form questions, statements of purpose, whatever.  The name does not matter.  The time you will to write an answer will be just the same.  The value given to the answer will be just the same.   Just make sure your answer smells sweet!

-Adam Markus
I am a graduate admissions consultant who works with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form. Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.
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