With round two deadlines just about to pop and thousands of MBA applicants sweating over their essays, it might be a good time to ask a rather pointed question: Which application questions are the most annoying and unfair, the most incomprehensible and pointless?
So that’s exactly what we did. We asked ten highly prominent MBA admissions consultants to identify the business school essay prompts to hate in this 2014-2015 admissions cycle. We expected the consultants to name a wide variety of schools and questions. Sure enough, there was no shortage of essay prompts from a fairly large sample of top business schools. In all, nine different MBA programs were named.
The University of Virginia’s Darden School and IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, were singled out by a couple of consultants, while such institutions as UC-Berkeley’s Haas School, Duke, Kellogg, and Wharton also drew criticism.
HANDS DOWN, MIT WINS FOR HAVING THE MOST ANNOYING QUESTION OF ALL
But there also was a clear winner for the most annoying and pointless question of the year: MIT’s directive to applicants to write a recommendation letter on their behalf. More than 60% of the consultants who responded to our question named MIT as the school with the dumbest question. “It’s a classic case of people sitting in a room and dreaming up an idea, with no consideration of the actual value,” says Adam Hoff of Amerasia Consulting Group. “It is such an absurd question.”
Jeremy Shinewald, founder and president of mbaMission, piles on, saying his entire consulting crew thinks the MIT question is nothing less than bizarre. “The consultants on our team are nearly universal in their agreement,” he says. “The MIT ‘recommendation letter’ essay is an irritant to applicants and is almost bizarre from our admissions perspective. It gives applicants practice at doing exactly what admissions committees don’t want them to do – write their own letters! It forces applicants to ‘humble-brag’ which is unfair to them and it is a challenge to avoid redundancy, because an applicant doesn’t know what their boss has/will say. I would be surprised if this essay were back next year.”
Sandy Kreisberg of HBSGuru.com finds fault not only with that one question but with the entire MIT application this year. Opines Kreisberg: “Because the questions are both odd and nearly incomprehensible, it is Xmas for consultants, as confused internationals, head-scratching Americans, and even office managers at consulting firms call up to say, ‘Whaaaaaaa.’ There are two very odd essays and a recommendation form that is now non-standard (compared to H/S/W) and annoying.”
‘A ROBOT UPCHUCK OF GENERIC BUSINESS JARGON AND DO-GOODER BANALITIES’
After stating that the mission of the MIT Sloan School of Management is to develop principled, innovative leaders who improve the world and to generate ideas that advance management practice, the school asks applicants to discuss how they will contribute toward advancing the mission based on examples of past work and activities.
“The first question is one I have to read over each time to remind myself of exactly what is being asked,” says Kreisberg. “Just a robot upchuck of generic business jargon and do-gooder banalities totally unrelated to what the really great things about Sloan are: that is cool, inventive, quirky, techy, smart, off-beat and fun. No, Santa, the mission of Sloan is NOT to ‘to develop principled, innovative leaders who improve the world and to generate ideas that advance management practice.’ No one but this question has ever said that is the mission of Sloan. That is the mission of the Harvard Philosophy Department and Boston College Divinity School. The mission of Sloan is to do cool stuff, invent great shit, and have fun doing it. The mission of Sloan is also to use semi-hard math to make a lot of money.
“I realize you cannot say that in an application, but you can ask a question which gets applicants to think in that general direction. And also find out more about Sloan, and get excited. But if you have not read the actual question in full, it is worth reprinting, because its like Snapchat, the actual directions, that is, the question the writer is supposed to answer, grammatically disappears every time you finish getting through it.”
‘THE ESSAY REQUIRES POETIC LICENSE THAT WOULD CHALLENGE EVERYONE’
Dan Bauer, founder and CEO of The MBA Exchange, has a similar point of view. “We call this as the ‘Back to the Future’ essay,” he says. ” That is, Sloan asks the applicant to revisit the past (work & activities) and tie it to Sloan’s vision for the future (improving the world and advancing management practice). What about the present? Preparing this essay requires poetic license that would challenge an experienced author let alone an MBA applicant who typically lacks access to a ‘flux capacitor.'”
Even so, Kreisberg really seems irritated by the MIT recommendation essay. As he puts it, “There is another question, a so-called “cool” question which is like no other in the catalog of B-school applications. You are supposed to write your own rec. And as bad and unoriginal and uninspiring as that is, the way the actually state the instructions makes it worse. If you are unfamilar with this one, as they say over there in Central Square, ‘brace yourself Waldo.'”
“It is more robo-jargon upchuck mixed in with actual down-to-earth confusion. I really appreciate how the subject of the question changes, without warning, from the first and second sentence, the first one addressed to the poor kid reading it, and the second one to the imaginary and oh-so-clever reviewer. This is made worse by the fact that most applicants will be getting a REAL recommendation from their most recent supervisor, the very person they are supposed to be imagining writing the rec below. Clever, crazy, fun, helpful, revealing–no, no, no, no and no. Stupid, lazy, dashed-off, confusing and annoying?”
THE ACTUAL MIT RECOMMENDATION QUESTION IS EVEN POSED ANNOYINGLY
Here is how MIT asks the second essay question:
We are interested in specific examples of intellectual and professional achievement and how they might relate to graduate study in management and in a career as a manager or business leader. In addition, we are very interested in the character of the applicant and will be helped by any information in that regard. Write a professional letter of recommendation on behalf of yourself. Answer the following questions as if you were your most recent supervisor recommending yourself for admission to the MIT Sloan MBA Program: (750 words or fewer)
How long and in what capacity have you known the applicant?
How does the applicant stand out from others in a similar capacity?
Please give an example of the applicant’s impact on a person, group, or organization.
Please give a representative example of how the applicant interacts with other people.
Which of the applicant’s personal or professional characteristics would you change?
Please tell us anything else you think we should know about this applicant.
LET US KNOW WHAT YOU THINK AS AN APPLICANT: TELL US WHICH APPLICATIONS YOU FOUND THE MOST ANNOYING AND POINTLESS IN THE COMMENT SECTION BELOW
Columbia Business School has released its application deadlines and essays for the 2014-2015 admissions season. Like other business schools, Columbia has done some more trimming to its essays, which we discuss in more detail below.
Columbia stands out among top U.S. MBA programs because of its January intake in addition to the more common August/September intake. Columbia’s “J-Term” program allows students to complete their degrees in less than a year and a half, and is ideally suited for applicants who don’t need a summer internship — especially those who plan on returning to the same job or industry, and those who plan on starting their own business.
Here are the Columbia Business School application essays and deadlines for the 2014-2015 admissions cycle, followed by our comments in italics:
Columbia Business School Admissions Deadlines
January 2015 Entry: October 8, 2014
August 2015 Entry (Early Decision): October 8, 2013
August 2015 Entry (Merit Fellowship Consideration): January 7, 2015
August 2015 Entry (Regular Decision): April 15, 2015
Columbia is fairly unique among top business schools since uses a rolling admissions cycle. One way to look at it is that the one truly hard deadline for entry in Fall ’15 is the April deadline. The advice that we normally give regarding admissions deadlines still holds, though: We recommend that you apply early rather than later. Applying as late as March or April means competing for one of the very few seats still open at that point.
Also, remember that “Early Decision” means that you’re committing to attend Columbia if you are admitted. If you go back on your word, the worst that can happen is that you lose your deposit, but don’t forget the ethics of the situation: You take away a seat from someone who wants to attend Columbia more than you do. So, only exercise this option if Columbia truly is your first choice.
Columbia Business School Admissions Essays
Short Answer Question:
What is your immediate post-MBA professional goal? (75 characters maximum)
Wow! Last year more than one admissions consultant said, “This response can’t get any shorter,” when Columbia asked this same question and gave applicants just 100 characters to work with (down from 200 characters the year before). Now, after the school has chopped 25 characters, we’ll take a risk and say it: It’s hard to imagine this response getting much shorter!
Almost regardless of how few characters you have to work with here, your main takeaway is this: Columbia’s MBA admissions team truly just wants a super brief headline about your post-MBA career goals to better understand where you think you want to go with your degree. That’s it. Think of the Short Answer Question as the positioning statement for your short-term career goals. Do you want to be known as the applicant who wants to start a non-profit organization, or perhaps the applicant who wants to sharpen his skills and return to the technology sector as a business leader? Columbia provides some examples on its site, and you’ll see that there’s nothing particularly creative or special about them (e.g., “Work for an investment firm that focuses on real estate.”). Avoid the temptation to get too gimmicky here, but remember that this is the one thing (about your short-term career goals) that you want the admissions committee to remember.
- Given your individual background and goals, why are you pursuing a Columbia MBA at this time? (500 words)
This question carries over unchanged from last year, and so our advice mostly remains the same. This essay prompt is the fairly typical “Why an MBA? Why this school?: question that most business schools ask in their applications. Many applicants fail to adequately to explain why Columbia is the best place for them to earn their MBA, given the school’s culture, academic strengths, ties to certain industries, etc. Yes, Columbia has a big name and proximity to Wall Street. Those strengths are obvious. What else does Columbia offer that you can’t find anywhere else? And why — given where you’re coming from and where you want to go — is Columbia the best place for you to grow as a business leader? This is what the school is looking for when it asks about “fit.”
- Please view the video below:
How will you take advantage of being “at the very center of business?” (250 words)
This question is new this year, although it replaces a question that wasn’t radically different last year. Basically, Columbia swapped out two videos for this one, and changed the question’s wording a bit, but the meat the this question hasn’t changed dramatically. So, our take hasn’t changed much from what it was last year: We find it interesting that the Columbia MBA admissions team chose to put so much emphasis on its New York City roots — we don’t think that many applicants need to be alerted to the fact that Columbia is in Manhattan or need to be sold on the benefits of being in New York. If you want to go into finance, then your answer here will obviously touch upon this fact. (Columbia bills itself as “The Very Center of Business” in this video, but much of the message relies on New York City’s reputation as a global hub.)Don’t limit yourself just to this obvious New York City tie-in, however. What other benefits do you expect you will gain from living and learning in one of the biggest cities in the world? Also, We’ve noted before that Columbia doesn’t want to be viewed as a commuter school in the middle of a huge city… Keep this in mind as you spell out how you will fit in at Columbia. Especially if you already live in New York, be sure to emphasize that you’re excited about immersing yourself in the Columbia culture.
- What will the people in your Cluster be pleasantly surprised to learn about you? (250 words)
This question was new last year, and Columbia must like what it saw since the question returns unchanged for this year. This essay doesn’t need to be whimsical (although it can be), but it should present something that is interesting about you as a person, rather than rehashing something that’s already in your application or your resume. Go back to our comments above about fit and about Columbia wanting to build a strong community. Have an unusual hobby or funny story that people enjoy hearing? Can you think of something in your personal life that makes you feel very proud? This is the place to use it!
Like may other MBA programs, Columbia also provides space for an optional fourth essay. Our advice here is always the same: If you really do feel the need to explain something, then address it in this essay and then move on. Whatever you do, don’t dwell on it or provide that weakness with more stage time than it deserves!
Think you have what it takes to get into Columbia? Download our Essential Guide to Columbia Business School, one of our 14 guides to the world’s top business schools. If you’re ready to start building your own application for Columbia and other top business schools, call us at 1-800-925-7737 and speak with an MBA admissions expert today. And, as always, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!
By Scott Shrum