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“Just one essay?” MBA applicant beware

January 27 2015 By The MBA Exchange
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This guest post is by Jean-Phillippe Odunlami, a senior admissions consultant at The MBA Exchange.

A number of high-profile MBA programs – most significantly HBS – have recently reduced their essay requirements to a single, open-ended, often ambiguous question. To many potential applicants, it suddenly appears that applying to a top-10 school is now “easy”. While the rejection numbers (~75-90% for leading programs) remain daunting, the path to acceptance now features the added hurdle of understanding and addressing what is hidden behind the nebulous essay question.

Here are three priorities to consider in light of today’s new breed of MBA essays:

1. Know the School
As confirmed by past admissions results, there are very specific qualities that top schools are looking for in an applicant. Most programs used to ask questions like, “Tell us about a time when you showed leadership” that revealed the adcom’s priorities. But now, the onus is on the applicant to guess which qualities a particular school values most in an applicant. And this can be a “moving target” as admissions criteria evolve from year to year. Rather than guess what School X values most, astute applicants engage a professional admissions consultant who has tracked the preferences of each MBA program over time.

2. Know Yourself
Questions about coherence across one’s past, present and preferred future used to be a standard element MBA applications. Queries like “Why an MBA?” and “Why now?” were posed by almost every school. While such questions are far less common today, demonstrating purpose and self-awareness is still a key admissions criterion at top b-schools. Developing, refining and conveying this life plan through research and reflection are aspects of any successful campaign. Friends, family and associates can help as a sounding board. However, the experience and objectivity of an admissions consultant can make this a far more precise and productive effort.

3. Start Early
Unbeknownst to many applicants, preparing to answer seemingly “easy” essay prompts requires up to 12 months of analysis and planning. Researching the schools, cultivating relationships, and optimizing the overall candidacy are essential steps prior to writing essays. Given the simplicity of the essay question posed by top b-schools this year, many applicants make the mistake of a) starting their admissions campaign just a month or two before the deadline, b) writing “off-the-cuff,” and c) not seeking outside help. This is a formula for disappointing results on Decision Day. For serious applicants, an MBA admissions campaign targeting Round 1 (Fall) deadlines should begin very early in the new year to ensure sufficient time. The first step? Get a free, objective assessment of your current candidacy.

A future MBA applicant can significantly tip the balance in his or her favor by preparing strategically with the help of an expert consultant to navigate the process. As single-essay applications will continue to breed overconfidence and a false sense of comfort among candidates, those who enlist professional guidance have a window of opportunity in which they can stand out from the crowd by crafting truly compelling essays that transcend “simple” questions.