MBA Application “Short Answers” – Don’t Give Them Short Shrift

6 expert tips to help your b-school candidacy stand tall!

by Brooke Wheelan, Master Consultant at The MBA Exchange, and former Associate Director of MBA Admissions at Harvard Business School

After countless hours writing and refining numerous drafts, you’ve finally completed the essays for your business school application. These stories are an authentic representation of who you are and what you want to communicate to the admissions committee. You feel like your app is done now, right?

But wait, there’s one more component to finish… the short answers. The questions are so brief and explicit that you might feel tempted to just power through them in one sitting and hit “submit.” But before you do, read on. There’s far more importance here than you may realize.

What’s the adcom really looking for in the short answers?
Consider why and how business schools use these brief responses when evaluating an MBA candidacy:

  •  Verification and reporting. Adcoms ask for specific facts about your employment, academics, extracurriculars, and awards so they can more easily verify your credentials if you’re admitted. (Yes, there’s a thorough, background verification process that takes place prior to matriculation.) Schools also aggregate this information for macro-level reporting on their class profile re: GMAT scores, GPAs, undergrad majors, employer industries, etc.
  • Pressure-test for authenticity. Adcoms are aware that many applicants receive some degree of help on their essays. So, short answers are used to reveal over-involvement from third parties by helping schools confirm the same “voice” is used throughout the application.
  • Getting to know more about you. Yes, there are the resume, essays and recs. But those elements don’t present everything about the candidacy. Schools also want to understand other aspects such as the depth of commitment to community service, apparent gaps in employment, self-assessment of greatest achievements and challenges, and so on.

So, how can you use the short answers to maximize your chances for b-school admission?

Based on three decades of experience advising more than 5,000 applicants, here are a six practical tips from The MBA Exchange to help you navigate this critical part of the application process:

  1. Answer the exact question. There’s a reason why adcoms ask a question in a specific way, so answer it directly. This includes reporting your compensation (e.g., annualized, base, bonus, etc.) and discussing your greatest accomplishment (e.g., list just one if the question specifies “one”, etc.).
  2. Keep it positive. You might feel inclined to be blunt and candid with your short answers, but don’t overdo it. For example, it could be damaging to say your biggest challenge is “working 80 hours per week” or your reason for leaving an employer is because your “learning curve has flattened.” While this may be true, the adcom might view such replies as showing lack of commitment or initiative.
  3. Make every character count. Many schools strictly limit their short answers by the number of characters – not words – so choose every letter wisely. Don’t waste the allocation repeating or restating the school’s question. Be factual and concise. It’s ok to use common acronyms and abbreviations, but don’t make it look like a social-media post or text message to a friend (e.g. #, @, IMHO, wanna, etc.)
  4. Include only the info you’d like to discuss in an interview. Think of short answer responses as ideal teasers for an admissions interview. In fact, you should expect adcoms to pull out little nuggets from your short answers for this purpose. So later, during your interview prep, revisit and consider how to use your short answers as part of your overall story.
  5. Complement, but don’t duplicate, your essays. Never copy and paste what you wrote in your essays. Say, a short-answer question asks you to describe your post-MBA career goal, but you’ve already discussed it in an essay. If the character-limit is sufficient, use your short answer to specify the ideal firm and position; or conversely, if you have less space available, just summarize your goal at a high level.
  6. Draft and edit outside the application. Feeling tempted to write your short answers directly in the online app? Don’t do it. Errors will make your application look rushed and sloppy. So, take the time to first draft your responses in a separate document, carefully review and refine them, and only then copy and paste the final version into your application.

Could some additional, personalized guidance and support help make your short answers – and, for that matter, your entire app – as complete, convincing and compelling as possible? Let one of the top admissions consultants at The MBA Exchange assist you with an AppCheck application review. Within just 2 to 3 days, an admissions expert will scrutinize your work and share actionable feedback, so you can make any improvements and submit your very best application by the deadline.