Short answers make a big difference when seeking MBA admission

Smiling confident student

Every business school applicant understands the critical importance of compelling essays. Whether responding to a narrow question about some aspect of your candidacy, or demonstrating self-awareness in replying to an open-ended prompt, crafting essays that are thoughtful, thorough and convincing is essential for admissions success.

However, a similar but often undervalued and misunderstood element of an MBA application is the so-called “short answer” question. Frankly, there’s even greater variability among business schools on their respective short-answer questions than on their required essays. Short answers are typically required but sometimes optional. Topics can be either laser-focused or broad. Length can range dramatically – from as little as 100 characters up to “mini-essays” of 300 words.

Here are some of the most challenging – perhaps even intimidating – short-answer questions posed to MBA applicants by top-tier schools:

HARVARD
Briefly tell us more about your career aspirations (500 characters)

STANFORD GSB
Think about times you’ve created a positive impact, whether in professional, extracurricular, academic, or other settings. What was your impact? What made it significant to you or to others? You are welcome to share up to three examples. (1500 characters)

DUKE FUQUA
Answer all three of the following questions. (500 characters each)
● What are your short-term goals, post-MBA?
● What are your long-term goals?
● Life is full of uncertainties, and plans and circumstances can change. As a result, navigating a career requires you to be adaptable. Should the short-term goals that you provided above not materialize, what alternative directions have you considered?

MICHIGAN ROSS
Select one prompt from each group of the three groups below. Respond to each selected prompt in 100 words or less (<100 words each; 300 words total). Every word counts here — the tight word count is intentional to force you to focus.
Group 1
I want people to know that I:
I made a difference when I:

Group 2
I was humbled when:
I am out of my comfort zone when:

Group 3
I was aware that I was different when:
I was challenged when:

Regardless of topic and length, your responses to short answer questions can significantly help or harm your application. So, this component merits careful planning and strategic execution. When considering how to best approach short-answer questions, here are 5 timely tips from The MBA Exchange, reflecting our three decades of advising more than 5,000 b-school applicants:

  1. Answer the question asked, then distinguish your reply.
    Read, then re-read, the prompt so you know precisely what the school is asking. Once you’ve answered, take a step back and use style and tone to reflect your distinctive personality, values, etc.
  2. Be direct and succinct in your content.
    Cut to the chase. This answer should not be a rambling narrative with a formal introduction and repetitive conclusion. If an essay is a “novel,” then the short answer is more like a “poem.”
  3. Complement but don’t repeat your resume.
    If the short-answer question asks about work responsibilities, challenges, results, etc., be sure to paraphrase, but not repeat verbatim, any similar content that appears in your CV.
  4. Coordinate with essays and recommendations.
    If the topic is one that you would have otherwise addressed in an essay, redirect the essay to a different, more revealing or insightful subject. Also, for obvious reasons, don’t use the same words that you know will appear in your third-party recommendations.
  5. Include only what you could document if asked.
    For short answers that describe achievements, accomplishments or impact, it can be tempting for some applicants to approximate, exaggerate or even fabricate. Don’t do it. Your entire application, including short answers, may be scrutinized during the background-verification process. Enough said.

If you still find it difficult or frustrating to craft your replies to short-answer questions, you’re not alone. Many MBA applicants who are unfazed by the other components of their apps feel anxiety when it comes to crafting strong responses for short answer prompts. Enlisting the guidance and support of an experienced, objective admissions consultant like those at The MBA Exchange can help you plan and produce responses that will add value and improve your chances for acceptance.

So, feel free to give us shout and ask for assistance. You’ll receive a timely, sincere and short answer from us: “Yes!”