The new, lean business school essay: What can you do for us?

Wax eloquent, but watch the word count.
Wax eloquent, but watch the word count.
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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This year, several business schools have curtailed the number of essays they require in their admission applications. Word limits are also coming down. Harvard Business School’s single (and optional at that) essay question just about nails the lean application trend that seems to be catching on: “You’re applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your resume, school transcripts, extra-curricular activities, awards, post-MBA career goals, test scores and what your recommenders have to say about you. What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?”

Wharton, too, has slashed the number of essays from three to two, and reduced word limits. Compared to the open-ended HBS question, Wharton is more specific, if straightforward—“What do you hope to achieve, personally and professionally, through the Wharton MBA? (500 words)” and “Engagement is an important element of the Wharton MBA experience. How do you see yourself contributing to our learning community? (500 words).” Columbia, Stern and Ross are also moving toward thinner applications, making each word count. And most recently, Chicago Booth, which used to ask detailed goals questions, has dispensed with a specific goals question from essays altogether. They don’t need to know what your plans are as long as you have what it takes to see them through! (Of course, the detailed application form still asks you about your goal.) So we are left with two 250-word questions: “My favorite part of my work is….” and “I started thinking differently when….”; and their famous 4-slide/600-word presentation/essay that seeks to broaden their perspective about you.

There was a time when all schools used to ask elaborate and oblique questions trying to piece together the personality of their applicants as if it were a jig-saw puzzle. Applicants were asked about their failures/mistakes, the people and events that influenced them, their priorities and passions, their self-assessments, who they would like to invite for dinner, the surprises they had in store, their ethical dilemmas, their leisure activities, time-capsule items that would speak of them, transgressions from their comfort zones, etc. Today, it is much more business-like, as epitomized by Wharton’s questions that essentially ask, “What’s your deal, and what’s in it for us?”

The MBA application essay sales pitch has always been about what schools want to hear rather than who the applicant really is. It’s like that old joke about a girl who goes to a greeting card shop asking for 10 “only yours” Valentine’s Day cards. Schools expect you to wax eloquent on how they are exactly what you want, even when they know that you may well be applying to half a dozen schools—schools that are as different from each other as apples to oranges. Perhaps the lean essay trend will bring the focus on the applicants, and acknowledge their time, effort and money spent as interest enough. Wanting their declaration of undying love can only promote expediency.

So, do lean essays throw up sharper business leaders, and address emerging requirements better? The only certainty is that they faithfully reflect changing trends, reduced attention spans, and consequent challenges of the real world. Then again, Stanford, perhaps the first one to experiment with a two-essay requirement, has stuck to a three-essay format as of last year. Maybe, just as schools painstakingly seek diversity in composition of their MBA classes, society also deserves variety in business leaders, business schools, and yes, application essay requirements. For as the world and its business get increasingly complex, an assortment of talent and skills will be needed to manage them.