The Question All Business Schools Ask

The key to getting the essays right is knowing what each question seeks – what Adcom expects from your response in each case, and what bonus information can legitimately be added. But schools each ask different questions. Or do they? They appear different but if you look closely they are just variations on a few classics. Almost every question is an adaptation of an archetype or a combination of two archetypes. If you recognize and understand the archetype you will know what in your answer information is relevant, what is additional, and what is superfluous.

Archetype 1: “Why an MBA?”

1. Question Examples

“Briefly assess your career progress to date. Elaborate on your future career plans and your motivation for pursuing a graduate degree at the Kellogg School”

“Think about the decisions you have made in your life. Describe the following: Past: What choices have you made that led you to your current position? Present: Why is a Stern MBA necessary at this point in your life? Future: What is your desired position upon graduation from the Stern School?”

“Why do you want to do an MBA at London Business School at this point in your life? What will you do if you are not offered a place on the London Business School MBA or any other MBA?”

2. How to recognize this archetype

Keywords: progress, past, present, future, career, goal, plan, aspiration, ambition, decision, position, objective, aim, intention, purpose, life, short-term, long-term.

3. The underlying issue the committee is asking you to address

Stripped of its verbiage this question always asks you: why do you need an MBA, why now, and why from us? Your response forms the backbone of your essay set and your whole application.

Notice that there are five parts to the question, covering three time periods:

  • Past – What experiences have led you to this point and this ambition?
  • Present – Why an MBA right now, at this point in your career?
  • Future – What do you want to do with your degree, in the short and long term?
  • Why an MBA from this school particularly?
  • Why an MBA at all? (Why not another kind of Masters, or a PhD?)

You should touch on all five topics somewhere in your complete essay set, but be careful to answer this and all questions exactly as posed. If the question is broadly posed, as will Kellogg above, all topics can be fully addressed. Notice, however, that Stern does not ask for long term goals and LBS has a particular sub-question. In general, shape your “Why an MBA” answer carefully to whether the question asks more about your past (“What has led you to want an MBA?”) or about your future (“What will you do when you graduate? How will an MBA help you?”)

4. How to tackle it

This essay should be done in a clear and straightforward way. You can be creative in your answers to many other questions, but here it is too risky. Here the committee is looking above all for unequivocal evidence of your professional maturity, as shown by your clarity of purpose.

Show due diligence: The “Why an MBA” question is one of the best places to prove you have done your homework on the school, and to argue that there is a specific match between your agenda and what’s on offer. Mention the school’s features, courses, or extra-mural opportunities, and say which are relevant to you and why.

Have definite goals: The admissions committee is looking for an organized career strategy that rests on solid self-understanding. They want to know why you have made the decisions you made, how they have brought you to this point in your life, and where you are going from here. Goals can include broader, non-career and personal or community aspirations – but your first priority is to establish a clear professional path.

Connect past to future: The committee is asking how your past connects to your future via business school. You must show that the MBA is the bridge between you yesterday and you tomorrow. Paint a picture of a future that rests naturally on your past, assuming the MBA from the school in question.

Past, present and future can be presented in any order. What works will depend on the details of your situation. A generally versatile template is:

  • Start with your direct goal on graduation
  • Then give a sense of your long-term (major) goals
  • Show why an MBA is relevant to these goals, and why now
  • Bolster this with what in your past has led you to this point
  • Finish with the particular aspects of the target school that are relevant and attractive, given your stated goals.

Communicating future aspirations
a. Dream and be real: You have to walk a fine line here. On the one hand you must think big. Whether you want to manage a billion dollars, or create new brain technology industries, or fix Africa – whatever it is, you should communicate high aspirations and a potential career worthy of an MBA graduate in 20 years time. On the other hand you must demonstrate career-path realism: your dreams will take a lifetime to mature, and even then they may not. You should sound like you understand how careers evolve in your field and the ways you might have to “do your time” (even if highly paid) before you become a true titan of your industry.

b. Show first steps: The best don’t wait for acceptance of their b-school application before getting on with their dreams. You raise you stock immeasurably if you can show you have already taken steps towards the goal you claim to aspire to. Have you done the certifications you need for your career move? Do you have a plan for attracting investors to the business you hope to set up? Convince the committee that you will make it happen no matter what – even if you don’t get into their school, or any school.

c. Have a worthwhile future: Faced with applicants who have equivalent grades and GMATs, the admissions committee will promote those who are on a unique, interesting, worthwhile career mission. You may have to work hard to polish up whatever dullness or omissions lurk in your past, but your aspirations are safely ahead of you where no committee can verify them. So don’t hesitate to project yourself into valuable, distinctive roles.

d. Don’t hedge on your aspirations: Applicants sometimes say something like: “I want to go to Silicon Valley and create a startup using my knowledge of XPF-Bio data mining. If that doesn’t work out I may go back to my old job at Bear Stearns, or join the family business.” Adcom prefers to bet on candidates who have a single-minded focus and who will do anything (legal) to realize their dream. If you don’t back yourself 100 percent the committee won’t either.

e. Differentiate yourself: A common question is: “Should I include a family and kids in my stated life goals?” The problem in doing this is not that you will appear a less serious candidate if you want a family; it is that you will spend precious space talking about a very common goal. You benefit most by focusing your reader on the aspirations that set you apart.

5. How to flunk the “why an MBA” question

  • You don’t answer parts of the question asked, or you answer parts not asked
  • Your style for this essay is flippant or frivolous
  • You fail to talk about the specific attributes of the program you are applying
  • to, and why they are relevant to your education and your future
  • You have aspirations that are too low, too dull, or you are uncertain of them
  • Your career goals don’t require an MBA, or the role of an MBA is not clear
  • You have goals that are unrealistic, or you fail to explain a realistic path to them
  • Your goals are illogical or an extreme stretch given your past – suggesting career flakiness. (You’re a Kurdish linguist: you want to be a Wall Street analyst.) The committee will ask: “Is this aspiration logical? Will s/he be recruited?”

Back to MBA Applicant Essay Help section


A.V. Gordon is author of one of the top MBA admissions books MBA Admissions Strategy: From Profile Building to Essay Writing as well as available for expert MBA admissions consultations through The MBA Admissions Studio.

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