MBA written application – long essays and data form short answer questions

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Have you registered with each of your target schools? Did you notice that they ask LOTS of short-answer questions?

Busy applicants often overlook the "mini-essays" that adcoms include in online application data forms. Please do not make the same mistake. With a bit of advanced planning and strategic brainstorming, you can pack those "little boxes" with valuable information that the schools would not otherwise learn from your resume, essays, and recommendation letters.

Here is a compilation of useful tips that can help you add value to your application data forms.

Information is subject to change. Please verify all data with the schools.

Harvard (HBS)

Key accomplishments (KA)


What are your key accomplishments?


What can you teach me?

Which of your accomplishments do you want to highlight and why? What do these accomplishments tell us about your hard and soft skills?

Some clients include a mix of

  • Drive stories (show that you can deliver quantifiable results)

  • Teamwork stories (when have you united previously divided groups and forged lasting relationships?)

  • Leadership stories (when have you convinced others to do mission critical tasks that they at first did not want to do? When have you done ordinary things extraordinarily well?)

Information is subject to change. Please, verify all data with the schools.

Most significant challenge (MSC)


What was your most significant challenge?

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The question: What was your most significant challenge (at work)?

Situation: what problem were you trying to solve?

Task: why was it difficult to solve this problem

Action: what you did, step by step

Turning point: how did you know that your efforts were making a difference?

Result: since this is not an “accomplishment” story, what partial success have you achieved, and why do you know that there is still work to be done?

(Implied) How would an MBA (from Stanford, HBS, etc.) help you develop the necessary skills to overcome similar challenges?

How would an MBA help you overcome that challenge?

Note: this is NOT the place to share a failure story.

  • Some clients use this MSC space to discuss a single challenging project (micro view).

  • Others discuss macro challenges ex. persuading senior managers to support particular initiatives

  • Either way, it is not the space to discuss a setback or failure. Rather, it is your opportunity to show, with a concrete example, why you need an MBA.

Vince example (assuming Agos was paying for my MBA and I planned to returned as director of new business development and eventually CEO)

  • Sustain growth in a shrinking market

  • Why we want to grow

  • Why it is hard to grow

  • What we tried to far

  • Why that is not enough

  • How HBS or Stanford would help me achieve sustainable growth (implied here, explained in the goals essay / short answer question)

Information is subject to change. Please, verify all data with the schools.


Vince's FAQ

Q: Do I need to write in complete sentences?

A: I encourage applicants to use "resume English" for other schools (Columbia, Tuck, HBS, Stanford, Wharton, LBS, and others) that limit your responses.

Please see

Q: What is "resume English"?

A: Remove all articles (a, an, the) and personal pronouns (I) and helping verbs (is, was, were). Use the extra space for more details (numbers and qualifying adjectives like "best," "only', "first-ever" and "best"). Always show the impact of your actions on your team, company, industry, and country.

Q: What should I write if the school application asks me where else I am applying?

A: Mention 3-5 other schools (perhaps up to 7 if sponsored) that conform to a definite pattern. At your interview, be prepared to show why you could choose this school over all others. By what criteria will you make your decision if admitted to multiple schools? Hint: pick criteria in which this school "wins." For example, "I am applying to one-year programs that emphasize finance and offer multiple experiential learning practicums and consulting projects. Among these, Cambridge is best because of..."

The following questions display adcoms logic when asking "where else you applied."

  • Why are you interested in applying to our school?

  • What criteria did you use to select your target the schools?

  • How will an MBA from our school help you specifically?

  • Where else are you applying?

  • Why those schools?

  • Why did you decide to apply to x number of schools?

  • What school is your first choice and why?

  • If you are not accepted anywhere you applied this year, what will you do?

Advice from ClearAdmit

Don’t rush the application forms! Most candidates leave the forms for the last minute or rush to fill out online applications from work on deadline day, but a weak effort on these forms can damage your candidacy. Here are a few tips

  1. Follow instructions. If the school asks you to list activities in chronological order, then do not list them in order of importance to you (as you may have done for another school). If the school asks for a contact person, title or the number of hours/week, do not leave these fields blank.

  2. Make things clear. The last thing you want is for your admissions reader to have to play detective in determining your career progression (gaps in employment) or undergraduate career. Admissions officers are busy people and they don’t have time to connect the dots on your background. If your listings are not clear, the reader may assume you are hiding something. Once they make this assumption, your chances will evaporate. Given the level of competition in the applicant pool, the admissions office can afford to avoid files that seem a bit confusing.

  3. Don’t be lazy. Since it’s likely that you’ll be ‘burned out’ from your essays, the temptation will be to zip through the application forms. In many cases, the forms are a great opportunity for you to list outside activities in depth, offer a quick explanation for a bad grade, etc. In fact, your application forms will often be the starting point for the admissions officer’s review of your file. Put your best foot forward.

  4. Avoid going overboard. Admissions officers typically review several files in a sitting – devoting much less time than you might imagine to each file. As such, try to avoid listing 18 activities, 22 awards and 17 publications – especially if some of those items date back to high school (or are more than 10 years old). Stay focused on the elements of your background that are most relevant. Also, when asked for a short-answer, do not draft an essay. If your admissions file is twice as thick as the rest of the files, it will not necessarily be twice as good. How do you think the admissions officer will feel when they go to pick up a thick file for a ‘quick’ review?

Advice from Adam Markus

  1. Doing a weak job on an application form is sloppy and unprofessional. It is a test of your patience and ability to collect and organize critical information about you.

  2. Adcoms take this information seriously. Given the vast number of applications that top schools need to review, you can be certain that if they ask for some information, they are doing it for a reason. By asking all applicants the same relatively well-defined questions, they gather one more set of data points by which to compare applicants across a broad range of criteria. Such information also serves as another form of verification.

  3. Do it right the first time, and you will be richly rewarded. Fill out the first form as comprehensively as possible, copy the answers into a Word or Google document, and reuse it for subsequent schools, modifying as necessary.

  4. Make a great resume first. If you have a solid resume, to begin with, doing these forms will be easier. If your resume seems to fail to provide a sufficient number of answers to the questions schools asked about your academic, professional, and personal background, it is possible that you need a better resume. Use this opportunity to alter your resume.

  5. Be Consistent. There should be no contradictions between your resume, essays, and application form (Regarding recommendations, since you did not write them and have no control over their contents, minor inconsistencies are possible and not inherently problematic). Give yourself enough time to review everything you will be submitting.

  6. Do not volunteer potentially damaging information unless you have to. Schools like Wharton and Berkeley employ firms like Kroll to do a background check on those they admit (primarily to confirm that your recommender is your boss and not your secretary or your mother). I do think you should disclose anything that has a high likelihood of being discovered as part of a standard background check (felonies, for example). What does a firm like Kroll do? Former Wharton MBA admissions Director Thomas Caleel at the University of Pennsylvania admits that although they have instituted a stringent set of verification processes (which he declines to specify), they hire an outside background verification firm to do the work for them. Caleel says that Kroll Associates contracts local companies to help them navigate language and cultural barriers to verify data points) It is not always possible to catch the rule benders: “I take the subject of fraudulent applications very seriously. It’s something I have no tolerance for. Now in saying that, do we admit people who have ghostwritten applications? I am sure we do.” Although there is no foolproof system against fraudulent applications, Caleel claims that if and when they know for sure that the applicant has submitted a false application, dismissal is swift. Given the recent Scoretop scandal, you can assume schools are becoming even more likely to investigate applicants. By the way, if you have weird stuff on your Facebook or MySpace or other SNS, you might want to delete it because increasingly admissions people, especially at the undergraduate level, are looking at applicant's SNS pages.

Family Information

This information helps admissions understand your background.


In general, I suggest only listing languages you actually could use. Listing a bunch of languages where you have a novice ranking looks pretty lame, so I would recommend keeping the novice language list to at most one language. If you studied a language in school and got a high grade, but don't remember much, the novice ranking is for you.


Why are they asking me all this stuff that is already on my resume? Adcoms want to be able to refer to your employment history in a standardized way, and they want to make sure that you accurately provide specific information in the categories they ask for. So why do they need a resume? First, they need it because they conduct blind interviewing. Next, a resume measures what you think is essential to know. It is a kind of self-evaluation. On the other hand, an application is what they want to know regardless of whether you think it is essential or not.

Job Duties

Focus on the most critical parts of your work and especially those aspects that you think the best show your potential for your post-MBA goals. At the same time, make sure that you are not just providing accomplishments (you can do that on the resume), but also are providing an overall accounting of your duties.

Supervising others

How many employees do you supervise? Please explain this number briefly (i.e., direct reports, matrix organization, dotted line)

Provide an honest answer to this question. If you manage employees on a project basis, state that. If the number has varied and you supervise significantly fewer people than in the past, you might try to indicate any such differences in your job duties description.

Reason for Leaving

Address this honestly and directly. If you have been let go as part of an overall cut in staff, indicate that. If you were let go for reasons to do with your performance, I don't suggest such disclosing such information (and apparently you would not want to select a recommender who would state that). If you were given voluntary early retirement, indicate that and the size of the package you received. If you quit because you wanted to travel for a year, no problem, just make sure you write about that amazing experience elsewhere in the application.


Please upload your resume, one page only

If you have two pages or more, alter your format and prioritize your content. Consider what you want to discuss at your interview when determining what to keep in your resume. If you have to cut something of value, be sure to include it in your online application data form short answers.


If you have no awards, do not make something up. Give them the facts

Name of the award, criteria for selection, and if a prize was given, what that was.

Expected Major

Select one that is consistent with your goals and reasons for attending this MBA program.

This is a non-binding choice unless you are applying for Health Care Management.

The only wrong choice here is one that is not consistent with your goals essay.


In addition to providing the name of the certification, provide the date you received it, the basis for getting it if impressive, and if it not a very popular certification, briefly explain it.


Please list your extracurricular activities while in college/university, listing your most important first.

Tell us about the activity above that is most important to you and what you have learned from the experience.

Activities since college/university studies

Please list your extracurricular activities since college/university. List in order of importance.

Tell us about the activity above that is most important to you and what you have learned from the experience.

Writing about professional certifications, scholarships/awards, and extracurricular activities (during and after college) is hard for some applicants who have so much stuff to write about in one or more of these lists. For others, it will be hard because they have so little to mention. Whatever the case, provide honest and comprehensive information here and don't pad these sections with nonsense. You may have started playing golf, volunteering for the homeless, or studying French for the last couple of months, but you should think twice before including it.

If you were involved in extracurricular activities that were a significant time commitment and your grades suffered. As a result, you will probably be mentioning that in the optional essay, but here you should still provide factual information that will support your claims. In addition to what adcoms specifically request for each activity, if it is not clear what an organization is or what your role was from the title, briefly explain that. Regarding the need to prioritize this list, think about which activities are most important to you and reveal the most about your potential and personality.

Here are the common questions and responses

  • Q: I don't have anything for this section. I work 120 hours a week, and I would define sleep as my extracurricular activity. What should I do?

A: Explain that in the optional essay. It is better to explain your concerns than to have them noticed without you providing your interpretation.

  • Q: You know I realized that I did not have any extracurricular activities about six months ago, so I started volunteering at Organization X. What do you think?

A: Sounds pretty wrong to me, do you think that the highly experienced admissions officers at Wharton are naive enough to buy that? Forget it. If something commenced in 2008 and you have


Please list any hobbies or related activities, not listed above, which hold particular significance for you.

Tell us about the activity or hobby above you have enjoyed most and why.

If something commenced in the last 12 month and you have absolutely no prior connection to it or something like it, think twice before listing it here.

  • Q: What is the difference between extracurricular activity and a hobby/interest?

A: While some extracurricular activities might classify as hobbies, the critical difference is that extracurricular activities should be part of an organization.

Distinguish between activities that you have shown a long-term commitment to and standard forms of passive entertainment. If you are an expert of French cinema of the 1960s, it is perhaps worth mentioning, but if you like to watch movies in general, I suggest omitting such information.

This section offers an excellent opportunity to explain aspects of your private life that have been sources of pleasure and interest for a significant part of your life. This section can also add some personality to your application. Make sure you provide specific examples and don't write something like "Enjoy cooking," but instead write about what type of cooking it is and whether you have taken any cooking classes and even just enjoy cooking for friends or family. By the way, if you have kids, use this section to highlight family activities that you might continue at MBA. Finally, if you have a strong religious commitment, please write about that here (as a special interest), if it does not fit above as an extracurricular activity.

International experience

If you have worked outside of your home country, please name the country or countries and duration

This final question is straightforward. Even if the work duration was small but significant, mention it. No, quick trips to a conference do not count.

END of Adam's advice


Information is subject to change. Please, verify all data with the schools.