Analyzing the Applications: the MIT Sloan Essay Questions

By Kyle Watkins (last updated: December 17, 2013)

The MIT Sloan School of Management lays out five characteristics that it looks for in candidates for its MBA program:

  • Leadership and an ability to inspire others
  • A collaborative spirit and focus on community
  • Intellectual curiosity and analytical strength
  • Creativity to generate new solutions to existing challenges
  • Growth in both professional and personal endeavors
MIT Sloan School of Management Admissions Essays

MIT Sloan main building – E62

These five character traits should serve as a checklist for any student developing his or her application to Sloan’s MBA program. As you consider the different pieces of your MIT Sloan admissions application, each often fits very naturally with one or more of these characteristics. For example, your recommenders should demonstrate your ability to inspire others and focus on the community. Your GMAT, GPA, and undergraduate transcripts should speak to your intellectual curiosity and analytical strength. Your resume should showcase your personal and professional growth.

While the Sloan essays can serve as a platform to emphasize several of these characteristics, they also seem to be the best place to illustrate your creativity to generate new solutions to existing challenges. If your essays are really good, those “new solutions” will also showcase the importance you place on community and your ability to inspires others, as you’ll describe how you leaned on colleagues or friends for help you solve challenges.

This is a great place to start when considering how to approach MIT Sloan’s admissions essays. However, it’s critical to go beyond that and heed each word in the essay prompts, as its clear that the MIT Sloan admissions committee has a few pet peeves it demands applicants avoid.

Let’s consider each of the MIT Sloan essay prompts. First, the admissions committee provides some general advice: “We are interested in learning more about how you work, think, and act. For each essay, please provide a brief overview of the situation followed by a detailed description of your response.” Notice that they ask for a brief overview of the situation. They are more interested in how you responded then how you got there in the first place. This distinction is important, and you should limit your descriptions of situations to no more than about 100 words (out of a 500 word limit), ensuring your don’t ignore the admissions committee’s guidance here. While we are on the topic, it’s also worth emphasizing the importance of adhering to the admissions committee’s dual word- and page-limit guidance: no more than 500 words or one page. These may seem like strict limits, but ignoring them can be dangerous. As soon as you’ve written that five hundredth and first word, you’ve conveyed two things to the admissions committee: first, you do not follow instructions; second, and perhaps more egregiously, you think you are more important that all of the other applicants out there that did restrict themselves to the 500-word limit that MIT Sloan provided.

In the first essay question, the MIT Sloan admissions committee asks applicants the following: The mission of the MIT Sloan School of Management is to develop principled, innovative leaders who improve the world and generate ideas that advance management practice.  Discuss how you will contribute toward advancing the mission based on examples of past work and activities“.

This is a tricky prompt; there are a lot of pitfalls to avoid. To address each part of the question properly, you must do several things:

  • Briefly address your goals and ambitions. While the Sloan admissions committee makes clear that it wants your essays to focus primarily on your past actions, it’s still important to demonstrate your professional ambition and vision for how you “will contribute” moving forward.  After all, the admissions committee makes clear that “an applicant’s leadership qualities and ambition should be apparent in their personal and professional experience, essays, and recommendations.” Limit any discussion of your vision or ambition to a few short sentences, but make sure you include them somewhere.
  • Address how you will improve the world. As you focus on this piece of the essay, make sure you focus on past actions. That is, you should tell the admissions committee how you have effected change at organizations in the past. This is a hallmark of any leader, and it should comprise the bulk of your first essay. (While we’re on the subject of effecting change, please make sure you write about change you effected, not affected. It’s a minor grammatical rule — and the only time effect works as a verb — but it also can be a demonstration of your attention to detail and presentation).
  • Discuss your view of management practice. In other words, your view of good management style. This can be influenced by what you have seen as effective leadership styles of others. It can be a discussion of techniques you have tried as a leader in the past. Or it can be a bigger discussion about your small-p political view of the world – essentially how you view human behavior.

That is a lot to cover in 500 words, but it’s essential that you address each piece of the essay prompt. Be as detailed as you can along the way, shaping the essay as you would a parable that you might tell a colleague or friend, bringing the listener into the plot as if he or she had seen it himself. Along the way, if you are looking for parts of your essay drafts to cut, make sure you are emphasizing past actions, editing down longer paragraphs about your career vision and future ambitions to a sentence or two. This is not a “career vision” essay question; it’s a “tell us about your biggest accomplishments” essay question.

In the second essay, the Sloan admissions committee asks applicants to choose an experience from the past three years in answering the following question: “Describe a time when you pushed yourself beyond your comfort zone.”

This is the kind of essay question that causes good applicants to go bad. Many candidates will try to force fit a story they used for other MBA essay prompts or an anecdote that they are particularly fond of, into this question. But if you aren’t able to genuinely describe a time when you pushed yourself beyond your comfort zone, then you’ll be begging to get dinged. It’s similar to when schools ask you to describe a personal weakness, and applicants say something along the lines of, “I’m too much of a perfectionist.” Essentially they’re trying to hide a strength within a question about weaknesses. Trust that MBA admissions committees can see right through that.

Once you’ve picked your anecdote for the question – an experience that genuinely pushed you outside your comfort zone – you need to describe how it made you feel. Why, exactly, did it make you uncomfortable? Why, exactly, did you allow yourself to be put in that situation when you might otherwise have avoided it? What were you trying to learn or how were you trying to benefit from the situation? How did it change you or your theory of management practice? Remember, the MIT Sloan essays are place to demonstrate that you are willing to creatively “generate new solutions to existing challenges.” This type of boundary-pushing question is a great platform to illustrate that characteristic.

As you have more questions about the MIT Sloan application and essays, feel free to reach out to Vincent and myself via our free consultation link or, and we’ll reply promptly. Also, rely on MIT Sloan’s admissions Q&A, which you can find here. And of course, stay tuned for more posts in our analyzing the applications series! Finally, make sure to give our MBA Matching Algorithm a try and let us know what you think.


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