Analyzing the Applications: the NYU Stern Essays

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

The transition to shorter word counts and fewer essays continues. Two weeks ago, it started with Columbia Business School and the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Last week, Harvard Business School announced it would request (although not require) only a single essay for its 2014 applicants, a decision which this blog (not to mention the rest of the web) has analyzed at length.

This week, it seems to be the New York University Stern School of Business’s turn, announcing two big changes to its 2014 essay requirements: First, applicants can now choose between either answering the “two paths” question or the “describe yourself” question. Last year both were required. Second, the final question, which allows applicants to provide any additional information they would like to the admissions committee, is now optional.

So, for this next installment in our Analyzing the Applications series, we’re breaking down these changes and discussing the keys to writing good essays for the NYU Stern Class of 2016 application.

The instinctual response to reduced word counts and fewer essay questions may be to try to cram the same amount of information about yourself into the smaller space allotted. Fight that instinct. In no uncertain terms, NYU Stern is telling its applicants, just as Columbia, Ross, and HBS told their applicants before it, that applicants provided too much information in their essays last year. So, how do you appropriately compensate for less quantity? More quality, of course. It’s imperative that you invest significant time and effort in brainstorming quality essay topics and focus your writing on showing, rather than telling, the reader — two concepts we emphasize in our 10-step guide to writing killer essays.

With that backdrop in mind, let’s take a look at each of Stern’s essay questions:

Essay One: Professional aspirations (750 Words)

Why pursue an MBA (or dual degree) at this point in your life?
What actions have you taken to determine that Stern is the best fit for your MBA experience?
What do you see yourself doing professionally upon graduation?

If it appears as if the Stern admissions committee is trying to slyly slide three questions into one headline here, then perhaps you haven’t considered carefully enough why you want to attend business school. The three questions the Stern admissions committee poses should come together for applicants with a nice arc. Most will likely begin their essays with the third question: What do you see yourself doing professionally upon graduation? After all, the answer to this question should be what is driving your decision to attend business school in the first place (question one), and why you think Stern is a good place to do it (question two).

To illustrate how to do this effectively, I’ll offer up a few actual excerpts from my own essay, which I submitted to HBS when I was applying to business school in 2010. As background, I was working in the public sector at the time, and my (genuine) pitch to business schools was that I would pursue social entrepreneurship with my MBA degree:

My career will focus on launching and managing social ventures that can provide innovative, private-sector solutions to public problems. […I go on to describe a specific idea for a venture…].

To achieve this vision, I need to expand on my success in the public sector. […I go on to describe my specific successes in the public sector]. Business school will help me achieve my career vision by exposing me to students and faculty with diverse private sector work experience. It will exercise my leadership abilities and provide me a business education that will prove critical to launching and managing successful social ventures.

After conversations with current HBS students and faculty, it is clear to me that HBS promotes a culture that supports my career vision and will expose me to other students with diverse backgrounds but similar aspirations. In addition, HBS offers an academic and financial infrastructure to support social entrepreneurship for its students and its alumni, and programs like the Social Venture Track of the HBS Business Plan Contest will help develop my social venture idea….

It’s not a terribly fancy approach, but it is effective. Say what you want to do, why you need the MBA to do it, and then why Stern is the best school for the job.

Two pitfalls will penalize you on this question: seeming directionless and seeming disingenuous. To avoid the first pitfall, remember to be specific. For example, I described an actual venture I wanted to launch after graduation, with details about its mission and why it was important to me. To avoid the second pitfall, be honest. While I’m not, in fact, working on launching that venture right now, it was a genuine passion, something I am sure HBS could sense after absorbing my resume, other essays, and interview.

Also, if NYU Stern is your first choice, this is the place to say it. The Stern admissions committee will alway be looking to increase its yield percentage, and so letting them know you’re a surefire yes is a good way to score an extra point or two.

Essay Two: Choose Option A or Option B (500 words)

Option A: Your Two Paths

Describe two different and distinct paths you could see your career taking long term. How do you see your two paths unfolding?
How do your paths tie to the mission of NYU Stern?
What factors will most determine which path you will take?

If you’ve answered question one well, this essay option may prove a bit tricky. After all, how do you spend 750 words laying out your career vision in essay one, and then follow it up by spending another 500 words laying out two “different and distinct” career paths in essay two? Candidly, I think this is a bad question for that reason and would skip it, opting to answer Option B.

If you do choose to answer it, the trick will be in writing an essay that is neither incongruous with nor repetitive of your first essay. The most effective way to do that is probably to dedicate the least amount of space to describing the two paths — which frankly isn’t the important part of the question anyway — and the most amount of space to the factors that will influence which one you take. After all, the question, Stern tells applicants, is about finding “leaders who thrive in ambiguity [and] embrace a broad perspective.” If you can illustrate what factors have influenced you in the past, how you have responded to those factors, and how those and other factors could influence you in the future (and, hopefully, tie it all in with Stern’s mission), you could end up with an effective essay.

Option B: Personal Expression

Please describe yourself to your MBA classmates. You may use almost any method to convey your message (e.g. words, illustrations). Feel free to be creative.

First, a word about the method you choose to convey your message: just ignore it. The message is what is most important here, and until you have it nailed down, don’t stress about how you want to present it. Half the time that applicants blow this question it’s because they were too worried they couldn’t come up with a creative enough presentation. The other half of the time it’s because they picked their medium before they even decided on their message. You are applying to a business school, and last I checked the written word was still the standard form of communication in the business world, so writing an essay is a perfectly acceptable option here. If you do want to write a song, make a video, or perhaps construct a mobile, tread carefully. One of the tenants of good design that all companies should keep in mind when creating a new logo or website is that a sexy design is never worth sacrificing clarity of message. Many artists may disagree with me, but this is not an art school application. So, know what your message is, and ask a few friends or family what they think it is after you’re done to make sure you’re conveying it accurately.

With how you present out of the way, let’s consider what you present: the message. This question is intended to find out who you really are. What drives you? There is simply no answer worthy of such a question that isn’t cliche. So, the key to making this essay count is spending as few words as possible telling the admissions committee the answer and as many as possible showing it to them. Therein lies the creativity. If you pick the right story and tell it in a meaningful and effective way, “who you really are” will be so obvious to the admissions committee that in fact you shouldn’t have to explicitly say it at all. While brainstorming such a worthy narrative isn’t easy to do — in fact it’s remarkably difficult — it is the most important step in writing a good answer to this question. So, budget a lot of time to just think of ideas, and ask for feedback from friends, family, and others.

Essay Three: Additional Information (optional)

Please provide any additional information that you would like to bring to the attention of the Admissions Committee.

Most applicants shouldn’t answer this question. In fact, the Stern admissions committee pretty well spells out in the remainder of the question prompt (not posted above) when it should be used. If you fall into one of those categories, be factual and brief in your response. Excuses will win you no points, and in more cases than not they’ll actually hurt your chances of admission. The Stern admissions committee would much rather admit a student who takes responsibility and demonstrates self-awareness than one who searches for scapegoats and shucks accountability.

Note, too, that Stern provides no guidance with respect to word count for this question. In fact, it’s a bit of a disservice that they list it as an “essay” at all. The answer should be concise, perhaps 100 words or less. If you find yourself running much over that, you’re probably slipping into dangerous territory.

As always, check out our 10-step guide to writing killer essays for more tips, and stayed tuned to our Analyzing the Applications series as we break down the keys to successful applications at top business schools across the globe…

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