Analyzing the Applications: the Wharton Essays (Part I)

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

A few weeks ago, Wharton released its essay questions for the Class of 2016. Most of the analysis and new coverage that followed seemed to revolve around the same basic theme: business schools are shortening their essay requirements.

This theme is important, and it’s one we’ve discussed before. However, it’s far from the most significant change that Wharton made this year, and keen applicants must take note if they want to be successful. Juxtapose the first essay question from this year’s application with the first essay question from last year’s, and the big difference will probably jump out you:

  • Class of 2016: What do you aspire to achieve, personally and professionally, through the Wharton MBA?
  • Class of 2015: How will a Wharton MBA help you achieve your professional objectives?

The addition of the word “personally” is critical, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see a lot of talented applicants completely overlook it in answering the question. To really ace this essay, though, an applicant must address it. In fact, a good essay should do all four of the following things:

  1. Answer why you want an MBA
  2. Answer why you want to go to Wharton
  3. Describe your career goals (and how Wharton will help achieve them)
  4. Describe your personal goals (and how Wharton will help achieve them)

Three out of four simply won’t cut it here. The admissions committee has even extended the question’s word count from 400 to 500 to ensure you have the space to elaborate on each of the four points.

The first three points aren’t particularly unique to the business school applications process, as many schools ask similar questions in their essays. Describing your personal goals is a bit more unusual, and save for Stanford’s famous “What matters most to you, and why?” question, this type of prompt has probably received a lot less analysis than the others. So, let’s focus our attention there.

First, let’s take it for a given that you probably haven’t thought about how a Wharton MBA — or any MBA for that matter — will help you achieve your personal goals. Speaking from my own experience, I hadn’t actually given it much thought until I was reading Wharton’s new essay questions a few weeks ago. For me, it was always about how an MBA would help me achieve my professional aspirations. But with that said, there’s no question that my MBA experience changed me far more personally than it did professionally — and that’s not for a lack of the latter.

My MBA certainly advanced my personal goals by building lifelong friendships, introducing me to a few new hobbies, exposing me to a wealth a new perspectives, and allowing me to travel to many new countries and places. However, I’d argue those would all make for pretty boring answers to this part of Wharton’s first essay question, although a lot of applicants will likely rely on those types of answers as crutches to hobble through it. In the process, they’ll miss a big opportunity to show their self-awareness, an essential quality of any winning applicant, as we talked about at length in our post analyzing the HBS recommendations requirements.

That’s why it’s important to use this part of the question to undergo some serious self-examination. Even when you’ve finished the last draft of your essay, this piece of it may feel a bit like a work-in-progress, an exercise in thinking out loud. That’s OK though. You don’t need to nail the answer, per se. You need to nail the process. You must demonstrate you genuinely spent time thinking about your personal goals. You need to demonstrate you were honest. And you need to make yourself vulnerable. The willingness to do all this makes for great students who are open, honest, and eager to better themselves and their community, and that’s what the Wharton admissions committee is looking for here.

It would be doing applicants a disservice to provide an example of what I think a good answer looks like. After all, the whole point is that this answer must be organic and honest. My best advice is to start by thinking about the qualities that make you a little insecure. If you start there — and are honest with yourself — you can come up with some compelling personal goals and hopefully a few ways in which Wharton will help you reach them.

If nothing else, take strong note of what Wharton has done here. Adding the word “personally” may not have changed the question’s sentence structure much, but it should absolutely influence how you answer it. To successfully address the whole of Wharton’s first essay question, you must speak to each of its four components — and you must tie the answers back to how Wharton specifically is the right MBA program for you.

Next up in our Analyzing the Applications series, we’ll turn our attention to Wharton’s second essay question. Stay tuned to this space for more!

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