Analyzing the Applications: the Wharton Essays (Part II)

By Kyle Watkins (last updated: October 15, 2019)

In Part I of this post, we looked at how a small change to Wharton’s first essay question will affect answers in a meaningful way. Today, we’ll focus on the second of Wharton’s two essay questions:

“Academic engagement is an important element of the Wharton MBA experience. How do you see yourself contributing to our learning community?”

A good answer to this question will accomplish four things.

First, it needs to demonstrate to the admissions committee who you are and how you think, as Wharton’s admissions director described in a recent BusinessWeek story. Wharton knows that each applicant is shaped by different backgrounds and difference experiences. Part of their goal in picking the best admits for the Class of 2016 is to choose a diverse set of those experiences to be represented. This essay question is your best chance to demonstrate the unique pieces of your background. It’s critical in doing so that you get to the admissions committee’s fundamental question — who are you, and how do you think? To translate that a little bit, how have your experiences shaped you, and how will they frame your mindset at Wharton?

While the admissions committee uses the phrases “academic engagement” and “learning community,” don’t confuse that as limiting your answer to how you will contribute to the classroom or schoolwork — although of course that’s a fine approach. After all, academic engagement is about a lot more than just showing up for and participating in class.

Second, your answer must tie back to Wharton. After you describe the things that have shaped you personally, you must connect the implicit lessons of your past to your future as a Wharton student. Talk about a specific class Wharton offers, a club, or an initiative you’d like to set up at the school. The key is to be specific and be genuine. If your background is lacking any significant charitable work or volunteerism, it might be hard to believe that you want to start some type of philanthropic effort at Wharton as a means of contributing to the learning community. Don’t force a connection that doesn’t fit with your narrative.

Third, don’t repeat themes that are covered elsewhere in your application, such as in your resume. This question is the best opportunity you have to highlight the things that are important to you, but didn’t fit on a CV. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate you are more than your career. Talk about an adventure you’ve had, volunteer work you’ve done, a club you’ve started, a campaign you’ve launched — anything that demonstrates some dynamism to the admissions committee.

Fourth, heed the advice we provided in our 10-step guide to writing killer essays:

Show, don’t tell. Don’t write that you are a hard worker; show it by telling the admissions committee about a time you worked harder than anyone else. Don’t say that you are creative; show it by writing about a problem you solved in an interesting way. The worst essays are laundry lists of adjectives, clichés, and platitudes. The best are stories that capture the admissions committee’s attention by recreating the moments that shaped your character and ethic.

If you accomplish those four things in this essay, you are well on your way to a successful application. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the rest of our 10-step guides, review some of our favorite resources from when we applied to business school a few years ago, and stay tuned to our Analyzing the Applications series for more analysis on the Class of 2016 application at Wharton and other schools.

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