Author Archives: Kyle Watkins

MBA Admissions Essays are Disappearing

By Kyle Watkins (last updated: October 14, 2019)

How to Make the Most of a Shrinking MBA Admissions Application

MBA admissions essays are quickly disappearing. In fact, an applicant applying to the top ten MBA programs today would be required to complete fewer than half as many essays today as she would have just five year ago. And – she’d have to do it in a lot less space, with the average word limit per essay a mere 75% of what it used to be:

Since last year, HBS has no longer required that applicants write any essay (although only 10 of the 9,543 candidates that applied last cycle actually opted not to submit one). Wharton, meanwhile, moved to require only a single essay of its applicants this year. Even Columbia and Haas, the only programs among the top ten that still require applicants to write more than two essays, have reduced the word limit that applicants are allowed.

Why Essays are Disappearing

Having read many applications, I can attest to the fact that you don’t need four essays and 2,000 words to gauge an applicant’s compatibility with a program. So I don’t mean to cynically suggest that business schools’ motives are entirely self-serving here. With that said, however, logic holds that requiring fewer essays and shorter word counts – essentially decreasing the cost to apply – will increase the number of candidates that submit applications. Increasing the number of applicants will, in turn, decrease a school’s admittance rate, making the school seem more selective and helping to keep the top-ranked programs top ranked.

Additionally, there’s no doubt that reducing the number of application essays also reduces the burden on busy admissions staff. Ensuring that there are fewer essays to read will also ensure that fewer resources are required to do so, something any admissions director could get behind.

Finally, admissions committees are likely looking for a more focused story and essay set from their applicants, who can meander quite a bit over the course of 2,000 words. This raises the next logical question, which is what fewer essays should mean for aspiring applicants…

What it Means for Your Applications

The reduction in essays has been a pretty remarkable shift, and it certainly has consequences for applicants applying this year:

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MBA Admissions Committees Are Tracking Your Engagement

By Kyle Watkins (last updated: July 16, 2014)

“Why This School” Essays Are More Important Than Ever

Over the past five years, admissions committees have slashed the number of essays required to apply. But despite the reduction, one essay question persists among top programs: Why do you want to attend this school?

Stanford asks applicants, “Why Stanford?” Wharton asks applicants what they hope to gain “from a Wharton MBA?”. Columbia, for all practical purposes, asks applicants the question twice, once in its first essay prompt and again in its second.

Despite this, MBA applicants too often seem to invest limited effort in crafting a well-thought-out answer as to why they want to go to a particular program. Too many provide the same generic response: they name a few classes, clubs, and professors that align with their interests; they compliment the school’s energetic student body and expansive alumni network; and then they move on.

Well, business schools aren’t satisfied. So they’ve begun to try to get at this question another way. Using software like Talisma and Slate, admissions committees have started tracking how often applicants engage with the school as a means of discerning how badly candidates really even want to attend.

Schools will track everything from the number of emails you’ve sent the admissions committee to the number of events and webinars you’ve attended. According to a recent Businessweek article, some schools even track whether you’ve interviewed alumni.

So, why do business schools care so much, and what should applicants do about it?

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Wharton Essay Analysis

By Kyle Watkins (last updated: July 10, 2014)

Wharton Business School Essay Tips for the 2014-2015 Admissions Cycle

Over the past five years, Wharton has steadily decreased the number of essays required in its application. This year, that trend continues, as Wharton announced that it will require only one, 500-word essay, a far cry from the four essays totaling over 2,000 words that it required half a decade ago.

At face value, this may just be an attempt by Wharton to reverse the decline in applications they saw with the Class of 2015, the latest class for which stats are available:

Percent Change in Number of Applicants


Requiring less essay writing lowers the cost of applying, likely increasing the number of applications Wharton will receive (and also making the school’s admissions stats seem more selective – something that can only help it stay at the top of the US News business school rankings).

But this change also raises the stake for applicants, who have a lot less space to capture the attention of the Wharton admissions committee. In about half the words that are in this blog post, candidates must answer:

What do you hope to gain both personally and professionally from the Wharton MBA?

The question is nearly identical to the prompt provided for last year’s applicants, which asked, “What do you aspire to achieve, personally and professionally, through the Wharton MBA?” Perhaps this biggest different is the word choice Wharton used to set up the question. “Hope to gain” is a lot more down to earth than “aspire to achieve” – likely a subtle cue to applicants that went a bit overboard with their answers last year. Wharton isn’t looking for applicants dreaming of solving poverty and ending hunger; they want to get to know you in a very personal and real way. The shift in language is a subtle hint at that, and something applicants should be mindful of when they’re deciding how lofty they want to make their goals.

Last year, Wharton made a similarly subtle shift in this essay question, which previously had read, “How will a Wharton MBA help you achieve your professional objectives?” The addition of the word “personal” last year was an important prod to get applicants to talk more about their passions and values, as well as their professional ambition and vision. The admissions committee wants to know how you’ll participate in the broader school community – and what you expect to gain from that involvement. It wants to know how you think you’ll grow as a person, so you have to go beyond the commonplace reasons almost all applicants give for why they want an MBA: enhance their skill set and grow their network.

So, given all of this, what does a good Wharton essay response look like? Here are the keys:

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Columbia Business School Essay Analysis: Part II

By Kyle Watkins (last updated: July 6, 2014)

We pick up where we left off last week, analyzing the essays for the 2014 Columbia Business School application. Part I of this post is available here.

Essay #2

Please watch this video. How will you take advantage of being “at the very center of business”? (250 words)

There are two easy ways to botch this question, so let’s tackle each in turn.

1. Don’t just talk about New York City.

Last October, Columbia Business School unveiled a new branding campaign and tagline: “At the Very Center of Business.” This essay question is a not so subtle attempt to see how closely applicants were paying attention.

As Columbia notes, the campaign is supported by four pillars:

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Columbia Business School 2014 Essay Analysis: Part I

By Kyle Watkins (last updated: July 6, 2014)

Columbia University’s Butler Library at nighttime

Columbia Business School made some subtle but important changes to its essays this year, so let’s take a look at each of the questions that applicants will have to answer.

We’ll analyze each essay question in a two-part series, beginning with part I below, in which we take a look at Columbia’s short answer question and first essay prompt for applicants in the 2014-15 season:

Short Answer Question

Goal: What is your immediate post-MBA professional goal? Examples of possible responses:
      1. “Work in business development for a media company.”
      2. “Join a consulting firm specializing in renewable energy.”
      3. “Work for an investment firm that focuses on real estate.”

Three important words describe the very specific type of goal that Columbia is asking applicants to describe here:

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The 2014 HBS Admissions Application

By Kyle Watkins (last updated: June 1, 2014)

HBS released some important details for Class of 2017 applicants this week, including what essays, recommendations, and deadlines will define its 2014 application.

HBS 2014 Essay Question

The admissions committee decided not to change its essay prompt from last year. The question remains:

You’re applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your resume, academic transcripts, extracurricular activities, awards, post-MBA career intentions, test scores, and what your recommenders have to say about you. What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?

Once again, the single essay question is optional, and the admissions committee provides little guidance with respect to length or substance. Fortunately, we’ve provided our perspective on both.

HBS 2014 Recommender Questions

If you’ve followed the evolution of the HBS admissions application, then the 2014 recommender questions will ring familiar to you, too:

How do the candidate’s performance, potential, background, or personal qualities compare to those of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? Please provide specific examples. (300 words)

Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response. (250 words)

We’ve blogged about how to approach these questions and the HBS recommendation section in the past, too, which you can read about here and here.

HBS 2014 Application Dates

The admissions committee also provided a bit of information about important Round One milestones, although some of the exact dates are still to be determined:

  • Application Available: “mid-June”
  • Application Deadline: September 9
  • Interviews Conducted: “from mid-October through end of November”
  • Decision Notifications: “on or around December 10”

As HBS alumni, we have provided some of our strategies for approaching the HBS application process here, or you can find more information about the 2014 HBS application on admissions director Dee Leopold’s blog.