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:

Choose more personal essay topics. The fewer essays an MBA application requires, the more personal those essays should be. HBS is a great example of this. The admissions committee has made quite plain in its prompt that it “can see your resume, school transcripts, extra-curricular activities, awards, post-MBA career goals, test scores, and what your recommenders have to say about you” already. Allow me to go a step further: they don’t really want to hear about any of those things again. HBS provides a single essay prompt to get candidates to focus their response on what really makes them unique – on the aspect of their candidacy that really differentiates them. In some cases, this may be a personal story about an influential event or time in your life. In others, it may be about the band you play with in your garage every Sunday. The topics and answers should vary widely – and that’s what business schools are increasingly looking for as they reduce the number of required essays. Focus on using the space on a topic very different than the rest of your application – including the short answer questions in the application itself.

Be more specific when making the case for why you want to go to a particular school. If fewer essays does lower the cost of applying to business school and therefore increase the number of applicants, business schools are going to be increasing leery of applicants that don’t seem committed to attending their particular program. After all, while an increase in the number of applicants will assuredly decrease the admission rate for the top-tier programs (helping to keep them in the top-tier), it may also jeopardize those same programs’ yield rates – the number of students who are admitted that actually accept. If applicants are submitting more applications, they very well could be turning down more offers of admission, decreasing a school’s yield. This may be why many schools have kept a “why this school” essay, and why that essay is more important than ever.

Focus more effort on telling a story in your resume. A business school resume is not a professional resume. It is far less technical and far more personal. This nuance is becoming more and more important as candidates have fewer essays in which to tell their stories. Use longer sentences than you might normally; provide more color and context about why and how you transitioned from role to role. In short: tell a story, with clear themes and a reasonable conclusion about where your career is headed after business school. You can read our own take on how to write a resume for MBA applications or check out our 10-step guide for preparing your resume for your applications.

Prime your recommenders thoroughly. When business schools used to require 4 essays, totaling 2,000 or more words, applicants had ample room to tell a number of stories and anecdotes about their professional careers. The new reality of fewer essays means that is no longer the case, and so you have to be more reliant on your recommenders to go in-depth on the three or four stories that set you apart from other applicants and that you couldn’t possibly do justice to in your resume. This means helping to prime your recommenders thoroughly with the stories that both you and they want to tell. And “stories” is a key word – recommendations filled with generic praise and cliché platitudes have always been application killers, but with fewer essays and shorter word counts, they will be even more detrimental. Check out our 10-step guide on preparing your recommenders for specific strategies on how to do this.

Write better applications. In the marketplace, less quantity will almost always demand greater quality. Business school applications are no different. Fewer essays will mean applicants have more time to spend on the essays that remain as well as the other pieces of their application, hopefully yielding higher caliber results.

As always, we’re happy to help you make the most of your application and what few essays remain. Feel free to reach out to use through our free consultation service, and stay tuned to our blog for more advice on the MBA admissions process.


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