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Who Came Up With That? How MBA Essay Questions Get Written

University of California Berkeley Haas School of Business
University of California Berkeley Haas School of BusinessCourtesy University of California Berkeley

Over the past few months, most MBA programs published fresh admissions guidelines for class of 2016 hopefuls, in some cases changing the directions they give to students for writing required essays. Top schools from Pennsylvania’s Wharton School to UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business asked for fewer essays this year. Other schools played with the format, soliciting video essays or, in the case of MIT’s Sloan School of Management, asking students to write their own letters of recommendation.

Admissions offices regularly tweak open-ended questions for a new admissions cycle to yield something from applicants beyond a rote, polished answer. “The hardest thing to get at is to have someone write authentically, without feeling they have to manufacture who they are,” says Liz Riley Hargrove, associate dean for admissions at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, adding that her colleagues at other business schools face the same challenge. “People would be surprised how much admissions directors talk.” Just as applicants (and admissions consultants) write and rewrite their essays hoping to show how special they are, admissions offices pass boardroom hours lobbing edits back and forth to craft the perfect question. Some fly-on-the-wall moments from top schools yield insight into the process.