“What will you contribute to our school community?" has long been one of the most popular MBA essay questions. Some business schools are putting new twists on this classic prompt. The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, encourages a more detailed response:
“Describe an impactful experience or accomplishment that is not reflected elsewhere in your application. How will you use what you learned through that experience to contribute to the Wharton community?"
Not applying to Wharton? Still not off the hook! Nearly every MBA school now requires some form of the “What will you contribute" essay in the application process—and nailing your answer isn’t so easy.
Such prompts can prompt unintentional bragging from even the most humble candidates. On the flipside, others may find it difficult to determine what to highlight about their experiences. In truth, there’s no magic formula. The “right answer" doesn't exist.
That said, there are several tricks to writing the strongest and most specific response possible to this challenging MBA essay question.
Rule number one? Follow Ernest Hemingway's lead. To wit: be succinct. Even if you’re given a generous word count, get to the point as soon as possible. The ability to communicate clearly and concisely is critical. It is also (unfortunately) quite rare.
Ever suffer through a bad speech with zero storytelling that went on for way too long? Nobody likes a babbler—especially not at work, where every minute counts. In your MBA application essay, know what you want to say and get directly to the point. Don't demonstrate your mastery of vocabulary and metaphor. Avoid overused quotes, pop culture references, jokes (they will fail), and never state the obvious.
Follow the same dictum that guides novelists and screenwriters: show, don't tell. Share concrete examples of your leadership skills in action. Describe an event in which you overcame adversity. Give concrete evidence of your abilities and potential. You may want to add how much you're looking forward to learning from your classmates' experiences. It's a good way to signal that you're focused only on yourself and that you are open to and eager for new ideas and approaches. That is presumably the reason you're going back to school, right?
Also, consider explaining how earning a degree from this program will help you achieve your career goals. It'll help if those goals are specific. "I want to be CEO of a Fortune 500 company" is nice but doesn't really lift you above the pack. Half your prospective classmates have the exact same goal. "I want to found a nonprofit corporation that combats poverty in central Africa," is certainly more memorable, especially if you back it up with a compelling argument of how this degree can help you accomplish your goal.
A bad essay lacks focus and conviction. It comes across as a chore grudgingly completed rather than a genuine expression of interest and enthusiasm.
Also, avoid trying to convince anybody that you’re a standout applicant. Why? Because you aren't. Competitive programs receive applications from more qualified candidates than they can admit. Everyone who is going to get in has held a great job and achieved an impressive GMAT score. Let others explain why they are the best candidate for the program. You can move ahead of them by not making the same mistake.
Instead of bragging about not-so-unique accomplishments, identify the qualities that truly distinguish you. Focus on your character, interpersonal skills, and leadership style.
MBA admissions officers are increasingly screening for two things: emotional intelligence and diversity of thought. The end goal? To create a community of students with the qualities one seeks in friends and colleagues. Positioning yourself as a good citizen is key.
Focus on challenges and personal triumphs, but remember that not all success stories have heroes or epic endings. Keep things simple and reflect on your accomplishments.
Remember the time you earned a spot on a competitive sports team—but never got to play? There's your essay. Why? Because making the team after years of hard work and dedication is a very big win, and this interpretation reflects grace, humility, and perspective. If you’ve figured this out, you’re halfway to a meaningful essay response.
Or perhaps there was a time (at work or in your personal life) when you stepped up to plate and went above and beyond—but without receiving formal recognition. Or maybe you found a way to collaborate with a challenging teammate by learning to reframe your approach. These stories reflect leadership and demonstrate patience and proactive problem-solving. That’s what you want to bring to your community.
There are countless ways to share the positive qualities you’ll contribute to an MBA program. Share what makes you unique and worthy of admiration. Don’t try to deliver a happily-ever-after ending, and definitely do not try to be perfect. Reflect honesty and self-awareness. In the end, your MBA essay should not attempt heroism, but rather humanity.
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