Monday, July 9, 2012

MIT Sloan 2012-13 MBA Essay Analysis

This year there is less word count available for your MIT Sloan admissions essays.  They used to offer three 500-word essays in addition the cover letter but now they only offer two.  This is a trend that has ben occurring amongst several top US, and in this regard MIT is no exception.  The applicant to Sloan will need to be careful in choosing the right topics as well as the right details to get across who they are in the (always) short cover letter, as well as across this small(er) essay set.

What follows are some opinions and notes geared towards getting you started on your MIT Sloan essays.

Cover Letter:

Please prepare a cover letter (up to 500 words) seeking a place in the MIT Sloan MBA program. Your letter should describe your accomplishments, address any extenuating circumstances that may apply to your application, and conform to standard business correspondence. Your letter should be addressed to Mr. Rod Garcia, Senior Director of Admissions.


I have divided my analysis of the cover letter into three parts:

1) Contents
2) Design
3) Word Limitation

1) Contents

There is a lot to fit into 500 words here. It is ideal to touch upon each of the following things:

a) your accomplishments

The questions asks for accomplishments (plural) but due to space limitations it'll be hard to 
It'd be good to mention one specific accomplishment, and the impact you had on those around you. You may also choose to describe an additional accomplishment (note the question asks for more than one) and so for the sake of balance the second accomplishment may be a non-professional one. 

b) extenuating circumstances

It is never a good idea to dedicate a lot of space to blemishes in your application, especially in a cover letter introducing yourself to the head of admissions of the program! Ideally, addressing extenuating circumstances would involve detailing strengths - for instance if you had a term of poor grades as an undergraduate, you could emphasize the out-of-the-classroom learning you gained during that period, such as leadership skills developed by captaining the school debate team to victory in a competition. Different applicants will have different things to write about here, and some may have none at all.

Both a) and b) should be obvious elements of your essay, as both are mentioned in the question itself. However, if as the cover letter instructions note, you are to write a letter seeking a place in MIT's MBA program, then more could be included in this letter, such as why you are looking for an MBA, what you hope to achieve there, how it connects to your future, and why MIT is the best choice for you.  Let's break down this additional elements:

c) why you want an MBA

Why do you need a graduate business school education? What do you need to learn, and what kind of experiences do you hope to have during the program?

d) why MIT is the best place for you to get that MBA

Offer 2-3 clear examples that show MIT Sloan is the right place for you to spend the next two years.  Be specific!

e) what you will do with the MBA in the future

Offer some detail on your short/long term goals. Note that this does not need to be very long or overly detailed, but instead should simply show the direction you aim to go in and the kind of impact you wish to have on your organization, industry, or the world. If you were to ask an MIT admissions staff member, they might say they are not interested in your goals at all - and that they are more interested in evaluating your potential just by examining closely recent examples of how you make decisions and react to situations (hence their essay questions and specific instructions that they be well detailed, and also from episodes that have occurred recently). But, goals can serve well to tie an application together, and show strong connections between your background, MBA learning needs, and future potential as a leader, innovator or entrepreneur.

f) how you can contribute to your future classmates

One clear and specific example of what you have to offer to a particular course or extra-curricular to serve to finish your letter on a high point and show that you'll do more than just benefit from the experience at MIT Sloan.

2) Design

I have told people in the past that three things are important here, in order of difficulty from easiest to most challenging:

a) the Cover Letter should look like a letter.

A letter is addressed to someone, and is written to them as well. It is customary to put the recipient's address at the top, and to address the letter to them as well. You should also sign off (sincerely, with respect, etc.) and put your name at the bottom of the letter.

b) It is written to a person, so it should feel personal.

Don't simply cut and paste your goals essay from another school here. Instead, write a personal letter from you to Mr. Garcia. Did you have the chance to meet with him during a campus visit, for instance? If so, you could refer to a take-away or moment from that meeting somewhere in your letter.

c) it should be memorable.

Not all, but certainly many of the effective cover letters I have seen have a hook, or anecdote, or something that make them memorable and stand out from the rest. For some this is simply having a memorable accomplishment with a truly clear and impressive impact.  For others it is the strength of their background or the clarity of their vision and the directness of their reasons for studying at MIT. In some cases applicants have been able to start off their letter with a memorable episode or unique and unforgettable introduction of who they are and their personal passions. Whatever the case, you should strive for this in your own letter.  When you are done, it should feel like it came from you, and like it is introducing who you are and why you are passionate about spending two years contributing as an active student at MIT.

3) Word Limitation

Do not write a 3,000 word essay and then expect someone else to magically trim it into 500 words. Instead, you need to be very selective as to what to be included.  So make tough decisions (and/or get a second opinion) so that you are including in your cover letter only those contents that are most necessary, most appealing and most memorable about you. It is possible to touch upon multiple subjects in a short essay - you just need to be very direct and not wordy, and you need to be comfortable removing parts not completely essential to the theme you have established. 


"We are interested in learning more about how you work, think, and act. For each essay, please provide a brief overview of the situation followed by a detailed description of your response. Please limit the experiences you discuss to those which have occurred in the past three years. In each of the essays, please describe in detail what you thought, felt, said, and did."

Essay 1: Please describe a time when you had to convince a person or a group of your idea. (500 words or fewer, limited to one page)


Describing in detail what you thought, felt, said and did means you'll likely be describing a conversation or specific meeting, rather than a process spanning three months. In other words, try to show through one concrete example how you employed an effective strategy to get someone (or a group of people) to believe in your idea. What was the idea, and why was it important? Why did you believe in it, and what were the obstacles revenging others from seeing it the same way you did? What was the result? Were you right? Be clear about the impact you had on our organization as the result of convincing others to accept your idea. Do not just state that your first approach failed so you repeated it again and again until others gave up and saw your way. Finally, do choose a recent (within 3 years) episode.

Essay 2: Please describe a time when you overcame a personal setback. (500 words or fewer, limited to one page)


A personal setback will be for many a non-work topic, although it is possible to have a personal setback that has implications for both your job as well as your life outside of your job. Consider the balance between work and non-work topics across your entire application as you consider what kind of a topic will work best here.  

The Merriam-Webster Learners Dictionary defines a setback as a problem that makes progress more difficult or success less likely. I like this definition, as it shows clearly the difference between a setback and a failure - where a milestone is not achieved, or a product not shipped. This is different - a setback hampers progress or otherwise is an issue or problem to be dealt with (hopefully) on the road to success.  

Be clear about the situation - was this losing three volunteers from your team before a key event you were organizing? Perhaps you set up a company and were struggling to gain enough customers. Whatever the case, show that you reflected, learned, and reacted positively to the situation. Perhaps you changed approach or reworked your methods as a result of this situation. Maybe this was a reflective process where you could grow as an individual by learning how to overcome a weakness. Be clear about what action you took to turn the situation around, and also be clear about the ultimate result. Why was it important to you, and those around you as well?

Supplemental essay: The Admissions Committee invites you to share anything else you would like us or your future classmates to know about you. This may be in written or multimedia format. Please do not use Flash Media Player, and include a URL where it can be accessed online. Written essays should be 300 words or fewer.


I have divided my analysis into two parts, content and format.


When deciding what to write here, again consider balance across your entire application.  It is best to not use this space to repeat a message that is already clearly laid out elsewhere in your application. Instead, you could use this space to explain why you are passionate about something you have dedicated your non-working time to, or to emphasize additional ways in which you could be a contributing student to your future classmates at Sloan. 


While most people will probably submit an essay, this doesn't mean that you have to or should. The instructions allow for a range of response types - so carefully consider which may be best for you, depending on what you aim to show with this essay. Aim to have a strong impact, and at the same time don't be afraid to be creative in how you choose to design your message. Finally, I'd strongly encourage you to show your final work to others, and get feedback from them, just to ensure the message you are aiming to give is coming across effectively.

John Couke