Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Dartmouth Tuck 2012-13 Essay Analysis

Here's a quick analysis of the Dartmouth Tuck essay questions for those aiming to enter their MBA beginning in the fall of 2013.


Please respond fully but concisely to the following essay questions. Compose each of your answers offline in separate document files and upload them individually in the appropriate spaces below. We encourage applicants to limit the length of their responses to 500 words for each essay. There are no right or wrong answers. Please double-space your responses.

This year Tuck is asking that essays be limited to 500 words each, while in the past they only used to state that on average most applicants use 500 words per essay. This change shows the school is trending towards a preference for shorter and tighter essays.  So when writing, be clear and concise, and ensure your essays stay under their 500 word limit for each.

Essay Questions:

1. Why is an MBA a critical next step toward your short- and long-term career goals? Why is Tuck the best MBA program for you, and what will you uniquely contribute to the community? (If you are applying for a joint or dual degree, please explain how the additional degree will contribute to those goals.)

This is a standard goals essay, with an extra element: your contribution to the program.  The best way to organize your first draft is to address the following topics in turn: a) a brief introduction of who you are professionally now, b) your short-term goal, c) the long-term goal, d) a quick assessment of skills you have and skills you'll need to reach those goals, e) a few clear and specific examples of how studying at Tuck in particular will help you gain those skills you need and f) 1-2 examples of what you can offer to your fellow students at Tuck.  

Note the word "critical" in the essay prompt.  You need to show clearly that you truly need an MBA.  The way to do this is by having a specific post-MBA goal that requires an MBA, as well as clear examples in part d) of what exactly you need to get from an MBA to position you to achieve that goal.  Ensure the post-MBA goal is not something you can attain simply with more experience in your current role.  The post-MBA goal should instead be something you couldn't possibly do without all the benefits and learnings associated with an MBA.

In terms of your contribution, this could be what you can offer to a specific class and could be based on an element of your professional experience. But don't limit yourself when brainstorming possible ideas here: it could be that the best examples of what you'll offer is related to activities outside the class, and your own personal passions, rather than professional experiences.  Be clear how an element of your background, engagement in a sport or other activity, or contribution to a volunteer or other organization will help you contribute in turn to your fellow Tuck classmates.

Feels like a lot for 500 words? You are correct.  I'd suggest the initial draft simply contain all the elements and details you hope to include.  As you pare it down to something shorter, be ready to retain the core ideas (a to f) mentioned above, and cut out additional elements or repetitious or unnecessary sentences not totally focused on the story you are trying to tell.  

2. Discuss your most meaningful leadership experience. What did you learn about your own individual strengths and weaknesses through this experience?

This may be a professional experience, or it may be a personal one. The choice depends highly on what topics you choose for other essays, as you want to ensure that the overall essay set is balanced.  Also, the experience needs to be meaningful - which means that you need to have learned something significant from it, and can demonstrate that you have applied that learning to future experiences.  Given this, it may be best not to choose something you did yesterday or last week - in other words, choose a leadership experience where the significance on you can be clearly shown. 

I think that using the STAR technique is generally a great way to draft a story essay.  STAR stands for situation, task, action, and result.  

Start with the situation; for instance - what was the project you were involved in, and why was it important to your company?  The situation could also be the days after your company released a weak earnings report, or it could be the fact that the NPO you volunteer with has just announced that their public funding would be cut off in 6 months. 

Next, detail what in particular you wanted to accomplish and what hurdles might be involved.  Did you decide to get a new product fast tracked or approach a new prospective donor?  In addition, be clear what the problem or difficulty was. It could have been reluctance among peers or members of another department towards your idea.  Whatever the case, be clear as to a) the goal you set and b) any difficulties that presented themselves in accomplishing that goal.  

The action part of your essay is easily the most important, because it shows how you work, act, and communicate with others, and also because it is likely to be the longest part of your essay. Show here what you did.  Include everything in the first draft, and be ready to focus in on just the key elements of your story in later versions.  

Finally, watt was the outcome of this experience? How was this outcome a success, and what did it mean to you, your colleagues, organization or industry? Be clear as to the significance of the accomplishment.  In addition to this, what was the significance of the experience to you - in other words, what did you learn? You may have learned something about yourself, or about how to manage or lead other people.  Be clear as to not only a strength you possess that you could recognize during this experience, but also a weakness. In defining a strength AND weakness, you'll want to show that not everything went smoothly, or that perhaps the outcome was good but could have been greater if there was something else you could have done, or another method you could have employed in getting the result you wanted.

The value in describing such an experience is that the reader can learn more about you, how you make decisions, how you take initiative, how you accept responsibility, how you communicate with others - and how you have impacted those around you, while also being reflective and learning something about yourself. 

3. Describe a circumstance in your life in which you faced adversity, failure, or setback. What actions did you take as a result and what did you learn from this experience?

While your reputation may be the result of your accomplishments, your inner strength and character may be a result of your failures.  In this case Tuck is asking for a time when everything wasn't going well for you, what you did as a result, and what you learned from the experience.  Like essay #2, this story may be personal or professional.  In terms of balancing work and non-work topics, you may choose to have one professional and one personal topic between essays 2 and 3, although this is not a hard and fast rule for everyone. 

Most people dislike writing about adversity, failure, or setback experiences for two reasons.  

1) It is hard to come up with a good topic.

Many of my former clients have told me that "they have never experienced failure".  I doubt this to be true, and usually get them to define failure to me to see if they have misinterpreted the word.  In this essay, there is not only failure, but additional options: setbacks and adversity. Let's take a close look at the meaning of each.

Adversity - a situation where someone or something is opposing what you want to do or preventing you from accomplishing what you want to accomplish
Failure - when you are unable to perform to the level others expect of you, and this prevents you from achieving a certain result
Setback - a reversal or check in progress (I took this from here

As can be seen clearly from the definition, there are a lot of choices here. You could write about when a great accomplishment was put at risk at one step along the way.  You could write about a failure where the result was truly negative, but the resulting learning allowed you to achieve something better later on.  You could write about a severe difficulty encountered along the road towards a victory.  The point is to consider all options when brainstorming possible topics. In the end, be sure your story fits one element from the question: adversity, failure, or setback.

2) Even if a good topic is chosen, the first draft of the story usually fails to show any hint of adversity, failure, or setback.

When I read a weak first draft of a failure essay, the weakness can usually be traced to one of a few things:  a) the author uses "we" instead of "I", so it doesn't really look like they themselves failed at anything at all (instead it looks like the anonymous group, not the author of the essay, failed) or b) the author presents a terrific, big failure - but then fails to describe a clear learning from it that is applied later on.  Be sure to avoid both mistakes when choosing your story and writing initial drafts.  Be sure as well to write about yourself - it is okay to have a team story, as long as you personalize elements of the failure, setback or adversity, and are clear about what you learned from it.  

Once you're sure you've got a great topic, tell the story and personalize it as best as you can.  What was the situation, and what was your particular role?  What happened that was not desirable and to what extent was this your responsibility?  In other words, did you fail, or did you encounter adversity or a setback? Be clear about the next steps: how did you react, and what did you do?  Maybe you assessed the situation, or maybe you got advice.  In any case, be clear how you were proactive in turning the situation around.  Show what you did to make a positive outcome, and show also in the end that you are able to reflect by describing what you learned about the experience.

4. (Optional) Please provide any additional insight or information that you have not addressed elsewhere that may be helpful in reviewing your application (e.g., unusual choice of evaluators, weaknesses in academic performance, unexplained job gaps or changes, etc.). Complete this question only if you feel your candidacy is not fully represented by this application.

The example topics offered in this optional essay (unusual choice of evaluators, etc) are all examples of negative elements of your application that you feel may need to be explained.  And to be sure, if you feel your application has such a negative element, you should consider explaining it here.  But beyond this, if you can't think of anything bad that warrants explanation, I'd include another element, something positive, that reveals another strength or uniqueness about you.  Be sure though, as the question says, to not use this optional essay to simply repeat something that appears elsewhere in your application.

5. (To be completed by all reapplicants) How have you strengthened your candidacy since you last applied? Please reflect on how you have grown personally and professionally.

They key here is growth, and it is important if you were rejected previously that you be able to demonstrate improvement since that time.  Consider what weaknesses existed in your previous application, and what you have done to address them. Make sure those examples of improvement are clearly shown in this essay. Perhaps you took on a role of more significance or with more individual responsibility at work. Maybe you took a course in a subject that you were not strong at, or maybe you got involved in something outside of your work, where you had previously not done much at all. Whatever the case, demonstrate not only the activity, but also what you have learned, and how you have benefitted and grown, from the experience. I always think that the very best examples will be things you have initiated, or set out to do, rather than things that have happened to you.

Finally, you want to demonstrate not only improvement, but also how this improvement has strengthened your candidacy. How do these changes make you a better prospective MBA student? How will these new experiences help you to better contribute to your peers at Tuck? Be clear as to how the changes you have initiated have allowed you to position yourself as someone who can make a difference at Tuck.

John Couke