One of the clearest trends in MBA admissions over the past year has been the decreasing amount of space applicants are given to tell their story in the form of essays. Many programs have either cut the number of required essays, or decreased the word limitation for them, or both. One thing to keep in mind when considering the amount of writing a school allows you to provide about yourself is that some applications have essays within the application, beyond the main application essays, and that overall, there's a lot of space to tell your most important stories. One great example of this is application for the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge.
A quick look at the Judge MBA admissions pages reveals the main application essays required as a part of their application, and this is a good place to begin.
Main Application Essays:
1. What did you learn from your most spectacular failure? (200 words)
Two things need to be considered here - you need to write about a real, actual failure that is your own, and in addition to that, you need to show a significant learning from this experience, as well as how you applied and benefitted from that learning. Some may consider a non-work related episode if only because the entire set of Cambridge application essays tends toward encouraging stories about working experiences.
2. What are your short and long term career objectives? What skills/characteristics do you already have that will help you to achieve them? What do you hope to gain from the degree and how do you feel it will help you achieve the career objectives you have? (please do not exceed 500 words)
This is a standard goals essay where you need to state what you wish to do in the future. skills you already have that are relevant to these goals, areas in which you need to focus on in an MBA program and how Cambridge is the best choice for you. You may be writing similar essays for other schools, but be sure to be specific as to what it is about Cambridge that is relevant to the gap between your current skill set and the one needed to attain the goals you've set out for yourself.
3. If you could change one thing about your current organisation, what would you make different? How would you overcome obstacles to this change, and what impact would this change have in the short-term and long-term? (300 words)
If you plan to return to your organization upon completing the MBA, you may consider writing about a topic that is close to your goals, or even the detail behind your actual short-term. Be clear about what you would do and how your company would be impacted as a result. What to do then if this is an organization to which you don't plan to return? Don't use this essay as an opportunity to complain. Instead, use it as an opportunity to show your analysis ability and potential to make change in the future. Maybe for instance your current organization has struggled with the idea to expand globally, despite declining domestic business opportunities. Be clear as to how you could overcome this challenges, as well as how you'd leverage your strengths (and those of your company) to grow overseas business.
One last note on essay 3 - for most "your current organization" is the company for which you work. But freelancers or others who may divide their time between a job and a significant volunteer activity (for instance) there may be some leeway in interpreting this question.
These three essays give the applicant 1,000 words about a failure, one thing you'd change about your organization, and a personal statement. This is, relatively speaking, a significant amount of writing space given the shrinking applications of other MBA programs. A close look at their application however reveals that there are a lot of other opportunities to tell your story. In fact, the entire application contains about 1,900 words of space you can use to reveal all that is great about you. I use "about" here because some of the additional essays offer a character limit in addition to the word count limit. Let's take a look at the additional application essays. They can be found in two places: the work experience and the additional information sections of the Cambridge MBA application.
Work Experience section:
Previous Roles/Promotions and Dates within your current company (1000 character limit)
Find space to show the nature of former positions, as well as reasons for any promotions, particularly for ones based on your accomplishments. Offer a brief translation for job titles that may be confusing or vague in order to ensure that you are demonstrating to the fullest the work you were responsible for.
Describe your primary job responsibilities; 1) type and size of internal and external teams with which you work or supervise 2) type and number of clients or projects you manage; 3) size of budget or revenue for which you are responsible; 4) international experience or exposure (150 word limit) (1000 character limit)
This is an opportunity to describe your current role within your organization and, importantly, the scope of what you do and how it affects others in your organization. I'd include project-based supervision in #1, rather than only "official" subordinates for whom you are responsible. In addition, for the international experience section, aim to be as inclusive as you can, rather than leaving this part blank or assuming that your examples are not significant. If you aren't sure, list anything that comes to mind and then get someone to check and give you feedback on your experiences.
What is your most significant challenge within your current company? (1000 character limit)
This should not be a re-write of main application essay 2, although thematically it may be similar. To rephrase the question, consider this: what is the biggest difficulty or roadblock towards the successful completion of your current goals? A good essay will include examples of how you are currently attempting to address this roadblock or difficulty.
What is your most significant accomplishment within your current company? (1000 character limit)
This is a "top of the resume" line item that demonstrates the biggest impact you have had in your organization. Make sure the impact is clear and substantial, and make sure too that this is truly your accomplishment - not someone else's. If you are torn between more than one option and are wondering which one might be best, one thing to consider is the transferable skills (i.e. strengths that are relevant to your goals) that you noted in the second of the main application essays. If leadership is something you've got that you'll be relying on in the future, then the story that best shows that might work well here.
Additional Information section:
Please provide information on any aspect of your candidacy that requires further explanation, or information that you would like the Admissions Committee to know (300 word limit). (and 2,000 character limit in the box)
I divide optional essays into two types: ones for which you should only address glaring weaknesses in your application, and others that allow you to address another strength to your application you couldn't mention in other essays. This essay definitely falls into the latter category, offering you a valuable chance to delve into a new area. As most of the application is heavily work-related (note that 4 of the 8 essays are included in the working experience section) this will be for many a good opportunity to write about a significant extra-curricular activity. If you choose this route, choose something to which you have shown a strong level of devotion to, otherwise it may be difficult for the reader to learn much about you. In addition, be clear as to why you enjoy this activity, and how you have benefitted from your experience with it.
The Entire Essay Set:
One thing that I always do, and I encourage anyone out there to do as well, is clear the desk, turn off the phone, and read through your completed essay set and application from start to finish. Do this and then ask yourself what you've learned about this applicant to b-school. Is their future direction clearly laid out? Do they have what it takes to be successful in the future? Do you know what they do at work, and outside of it? Are they interesting? These are the questions I ask myself when I read a finished application. I encourage you to do the same, or at the very least seek out someone who'll do this for you.