What follows is my analysis of the 2015-16 MIT Sloan essay topics.
The school's own instructions: We are interested in learning more about how you work, think, and act. In your response, please describe in detail what you thought, felt, said, and did.
Essay 1: Tell us about a recent success you had: How did you accomplish this? Who else was involved? What hurdles did you encounter? What type of impact did this have? (500 words or fewer).
This question seems to be a typical accomplishment story. However, you need to make sure that your accomplishment story contains the following things:
- the involvement of others
- at least one hurdle (challenge/difficulty/obstacle) faced along the way
- the resulting impact of this accomplishment on something and/or someone
- details about what you thought, felt, said and did
Note that the example can be personal or professional. In terms of selecting a topic, again the story you choose should contain all of these elements. In addition, to that, I’d also encourage you to consider choosing a story where your role was central, and one where the impact on a person or organisation is strong and clear.
I’d also encourage you to choose a recent episode. In the past the instructions for MIT Sloan essays used to include the direction that you limit your story to one that has occurred within the past 3 years. This requirement is now gone, however I would encourage applicants to still consider a recent story. The reason for this is in the “thought, felt, said, did” details asked for.
The approach MIT takes to outlining their expectations of your essay is different from other schools. No other MBA program asks for the specifics about what you thought, felt, said and did within the context of a particular story. The reason why? I used to attend MIT information sessions, and whenever I did, I always heard that “we can evaluate your potential to contribute as a global leader based on the way you handled a recent episode”. In other words, by offering a detailed (and recent) example of how you dealt with others, how you communicated your ideas, how you reacted to difficulty, and how you managed to make an accomplishment, you are giving your reader a window into how you act, and act with others. They are then evaluating your potential to be successful in the future (and of course fit in well in their program) based on this.
Here’s some tips on organising that initial draft.
Begin by summarising the accomplishment. Not everyone will tell you to do this but I feel it is a good way to kick off your story. So offer a 1-sentence summary of the accomplishment and it’s impact.
The next steps I would take is the organize your story use MIT’s own STAR model - advice they give / have given on how to tell a story (particularly for behavioral interview questions, but also for storytelling in general):
S - situation
T - task
A - action
R - result
This is a logical way to tell a story, and an easy way to organise your draft. After you have gone through these steps, add one more paragraph emphasising the learning or takeaway of this story for you. How did you develop from this experience? What did you learn? I think that a bit of reflection at the end of a story is a good thing, and shows your capability to grow from your experiences.
Once you have finished these steps and have arrived at a first draft, read it. It doesn’t matter how long it is. I think that a first draft that is 800-1,200 words is perfectly acceptable. Cutting volume and achieving their word limitation will come later. As you read it, ensure that the details (what did you think, feel, say and do?) are coming through. The reader should be able to observe how you deal with situations and others through these details.
Finishing this essay will involve making some tough choices about what contents need to stay and what can be cut. I’d encourage you to reach out and get help on this. A third party, objective perspective is crucial to a real understanding of just how successfully you are conveying what you intend to.
Optional: The Admissions Committee invites you to share anything else you would like us to know about you, in any format.
An essay will likely be the most popular format, but don't let that stop you from trying something a bit more creative as long as it helps you to get across whatever message you are aiming for here.
In terms of that message, start by asking yourself if there are any weaknesses or other such things you feel may need to be explained here, such as a relatively low GPA across the undergraduate degree or during one year of university. If you do this, try to emphasize the positive. You could, for instance, describe what were doing at the time (a leadership role in an extra-curricular? working to pay off tuition? both?) and how the learning from the activity was relevant and important to you.
Other than that, look to your response to the essay above and anything you’ve already decided to put in this optional essay and ask yourself if you've offered a good balance between work and non-work examples. If you haven't, and for instance have emphasized professional experience, then consider introducing your extra-curricular activities here. MIT leans towards recent examples, and that's always good advice to follow, but the question here does offer a lot more freedom, so something from more than three years ago could be considered a topic as long as you detail the takeaway or impact or whatever makes the experience still relevant today.
Finally, some may use this optional essay as an opportunity to detail the specific reasons they feel MIT offers the best fit for them, given their past and their future. If this is the route you have chosen, read my article on demonstrating fit with an MBA program to ensure your examples are as concise as possible.
If you do go with an essay to answer this question it appears there is no word limit - so use 500 words (their limit on other essays) as your rough guideline maximum here, while noting that shorter may in fact be better. MIT optional essays used to be about 250 words - so obviously conciseness is valued. This is not a hard-and-fast rule - I’ve read great essays that were longer - but is certainly worth considering.
Closing Thoughts: Mind and Hand
In closing, let me remind readers of the MIT slogan "MInd and Hand". In doing so I am not proposing that this theme be digested and then pasted all over your essays, nor am I saying that "because MIT is looking for this kind of thing, you need to write about it no matter what your background is". In fact I often propose the opposite - rather than writing what you think they're looking for you're always better off representing what makes you exceptional on its own terms. Having said this, the concept of Mind and Hand is the ability to bring practical application to learned things, and to me, this defines what it takes to be successful not only during the MBA, but also in applying the experience to challenges you'll face in the future. Read here for an interesting (if slightly older) take on this, and go here for a deeper reading on this topic.