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University of Virginia (Darden) Essay Analysis, 2008-2009

To the relief of candidates, Darden has changed its essay questions dramatically, now offering applicants the opportunity to reveal more of themselves. Last year, some candidates felt “pigeonholed” by having to commit to identifying themselves with one of three adjectives that Darden provided. This year, a more open-ended approach will likely be appreciated.

1. What pivotal choices have you made in your life that have influenced your decision to pursue an MBA?  (500 words)

In this essay, you would be wise not to provide a work history, but to discuss specific instances that have shaped who you are today and why you want your MBA. While your specific anecdotes may be professional, they need not be exclusively so—there is certainly room here for community and/or personal accomplishment. What is important in this essay is that you create a cause and effect relationship between these moments in time and your suitability for professional leadership.

While this question differs somewhat from typical goal statements, we nonetheless feel that some of the principles of writing a proper statement remain. So, we offer our Personal Statement Guide to you free of charge.

2. From the following categories, describe the one that has taught you the most: a creative challenge, an ethical dilemma or an experience of failure.  Why?  (250 words)

As you approach this essay, it is important that you not just take your best story and fit it to the options available. Such an approach will not fool the MBA Admissions Committee. Instead, take a step back and consider each option, carefully weighing which one gives you the opportunity to present the most compelling picture of yourself.

In terms of a “creative challenge,” you should be careful to ensure that both “creative” and “challenge” are represented in your story. Although this sounds plainly obvious, it is worth stating: any random challenge is not necessarily a creative one. Generally, the creativity will come in the form of your unique approach toward bridging a gap. In such a brief space, you will need to create a narrative about an impasse and then reveal how you solved it, illustrating your profound learning.

With respect to an ethical dilemma, you should be careful, even in 250 words, to show two equally agreeable sides to the chosen situation. Remember, you are not writing about a dilemma if one side is a natural choice. “My boss asked me to trade on inside information, but I said, ‘no’” is a classic example of an ethical issue that is not an ethical dilemma! So, once you have developed a well-balanced anecdote, you should explain how you resolved it in the way that benefited most or disadvantaged the least and then reflect on your (surprise!) profound learning.

Finally, you have the option of writing about failure—our guess is that few applicants will choose this option. Unless you failed in quite a heroic attempt to achieve something special, you will probably shy away from this essay for fear that you will be unnecessarily raising your weaknesses to the surface. We can certainly understand that, but remember, the MBA Admissions Committee is seeking to understand how you learned profoundly from an experience. So, if your failure truly taught you a great deal, you might not be among the reluctant, but might use this space to reveal an honest and mature growth experience.

3. Describe how you are a fit with the case study method.  (250 words)

Before you can answer this question, you need to be sure that you understand the case method. At Darden, the case method is not just contained to the classroom experience, where you analyze and attempt to solve a business problem (many times there is no easily identifiable or collectively acceptable solution). The Darden experience offers more and includes your learning team experience (where you examine cases before class), the cold call (when you are randomly selected to lead the case discussion), and even independent preparation (which you complete before your learning team meetings). By learning about Darden’s approach to teaching cases, you will be able to better identify with this question.

So, from there, once you understand the case method, you can connect with it on many levels—via your penchant for group work and/or debate, previous success with experiential learning, track record of nurturing talent and educating/mentoring others, comfort with uncertain and unpredictable outcomes, etc. While there is no “right” answer (much like in a case), it is important that you create a clear connection between your experiences and your potential success in a case environment.

Darden offers a very particular experience; through this question, they are “weeding out” those who may not know what they are in for in terms of group demands, a willingness to participate in class and more. You will need to prove that you truly understand.  




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