University of Virginia (Darden) Essay Analysis, 2009–2010

For the 2009–2010 application season, Darden has reduced the number of essay questions on its MBA application from three to just two, though the total word count remains the same at 1,000. The small number of questions means that applicants will need to exercise tighter focus to ensure that all relevant points are included.

How have the changes in the global economy over the last 18 months affected you and your plan for the future? (400 words)

Darden’s Admissions Committee undoubtedly recognizes that a higher than usual proportion of applicants this year will most likely have grappled with the issue—or at least the specter—of layoffs, unemployment or underemployment, and is responding with this head-on question. Getting the topic out into the open this way allows such applicants to address this element of their candidacies right off the bat. Most MBA admissions personnel with whom mbaMission has spoken recently have stated that what they are most curious about with regard to unemployed or laid-off candidates is what the applicant has been doing to further his/her personal or professional growth in the meantime, so this is certainly a topic that should not be overlooked.

Of course, this question is relevant not only for candidates who have had to face losing their jobs, but also for aspiring MBAs who are considering careers in the finance industry. Those applicants should explain how and why the changes in this industry have influenced their short- and/or long-term goals and their interest in or passion for the field. Those applicants who have been fortunate enough to avoid an interruption in their career thus far and do not plan to pursue a finance-related track should still have significant things to say about how their perception of the business world may have altered over the past year and a half.

All candidates may want to consider addressing the ethics angle, given that unethical behavior (e.g., predatory lending) has received much of the blame for the economic downturn. This in turn should lead in to how what one has seen and learned will play a part in what kind of leader the applicant will be in his/her career going forward. This point is particularly relevant with respect to Darden, because of the school’s long-held and intense focus on ethics in business.

Ultimately, applicants should take care not to focus too exclusively on the lessons learned and gloss over the “plans for the future” aspect of the question. The school wants to know how you will put your takeaways to good use going forward, which to some degree will also reveal how you will likely apply and benefit from the skills you will learn at Business School.

What will you contribute to an MBA program and what are your personal and professional expectations of the program you attend? (600 words)

At first glance, this question sounds rather overarching and general, and indeed, the Admissions Committee seems to be asking for candidates’ broad ideas on these points by using the phrases “an MBA program” and “the program you attend” rather than referring to Darden’s program in particular. However, the veiled follow-up question is surely “how did these lead you to choose Darden?” This is an obvious opportunity for candidates to highlight their unique qualities, experiences and abilities and to do so within the context of what makes Darden unique as well, so applicants should take the time to research—if they have not already done so—the standout characteristics of the school’s MBA program, such as the case method, the focus on general management, Learning Teams, etc.

For the second part of the question, applicants should consider their short- and long-term goals and what they need, in light of their past personal and professional experiences, from an MBA education and school that will enable them to attain these goals. Again, these needs should ideally connect to specific aspects and resources of the Darden program for this essay response to be most effective. In essence, this question is a kind of Personal Statement, so applicants may find consulting our “mbaMission Personal Statement Guide” helpful in brainstorming. We offer this guide to candidates free of charge, via our online store.  Please feel free to download your copy today.

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