Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Sloan) Essay Analysis, 2012–2013

The MIT Sloan School of Management has tweaked all of its essay questions this year and has dropped one question entirely, going with what appears to be a trend this application season toward giving business school candidates less opportunity to provide qualitative information about themselves. Many applicants will be disappointed to see that Sloan’s quirky “cover letter” essay prompt remains. We will start our analysis there…

Cover Letter (up to 500 words)

Please prepare a cover letter seeking a place in the MIT Sloan MBA program. Your letter should describe your accomplishments, address any extenuating circumstances that may apply to your application, and conform to standard business correspondence. Your letter should be addressed to Mr. Rod Garcia, Senior Director of Admissions.

You will note that unlike most schools, Sloan does not ask its applicants to discuss either future goals or “why Sloan.” This is not an oversight! In keeping with its conviction that past behavior is the best predictor of future success, Sloan wants candidates to emphasize their past actions and thought processes in their essays, rather than their long-term aspirations. In fact, in an interview with Fifteen, the MIT Sloan newspaper, Director of MBA Admissions Rod Garcia explained that the “admissions committee does not explicitly ask applicants for their future goals to prevent candidates from telling stories that they think the admissions committee wants to hear.” Garcia added, “That’s why we don’t ask the ‘Why Now?,’ ‘Why MBA?,’ and ‘Why Sloan?’ type of questions that every other business school asks because these questions are leading questions, i.e. they lead the interviewees to tell the interviewer what the interviewer wants to hear. So, to go around this trickery, we ask candidates to talk to us about past examples instead.”

Our advice?  Mention your goals only briefly.  Instead of discussing the goals themselves in great detail, focus more on explaining how, based on your past, you reached the conclusion that you need an MBA.  That answer explains “why you are seeking a spot” at MIT.  Similarly, when explaining “why Sloan”, keep your statement(s) brief, relevant and specific.

Now that we have discussed what you should not do, let us discuss what you should do. The admissions committee asks that you describe your accomplishments, thereby providing an open-ended opportunity for you to tell a more complete story about yourself. The school’s other two essay prompts, by contrast, are rather narrow and require you to focus on a single instance. Here, you can delve into experiences and themes in your life that define who you are and how you have made an impact on others. We do believe that you should include at least one professional accomplishment, but you can also discuss personal and extracurricular accomplishments to provide a more well-rounded presentation of what you have to offer. However, be sure that you discuss all of your chosen stories thematically and that you do not just offer a boring career summary or a repetition of your resume.

If you have any extenuating circumstances in your candidacy, you should use this opportunity to address them, but certainly do not devote the entire 500 words allotted to explaining, for example, why your GMAT score is lower than expected. Instead, you should briefly (very briefly) mention the issue and then assert that you have strengths in other areas and are confident that you can perform in Sloan’s rigorous academic environment. Whatever you do, do not dwell on your “extenuating circumstances,” make excuses for them or let them overwhelm your accomplishments in this essay.

Although Sloan’s cover letter differs in some ways from a typical Personal Statement, some fundamentals still apply. We therefore suggest that you consult our mbaMission Personal Statement Guide—which we offer free of charge —before writing this essay for Sloan. Please feel free to download your copy today.


From Sloan’s admissions committee: “We are interested in learning more about how you work, think, and act. For each essay, please provide a brief overview of the situation followed by a detailed description of your response. Please limit the experiences you discuss to those which have occurred in the past three years. In each of the essays, please describe in detail what you thought, felt, said, and did.”

Essay 1: Please describe a time when you had to convince a person or a group of your idea. (500 words or fewer, limited to one page)

We appreciate that the admissions committee instructs you to discuss “what you thought, felt, said and did,” because this lends itself well to storytelling, the approach we always advise candidates to take with respect to their essays. In writing this essay, you will need to draw a stark relief between your position/view and someone else’s. After all, you cannot effectively demonstrate that you have convinced someone of something unless you show that a real gap existed between your original standpoints.

After clearly delineating the chasm between the views, you must explain not only the means by which you determined to bridge it—whether through diplomacy, offering incentives, a rousing speech, etc.—but also your reasoning behind choosing this approach. The reader will need to see a direct cause-and-effect relationship between your actions and the reactions of others, and to understand that your chosen course brought results.

Essay 2: Please describe a time when you overcame a personal setback. (500 words or fewer, limited to one page)

Many candidates will read this essay prompt and lament, “Another failure essay…” As we frequently note in our essay analyses, you should not be hesitant to discuss a failure. After all, the admissions committee can learn a great deal from stories of redemption. That said, the phrase “personal setback” encompasses failure, but it extends even more broadly. If, for example, regulation resulted in your employer going broke and you losing your job, this cannot be considered a “failure” on your part, because the regulation and subsequent bankruptcy “happened” to you—you did not cause or trigger either event. In this example, your job loss would be qualified as a setback, which would be an acceptable topic to discuss in this essay.

The key to writing about a setback is showing that you took a very hard knock to start. You will need to create for your reader a sense of excitement or positivity about the central situation or opportunity and then show that this situation/opportunity was completely derailed. So, using our example of the candidate who lost his job when a regulator shut down the business, for his essay to have impact, he would need to convey more than that he simply worked at the company and instead show that he was truly thriving there and moving toward future opportunities. The reader needs to comprehend that you were in a dynamic situation with marked forward momentum and so would be deeply disappointed to read about your ultimate setback. Once you have achieved this, you must demonstrate that you were then able to rise and overcome. Redeeming yourself is of the utmost importance in this essay—you must show how you picked yourself up, charted a new course and rose above where you previously stood (or earnestly accepted a reality and at least displayed promise of achieving more). The reader must clearly conclude from your story that lessons were learned and that this was a valuable growth experience.

Supplemental Information (Optional)

The Admissions Committee invites you to share anything else you would like us or your future classmates to know about you. This may be in written or multimedia format. Please do not use Flash Media Player, and include a URL where it can be accessed online. Written essays should be 300 words or fewer. 

With this essay prompt, we want you to narrow in on the phrase “future classmates.” If you choose to submit a response, you should not use this opportunity to discuss a problematic GPA or any other issue with your candidacy, as one would typically do in an optional essay. Although your audience is the admissions committee, you need to write or produce your submission as though you are addressing your future classmates instead.

To begin, take an inventory of sorts of what the admissions committee knows about you thus far from the other parts of your application. What else is important for the school to know about now? What defines you and your character that has not been addressed elsewhere?

Most candidates who respond to this prompt will focus on distinct life experiences and most likely, specific passions. We have noted in the past that when you discuss a passion, you should not talk about something that is a mere hobby. You must demonstrate that you are truly “possessed” by the activity and have an inordinate dedication to it for it to be considered a passion. Alternatively, you could share the story of a distinct life experience, such as a narrow and powerful incident within a meaningful community endeavor or the way you integrated yourself into a developing country while living abroad. Remember, though, that whatever you choose to discuss, you should make sure that it reflects back on who you are as a unique individual and that you are crucial to the narrative. (Take care not to get caught up discussing the community you helped, for example.)

You do not need to choose the multimedia option here, but we suspect that many applicants will feel compelled to do so. We strongly encourage you not to use the multimedia option just to use it. Ask yourself first whether this option will help in some way to better convey a sense of your character and whether you will come across well through multimedia. Do not ignore that a traditional written essay is an option here or make the mistake of thinking it would not be interesting or exciting enough to be effective. Remember, the key to a successful response to this prompt is to convey information about you, so choose the medium that best accomplishes this.

For a thorough exploration of MIT Sloan’s academic program/merits, defining characteristics, crucial statistics, social life, academic environment and more, please check out the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to the MIT Sloan School of Management.

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