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The MIT Sloan School of Management bucks conventionality this admissions season and has added to the word count for its application essays—moving from a maximum of 1,000 words to 1,250. The school’s first essay question remains the same as last year’s, but its second essay prompt presents an interesting challenge in that the admissions committee asks you to do exactly what it does not want you to do in reality: write your own recommendation letter. At least in this case, the school is allowing you to do so in the light of day. And…MIT is back with its quirky optional essay, which is only “kind of” optional, as we note. Our analysis follows…
Essay 1: The mission of the MIT Sloan School of Management is to develop principled, innovative leaders who improve the world and to generate ideas that advance management practice. Discuss how you will contribute toward advancing the mission based on examples from your past work and activities. (500 words or fewer)
You may read this essay question and think, “Can I really provide examples that will lead someone to conclude that I ‘improve the world’ or ‘generate ideas that advance management practice’?” That indeed sounds like a tall order, but this essay prompt is not as daunting as it may seem, because the focus is on the future. Sloan’s MBA admissions committee is asking you to draw on past experience to show that you are prepared to support the school’s mission going forward. Rather than fretting about the latter part of the question, focus on the first part, and provide examples of how you have displayed principled or innovative leadership.
The phrasing of the question is broad enough that your examples can come from the professional, community or personal sphere. All these areas are equally valid. What is important is that you offer a clear narrative, so that your reader is able to truly visualize your actions and motivations. The admissions committee wants to learn about you through your stories, not hear platitudes about management. You might share two different anecdotes and then connect them both to the school’s mission at the end of your essay. Or you could present two dissimilar anecdotes that each mesh with the mission in their own way. Whatever your approach, remember to clearly link your stories to the school’s goal statement. Before your hands even touch the keyboard, really contemplate how your experiences relate to that mission.
Essay 2: Write a professional letter of recommendation on behalf of yourself. Answer the following questions as if you were your most recent supervisor recommending yourself for admission to the MIT Sloan MBA Program: (750 words or fewer)
- How long and in what capacity have you known the applicant?
- How does the applicant stand out from others in a similar capacity?
- Please give an example of the applicant’s impact on a person, group, or organization.
- Please give a representative example of how the applicant interacts with other people.
- Which of the applicant’s personal or professional characteristics would you change?
- Please tell us anything else you think we should know about this applicant.
Sloan presents an interesting challenge in this essay… err… letter of recommendation. In 750 words, you must answer all the questions presented but do so in a way that is not so systematic that you are unable to create your own structure and stand out as an individual. Note that you do not have to answer these questions in any particular order or give equal emphasis to each query. In general, we recommend that you avoid clichés by not starting or finishing your essay with a statement like “I emphatically endorse this candidate for a place in the Sloan MBA class.”
Before you begin writing, consider actually meeting with your supervisor to discuss your accomplishments—in fact, you should already be doing this in preparation for the recommendation(s) he/she is going to write. You will benefit from this individual’s objective thoughts about your performance, and that objective voice will be crucial. The one thing you do not want to do is brag for 750 words. Instead, strike a humble tone and let your accomplishments speak for you. Here we offer two examples, one bad and one good:
Bad: “Jeremy is an excellent analyst, and we have given him more and more responsibility since he joined our firm. We promoted him early, because he is sharp analytically and determined to win—he will do anything within the law and ethical principles to get an informational edge. We know that he will never say ‘die’ and will push himself until our investment committee is satisfied. This is a rare quality, and one we admire in him.”
Although this statement initially seems glowing, in fact, it is devoid of meaning or effectiveness, because absolutely no evidence is presented of any accomplishments—no context is provided for what “Jeremy” has done and how his actions set him apart from others. Basically, this (terrible) writer has bragged and not backed up his claims. Instead, consider a more modest approach, where the accomplishments do the talking and the reader can easily surmise that he is reading about someone special…
Good: “Before we purchased shares in Lululemon, Jeremy volunteered to visit as many locations as we would permit. He ultimately traveled to 47 locations, reporting on everything from inventory levels to the size of signage. We incorporated his firsthand experiential data into our report and made a purchase with greater confidence. Jeremy’s determination was noted in his review and led to a promotion ahead of schedule.”
As you write your letter, consistently provide examples of your actions that illustrate your assertions. This is the key to maintaining the humility necessary in writing an effective essay.
Many candidates will likely be confused by the question about which characteristics they would “change.” Simply think honestly about your weaknesses and write about them forthrightly and with candor. Applicants typically make one of two mistakes when discussing weaknesses, and both involve going to extremes—they either completely refuse to acknowledge any weaknesses at all or are almost insanely critical of themselves in an effort to convey (brutal) honesty. Instead, identify an attribute you feel could use improvement, briefly discuss how the problem area has manifest and then explain how “the employee” has worked to change this trait. Writing this portion should actually be a little painful or uncomfortable. If you are too easy on yourself, the admissions committee will conclude that you do not have the personal strength to evaluate areas for change and growth. And who wants a manager who is incapable of growing?
Optional Question: The Admissions Committee invites you to share anything else you would like us to know about you, in any format. If you choose to use a multimedia format, please host the information on a website and provide us the URL.
Don’t we all just love a blank page?! (Note the sarcasm.) Answering this question is not absolutely necessary, but doing so is probably wise. How can you know for sure whether you need to? Before you start writing your response to any of the school’s essay questions, brainstorm thoroughly and create a list of experiences and aspects of your candidacy that you believe are important for the admissions committee to know about you. Then, as you contemplate and craft your essays for the first two questions, cross the ideas you choose off your list of potential stories and points. If a few items remain on your list that you believe are crucial to reveal to the admissions committee, then you should most likely write this “essay.”
The admissions committee states that you may use any format for this submission, but do not feel that you must use some form of multimedia—and certainly do not just copy and paste your creative essay for NYU Stern or your Chicago Booth PowerPoint. After you have brainstormed and determined what you want to say as an applicant—what you feel the admissions committee must understand about you—determine an appropriate vehicle that matches your personality and message. That vehicle just might be another conventional essay. The key is to effectively convey additional information that highlights your personality, not to win an Oscar.