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We imagine that any applicants to the MIT Sloan School of Management this year who were familiar with the school’s essay questions for last year breathed a huge sigh of relief when they saw that the “write your own recommendation letter” prompt had disappeared. However, after enjoying that sigh of relief, they probably found themselves a little perplexed—what happened to all the essays? Yes, MIT Sloan seems to have made its essays disappear… or did it? In some ways, candidates are still facing the possibility of writing three essays, though one is only required of candidates who are invited to interview, and another is “optional.” Why is “optional” in quotation marks? Well, we expect that with just 500 words in which to discuss a single recent accomplishment, most applicants will feel that they have a lot more to say, and the optional essay is the only place left to say it!
Our analysis follows…
We have one required essay at the time of submission: 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)
We must start our analysis of this question by focusing on the word “recent.” What does recent mean in this context? We would presume that it generally means within the past year, but given that MIT Sloan does not explicitly say “within the past year,” you can of course use your discretion. The key here is that the admissions committee wants to learn about the contemporary version of you, so you should avoid hearkening too far back in your professional history, because then you would be discussing a version of yourself that you no longer are. In short, Sloan wants to hear about an experience that reflects your current abilities.
With only 500 words to tell your story, you do not have space to “wind up” your narrative by offering a lengthy introduction. Just launch right into your story, and let it do the work for you. From the beginning, focus on explaining what you did rather than offering broad statements about how you were performing. Your job is to make an impression on your reader, and this is directly tied to the reader’s ability to visualize what you have achieved. If your essay is just a collection of declarative statements—“I am an effective leader because I take charge of challenging situations”—your admissions reader will have no proof that you are in fact what you say you are. The details you provide will serve as this necessary evidence.
One of MIT Sloan’s questions within this prompt is particularly crucial: “What hurdles did you encounter?” If you faced no obstacles along your path to success, then your accomplishment was not really much of a success after all, because you did not have to earn it. As you write your narrative, show that you pushed yourself and overcame challenges—that you fought for your win. If your story has no arc, you will not ultimately reveal much about your character. Of course, your story should not be about fighting people but about contending with challenges, whether timing, budgetary, interpersonal, or otherwise. You do not need to have been radical in your approach to overcoming difficulties and setbacks, but showing that you were creative or industrious is recommended. For this essay, the path to achievement is just as important as the achievement itself.
A second (short-answer) question will be asked of those invited to interview: 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. Please share with us something about your past that aligns with this mission. (250 words or fewer)
A word to the wise: carefully consider this question as you write your other essay(s). You do not want to submit your other essay(s), receive an invitation to interview, and then discover that you have no compelling stories left to share for this essay because you have already used them all—perhaps via the optional essay, in particular. Thinking optimistically, you will need to reserve this space for later. In short, you are applying to MIT Sloan with the intention of being accepted, so anticipate that you will get that interview invitation along the way.
Now, you may read this essay question and think, “Can I really provide an anecdote 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 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—again!—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. As you share your story, remember to connect it to the school’s mission at the end of your essay, clearly linking your stories to the school’s goal statement. Before your hands even touch the keyboard, really contemplate how your experiences relate to that mission.
We will also continue to ask the open-ended, 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.”
Sloan’s admissions committee states that you may use any format for this submission. Perhaps in expectation that many applicants will choose to submit a video, an admissions representative specified that such recordings should be no longer than one minute. (If you would like to see how others have approached this option, simply search YouTube for “MIT Optional Essay,” and you will find numerous past submissions.) That said, however, 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. Start by brainstorming and determining what you want to say as an applicant—what you feel the admissions committee really needs to understand about you—and then decide which vehicle most appropriately 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. And keep in mind that Sloan itself has noted that a strong optional essay can serve to differentiate two similarly competitive applicants, but it alone cannot get a weak candidate in.
And for a thorough exploration of the MIT Sloan 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.
The Next Step—Mastering Your MIT Sloan Interview: Many MBA candidates find admissions interviews stressful and intimidating, but mastering this important element of the application process is definitely possible—the key is informed preparation. And, on your way to this high level of preparation, we offer our free Interview Primers to spur you along! Download your free copy of the MIT Sloan School of Management Interview Primer today.