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In recent years, Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business has offered its applicants one required essay question that was in many ways an open invitation to share whatever they felt was most important for the admissions committee to know about them. For this season, however, the school has made a big change in its approach. Candidates still only have to submit one 300- to 350-word essay, but they must now choose from three different essay prompts, and the scope of those prompts is rather narrow, comparatively. Any applicants who feel they need to share additional information can do so via the optional essay, which is sufficiently broad to accommodate essays about more than just problem areas in one’s candidacy (if executed effectively). Our full analysis of the program’s revamped essay prompts follows.
At Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School, we love to tell our story. Below is your chance to tell yours. Please select only ONE of the options below to complete the essay requirement (maximum 300–350 words).
Option #1: Carnegie Mellon University is an institution that never stops looking and moving ahead, pioneering the next way forward with technology, business and research to answer questions big and small. Personally or professionally, in what way have you been a pioneer?
Tepper, like all top MBA programs, seeks candidates who have ambition, a burning desire to move forward and effect change in business and the world. Applying to business school is already a strong indicator of this kind of mind-set and passion, but the admissions committee wants to know that you have more than just a fire in your belly, so to speak, and that this attitude is authentically part of who you are. So to prove this, you need to share an experience from your past that evidences it. Showing that you have already—and proactively—taken steps to forge a new path or uncover a new option in a specific context demonstrates for the school that you possess the personality and drive necessary to identify novel opportunities and to pursue them with determination and, ultimately, success.
As with many application essays, we recommend taking a narrative approach here. Set the stage by introducing the situation you encountered that inspired you to take action. Explain what your new spin on that situation was and your thought process. Where did your idea come from? Why did you believe pursuing it was the right course of action? How did you develop your plan for your pioneering idea? What results did you envision? Then, of course, discuss the actions you took and the outcome of the situation. By clearly outlining the entire situation so that the admissions reader can follow the progression and understand your thinking at each stage, you will establish that you indeed possess the kind of thoughtful enthusiasm and drive the school is seeking.
Although Tepper does not specifically ask you to share what you learned from the situation, showing that you naturally reflect on your actions and achievements in such a way as to educate and equip yourself for future incidents is a good idea, if space allows. Doing so can serve as evidence of your maturity and self-awareness. Just be sure to restrict yourself to only a sentence or two.
Option #2: Amidst the ambiguous and unchartered nature of change, Carnegie Mellon University students and alumni rise above to envision and create. Discuss how you have anticipated change in your professional life. In what ways did you effectively collaborate to create your desired outcome?
If you choose to respond to this essay prompt, one of your goals will be to show that you are a thoughtful, forward-looking individual who carefully processes information. We will assume to start that you are applying to business school with a plan in mind and not for a shallow reason—not because you think you are supposed to or just to follow in a parent’s footsteps, and definitely not because you do not know what else to do at this juncture in your life! And if that is true, we then also assume that you have considered your options along with potential setbacks and challenges and that you are ready to face them if they arise. You do your research and understand the kind of preparation and investment—time, energy, thought, etc.—that achieving one’s goals requires. And if this is true, then we can assume that this is not a brand new mind-set you just developed in time to apply to business school, so you must naturally approach key moments and decisions in your life with this attitude.
You therefore should have at least a few illustrative stories from your past of times when you knew an inflection point of some kind was in your future and planned to navigate it in a way that would move you in the direction of your professional ambitions. Perhaps you learned that an opportunity for promotion would soon be available at your company, so you spoke with your supervisor about how to best position yourself for consideration for the role. Or you sought out courses that would hone your skills in a certain area because you wanted to target a new job or project. Sharing such moments with the admissions committee will help prove that you can and will do so again in the future, not only in the Tepper MBA program but also in your professional life after graduation.
Note that of the three essay options Tepper offers this year, this is the only one that specifies that you must discuss a career-related story. Also, do not overlook the word “collaborate” in the final line of the prompt. Very often in life—and we would say, particularly in business—success is not a one-man (or one-woman) show. Sometimes the best outcomes require input from and effective teamwork among multiple people. Tepper seems to be making a quiet nod to this idea and inviting you to explain how you have called upon others as you have progressed through your career to date.
Option #3: At Carnegie Mellon University, our difference is what we imagine for the world and how we answer its challenges. What impact have you had on the world around you?
At mbaMission, we of course believe that today’s MBA students will be the individuals leading organizations and spearheading innovation in the years ahead—effectively changing the world with their ideas and decisions. With this prompt, Tepper is interested in learning how much of this instinct and drive you already possess and how you have applied it thus far in your life. The school does not specify whether you should focus on your personal life or your career, so consider all your options from both realms as you brainstorm, and keep in mind that “world” does not have to be taken literally (note that the exact phrase is “world around you”). You could, for example, have affected one person in a truly profound way, perhaps by teaching an adult to read, which opened the door for him/her to get a better job, gain citizenship, or apply to college. You might have had a meaningful impact on a group, such as by motivating a team of coworkers to overcome an obstacle and achieve an important goal for the company. Or perhaps you affected a community, maybe by arranging a fund-raiser to create or revive a local park or activity center that in turn improved the lives of the area’s residents.
A narrative approach will unquestionably be a good option for this essay. Introduce the situation you encountered. Explain what (or perhaps who) inspired you to step forward, and describe your thought process as you considered your options. Discuss how you put your intentions/plan into action, and then detail the outcome. Most importantly, clarify the extended results of your efforts. This is the “impact” part of the experience and therefore the most crucial element of your response for the school—demonstrating that the outcome had a sustained effect on others.
Optional Essay: Use this essay to convey important information that you may not have otherwise been able to convey. This may include unexplained resume gaps, context for recommender selection, etc. If you are a re-applicant, explain how your candidacy has strengthened since your last application.
Tepper’s optional essay prompt is somewhat broad in the sense that it does not demand that you discuss only problem areas in your candidacy. That said, the second line of the prompt does seem to imply that the admissions committee expects the essay to be used in this way. If an element of your profile would benefit from further explanation—such as a poor grade or overall GPA, a low GMAT or GRE score, or a legal or disciplinary issue—this is your opportunity to address it and answer any related questions an admissions officer might have. We caution you against simply trying to fill this space because you fear that not doing so would somehow count against you, and do not interpret this as a blank-slate invitation to dump every bit of remaining information about yourself that you feel the school is lacking or to offer a few anecdotes you were unable to use in your required essay. Although no word limit is stipulated, be mindful that by submitting a second essay, you are making a claim on an (undoubtedly very busy) admissions representative’s time, so you be sure that what you have written is worth the additional resources and effort. For more guidance, see our mbaMission Optional Essays Guide, in which we offer detailed advice (along with multiple examples) on when and how to take advantage of the optional essay.
If you are a reapplicant, this essay is pretty straightforward. Whether you have improved your academic record, received a promotion, begun a new and exciting project, increased your community involvement, or taken on some sort of personal challenge, the key to success with this essay is conveying a very deliberate path of achievement. Tepper wants to know that you have been actively striving to improve yourself and your profile, and that you have seized opportunities during the previous year to do so, because a Tepper MBA is vital to you. The responses to this essay question will vary greatly from one candidate to the next, because each person’s needs and experiences differ. We are more than happy to provide one-on-one assistance with this highly personal essay to ensure that your efforts over the past year are presented in the best light possible.