*Please note: You are viewing an essay analysis from the 2018-2019 admissions cycle. Click here to view our collection of essay analyses for the current admissions season.
For this application season, the University of Southern California (USC) Marshall School of Business is largely maintaining the same application essay approach and prompts it used last year, with just some small tweaks. For the first (mini) essay, applicants must detail their immediate short-term career goal, with little room for any further discussion. For the second (more standard length) required essay, candidates can choose from three prompt options, two of which were held over from the choices presented last year. Given that one of those choices was “You have been hired by the Marshall MBA Admissions Committee to create an essay question for next year’s application,” we cannot help but be curious whether the new option in the list was the brainchild of one of last year’s applicants! We may never know the origin of the new—rather creative and thought provoking—prompt, but we can still do our best to guide you in preparing to write your essay responses. Our full analysis of Marshall’s suite of questions follows.
Essay 1: What is your specific, immediate short-term career goal upon completion of your MBA? Please include an intended position, function, and industry in your response. (word limit: 100)
Quite simply, Marshall wants to know that you have a specific intention in mind and are not just applying to business school with the expectation of figuring everything out later, once you are enrolled in the program. Many MBA applicants have a long-term vision for their career, of course, but with this prompt, Marshall is asking you to prove you have really given thought to the necessary steps in between. Your goal in this short essay is therefore to demonstrate that you do indeed have a plan, not just broad ambition. The school’s other key concern is whether its MBA program is truly the right one to help you attain your stated goal and that you have done the necessary research to discover and confirm this for yourself. Marshall has very little impetus to admit you—and you have very little to attend it—if you will not ultimately be equipped or positioned to pursue your intended goal once you graduate! For example, if you aspire to work in a field or position for which Marshall is not known to have particularly strong courses, professors, or other offerings, or if you want to work for a company that has no recruiting history with the program, it might not be the best choice to get you where you want to go right away.
At just 100 words maximum, your response needs to be fairly forthright. Avoid any generalities and vagueness. Do your research to ensure that Marshall can indeed position you to attain what you intend, and simply spell things out. Given that this essay involves at least one key element of a traditional personal statement, we encourage you to download your free copy of our mbaMission Personal Statement Guide, which provides further advice (with examples!) of how to effectively craft such essays.
Essay 2: Please respond to ONLY ONE of the following essay topics: (word limit: 500)
1) If you could pack the story of your life in a briefcase with 10 items, what items would you pack and why? Respond in list form.
Marshall is jumping right into the creative essay prompt trend with this option! The first thing to keep in mind as you brainstorm for this essay is that the “items” in your virtual briefcase here do not have to be actual, tangible things. “The memory of my grandfather” could be one, for example. “My sense of humor” could be another. And we want to stress that a briefcase is more than just a simple container that holds things—otherwise, the school could have said “box” or “closet” or such—and carries with it the ideas of both movement and one’s career. Why would you want to bring the items you have listed with you as you move into the next phase of your professional life? What do they provide you, or what have you gained or learned from them?
Think of the many “things” (experiences, skills, values, character traits, responsibilities, friends and family members, heritage, hobbies, goals, etc.) that make you who you are today, in addition to actual, tangible items that are important to you. You want to choose a variety that presents you as a well-rounded individual with an interesting breadth of qualities, experiences, interests, and abilities, so make sure that the items in your suitcase are not too heavily concentrated in just one area of your life. Although the “briefcase” concept implies, as we have said, that the items in some way relate to your professional choices and aspirations, this does not mean that the individual items themselves must all be from your work background. For example, the “memory of my grandfather” item would not likely be from someone’s career, but that candidate’s grandfather may have instilled in him/her a strong work ethic or an interest that is now part of the person’s career path. You also do not have to present the items in chronological order. Furthermore, if you feel that some of your chosen items are more compelling or representative than others, consider putting a few at the beginning of your list and the others at the very end, so they can make the strongest impact.
If you choose this essay option, your final essay will obviously (we hope!) be more than a simple list of ten items. The school gives you 500 words for this essay, so the expectation is clearly that each thing you list will be accompanied by an explanation as to why you have included it among your ten items—why it is so meaningful to you.
2) You are asked to design a course to be taught at the Marshall School of Business. Please provide a title and description for the course.
To craft an effective response to this essay prompt, you will need to start by doing some comprehensive research. The absolute, number-one no-no in this situation would be suggesting a course that already exists at the school—or, just to be safe, that has been offered within the past year or two. So the first step will be getting some initial ideas for subject areas, but the immediate (and indispensable) second step will be taking some time to thoroughly read through the school’s current class offerings in those areas as well as those from last year and even the year before.
You do not need to be an expert in the subject matter of the hypothetical class you pitch. After all, Marshall is not asking you to teach it, simply to envision it and explain its potential value. Naturally, the course needs to be fitting for MBA-level study/students and be relevant in some way to current or projected business practices. A good route to consider would be to simply think about what kind of class you would like to take and why. What do you want to learn more about while you are in business school? What skills do you feel you need to develop to be successful going forward? Identify this kind of information and imagine what a course that addresses those interests and needs would entail and look like. Then compare your newly envisioned class against what is already available and tweak your proposal as necessary to ensure it is distinct from the school’s existing options.
Be sure to go beyond simply describing the course (and do not forget to give the class an actual title!) and dedicate a few lines of your essay to how the class would be helpful to an MBA student. Perhaps, for example, offer ideas for career paths the course would be well suited for.
3) You have been hired by the Marshall MBA Admissions Committee to create an essay question for next year’s application. Please state the question and answer it.
In a way, the admissions committee seems to be asking you, “What do you want to tell us about yourself and your candidacy?” and hoping to gain an idea of your level of creativity at the same time. A number of top MBA programs have offered some rather clever and innovative essay prompts in recent years—signature songs, six-word stories, random lists, photo selections, tables of contents, etc.—but Marshall may be restricting your creative side a bit in this case by stipulating that you must actually respond to your proposed question, not just imagine it. So if you plan to go the imaginative route, be sure to craft an option that you can then offer a strong essay response to, but keep in mind that you can also just offer a prompt that gets at an important element of your profile that you want to share with the admissions committee, with no special bells or whistles.
That said, because you also have the optional essay, if you want or need it, with which to address any “additional information” you believe the school needs to know to evaluate you thoroughly, we think this essay prompt may be best reserved for applicants who do have a strong imaginative or creative bent. Consider all your options for the school’s Essay 2 to make sure that you are choosing the one that allows you to share your most compelling stories.
Optional Essay: Please provide any additional information that will enhance our understanding of your candidacy for the program. (word limit: 250)
In general, we believe candidates should use a school’s optional essay to explain confusing or problematic issues in their candidacy, which this prompt does indeed allow. So, if you need to, use this opportunity to address any questions the admissions committee might have about your profile—a poor grade or overall GPA, a low GMAT or GRE score, a gap in your work experience, etc. Consider downloading our mbaMission Optional Essays Guide, in which we offer detailed advice (and multiple examples) on how best to approach the optional essay to mitigate any problem areas in your application.
However, Marshall clearly leaves the door open for you to discuss any other information about your candidacy that you feel may be pivotal or particularly compelling—that you think the admissions committee truly needs to know to be able to evaluate you fully and effectively. We caution you against submitting a response to this prompt just because you fear that not doing so would somehow count against you, though. Remember that with each additional essay you write, you are asking the admissions committee to do extra work on your behalf, so you must make sure that added time is warranted. If you decide to use this essay to impart information that you believe would render your application incomplete if omitted, strive to keep your submission brief and on point.