University of Virginia (Darden) Essay Analysis, 2019–2020

University of Virginia (Darden) Essay Analysis - mbaMission

*Please note: You are viewing an essay analysis from the 2019-2020 admissions cycle. Click here to view our collection of essay analyses for the current admissions season.  

After completely reworking its MBA application essay questions last season, the admissions committee at the University of Virginia’s Darden School has done just a little fine-tuning this year. Candidates must still respond to five prompts and do so within a 700-word limit, but a new query has been added, while two previous ones have been combined into a single question. As a whole, the prompts again cover applicants’ personal, educational, and career objectives while touching on aspects of Darden’s particular character and ethos—notably, its learning teams, vast international reach, and (now) diversity. In this analysis, we offer our best essay advice for all of the school’s 2019–2020 questions.

Interested in learning how to tackle this year’s UVA Darden application essays? Watch the short video below before you continue reading the full analysis!

Leadership: Darden strives to identify and cultivate responsible leaders who follow their purpose. Please provide an example of a situation in which you have made a meaningful impact. (200 words)

Darden’s first essay prompt is an interesting hybrid of two questions it posed last season, one about leadership style and the other about impact. This new presentation cleverly touches on both, the assumption likely being that when you brought about the meaningful result in question, you did so while in a leadership position or at least when acting in a leadership capacity. Therefore, by describing what you achieved and how you did so, you will naturally also reveal information about your leadership style.

At mbaMission, we love when admissions committees request examples, because they invite essays that use a narrative structure, and we believe such essays tend to be not only more revelatory but also more interesting to read (always good when trying to make an impression on someone who reads literally thousands of essays each year!). For example, you might start by launching directly into your story: “Although I had never led a committee that spanned three departments before, I found myself….” In a Darden FAQs blog post, an admissions representative advises, “Our basic advice is to show don’t tell—examples are always best” but also cautions applicants to “not be so broad as to preclude self-reflection and meaningful insight. We are interested in getting to know how you think, how you approach working with others, your sense of self-awareness and your willingness to be self-reflective.”

Because Darden wants to know about your “impact,” you will have to clearly show the results of your actions, but the admissions committee also wants to understand that the decisions you made and steps you took clearly paid off and that a project, company, organization, individual, or product experienced some kind of change as a result. In other words, in addition to explaining what was achieved and why it was significant, you must illustrate the values, thought process, and initiatives that made it possible. Also, make note of the words “responsible” and “purpose” in this prompt and keep them in mind as you brainstorm ideas for this mini essay. Qualities related to these concepts would be good ones to highlight if they are truly part of your authentic story.

Diversity: Diversity and inclusion are critical to our mission and they work best when they are an integral and celebrated part of our community. Read University of Virginia’s Diversity & Inclusion Vision Statement. Share a time in which you engaged with a perspective, identity, community, or experience that was different from your own and how it impacted your worldview. (200 words)

In business school—as in life in general—you will encounter people who think differently from you, operate according to different values, and react differently to the same stimuli. And success in an endeavor often involves considering and incorporating others’ input and standpoints. Via this essay, Darden hopes to learn how you view, approach, and react to such differences. Once enrolled in the school’s MBA program, you will be surrounded every day by people who are unlike you in a multitude of ways, and you will need to work in tandem with and alongside these individuals when analyzing case studies, completing group projects, and participating in other activities both inside and outside the classroom. The school is clearly seeking evidence that you are capable of listening, reflecting, learning, and growing and that you are open and receptive to things beyond your usual frame of reference. And by asking you to share a time when a novel “perspective, identity, community, or experience” changed you in some fundamental way, Darden is requesting actual evidence of this open-mindedness in action.

To craft an effective essay response, consider using a narrative approach to describe a kind of “before and after” situation or “lightbulb moment” in which your takeaways from the experience influenced your subsequent thoughts, values, and/or actions. Perhaps you were exposed to something completely new that resonated with you and thereafter became a fundamental part of your mores or a routine practice in your life. Or maybe an experience challenged one of your existing beliefs and altered your opinion or stance in a significant way. Keep in mind, however, that the admissions committee is much more interested in your willingness and capacity to learn and grow than in the specific kind of change you experienced.

Darden Worldwide – Travel: The Batten Foundation Worldwide Scholarship provides all Darden students in our full-time MBA program with an opportunity to participate in a Darden Worldwide Course. If you could choose any location in the world, where would you want to travel, and why? (50 words)

First, we want to make sure you fully understand what this essay prompt is revealing. At our recent mbaMission annual conference, held this year on Darden grounds, Executive Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Dawna Clarke explained to us that because of this generous Batten scholarship, every single Darden student can now afford to participate in an international course at some point during their two years in the program. Business school is an experience rife with opportunities, and Darden wants to make sure no barriers stand in the way of its students taking advantage of this one—the chance to study abroad and explore new horizons. While this essay prompt had an air of the hypothetical last year, this year it is very much grounded in reality. So really plumb your interests and identify a location that truly excites you—then write about it!  

In just a few sentences, you can show your adventurous or intellectual side by pinpointing a country that sincerely appeals to you and reveals something interesting about you. But avoid writing a travelogue! Just clearly (and succinctly) explain why and how your choice will enhance both your education and others’.

(Note that that paragraph is exactly 50 words long!)

Learning Team: Tell us what you would want your learning team to know about you – personally, professionally, or both? (100 words)

Before you start writing, we suggest you do some background work on what a learning team is and how it functions. At Darden, learning teams are carefully selected groups of five to six students, assembled with the intent of creating an eclectic mix of personalities and backgrounds. This group meets in the evenings, Sunday through Thursday, to tackle the next day’s case work together (and if you are not familiar with the case method, now is the time to do your homework on it as well!). Learning teams are a core element of the Darden experience, in part because some cases are so voluminous that students must take a divide-and-conquer approach and teach one another the material. In short, learning teams are intense and complex, requiring strong teamwork skills and contributions but capable of providing support and camaraderie as students work their way through Darden’s notoriously challenging first year. For your essay response to be successful and compelling, you will need to show that you have something to offer your future teammates.

So, in a mere 100 words, you must reveal that you have a perspective, attribute, or background that will better enable your learning team to function. We are advocates of using anecdotes to reveal this kind of information and suggest you consider focusing on a single experience that demonstrates your positive team attributes and can represent how you would function on your learning team. This does not mean that you must describe a clichéd team experience to prove you are a team player. The key is simply to show you bring something of value to the table in this context—perhaps you are a great debater and can clearly see and elucidate multiple sides to a story, or you have particular experience with and insight into geopolitics, or you are naturally intellectually curious and have amassed a broad range of basic knowledge. Within reason, the trait does not matter! Establish that you have a skill or attribute that would be advantageous to Darden’s learning team experience, and you will send a compelling message.  

To learn more about Darden’s learning teams and other characteristic elements of its MBA program, download a free copy of the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business Administration.

What is your short-term, post-MBA career goal and why? (150 words)

At our aforementioned annual conference, Dawna shared with us that one of her favorite expressions is “You don’t know what you don’t know” and that she keeps this maxim in mind when considering Darden applicants’ career goals. MBA students encounter an incredible (and often surprising) number and breadth of professional opportunities while in business school, and given her extensive admissions background, she knows only too well that candidates can and do change their minds and trajectories along the way. That said, Darden wants to know that you have given this aspect of your MBA experience very serious thought, have thoroughly researched your options, and are approaching business school with a strong sense of purpose—that you have a fitting and attainable goal in mind and can articulate it clearly.

Note that the admissions committee is asking only about your short-term goal, which is often a pretty practical one, compared with applicants’ typically more idealistic long-term goals. So, first make sure that the path you have chosen is a sensible one for you. Ask yourself, “Will a Darden MBA help me get from where I am now to where I want to be?” If, for example, you are a journalist and have dreams of working at a hedge fund after you graduate, the admissions committee will probably not respond very positively to your plan, because hedge funds tend to be the domain of math PhDs and seasoned finance professionals. The school wants to feel that you will be able to achieve your aspirations after completing its program, so you want to avoid goals that could sound farfetched. Instead, as a journalist, you would need to identify a far more realistic path, but one that is true to who you are. Being ambitious is great, but the goal you present must be connected to reality, and to demonstrate that connection, you will have to spell out why your objective is a reasonable one for you. Establishing briefly that you have the skills and knowledge to enter your target field will make that logical connection for your admissions reader, reassuring them that you can be a happy and productive graduate.

One’s short-term goal is a common topic in a traditional personal statement, so we encourage you to download your free copy of the mbaMission Personal Statement Guide, which helps applicants write this style of essay for any school. This complimentary guide offers detailed advice on approaching and framing these subjects, along with multiple illustrative examples. Be sure to claim your copy today.

The Next Step—Mastering Your UVA Darden 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 UVA Darden Interview Primer today.

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