Georgetown McDonough Essay Analysis, 2019–2020

Georgetown McDonough 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.  

Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business has made some substantial changes to its application essay questions this year, broadening candidates’ opportunity to present their strongest qualities to the admissions committee for evaluation. Applicants must still provide one 500-word written essay but now get to choose from three question options. Rather than being strictly required to discuss a single defining moment, they can write about leading outside of their comfort zone, a failure-as-learning-opportunity situation, or their personal connection with the brand of someone they admire. The school’s video essay remains unchanged and allows candidates to creatively showcase their individuality and personality. Finally, although the school offers only one optional essay this season, rather than two, the prompt gives candidates the leeway to discuss anything they feel is necessary, so it should be sufficient to meet everyone’s needs. Our full essay analysis follows, in which we offer ideas and advice for addressing all the school’s prompts.

We want to hear your story. When responding to our required essays, be authentic and take time to reflect on your goals and past experiences. Craft a response that explains how these experiences led you to pursue an MBA.

Our goal at Georgetown McDonough is to craft a diverse class with people who have had varying personal and professional life experiences. As such, we want to give our applicants the opportunity to select one essay (from a list of three) that allows them the ability to best highlight their experiences, characteristics, and values that showcase the value proposition that they can bring to the McDonough community. Please select one of the following three essays to complete in 500 words or less and include the essay prompt and your first/last name at the top of your submission.

Essay Option One: It can be said that life begins outside your comfort zone. Describe a situation when you were asked to lead outside of your comfort zone. What leadership characteristics did you exemplify in this situation that allowed you to succeed?  

Although this is a brand new essay question for the school, it carries echoes of the standalone prompt from last year, which asked candidates about a challenge they faced and how they ultimately exceeded expectations. Here, the challenge now stems from being outside one’s comfort zone, and “exceeding expectations” is expressed as “success.” 

As a business school student, you will regularly be pushed beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone. This will happen more often for some than others, of course, and in slightly different ways for each individual, but it will happen. McDonough wants to know how you draw on your strengths, skills, experience, and attitude at such times to meet the challenge and see things through to a positive conclusion. This is about revealing not only the leadership qualities you already possess but also your instincts in identifying the ones that are appropriate and helpful in a given situation and in applying them effectively.

We want to highlight the phrase “asked to lead,” which may influence your choice of story for this essay. The wording implies that in the incidence you are describing, someone has requested (or possibly even demanded) that you step up, rather than your having taken the initiative and volunteered yourself for the role. Perhaps the school is interested in the fact that someone either believed in your capacity to deal with the issue at hand, despite your unfamiliarity with some aspect of the situation, or recognized in you qualities they felt would be positively applicable, and this could shine an interesting new light on the admissions committee’s interpretation of your experience.  

Note that McDonough does not specify that the experience you share must be related to your workplace or career. Leadership does not need to have an official title attached to it, and it can be expressed in a community service or even family life setting just as much as in a workplace, so explore all the different areas of your life for possible stories. Then begin your essay by providing some narrative context that sets the stage for the significant moment or experience. Clearly explaining how you approached, assessed, and ultimately prevailed is crucial, so go beyond simply describing the scenario and ensure that you detail the inner workings of your decision making as you and your team progressed toward your positive outcome.

The admissions committee does not ask what you learned from the experience, so we caution you against using valuable word count on this point. Instead, focus on conveying why you consider the incident “outside your comfort zone” (what was foreign or uncomfortable for you), perhaps why you in particular were chosen to lead, the skills you engaged and steps you took to guide your team to triumph, and your thought processes along the way. This way, the admissions committee will gain both a clear picture of what you accomplished and the aspects of your character that inspired you and helped enable your success.

Essay Option Two: “Failure is not something to be ashamed of, it’s something to be POWERED by. Failure is the high-octane fuel your life can run on. You’ve got to learn to make failure your fuel.” –Abby Wambach 

Describe a situation when failure has been your fuel. What was your failure (or when did you not succeed to your full potential), and how did you use this as motivation to move forward and be successful in a future situation? 

From what we could find in our research, Abby actually said “the highest octane fuel” (italics ours), making the core message here even more powerful—the school is interested in hearing how you extract motivation from situations that would naturally lead some people to lose faith or hope. The quote is taken from Abby’s 2018 Barnard commencement address, and just before it, she said, “Non-athletes don’t know what to do with the gift of failure. So they hide it, pretend it never happened, reject it outright—and they end up wasting it.” McDonough clearly knows that many of life’s greatest successes require one to “try, try again,” as the expression goes, and that is the attitude necessary to gain and accomplish the most, not just in business school but also in the world after graduation. This essay is your opportunity to reassure the admissions committee that you have the kind of stick-to-it-iveness and drive that will position you to realize your goals.

Note that the school does not ask how you would use the experience but instead how you did. So for this essay, you will need to discuss at least two situations to fully respond to the school’s query. The first is the failure that provided your subsequent incentive—your “fuel.” The second is an experience in which your behavior was motivated by the first. And this second experience needs to be one you actively pursued by choice, not one that came your way as a matter of course. Your goal is to clearly convey that you are not easily deterred by setbacks but that you instead use them as learning tools or stepping stones on the path to your desired outcome. And even though the school does not specifically ask what you learned from the failure, learning is intrinsically part of the improvement and growth process, so some inclusion of this should likely be part of your response. 

The failure you discuss in this submission could be an individual one or a team one, and the scale or scope of the situation is not as important as how affecting and influential it was for you personally. You must present a complete narrative that shows momentum toward a positive outcome, presents the inflection point at which the situation turned, and explains how the original plan ultimately failed, all the while revealing your particular role in the failure. Leap directly into the action of your story and immediately convey what was at stake in the situation. After all, the opportunity for true failure exists only when you have something to lose. Next, briefly explain how you failed, and demonstrate what you took away from the experience. Then, explain how those takeaways inspired you to pursue another goal and proved crucial in your attainment of it. 

Essay Option Three: Think of the business leader or role model you admire or aspire to be. What are the defining characteristics of their personal brand that you see in yourself, why would you highlight those qualities, and how will those characteristics enrich the community at McDonough?   

Last year, McDonough asked applicants to outline key aspects of their personal brand and share how these would strengthen the community at the school. This season, the admissions committee is asking candidates to pinpoint elements of someone else’s personal brand with which they identify and how those qualities might contribute to McDonough’s community. To us, the school appears to essentially be asking applicants to reach the same destination, just via a different path. The admissions committee wants to know which values and strengths you believe are important in a leader, why you feel they are important, and which of them you already possess—as well as how these fit with the McDonough brand and environment. This is a lot to cover in just 500 words, but if you focus on hitting all four points in a targeted and concise manner, you should be able to craft a compelling essay response.

Before we address how you should approach this prompt, we want to point out a few things you should not do. First, avoid choosing any individuals who would come across as obvious or cliché, such as Steve Jobs or Barack Obama. Second, like all application essay questions, this one does not have a “right” answer, so do not spend any time or effort trying to guess who the admissions committee wants or is expecting you to pick. Third, resist the urge to choose a parent, grandparent, or other close relative, unless the person in question really has something distinctly and obviously special to offer. And fourth, do not make your chosen individual the star of your essay and spend too much time or word count describing and praising them. McDonough wants to learn about you, so make sure your description of the leader/role model you have selected serves its purpose as the jumping off point for describing yourself and then move on.      

Authenticity is key to your success with this essay, so start by thinking of people who truly inspire and appeal to you—who elicit a strong response from you in some key way. Then identify the qualities you have in common with these figures and single out the ones you feel play a significant role in your selected individual’s success and/or compelling presence. Once you have this information, you should be able to recognize which person will be most effective in helping convey who you are to the McDonough admissions committee. 

Do not forget to address the final part of the school’s question—” how will those characteristics enrich the community at McDonough?” With this query, the school wants you to touch on why it is the right fit for you. The admissions committee will be looking for evidence that you have researched its MBA program thoroughly enough to understand how and why it aligns with your interests, needs, personality, and style. Please allow us to once again repeat our advice about getting to know a school beyond its website and published materials. Visit the campus, if at all possible, and connect directly with McDonough students and alumni to identify aspects of the school where the characteristics you are highlighting in your essay would prove complementary and additive. 

Video Essay:  We ask that you introduce yourself to your cohort in one minute or less. The Admissions Committee would like for you to appear in person during part of your video, and we strongly encourage you to speak outside of the experiences we can read on your resume. Use this video as an opportunity to bring life to your application. For more instructions, view our Video Essay Guide.

  • You may use your phone, computer, or other means to record the video, but please ensure all audio and visual components are clear. We recommend a well-lit room and minimal noise distraction.
  • Upload your video to an accessible website (such as Youtube, Vimeo, Youku, or Tudou), and submit the direct video URL into your online application.
  • Please note that all videos must remain active and accessible to the admissions committee online for a minimum of five years for record retention purposes.
  • For your privacy: Do not include your name in the title of your video. You may submit “unlisted” videos via YouTube or password protected videos through Vimeo. If using a password, please include immediately after your link in the text box below. [Ex:, password: Hoyas]

McDonough’s video essay is yet another opportunity for you to offer the school a glimpse into your character and personality. As the prompt says, this is a chance to “bring life to your application,” so your focus should be on ensuring that it as authentic and natural as possible. This is not a job interview, and the school specifically states that you should consider your future cohort—your fellow students—as your intended audience, which certainly implies that a less rigid and traditionally “professional” demeanor is okay, though we of course caution you to always be appropriate and inoffensive. Do not use the video as an opportunity to pitch your candidacy or to pander to the school, and avoid repeating any information that is already clearly conveyed in your resume. (When an admissions committee tells you so specifically what to do [or not do] in an essay prompt, pay attention!) This is also not the time to detail your career goals or express your admiration for the program. You have only one minute in which to make an impression, and even without knowing you personally, we are confident in our belief that you have more to your character than can be conveyed in a mere 60 seconds—so do not waste any of them!

Given that this is a video, you will obviously need to think beyond what you will say and consider the clothing you will wear, the setting or background of your video, your tone of voice, your language style, whether you will include music, and a host of other details. Brainstorm ways of nonverbally communicating some of your strongest attributes and key aspects of your life to help permeate your submission with as much information as possible. For example, if you are an avid biker, consider using a GoPro or similar camera to film your video while you are actively riding. If you are a dedicated guitar player, perhaps strum your guitar as you speak (or, if you are especially confident, you could even sing about yourself!). Think about what makes you who you are today, decide what you most want to share with your future classmates, and then let your creativity flow.

On a practical note, be sure to speak clearly in your video. You naturally do not want any part of your message to be lost or misunderstood, and the admissions committee may view your communication skills and style as indicators of how you might interact with your classmates and/or speak in the classroom. Spend some time practicing in front of a mirror or a friend, but do not overrehearse. You still want to come across as genuine and natural.

Optional Essay: Please provide any information you would like to add to your application that you have not otherwise included. (500 words or fewer)

We tend to believe that the best use of the optional essay is to explain confusing or problematic issues in your candidacy, and this prompt offers an opportunity to do just that. However, because McDonough does not stipulate that you can only discuss a problem area in this essay, you have some leeway to share anything you feel is that you think may be pivotal or particularly compelling. So, if you need to, this is your chance to address any questions an admissions officer might have about your profile—a poor grade or overall GPA, a low GMAT or GRE score, a gap in your work experience, etc. In our mbaMission Optional Essays Guide, we offer detailed advice on how best to take advantage of the optional essay, with multiple examples, to help you mitigate any problem areas in your application.

However, because the question can be interpreted rather broadly, it does open the door for you to discuss anything that is not addressed elsewhere in your application and that you feel is truly critical for the admissions committee to know to be able to evaluate you fully and effectively. We caution you about simply trying to fill this space because you fear that not doing so would somehow count against you. Remember, by submitting an additional essay, you are asking the admissions committee to do extra work on your behalf, so you need to make sure that time is warranted. If you are using the essay to emphasize something that if omitted would render your application incomplete, take this opportunity to write a very brief narrative that reveals this key new aspect of your candidacy.

Re-Applicant Essay: Required for re-applicants. How have you strengthened your candidacy since your last application? We are particularly interested in hearing about how you have grown professionally and personally. (500 words or fewer)

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. McDonough 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 McDonough 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.

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