Two years ago, the admissions committee at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business completely reworked its MBA application essay questions, but for this season and the last, the school has done only a little fine-tuning. Ostensibly, this indicates that the variety and presentation of the prompts are generating the kind of input the admissions department wants in evaluating its candidates. Applicants must respond to five prompts and do so within a 700-word limit (or 705, if you want to get specific). As a whole, the essays cover candidates’ personal, educational, and career objectives while touching on aspects of Darden’s particular character and ethos—notably, its learning teams, vast international reach, and diversity. Applicants who feel they have still more they need to impart to the admissions committee can take advantage of the school’s 250-word optional essay as well. In this analysis, we offer our best essay advice for the school’s 2020–2021 questions.
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 two seasons ago, one about leadership style and the other about impact. This current presentation cleverly touches on both, the assumption likely being that when you brought about the meaningful result in question, you did so while in an official 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!). To illustrate, 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 Discover Darden blog post, an admissions representative advises, “Our basic advice is to show, don’t tell. Examples are always best,” then cautions, “but do not be so broad as to preclude self-reflection and meaningful insight.”
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 the University of Virginia’s Commitment to Diversity. 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.
Learning Team: Tell us what you would want your learning team to know about you – personal, professional, or both? (100 words)
Before you start writing, do some background work on what a learning team is, its purpose, 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.
So, in a mere 100 words, you must reveal that you have a perspective, attribute, or background that will enable your learning team to function better or perhaps even just more pleasantly. In the Discover Darden blog post mentioned earlier, the admissions representative makes this encouraging declaration: “This is a chance for you to let your true self shine. Hobbies, interests, passions, values—it’s all fair game here.”
Although the prompt’s implication is that you will be communicating with your future Darden classmates, the truth is, of course, that you are speaking to the admissions committee (and maybe even to the people who will ultimately decide the makeup of the school’s learning teams). So for your essay to be most successful and compelling, you must demonstrate that you have something valuable to offer your future teammates.
We are advocates of using anecdotes to reveal this kind of information and suggest you consider focusing on a single experience that demonstrates your chosen attribute and can represent how you might function on your learning team. This does not mean, however, that you must describe a clichéd team experience to prove you are a team player. 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. Or maybe you have a talent for diffusing tense situations with humor and can therefore keep a tired and stressed group of ambitious students with strongly held but opposing views on track and cooperating civilly. Within reason, what the skill or trait is that you highlight here does not matter as much as establishing that it would make you advantageous to Darden’s learning team experience.
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 a recent mbaMission annual conference, Darden’s Executive Director of Admissions Dawna Clarke 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 Dawna’s 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 Batten Foundation Worldwide Scholarship provides all Darden students in our full-time MBA program with an opportunity to participate in a Darden Worldwide Course. Each year, Darden connects with over 80 countries.
If you could choose any location in the world, where would you want to travel? (5 words)
And why? (50 words)
First, we want to make sure you fully understand what this essay prompt is revealing. At the aforementioned mbaMission annual conference, Dawna 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 particular one—the chance to study abroad and explore new horizons. While this essay prompt might initially strike you as hypothetical, let us reassure you that it is very much grounded in reality. In addition, the admissions committee notes on its blog, “Th[is] question is intentionally broad. While we encourage you to review our Darden Worldwide Course offerings, you are welcome to go beyond the locations where we deliver a course when crafting your response” (emphasis added). So really plumb your interests and identify a location that truly excites you—then write about it!
You can reveal yourself to be adventurous, curious, or intellectual by pinpointing which country most entices you. Then clearly and succinctly (your response must fit a delineated box, so no longwinded travelogues!) convey your enthusiasm for this choice and explain how the opportunity would enhance your Darden education and experience.
(Note that that paragraph is exactly 50 words long!)
If there is further information you believe would be helpful to the Admission Committee, please provide it. (250 words)
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. 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 Darden does not stipulate that you can only discuss a problem area in this essay, it does open the door for you to discuss something that is not addressed elsewhere in your application but 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.
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 Guides to spur you along! Download your free copy of The UVA Darden Interview Guide today.