Of all the programs we feature in our annual essay analyses, Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business is the one we typically expect to make at least some changes to its application essay questions from one season to the next. So even though applicants must still provide one 500-word written essay in response to their choice of three question options, we were not surprised to see that those options have been modified a bit. Candidates are now asked to write about a time when they led a team (versus being out of their comfort zone), a challenging situation they navigated (versus a failure), or their personal brand and someone they admire (focusing more pointedly now on the applicant than the role model). The school has also tweaked the wording of its video essay prompt; rather than requesting that applicants introduce themselves to their future classmates, the admissions committee wants them to share how they are “unique”—likely to encourage candidates to dig deeper with their response and provide more profound insight into their individuality and personality than before. The school’s optional essay still gives applicants the leeway to discuss anything they feel is necessary, so it should be sufficient to meet everyone’s needs. Read on for our full essay analysis of all the school’s essay prompts for 2020–2021.
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: Principled Leadership: Georgetown McDonough places a strong emphasis on principled leadership, providing both curricular and co-curricular opportunities to strengthen your leadership skills. Describe a time when you’ve led a team in a professional environment to implement a new idea or process. What leadership characteristics did you utilize? What could you have done to be more effective? And most importantly, what skills will you be able to bring to the teams you lead at McDonough?
Although this essay question retains some elements of the one the school posed last year and again focuses primarily on leadership skills, the admissions committee has made some meaningful adjustments in what it wants to know and how it frames its request. Rather than asking you to discuss an instance in which you led (and succeeded) outside your comfort zone, McDonough tasks you with sharing a time when you led a team specifically “to implement a new idea or process.” This means that the situation you share is one in which you had to apply your skills and thought processes in a novel way rather than simply repeating ones you had executed before in a similar context. You must thereby demonstrate that the abilities and knowledge you possess are broad and keen enough to apply to novel situations and—even more—that you know how and when to exercise certain ones to fit the demands of the task at hand. This essay 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 using them effectively.
The addition of the specification “in a professional environment” requires that the experience you share be related to your career (a change from last year), and although the prompt no longer says the incident must be one in which “you were asked to lead” (emphasis ours), this will likely be the case, given the workplace context. The prompt also no longer specifies that you must have “succeeded,” but you will of course want to show yourself to be effective and that your leadership skills are such that they direct people to the desired result, so we would caution against sharing an instance in which you and your team failed to attain your goal.
You want to focus on conveying the skills you engaged and steps you took to guide your team, as well as your thought processes along the way. The admissions committee will thereby gain both a clear picture of what you accomplished and the aspects of your character that inspired you and helped enable your success. Take time as you are planning your response to this prompt to carefully read the “About Principled Leadership” page on the McDonough website. Although you obviously want to be authentic in conveying which skills and qualities you in fact relied on in the situation (and therefore not claim to possess any you do not because you think the admissions committee is seeking a specific “right” answer here), if any you plan to discuss align with the school’s stated values, they might warrant a little extra emphasis in your essay.
The addition of the query “What could you have done to be more effective?” constitutes an invitation to demonstrate to the admissions committee your capacity for self-assessment and both your motivation and ability to identify areas for improvement. This is also your opportunity to explain how the McDonough MBA experience will help you address and mitigate those shortcomings. Absolutely do not denigrate anyone else on your team or related to the project by saying or implying that you could have been more effective if others had acted differently. Also, note that the admissions committee does not ask what you learned from the experience, so we caution you against using valuable word count on this point.
As for which skills will enable you to contribute to your teams at McDonough, the admissions committee will already understand that the ones you applied in the situation you describe are ones you will bring with you to the program, so you do not need to reiterate those too much. Also, the committee is aware that the single leadership experience you highlight in your essay might not have required or allowed you to engage all the strengths and expertise you actually possess. So this part of the query opens the door for you to mention ones that are complementary and/or that you know would be helpful in other team situations to show the school the full breadth of your capabilities in this context.
Essay Option Two: Hoyas for the Common Good: Georgetown McDonough embodies the ethos that people and organizations can and should contribute to the greater good. The admissions committee would like to better understand how you’ve demonstrated these values during uniquely challenging times. Describe a time where you’ve put the needs of others ahead of your own or ahead of the bottom line. We look forward to learning more about the challenge you faced, what unique characteristics you brought to that scenario, and what you learned from it.
We imagine that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic could have inspired this essay prompt, given that we are all being challenged in new and often intense ways, and trying situations can really bring out the best in a person—or the worst. Some people step up when adversity arises, while others retreat, and McDonough is clearly interested in candidates who fall into the former category. The school is seeking individuals who not only naturally feel a sense of responsibility toward others but proactively embrace opportunities to act on that value.
Because the admissions committee does not specify what part of your life the situation you describe must come from, be sure to plumb all your options to identify your strongest and most applicable story. It could be in a community service capacity, within your family, at the office, related to an extracurricular activity, with a single friend or loved one, or any of a multitude of possibilities—as long as you were inspired to put yourself second to another in some way. The scale or scope of the situation is not as important as how affecting and meaningful it was for you personally and for the other party.
You must present a complete narrative that outlines the quandary so that the different actions you could have chosen in the situation are clear. The admissions committee needs to understand what would be gained or lost, and by whom, in the alternatives you were considering. What exactly was at stake for both you and the other person(s) involved? Also describe how these options were revealed—as in, did you recognize on your own that you could do something other than what you might have originally considered and that would put someone else’s welfare ahead of yours, or were options presented to you from which you then had to choose? Be sure to detail your thought processes as you considered which route to take.
Also make sure that the “challenge” aspect of the incident is clear; an easy choice between two positive outcomes would not fulfill this element of the school’s query. You need to have experienced some kind of struggle or conflict either within yourself or with an outside force to be able to move forward with your ultimate decision. What values, beliefs, or abilities do you possess that made you the right person to step up in that instance and be able to deliver an important benefit or kindness to another? What past experiences have you had that might have guided, informed, or inspired your decision? What made putting your own personal gain or fulfillment aside the more attractive option? And lastly, what did acting on your impulse ultimately teach you, whether about yourself or about someone or something external to you? Strive to convey these core elements of the situation so that the admissions committee gains a full understanding not only of what transpired but also of your motivations and character.
Essay Option Three: Personal Brand: Think of a business leader or role model you admire or aspire to be. What are the defining characteristics of his or her personal brand that you see in yourself? Give an example of how you have been able to emulate these characteristics in your professional career and how your personal brand will enrich the McDonough community.
The school has made several wording tweaks in this prompt compared with last year’s version, but the central query is largely the same. The most significant change is that candidates are now asked to provide an illustrative example from their past—essentially to prove they indeed have the qualities they claim and can apply them effectively—as well as an envisioned future example. Perhaps applicants last season spent a little too much word count talking about what their admired role model has accomplished rather than what they themselves have; this modification to the question should go a long way in preventing that this time around.
The admissions committee wants to know which values and strengths you believe are important in a leader, why you feel they are important, which of them you already possess (with associated evidence), and how these fit with the McDonough brand and environment. This is a lot to cover in just 500 words, but if you focus on conveying 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 your personal brand will enrich the McDonough community.” With this, 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. 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: What makes you unique? In a one-minute video, describe the most compelling aspects of yourself that you believe make you unique from other MBA candidates. (Hint: one minute goes fast! We already have your resume and goals – share something new!) Use this video as an opportunity to bring life to your application.
McDonough’s video essay is a great opportunity for you to offer the school a glimpse into your character and personality. As the prompt says, the video can “bring life to your application,” so your focus should be on ensuring that it as authentic and natural as possible. Do not use the video to pitch your candidacy or to pander to the school, and avoid repeating any information that is already clearly conveyed in your resume. This is also not the time to detail your career goals or express your admiration for the program. Whereas last year, the prompt requested that applicants introduce themselves to their cohort, this season, candidates must speak on what makes them unique. We interpret this refinement as a way of pushing applicants to get even more granular and distinctive in this submission. After all, in a basic “introduction,” you could easily cover topics that, while authentic and relevant, would not necessarily make you stand out (e.g., hobbies), whereas being tasked with explaining exactly why and how you are unique requires you to share much more personal and detailed information.
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.