Last year, the University of Southern California (USC) Marshall School of Business took a very traditional approach to its application essay questions (after a short foray into more creative territory), and the tactic must have delivered, because the admissions committee has made no changes to the prompts at all for 2020–2021. For the first required essay, applicants must detail their immediate short-term career goal—without much elaboration, given the 100-word limit. For the second required essay, which can be as long as 600 words, candidates are asked to write a letter to the Marshall admissions committee, though no specific requests are made beyond that, leaving applicants significant latitude. An optional essay gives candidates who feel they have an issue to explain or a particularly significant story to share the opportunity to do so, albeit succinctly. Our analysis of all USC Marshall’s essay questions for this year follows.
Essay #1 (Required): 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 straightforward. 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 a free copy of our mbaMission Personal Statement Guide, which provides advice on effectively addressing this topic in an essay.
Essay #2 (Required) – Please draft a letter that begins with “Dear Admissions Committee.” (word limit: 600)
This letter is meant to be your personal statement that provides the Admissions Committee with an understanding of your candidacy for Marshall beyond what is evident in other parts of your application. This essay is purposely open-ended. You are free to express yourself in whatever way you see fit. Our goal is to have an appreciation for and an understanding of each candidate in ways that are not captured by test scores, grades, and resumes.
As the admissions committee itself admits in the prompt, this is essentially a request for a personal statement, which typically covers (1) why the candidate feels they need an MBA, (2) why the MBA is necessary now, and (3) why they wish to attend the specific school in question. So, at the risk of sounding repetitive, we will start by encouraging you—again—to download a complimentary copy of the mbaMission Personal Statement Guide, which is available for free and includes detailed guidance on approaching and writing such essays, along with multiple illustrative examples.
Note the admissions committee’s acknowledgement that it already has a lot of information about you from the other parts of your application, including your resume, extracurricular activities, recommendations, short-answer question responses, academic transcripts, and GMAT/GRE score. You should therefore think first about what these elements convey about who you are as an individual and candidate, so you can determine which parts of your profile would best complement this information and the image it collectively presents of you. This does not necessarily mean that you cannot touch on anything mentioned elsewhere in your application but rather that you do not want to use up valuable word count repeating anything unnecessarily. Focus on supplementing the data the school already has. And despite the somewhat stuffy intro the school provides—“Dear Admissions Committee”—keep in mind that this is an opportunity for you to present yourself as a well-rounded, dynamic individual who would be a positive addition to the Marshall community, so do your best to infuse your essay with authenticity and personality, as well as information.
Optional Essay: Please provide any additional information you would like the admissions committee to consider. (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 free mbaMission Optional Essays Guide, in which we offer detailed advice (and multiple annotated examples) on how best to approach the optional essay to mitigate any problem areas in your application.
That said, 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 (and that may not have found an appropriate place in your required essay). 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.