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UNC Kenan-Flagler Essay Analysis, 2020–2021

UNC Kenan-Flager - mbaMissionThe University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School has made multiple tweaks to the wording of its application essay questions this year, but only the second question has been completely overhauled. Rather than giving candidates 250 words in which to respond and a choice of three different prompts, the admissions committee presents one required prompt that reflects on the concepts of “diversity, equity and inclusion” within the context of 2020’s tumult and the applicant’s personal leadership style. Although candidates are allowed a slightly longer 300-word limit for their answer, they will need to be judicious in how they use the allotted space, given that the school asks them to cover quite a lot of information. Kenan-Flagler’s first essay question remains the same (other than some wording adjustments) and requests common elements of application essays—career goals, why our school—plus a less common Plan B option. The program’s optional essay provides candidates with an outlet for explaining a problematic element of their profile or offering key clarifying information, and its re-applicant essay prompt again concerns relevant updates to the one’s candidacy. Our more in-depth analysis of the program’s 2020–2021 essay questions follows.

Essay 1 is required. Your response should be no longer than 500 words and should address the following questions:

  • What are your immediate career goals? 
  • How will you benefit personally and professionally from earning an MBA at UNC Kenan-Flagler?
  • As the business world continues to evolve, circumstances can change and guide you in a different direction. Should your goals that you provided above not transpire, what other opportunities would you explore?

Kenan-Flagler’s career-related essay question focuses strictly on applicants’ initial post-MBA job. Business schools know only too well that students regularly change their long-term professional plans after being exposed through the MBA experience to new people, information, and options and after learning new skills and ways of looking at the world and themselves. Given that reality, asking about candidates’ long-term goals can in some ways be a waste of time, if an admissions committee is not simply doing so to see evidence that the applicant has put serious thought into their plan for attending business school. With the first part of this prompt, Kenan-Flagler wants to know that you have thoroughly considered this next step in your career and are pursuing an MBA for very clear, specific reasons—not because you feel you are supposed to or because you are following in a parent’s footsteps, and definitely not because you do not know what else to do at this juncture in your life! (Believe it or not, these are all actual reasons some people choose to earn the degree.) Kenan-Flagler, like all top programs, wants engaged, driven, and focused individuals who are ready to be an active part of its MBA experience and to do big things with the knowledge and skills they acquire from it. Although the school does not ask you to lay out your background and explain how you reached this choice, providing some basic context for your goal is a good idea (just be succinct!) to ensure the admissions committee understands that your plans are reasonable and fitting for you.

With the second part of the prompt, the school is essentially looking for an explanation of “Why Kenan-Flagler?” The admissions committee wants evidence that you have researched its MBA program thoroughly enough to have pinpointed resources and offerings that directly align with your interests and needs—and not just academically and professionally. This is the part of our essay analysis in which we once again repeat our advice about getting to know a school beyond its website and published materials. Although you likely cannot visit campus or sit in on a class right now, you can still connect with students and alumni, read recent press releases and student blogs, and peruse the Kenan-Flagler YouTube channel. Identify clubs, events, courses, initiatives, and other opportunities that speak to who you are as an individual and to who you want to be by the time you graduate and going forward in your career. Ideally, Kenan-Flagler offers one or more particular resources or experiences that you believe are vital to you in achieving your goals and are not available elsewhere. When you include this information in your essay, do not simply provide a list but explain how you will engage with these elements of the MBA program and what you expect to gain from them.

With career goals essays, candidates often feel they must be totally unequivocal in their stated aspirations, but with the third part of this essay prompt, Kenan-Flagler is inviting applicants to speculate on and discuss other options. The admissions committee knows that sometimes the best-laid plans do not play out as expected or may even yield unintended results, and the school wants to know not only that you are prepared to switch gears and recommit to a different path, if necessary, but also that you are fully capable of doing so. The key is to show that your alternate goal is just as connected to your skills, interests, and ambitions as your original plan and does not come “out of left field,” so to speak. For example, you would probably have a difficult time convincing the admissions committee that your short-term goal is to work in technology consulting while your alternate goal would be to work in human resources, because these industries, for the most part, require entirely different skills and personalities. Just be mindful that both goals you present must be plausible and achievable. 

This essay encompasses a few core elements of a traditional personal statement essay, so we encourage you to download our free mbaMission Personal Statement Guide for more in-depth guidance. This complimentary publication offers detailed advice on approaching and framing these subjects, along with multiple illustrative examples. 

Essay 2 is required. Your response should be no longer than 300 words and should address the following question:

2020 brought many defining experiences, including: a global pandemic, changes to learning and working environments, and calls for social justice and racial equity. At UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, these experiences propel us to strengthen efforts to increase the diversity in our community, to create a more equitable and inclusive learning environment and to teach our students to manage diversity, equity and inclusion. What have you learned about diversity, equity and inclusion in 2020? Please share your experience and what you learned about yourself as a leader. Tell us how you changed or would like to change your leadership style? If you were not leading a team, tell us what you learned at your level about diversity, equity and inclusion. How do you expect to continue that growth in the MBA program?

Without question, the calendar year thus far has been rife with opportunities for (and examples of) leadership of all kinds, at all levels, and in a staggering array of contexts. New rifts and dynamics have been revealed while others have been exacerbated or revived, and people have been called upon to make decisions in which ensuring fairness and appropriate inclusion has been incredibly challenging. Perhaps during this time, you yourself were called on to lead, proactively pursued a leadership position of some kind, or simply observed someone else’s leadership in a situation that involved such complications, and Kenan-Flagler wants to hear about this experience. Although the prompt does not specify that the leadership situation you discuss in your essay has to be from your workplace, this should likely be the first context you consider for your content, given that this is, after all, an essay for admittance to a business school. However, your most appropriate story for this submission might come instead from a community service experience or other organizational commitment separate from your career. The bottom line is that you should choose an example that allows you to best address the school’s core themes here of fairness and inclusivity. 

To start, be sure that you understand the three highlighted concepts fully: diversity, equity, and inclusion. Of the three, equity is the most easily misinterpreted, with people often assuming it is interchangeable with equality. While equality implies same, equity implies fair—requiring not that everyone be provided for or treated identically but rather that each person be provided for or treated appropriately for their particular situation. Similarly, true inclusion goes beyond simply providing a seat at the table, so to speak, for everyone on a team and demands that each person be invited or at least allowed to contribute in a meaningful way and that those contributions be valued on par with those of other team members.

Like 2020 itself, probably, this essay prompt is asking a lot of you. You need to answer multiple (rather complex) questions and provide sufficient context in just 300 words—the core prompt itself is almost half that! You do not have room for subtlety or extended explanations, so choose your words carefully and be as straightforward and clear as possible. The admissions committee wants to know that you are capable of recognizing not only the benefits of being inclusive and equitable but also the harm caused by the unfair treatment or exclusion of certain individuals—and that what you experienced affected you in a way that subsequently influenced your beliefs about how a leader should act. Very likely, the situation’s outcome revealed what the person in power (whether you or someone else) should have done to bring about a more desired result, thereby igniting an interest in cultivating a particular leadership ability or quality.

Once you have identified an instance in which you either led a team or were an active participant and that involved one or more of the three highlighted themes, start by simply describing the experience, making sure that the associated theme(s) is (are) clear. The part of the query that then asks what you changed or hope to change about your leadership approach 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. To fulfill the demands of the prompt, this highlighted aspect of your leadership style needs to relate to what you learned from the experience about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Then, explain how you anticipate (further) developing this element of your leadership approach while a student at Kenan-Flagler by connecting what you need to learn or practice with an aspect of or resource at the school that would be instrumental in helping you do so.

The optional essay (for all applicants) provides an opportunity to share additional information not presented elsewhere in your application with the admissions committee. In 150 words or less, consider addressing any of the questions below:

  •   If you have not completed coursework in the core business subjects (calculus, microeconomics, statistics, financial accounting), how will you prepare yourself?
  •   What conditions caused you to experience inconsistent academics, gaps in work, or low standardized test scores?
  •   How have you chosen your recommenders?

Although Kenan-Flagler begins this prompt by stating that the optional essay is “an opportunity to share additional information not presented elsewhere in your application,” it then goes on to narrow the scope quite a bit as far as the kind of additional information it is most interested in. You are not necessarily precluded from addressing a topic not listed by the school, but we would caution against doing so unless the information you feel you need to share is truly significant and essential for the admissions committee to evaluate you fairly and completely. Remember, 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. Whether you decide to submit an optional essay about one of the listed issues or to impart information that you feel would render your application incomplete if omitted, strive to keep your submission brief and on point.

Consider downloading a free copy of our mbaMission Optional Essays Guide, in which we offer detailed advice on how and when to use a school’s optional essay to mitigate problem areas in your application, along with multiple annotated examples.

Re-Applicant Essay: If you are re-applying to the program, we appreciate your continued interest in UNC Kenan-Flagler. We require a complete application in addition to a brief essay (100 words or less) that describes how your application differs from your previous submission and that alerts us to new test scores, a recent promotion, or other areas that demonstrate how you have strengthened your candidacy. 

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. Kenan-Flagler 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 an MBA from its program 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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2020–2021 MBA Essay Analysis

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