Last year, Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business required just one essay from its applicants, who could use up to 500 words to explain what they would bring to the Tepper community that would allow them to make an impact on it. The school is posing the same question this season, but now the query is for a 150-word “short answer essay,” and the admissions committee has introduced a completely new prompt for its required essay. Applicants must now discuss overcoming adversity of some kind in their life and what the experience taught them about themselves. The topic seems fitting for this year’s turbulent times. Candidates who feel they need additional opportunity to convey an important aspect of their candidacy to the admissions committee can take advantage of the optional essay, which is sufficiently broad to accommodate topics other than just problem areas in one’s profile (if executed effectively). Read on for our full analysis of Tepper’s essay prompts for 2020–2021.
Required Essay: The Tepper community is dynamic and unique. Each community member’s individual journey has shaped them into classmates who are collaborative and supportive. Describe how you have overcome adversity during your journey. What did you learn about yourself and how has that shaped who you are? (Maximum 350-500 words.)
As a quote typically attributed to Albert Einstein says, “Adversity introduces a man to himself.” Facing adversity is often revelatory and can show you what you are capable of, which values are most important to you, and how far you are willing to go or how hard you are willing to work to overcome whatever stands in your way. That Tepper would pose such a question this year seems only natural, given the level of hardship so many people are (and have been) dealing with, and candidates’ responses will undoubtedly be very informative for the admissions committee.
First, take care not to conflate adversity with a setback or failure. To fit the school’s query, the situation you describe in your essay needs to relate to a state of opposing, unfavorable, or even hostile conditions rather than a finite or easily quantifiable impediment. And adversity can take many forms: societal, financial, mental/emotional, physical, etc. The source can be external (e.g., a persistent lack of money, others’ prejudices, physical limitations) or internal (e.g., phobia, mental illness, language abilities). It can be quietly oppressive or overtly so. We doubt that you have faced adversity only once in your life—though we are happy for you if this is somehow the case—so be sure to consider all your options thoroughly to identify the one that was most affecting and influential.
With this essay, the admissions committee wants to learn about how you interpret, process, and react to such situations. To craft an effective response, you will obviously need to clearly convey what form the adversity took and what it prevented you from doing and how. What effect did it have on you, in terms of both what you could do and how you felt? What were your thought processes and actions in response? Describe how the situation was resolved or has improved for you (the essay prompt implies a resolution in asking “how you have overcome adversity,” emphasis ours) and what you realized about yourself as a result. Note that Tepper specifically asks not what you learned in a general sense but what you learned about yourself. Lastly, share how that knowledge has subsequently influenced the person you are today and how you interact with the world around you. Showing a clear cause-and-effect relationship between the individual you were (or believed yourself to be) before the situation and the individual you are now will help the admissions reader understand how and why it was a major factor in your personal development.
Short Answer Essay: At the Tepper School, we value our community and it is important for each person to contribute to its success. What difference will you make as a member of the MBA class at the Tepper School? (Maximum 150 words.)
To know how you would be able to contribute at Tepper, you must first understand the community and environment you will be contributing to, so—if you have not already done so—you must research the school in depth before attempting to craft this essay. This means moving beyond the program’s website, viewbook, and related marketing materials and making direct contact with students, alumni, and even school representatives. And although visiting the campus and sitting in on a class is not an option at the moment, you might still be able to attend an admissions event in your area (safely!). Other options include reading student blogs and recent press releases from the school, as well as checking out the Tepper YouTube channel. This kind of firsthand observation of what and who the Tepper program truly entails, paired with a profound knowledge of how it works, is key in identifying what is unique about you viewed against this backdrop—and will help you highlight what you can bring to the mix and how.
Pay special attention to the aspects of and areas at Tepper that speak to you personally in some way, and consider social events/clubs and professional development opportunities along with course work and academic offerings. Business school is meant to be a comprehensive environment and experience that enriches students in ways not just related directly to business, and perhaps your best potential for contribution lies in one of these areas. If you are an avid quant wizard, you could of course help your fellow students with class work and projects. If you have a depth of knowledge or years of experience in a particular area, whether through your job or in a personal capacity (such as being a dedicated wine aficionado), you could serve as a kind of subject matter expert for those around you in the program or even a valuable component in someone’s recruiting network. If you are particularly funny, creative, or athletic, you may be the ideal fit to lead an extracurricular group or play a significant role in a nonacademic project or event.
The broad scope of this mini essay prompt allows you a great amount of freedom to choose and share the information you believe is most important for the admissions committee to know about you. Truly focus on just one or two elements of your personality that are most relevant to the context here: the Tepper experience. Avoid trying to squeeze in as much information as possible about yourself in hopes of stumbling on the “right” answers. Instead, clearly present and illustrate your most fitting qualities and show a direct connection between them and specific aspects of the MBA program. Authenticity and enthusiasm are the keys to your success with this essay.
Because a contribution essay such as this has similarities to a “why our school?” essay, and because “why our school?” is often an element of a classic personal statement, we encourage you to download a free copy of our Personal Statement Guide, which offers further guidance on preparing for and writing such a submission and includes multiple illustrative examples.
Optional Essay: Use this essay to convey important information that you may not have otherwise been able to convey. This may include unexplained resume gaps, context for recommender selection, etc. If you are a re-applicant, explain how your candidacy has strengthened since your last application.
Tepper’s optional essay prompt is somewhat broad in the sense that it does not demand that you discuss only problem areas in your candidacy. That said, the second line of the prompt does seem to imply that the admissions committee expects the essay to be used in this way. If an element of your profile would benefit from further explanation—such as a poor grade or overall GPA, a low GMAT or GRE score, or a legal or disciplinary issue—this is your opportunity to address it and answer any related questions an admissions officer might have. We caution you against simply trying to fill this space because you fear that not doing so would somehow count against you, and do not interpret this as a blank-slate invitation to dump every bit of remaining information about yourself that you feel the school is lacking or to offer a few anecdotes you were unable to use in your required essay. Although no word limit is stipulated, be mindful that by submitting an additional essay, you are making a claim on an (undoubtedly very busy) admissions representative’s time, so you be sure that what you have written is worth the additional resources and effort. For more guidance, download our free mbaMission Optional Essays Guide, in which we offer detailed advice (along with multiple examples) on when and how to take advantage of the optional essay.
If you are a reapplicant, this essay is pretty straightforward. 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. Tepper 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 Tepper 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.