The University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business has long highlighted the strength of its community, the way students collaborate both inside and outside the classroom to learn and grow, and the value of bringing people from diverse backgrounds and with differing mind-sets together, and the school’s application essay prompts focus on all these ideas. Candidates must provide three short essays—which the school interestingly refers to as “short answer questions”—of 100 to 300 words. As a whole, the essays cover applicants’ personal, educational, and career objectives while touching on aspects of Darden’s particular character and ethos. Read on for our analysis of Darden’s 2023–2024 prompts.
UVA Darden 2023–2024 Essay Tips
Essay 1: Community of Belonging – What would you want your classmates to know about you that is not on your resumé? (100 words)
Before you start writing, do some foundational research into what the Darden community is like and how it functions. The school is known for having a very collaborative, close-knit student body, so the admissions committee understandably wants to know that you are not only aware of this fact but also ready to engage with and contribute to the community. So, in a mere 100 words (just a little longer than this paragraph), you must reveal that you have a perspective, attribute, background, and/or talent that will enrich and support the student body in some way.
Although the prompt refers to your future classmates broadly, an important element of the Darden MBA experience that you must keep in mind as you craft your response is its learning teams. These 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 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 program, in part because some cases are so voluminous that students must take a divide-and-conquer approach and teach one another the material. In the classroom, students discuss and debate the material at hand, exchanging ideas, knowledge, and proposals and actively working through the lessons together. In short, the learning experience at Darden is intense and complex, requiring strong teamwork skills and contributions but also providing support and camaraderie. Also, much of what occurs outside the classroom at the school is spearheaded and facilitated by the students, rather than the administration.
So, perhaps you are a great debater and can clearly see and elucidate multiple sides to a story. Or maybe you have a talent for diffusing tense situations with humor and so can keep a tired and stressed group of ambitious students with strongly held but opposing views in a good headspace and cooperating civilly. Perhaps you are a certified Reiki practitioner and can help your classmates manage their stress and energy levels. Or you might have an interesting and/or novel extracurricular talent, interest, or background and could create or contribute to a club through which to share it with your fellow students (consider, for example, the school’s popular School of Brew). Within reason, the skill or trait you choose to highlight here does not matter as much as establishing that it would make you a positive addition to Darden’s MBA experience.
To learn more about Darden and the 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.
Essay 2: Inclusive Impact – Please describe a tangible example that illuminates your experience promoting an inclusive environment and what you would bring to creating an inclusive global community at Darden. (300 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 engage with 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 interested in people and input that come from outside your usual frame of reference. And by asking you to share a time when you “promot[ed] an inclusive environment,” Darden is requesting actual evidence of this open-mindedness in action.
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 and immediately highlighting the actions you took to enhance inclusivity in a given situation: “When I realized that some of our new hires were reluctant to take part in our company’s weekly ‘wine wind down,’ I committed myself to finding out why and what could be done to ….”
Darden will understandably want to know the outcome of the incident you describe, so you need to relate the results of your actions, but the admissions committee is even more interested in knowing what your motivations were, what decisions you made, and what steps you took to effect change. In other words, you must illustrate the values and thought process behind your efforts, in addition to clearly conveying your actions and their outcome.
Keep in mind, however, that the incident or situation you share should claim only one half of this essay. The admissions committee is also interested in learning about how you expect to apply your mind-set and dedication to inclusivity once you arrive on campus.
Essay 3: Careers With Purpose – At this time how would you describe your short-term, post-MBA goal in terms of industry, function, geography, company size and/or mission and how does it align with the long-term vision you have for your career? (200 words)
At one of mbaMission’s annual conferences, 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. This understanding is behind the intro to this prompt (“At this time,…”), but Darden nonetheless 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. By providing the level of detail the essay question demands (“industry, function, geography, company size and/or mission”), you will be able to convince the school that you have done the necessary background work and are fully cognizant of where you want to go after graduating.
Note that the admissions committee asks specifically 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 career goals are often part of 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 next few questions are not technically essay prompts, but they are part of the Darden application and should be treated/approached with the same level of thought and effort.
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. Darden has an incredible network of alumni and partners around the world, and, in a typical year, the School 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 has noted 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 the previous 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.
To learn more about the essays for other top business schools, visit our MBA Essay Tips and Examples Resources Page.