The Yale School of Management (SOM) is one of the few top business schools that give candidates just one required application essay with which to make their desired impression on the admissions committee. This season, the school is offering applicants a choice of three topics to, as the admissions committee states, “ensure that you’re able to write about something important to you.” Applicants can expound on a significant commitment and its underlying impetus and meaning (an essay topic that until this year had been required), discuss a particularly significant community involvement, or describe a major challenge they have faced. The essay has a 500-word maximum, so you need to be clear, direct, and rather succinct in your response, without much preamble or extraneous text. If you feel your primary essay does not allow you to share an aspect of your profile that you believe is particularly important or compelling, or if you have an issue in your candidacy that would benefit from further explication, you can use the “optional information” space to fill in the blanks. The program’s application guide asserts that this is “not an additional required essay,” however, so do not feel that not completing this section will somehow jeopardize your candidacy. Our full analysis of the school’s essay prompts for 2023–2024 follows.
Yale SOM 2023–2024 Essay Tips
Required Essay: We want to know what matters to you, and our essay question is designed to help us gain insight into your background, passions, motivations, responsibilities, ideals, identities, challenges, or aspirations, depending on where you take your response. To ensure that you’re able to write about something important to you, we offer you three essay prompts from which to choose:
1) Describe the biggest commitment you have ever made. Why is this commitment meaningful to you and what actions have you taken to support it? (500-word limit)
When this intriguing essay prompt was originally introduced in 2016, Assistant Dean for Admissions Bruce DelMonico noted that the “seemingly simple and straightforward question” was composed with assistance from one of the program’s organizational behavior professors. Yale’s admissions committee clearly takes its application essays seriously and is thoughtful about the mind-set and types of behaviors it wants to see in the school’s students. In an online Q&A session with several leading admissions officers we hosted, DelMonico declared himself “agnostic” about whether applicants should discuss a personal commitment or a professional one, noting that he wants to gauge the level to which candidates commit themselves, rather than the context of the engagement: “We don’t have a preference for professional or personal accomplishments. . . . We are not making value judgments about what that commitment is, but it is more about how you approach that commitment, how you have demonstrated that commitment, and what sorts of behaviors underlie that commitment.”
You might initially perceive this prompt as rather narrow in scope, allowing you to share the story of just a single professional or community project and nothing more, but that is not the case. You can certainly discuss your dedication to a particular project or cause, of course, but you are definitely not restricted to this approach. Consider this: you can also be committed to an idea (e.g., personal liberty) or a value (e.g., creating opportunity for others), and approaching your essay from this angle instead could enable you to reveal much more of and about yourself to the admissions committee. For example, you might relate a few anecdotes that on the surface seem unrelated—drawing from different parts of your life—but that all support and illustrate how you are guided by a particular belief or world view. Or, to use the example of personal liberty as a theme, you could show how you take control of your academic and professional paths, adhering steadfastly to your values and vision. Whatever you choose to feature as the focus of your commitment, your actions and decisions, manifest via a variety of experiences, must allow you to own it as a genuine part of who you are as an individual. Identifying a theme that you think no one else will ever use is not your goal here; presenting authentic anecdotes that powerfully support your selected theme is what is important.
If you elect to focus on a single anecdote, the commitment you claim must be truly inordinate. Being particularly proud of an accomplishment is not enough to make it an effective topic for this essay. You need to demonstrate your constancy and dedication in the face of challenges or resistance, revealing that your connection to the experience was hard won. Strive to show that you have been resolute in following a sometimes difficult path and have doggedly stayed on course, citing clear examples to illustrate your steadfastness. Nothing commonplace will work here—you must make your reader truly understand your journey and leave them more impressed by your effort than the outcome.
2) Describe the community that has been most meaningful to you. What is the most valuable thing you have gained from being a part of this community and what is the most important thing you have contributed to this community? (500-word limit)
In working with business schools and MBA applicants, we hear about the concept of “community” quite a bit, and these days, it seems to be more important (and ubiquitous) than ever. Each school has its own unique community and, understandably, wants to ensure not only that the applicants it accepts will in some way fit with and enhance that community but also that they will benefit from it themselves. This essay is clearly a tool the Yale SOM admissions committee will use to identify candidates who would make fitting matches with the school’s community. It will also help the committee determine which applicants view and value the concept of community in the same way (or at least very similar to how) the members of Yale’s do. More specifically, the school wants to see that you have been an engaged member of a community before, how you personally define what a community is, that you know how to be an additive member (and in what way[s] you actively are one), and that you are aware of how you yourself profit from your participation and inclusion.
The prompt does not specify that you must discuss a strictly professional community or a personal one, so you can draw from any facet of your life. The community involvement you discuss could have been a long-term engagement or a short-term one, and it might even still be ongoing. Share what you value about your inclusion in this group and the motivations behind what you have contributed to it. We would caution you against discussing your family as your meaningful “community,” given that it is not one you proactively had agency in choosing and so would not be as revelatory of your individuality and personality.
We are going to assume that you have thoroughly researched the Yale SOM MBA experience and have therefore familiarized yourself well with its particular characteristics and qualities—what it values, the kinds of people who excel there, and so on. (If you have not, start doing so immediately; contact students and alumni, read student blogs, watch videos on the Yale SOM YouTube channel, and visit campus or participate in admissions events in your area.) If any of the attributes you appreciate in the community you describe overlap with any of those of the Yale SOM community, be sure to emphasize them in your essay.
3) Describe the most significant challenge you have faced. How have you confronted this challenge and how has it shaped you as a person? (500-word limit)
A challenge or obstacle can be the catalyst for a powerful learning experience, whether you were able to completely overcome the impediment or not. So, for this essay, you can discuss a one-time occurrence or an ongoing issue that you deal with regularly. And because the school does not stipulate that the challenge you share be strictly professional or personal, you can (and should) consider every possible option you have from the various facets of your life—your workplace, academic background, family, personal life, community engagements, and so on. The one you ultimately choose should be the one that has made the most significant impact on how you view and/or operate in the world today. The Yale SOM admissions committee wants to understand how and what you learn from situations in which things do not go as planned. Your goal is to convey that you are not easily discouraged by setbacks but that you instead use them as learning tools or stepping-stones on your path forward.
Consider using a narrative approach to tell your story, rather than simply stating the facts outright. Including vivid anecdotal details will help you most effectively convey the nature of your challenge. You want to ensure that the admissions reader fully grasps your struggle. Then, your explanation of how you have been “shaped” by the experience—and of the way in which you dealt (or are dealing with) the obstacle—will reveal your character. Avoid clichéd lessons, such as “gained resilience.” In what substantial way have you been changed by the situation, and how are you now able to apply what you learned from it or expect to do so in the future?
One important note: do not be afraid to reveal a weakness or error on your part. Although this is not a “failure” essay, if your own actions helped create the obstacle or you failed to see the obstacle right before you (and should have), you should not shy away from an honest discussion of your responsibility. Such incidents are usually very effective learning opportunities and could therefore make for a compelling essay. The key is in conveying what your takeaways are from the experience and explaining how it has influenced you and your life since.
Within its application, the Yale SOM also poses the following question:
Briefly describe your career interests and how you arrived at them. What have you already done to pursue these interests? What do you need to do going forward? (150 words maximum)
Although this is not presented by the school as an official essay question, we feel that a little guidance might be helpful. Here, the admissions committee is essentially asking for context for your professional aspirations, which typically involves some level of information about your work history, and wants to know how you expect to use the Yale SOM experience and degree to move your forward on your path to achieving your goals.
Keep in mind that the admissions committee will already have your resume on hand to review, and this should provide the basic information as far as your previous positions/titles, responsibilities, and accomplishments. What the school is looking for here is the more personal side of the story—what has motivated you along the way and is motivating you still, prodding you to pursue an MBA as part of your efforts to continue on your chosen professional path. In an application tips blog post, Kate Botelho, senior associate director of admissions at the Yale SOM, offers this advice when considering your response: “You may want to think about the answers to questions such as ‘How did these interests develop?’ ‘What kind of exposure have you had to them?’ ‘What steps have you already taken to explore these interests?’ ‘What enables you to pursue them successfully?’” Be sure to explain how you have set yourself on a path to attain your objectives and what you intend to do going forward. The school wants to know that you are, and will be, a determined and active participant in your eventual success and are not expecting to rely on the Yale name to do the work for you.
Given that this prompt essentially covers some of the elements found in a typical traditional personal statement essay, we encourage you to download a free copy of the mbaMission Personal Statement Guide, which offers in-depth advice on how to address these sorts of topics and provides examples.
Optional Information: If any aspect of your application requires additional explanation, you can address it in the Optional Information section below. Please note, you should use the specific prompts provided in the Work Experience section to address gaps in work experience or choice of recommender. The Optional Information section is truly optional – if no aspect of your application requires further explanation, you should leave this section blank. (200 words maximum)
Yale’s optional information prompt invites you to address any potential problem areas in your profile if you feel you need to. The use of the adjective “brief” clearly conveys that the school wants you to focus on imparting key information rather than offering a detailed and long-winded explanation of the issue in question. This is absolutely not an opportunity to share another cool story or otherwise try to impress or pander to the admissions committee. If you do not truly need to explain an issue or potentially confusing element of your candidacy, we do not recommend that you complete this section; if you do have issues to clarify, keep things concise. In our free mbaMission Optional Essays Guide, we offer detailed advice on when and how to take advantage of these kinds of opportunities, with multiple examples.
For a thorough exploration of the Yale SOM academic program/merits, defining characteristics, crucial statistics, social life, academic environment, and other key features, check out the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to the Yale School of Management.
The Next Step—Mastering Your Yale SOM 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. To help you on your way to this high level of preparation, we offer our free Interview Guides. Download your free copy of the Yale School of Management Interview Guide today.
To learn more about the essays for other top business schools, visit our MBA Essay Tips and Examples Resources Page.