Good Questions #2

The second of three good questions I recently received and my answer.

2. Almost all the colleges have essays asking how can i contribute to their college culture and what all i have done to know about the program. Looking at the question, it seems like they are looking for some specific answers. Can you give me some data points on this?

It's true. Many programs want to know what unique things you can offer. For example, Kellogg this year asks:

"Describe how your background, values, academics, activities and/or leadership skills will enhance the experience of other Kellogg students."
And Tuck asks:
"Tuck seeks candidates of various backgrounds who can bring new perspectives to our community. How will your unique personal history, values, and/or life experiences contribute to the culture at Tuck?"
In my opinion it is very difficult to distinguish yourself in this manner solely based on your career since there are really no unique jobs. There are unique accomplishments within career fields, of course, but those can be addressed in other essays like the goals essay or a leadership/accomplishment essay. In addition, it is assumed that everyone can and will contribute their work experience so that means you need to base your answer on more personal qualities and experiences. Examples can include time spent living or working abroad, a hobby or interest, volunteer work, athletic accomplishments, life experiences, etc. A lot of people think this means they have to have led a team safely up Mt. Everest and back in a terrible snowstorm. This is a great story, but even so it is not a guaranteed winner if the writer doesn't explain it well or reflect on the lessons s/he learned or how those lessons might be applicable in an MBA program.

Some of the best personal essays I've read were about simple things - how swimming served as a metaphor for someone to balance relaxation and tension, or how a book given to a client by his grandfather led to his lifetime commitment to peace and a career in government service, or how living with a mentally handicapped sibling led to incredible personal growth. To me, these kinds of answers draw out truly unique personal qualities that only the writer can contribute. There are many people with outstanding work experience, but far fewer who have thought deeply about their values and interests and who have taken action successfully to pursue them.

Regarding the second part of your question, you do need to demonstrate strong knowledge of the programs you apply to. Schools will be insulted or think you are foolish if they feel you haven't done this basic homework. Your findings can be demonstrated again in the goals essay but also in a personal essay by showing how your values and interests match up with the values and interests of the program. For instance, all programs are interested in team players, so any kind of teamwork experience (especially outside of work) can provide a strong essay topic. Similarly, volunteer experience with an NPO can also be applied to the volunteer programs that most schools offer. Connecting your personal and professional experience with the specific programs offered at various MBA programs is one sure way of demonstrating your knowledge of the program.