A Framework for the Perfect “Why School X” Answer

Spoiler: the perfect answer requires lots of work.

I ate a lot of this crap when I was a kid.

I ate a lot of this crap when I was a kid.

How will the Booth MBA help you achieve your immediate and long-term post-MBA career goals? (250 word minimum)

Why do you feel Columbia Business School is a good fit for you? (250 words)

What do you hope to gain professionally from the Wharton MBA? (500 words)

Why Stanford?

If you are struggling with these types of questions, which represent a core component of the MBA application process, the problem is likely one of details: either your goals aren’t detailed enough to create specific “need connections” to “School X” or your answer is so general that it could apply to any school.

Assuming your goals are solid (if they’re not, check here), the following framework will help you develop a comprehensive answer that shows School X that you have done the appropriate due diligence for a life-shaping decision.

Step 1: Hard Skills (guideline: ~50%)

The logic here is easy. Your goals require new technical abilities. What courses and programs will provide them? Be specific. Don’t rely only on the widely recognized strength of School X (e.g., Wharton’s finance curriculum, Stanford’s entrepreneurship). Use exact course and program names and explain their connection to your goals.

Though not the most thrilling section, it is vital to show your understanding of School X’s offerings and how those will give you the technical abilities to reach your goals. Rather than core courses, which are similar across MBA programs, focus on electives. Drill down into the elective course descriptions to confirm the content. Don’t rely on course titles alone, because the class might not provide what you need. This is an easy one to blow if you’re lazy. Don’t be lazy!!

Step 2: Soft Skills/Leadership (guideline: ~25%)

Leaders fight for change. But change upsets, scares, and threatens people. An MBA program will enhance or imbue you with the skills in communication, persuasion, decision-making, conflict-resolution, management (of self and others), negotiation, etc. to implement your desired changes. Don’t make the common mistake of treating leadership as one discrete skill when it is comprised of many sub-skills.

To begin understanding your current leadership limitations, ask yourself, “What are my biggest interpersonal struggles in my current or past work?” or “Given my career goals, what future challenges will I face?”

Do you shy away from conflict or do people recoil from your ideas because you are overbearing? Are you strong in a big group, but less so one-on-one or vice versa? Are you bad at judging the capabilities of others? Do your task assignments miss the mark? Do you micromanage to the annoyance of your teammates or do you not give teammates enough direction? Does deciding for the group rattle your nerves? Are you paralyzed by imperfect information or do you make decisions too hastily? Do you try to make everyone on a team happy, even to the detriment of the outcome or deadlines? Do you not pay enough attention to your teammates? Could you be stronger at empowering your colleagues or do you try to do everything yourself? Are you defensive in the face of criticism or do you respond to all critiques, even invalid ones?

Offering an honest self-appraisal will show MBA adcoms that you are objective and open about your weaknesses and growth needs while creating sympathy for you as someone seeking personal improvement. (You will also be getting a head start on any essay or interview question about your weaknesses.)

Once you’ve identified your leadership development needs, connect them to the specific leadership offerings of the school. Explain how they will alleviate your current and/or future challenges.

Step 3: Cultural Fit/Advantage/Branding/Signature Class (~25%)

Each MBA program has its own culture, brand, defining characteristics, or even a signature class, whether it’s the team focus of Kellogg, the case study method of HBS, the NYC advantage of Columbia, or the “Touchy-Feely” (i.e., Interpersonal Dynamics) course at Stanford GSB. Lots of applicants give them a superficial mention but fail to explain the deeper connection to their goals or personal growth needs, so they sound like every other applicant. Stand out by once again digging into yourself so you can express how the uniqueness of School X can help you reach the next stage.

There might be some overlap among these three components. That’s fine. And this structure is certainly not the only approach. However, it covers the most important bases and will give you a good template that can be adjusted easily to all your target schools. Some schools offer very little space, so adjust and prioritize accordingly to maximize impact.

As you can see, underlying much of this “perfect” answer is self-awareness, an intangible quality that every school wants and is often the most difficult to demonstrate in your applications. It is also one of the areas we can help you with the most through our insightful questioning and behavioral pattern recognition, so if you are struggling, please get in touch. We can straighten you out quickly.