The MBA Personal Essay


After the Goals essay, Personal Essays are often the most difficult because searching the fabric of your life for the strongest and brightest threads is a daunting challenge. Highly rewarding, but daunting.

Describe how your background, values, academics, activities and/or leadership skills will enhance the experience of other Kellogg students. (Kellogg MBA, 2008-09 application)

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? (Tuck MBA, 2008-09 application)

Is there anything about your background or experience that you feel you have not had the opportunity to share with the Admissions Committee in your application? If yes, please explain. (500 words) (Wharton MBA, 2008-09 application)

Essays describing your goals, accomplishments and failures tend to follow similar structures and story lines. Personal essays, however, can cover almost anything, including your childhood, athletic or artistic accomplishments, volunteer activities, serious hobbies, and international experiences. They can span your entire life, several specific experiences, or even just one topic. They can be surprising, funny, risky, creative. (They can even discuss negative experiences as long as you can show your resulting personal growth.) They should reveal new sides of you, while complimenting and illuminating what you’ve written elsewhere. I remember a personal essay written by a client six or seven years ago about a book his grandfather gave him when he was a child that influenced him throughout his life and ultimately determined his career (government service). His story was simple, but it had a powerful “echo.”

Other excellent personal essays I remember:

1)    How a client’s mentally handicapped sister, who she resented at first, inspired her own unique life and brought her family closer together. 2)    How a client took a job working at a bar in a rough part of town that served gangsters, prostitutes and transvestites, ignoring his disapproving parents and friends at an elite, conservative college. 3)    How a client’s sense of humor (making bizarre videos with his friends, wearing a big sombrero to meet important guests, etc.)  helped him deal with poverty, opened doors and endeared him to his subordinates

Don’t have such drama in your life? Simple topics work just as well, if they are honest and insightful. How about these:

1)    How a client learned to alternate between relaxation and tension in her arms while swimming freestyle, a lesson she brought to her stressful work life. 2)    How a client learned the importance of shared responsibility through team cycling, where each rider takes a turn at the front.

What makes all of these essays “pop” is not necessarily the experiences themselves, it is the applicants’ self-awareness; they know how these experiences changed their lives or revealed their hidden qualities. Climbing Mt. Everest is awesome, but it doesn’t mean a thing to an MBA adcom if you can’t explain why you did it, how you did it, and what you learned about your self, your life, and your values.

If you are having difficulty getting started, I suggest listing out the major turning points of your life and using those as anchor points. Or if you know the qualities you want to express (perhaps you’ve uncovered some of them in a leadership/accomplishment essay), decide which life episodes will best illustrate them. Still having trouble? Talk to people you know and trust. Ask them about your best qualities. Telling your story chronologically is a natural way to show growth and progression, but it is not necessarily the only structure. One client, a musician and lyricist, used his own song lyrics to headline different anecdotes.

Note: despite the clear wording of these questions, some applicants still try to answer them using professional topics. This is a mistake, likely leading to an unbalanced essay set and even repetition of professional topics covered elsewhere.

Note 2: avoid "bad boyfriend/girlfriend" stories. While they can lead to growth, we've all had them, they're often too personal, and they rarely lead to interesting revelations.