MBA essays are one of the three pillars of your application along with the GMAT and the interview. AdComs pay a lot of attention to the essays, but they also try to come up with new essay questions which will help applicants better reveal their personality and aptitude for graduate management education.

It is always helpful to look into MBA admission essay topics well in advance. This will set your mind in a “brainstorming” mode so that you can have a plethora of ideas when you sit down to prepare your actual application.

Read 9 Do’s and Don’t's on Preparing Admissions Essays

The challenge of US MBA admission essays

Business schools usually give clear and friendly instructions about what they expect to read in your essays. Let us look at some examples.

Here is what the Wharton admissions office recommends:

The Admissions Committee wants to get to know you on both a professional and personal level. We encourage you to be introspective, candid, and succinct. Most importantly, we suggest you be yourself.

Stanford Graduate School of Business (SGB) share on their MBA website:

The personal essays give us glimpses of your character and hopes. In each essay, we want to hear your genuine voice. Think carefully about your values, passions, aims, and dreams prior to writing them.

The New York University Stern School of Business (NYU Stern) explain:

Our Stern essay questions give you the opportunity to more fully present yourself to the Admissions Committee and to provide insight into your experiences, goals and thought processes.

There are many myths and misperceptions about MBA admissions essays. Most applicants assume they have to say something special that the schools want to hear. But it is just the opposite – the schools want to hear your genuine personal story. The challenge is to keep to the point, to avoid general talk, to give examples and to be concise (because there is always a word limit). Also, keep in mind that the essays are just one element of the application package and have to be coherent with the rest of the information which you provide.

Read more about the MBA Admission process

Types of MBA admission essay questions

Most business schools expect you to reply to several essay questions. One of them may be optional. Here are the most common types of questions illustrated by the 2016 top US MBA admission essays.

The ‘Why us?’ essay

With this type of MBA admission essay question, AdComs invite you to give sound arguments and specific examples of how their MBA programme will help you to achieve your post-MBA goals and to work on your areas of improvement.

Let us look at some actual 2016 top US MBA essay questions of this type and the instructions provide by the admissions offices:

Why Stanford? Enlighten us on how earning your MBA at Stanford will enable you to realize your ambitions. A strong response to this essay question will (1) Explain your decision to pursue graduate education in management. (2) Explain the distinctive opportunities you will pursue at Stanford.

What do you hope to gain both personally and professionally from the Wharton MBA?

Columbia Business School’s location enables us to bridge theory and practice in multiple ways: through Master Classes, internships, the New York Immersion Seminars, and, most importantly, through a combination of distinguished research faculty and accomplished practitioners. How will you take advantage of being “at the very center of business”? (Maximum 250 words)

Why Duke: When asked by your family, friends, and colleagues why you want to go to Duke, what do you tell them? Share the reasons that are most meaningful to you.

NYU Stern want to make sure you made a well-informed school selection. The question they expect applicants to answer in 2016 is:

What actions have you taken to determine that Stern is the best fit for your MBA experience?

The ‘Present Yourself’ essay

This essays question invites you to describe why you think you are a good fit for the programme, its student body, class profile and culture. It also looks for details about your typical team roles, leadership style, strengths, areas of improvement and certainly the unique contribution which you can make to the MBA class.

Here are some actual essay topics:

In the past several years Harvard Business School (HBS) experimented with just one essay and that one was optional. However, this year the essay once again is a required element of the application. The essay question for the Class of 2018 (2016 Intake) is:

It' the first day of class at HBS. You are in Aldrich Hall meeting your "section." This is the group of 90 classmates who will become your close companions in the first-year MBA classroom. Our signature case method participant-based learning model ensures that you will get to know each other very well. The bonds you collectively create throughout this shared experience will be lasting. Introduce yourself. Should you enroll at HBS, there will be an opportunity for you to share this with them.

Columbia Business School has the ‘CBS Matters’ initiative, when students reveal their personal story in front of other students. So their essay question goes as follows:

CBS Matters, a key element of the School’s culture, allows the people in your Cluster to learn more about you on a personal level. What will your Clustermates be pleasantly surprised to learn about you? (Maximum 250 words)

Watch video about the challenge and effect of sharing your story with your Clustermates.

When a new person joins the Duke Fuqua Admissions team, they ask that person to share with everyone in the office a list of "25 Random Things About Yourself". In this spirit, the Admissions Committee also wants to get to know the applicants beyond their professional and academic achievements listed in their resumes/CVs and transcripts.

Present your response in list form, numbered 1 to 25. Some points may be only a few words, while others may be longer. Your complete list should not exceed 2 pages. …You can share with us important life experiences, your likes/dislikes, hobbies, achievements, fun facts, or anything that helps us understand what makes you who you are. Share with us your list of "25 Random Things" about YOU.

The ‘Career Goals’ essay

NYU Stern asks applicants to describe their professional aspirations in maximum 750 words:

What do you see yourself doing professionally upon graduation?

In some cases the question about career goals is combined with the ‘Why us?' question.

Columbia Business School asks their 2016 MBA applicants the question in this way:

Through your resume and recommendations, we have a clear sense of your professional path to date. What are your career goals going forward, and how will the Columbia MBA help you achieve them? (Maximum 500 words)

Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkley (Haas Berkley) formulated the essay in this way:

Tell us about your path to business school and your future plans. How will the Berkeley-Haas experience help you along this journey? (500 words maximum)

The ‘Multimedia’ essay

Some business schools are open to your creativity and invite applicants to submit presentations in a format other than a written text.

MIT Sloan School of Management (MIT Sloan) has an optional essay question which is open to applicants’ creative spirit

The Admissions Committee invites you to share anything else you would like us to know about you, in any format. If you choose to use a multimedia format, please host the information on a website and provide us the URL.

The NYU Stern essay 2 is on personal expression:

Please describe yourself to your MBA classmates. You may use almost any method to convey your message (e.g. words, illustrations). Feel free to be creative.

Watch Becky Bridges' video "2013 Personal Expression Essay Submission" -

The ‘Optional’ essay

The ‘optional’ essay is either an opportunity to share additional information with the AdCom or to select one of several topics on which you would like to comment. Here are some examples:

Wharton MBA:

Please use the space below to highlight any additional information that you would like the Admissions Committee to know about your candidacy. (400 words)

Columbia Business School:

An optional fourth essay will allow you to discuss any issues that do not fall within the purview of the required essays.

Haas Berkley essay 2 lists three optional essay topics:

Please respond to one of the following prompts: (250 words maximum)

  • Describe an experience that has fundamentally changed the way you see the world and how it transformed you.
  • Describe a significant accomplishment and why it makes you proud.
  • Describe a difficult decision you have made and why it was challenging.

Now that you have looked at the 2016 top US MBA admission essays stopics you can understand why the essay should be really personal. You and the business schools of your choice should get to know each other well before you commit to a two-year journey together. MBA admissions essays are your best opportunity to do that and to gain an invitation for the final step to admission and a scholarship – the interview.

Read What you need to know about MBA and Master`s application essays?

Check out Top US MBA Admission Essays infographic:

Admission Essays