You have the creative freedom to portray yourself the way you want the admissions committee to see you. Now is the right time to take a look at the essay topics of some of the top European business schools.
However, before we dive into the diversity of essay topics, it is worth explaining why the essays are one of the most challenging part of the MBA application.
Why are MBA essays challenging?
The creativity input, personal branding effort, and word count limits associated with the MBA admissions essays are usually more daunting and time consuming than initially expected. Actually, many MBA applicants work with admission coaches on preparing the essays. Why?
First, determining how you can stand out from your competitors without really knowing them is a tough task, but this is the essence of the MBA application and especially the essays. It takes a lot of self-reflection, feedback from friends and peers, and analysis of the typical class profile of the MBA programme that you are targeting. Still, it is difficult to look at yourself from an outsider's perspective. That is why there are different approaches and coaching services available for MBA applicants to use.
The second challenge for producing good essays takes a lot of time and requires a strategic approach. You have to analyse all elements of the application package – application form, letters or reference, essay topics – and come up with a clear strategy of which aspects of your profile, experience, and expectations to highlight in each part.
Finally, allow plenty of time for the actual drafting, rearranging, editing, getting feedback, second editing, cutting or expanding to fit the required volume, and final proofreading. Producing a single MBA essay that you will be proud of doesn’t happen overnight. It may take a month. Now think about producing several essays for several B-schools, as is usually the case.
It is never too early to start brainstorming and drafting your essays. Now let’s look at some recent essay questions of leading European B-schools.
Top European MBA essay questions
HEC Paris (France)
MBA applicants at HEC Paris business school are expected to answer six essay questions, one of which is optional and another is selected from a choice of three topics. The volume of each essay varies between 250 and 900 words maximum and the overall volume that an applicant should actually produce for all essays is between 1,500 and 2,400 words. Here are the essay questions for the autumn 2017 and spring 2018 MBA intake:
- Why are you applying to the HEC MBA Programme now? What is the professional objective that will guide your career choice after your MBA, and how will the HEC MBA contribute to the achievement of this objective? (max. 500 words)
- What do you consider your most significant life achievement? (max. 250 words)
- Leadership and ethics are inevitably intertwined in the business world. Describe a situation in which you have dealt with these issues and how they have influenced you. (max. 250 words)
- Imagine a life entirely different from the one you now lead, what would it be? (max. 250 words)
- Please choose from one of the following essays: (max. 250 words)
- What monument or site would you advise a first-time visitor to your country or city to discover, and why? - Certain books, movies or plays have had an international success that you believe to be undeserved. Choose an example and analyse it. - What figure do you most admire and why? You may choose from any field (arts, literature, politics, business, etc).
- Is there any additional information you would like to share with us? (max. 900 words)
ESADE Business School (Spain)
“What makes you YOU?” is the focus of the set of personal essays for full-time MBA applicants at ESADE business school. The admissions team advises: “The following questions are designed to help us get a more complete picture of who you are and the impact that you will have both here at ESADE and on society after completing your MBA. Please respond openly, explaining what makes you the person that you are and who you will become.”
The answer to each question is limited to 2,000 characters including spaces, 30 lines approximately and each applicant should write five obligatory and one optional essay.
- Which aspects have you improved on during your academic and professional career so far? Which tools or values have helped you achieve this?
- How will your background, values and non-work-related activities enhance the experience of other ESADE MBA students and add to the diverse culture we strive for at ESADE? (Note: The goal of this essay is to get a sense of who you are, rather than what you have accomplished)
- What are your motivations in pursuing a full-time MBA at this point in your life? Describe your mid-term and long-term visions for your post-MBA career path. What is it about ESADE you think will help you reach your goals?
- Complete two of the following four questions or statements (1,000 characters per response) - I am most proud of... - People may be surprised to learn that I... - What has your biggest challenge been and what did it help you learn about yourself? - Which historical figure do you most identify with and why?
- Please provide any additional information that you would like to bring to the attention of the Admissions Committee. This may include gaps in employment, your undergraduate record, plans to retake the GMAT, or any other relevant information.
ESMT Berlin (Germany)
Full-time MBA applicants at the ESMT business school have to work on four obligatory and one optional essay, focused on their career plans, leadership and team spirit, challenges, and achievement. Take a look at the actual essay questions:
- Please explain why you are applying for an MBA at ESMT? What are your career plans upon completion of your MBA? Please provide some insights on your short-term (immediately after your MBA) and long-term objectives. (5,000 characters maximum)
- Many leadership specialists speak of how failure is just as important to professional development as success is. Tell us about a setback in your life (personal, academic, or professional), your reaction to the setback, and any learning or growth you gained from the experience. (1,800 characters maximum)
- Are you involved in any volunteer or charity activities? If so, please describe your involvement, the amount of time spent on these activities and what motivated you to get involved. (630 characters maximum)
- Imagine you have just finished your MBA. You have two months until your next career adventure is due to start and have decided to go on a cross-country automobile trip. You can afford to invite two fellow travellers. Who (can be people alive or historical figures) would you take with you and why? (1,500 characters maximum)
- If you would like to add any additional short information which you feel is not evident from the rest of your application, please do so here. (630 characters maximum)
Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford (UK)
Applicants for the MBA programme at Oxford Saïd are required to answer three types of questions: describe in detail their career development plans, present their perspective on how they fit Oxford Saïd’s mission (max. 500 words), and highlight anything that has not been covered in the application form that they would like the Admissions Committee to know about them (max. 250 words). Those who reapply for admission to the MBA programme should answer an additional question on what improvements they have made in their candidacy since they last applied to the Oxford MBA programme (max. 250 words).
The career development question gives a good example of the detail into which applicants are expected to go. The actual question is “What are your immediate post-MBA career plans?” and applicants are given the broad choice between employment, entrepreneurship, and other career paths. Here is the advice from the Admissions Committee:
This section is designed to give us, and you, a better understanding of your post-MBA career plans. We recommend that you do research before answering these questions (e.g.: check company websites, LinkedIn profiles, etc.).
Those who plan to climb the corporate ladder should be able to describe their immediate post-MBA plans (1,000 characters), along with the preferred sector and location of that post-MBA career. In addition, the Oxford Saïd admissions team expects applicants to describe how employers in the preferred sector in the preferred location recruit MBA talent, and to outline the research done so far (1,000 characters). The next step is for MBA applicants to comment on how they meet the requirements of potential employers. Finally, MBA applicants should present a plan on what they will do between the time of application and the start of the MBA to prepare and maximise their chances of employment success. However, Oxford Saïd takes applicants one step further by asking: “Should you not be successful in securing your first choice of role, what is your alternative?”
In a similar way, those who see their future as entrepreneurs should describe their business idea, including details of the business plan and the steps they have taken so far to develop or launch the business project (1,000 characters). Another essential question is: “How will the MBA help you start, or further develop, your own business? (1,000 characters)”. Finally, applicants should explain what they will do between the time of application and the start of the MBA to prepare and maximise their chances of success (1,000 characters), and what their back-up plan is in case they fail to develop or launch their own business (1,000 characters).
At this stage you can already get a feel of the value that MBA essays bring to your application and the message they have to convey to the admissions committees. B-schools clearly state that you have to invest in research and preparation so they can evaluate you as an MBA candidate, but most importantly this investment helps you understand the value of the MBA for your career and personal growth. As you might have noticed, most of the essay questions are quite common across all the leading business schools, no matter how they are worded. So, hopefully, you are now well inspired to start soul-searching, brainstorming, and drafting your personal MBA essays.