How to Tackle One of the Hardest MBA Essay Questions in Three Steps

When it comes time to write your MBA application essays, one topic you can count on having to cover for nearly every program to which you are applying is why that particular school is the best fit for you. As an admissions consultant, I’ve helped countless clients craft this argument and I can undoubtedly say that, for almost everyone, it is one of the more difficult things to do WELL.

Most people’s first inclination – which I totally get – is to restate the prominent ‘branding’ they’ve heard about a particular school. For instance, since Kellogg (of which I am a proud alum) is known as a heavily team-oriented program, they’ll say ‘I work best in a team setting so Kellogg’s culture is the best fit for me.’ Don’t get me wrong, this argument might be true and it’s fine. But it’s just fine. You are telling the adcom the same thing they’ll hear from thousands of other applicants. Don’t waste precious word count on fine.

So how can you do better? It’s tough and that’s exactly why it matters. Most people won’t put in the effort to craft a nuanced, authentic argument, so view it as an opportunity to set yourself apart. Here are my three best tips to accomplish this:

1. Focus Your Networking

At this stage in the game (with Round 2 deadlines roughly six weeks away), hopefully you’ve attended info sessions for your target schools and spoken with current students or alumni. While these are valuable steps to have taken and will definitely help you craft a compelling ‘why X school’ argument, a best practice is to leverage these resources to make connections in your specific MBA / post-MBA focus area.

If you’re seeking a career in healthcare consulting, it might be interesting to hear about the experience of your roommate’s sister who took a post-MBA banking job, but she likely won’t be able to tell you about the specific resources that will be most valuable in your job search. I’m not saying you shouldn’t speak with her, you absolutely should! But, at the end of the chat (or as follow up), ask her if she has any friends who went into healthcare consulting post-MBA and if she’d be willing to make the connection.  

Once she does (and you thank her enthusiastically), ask the healthcare consultant alum what courses he still leverages in his work today and what the recruiting process was like. Was the healthcare club helpful in preparing for interviews and how so? What firms came to campus and, if not many did, was the alumni network responsive to outreach?  

If you don’t have these connections in your network, reach out to the leadership team of the relevant campus club and see if they’d be willing to chat for 15 minutes. Or do some LinkedIn sleuthing and see if you can find an alum who is currently working in your field of interest. The worst that can happen is that they ignore you, but many will respond to a targeted, thoughtful message.

2. Think Inward

Peruse any school’s website and you’ll see that they seek to develop leaders and provide coursework in the basic business disciplines – finance, marketing, strategy, etc. This is all wonderful, but generic. You likely don’t need (and won’t have time for) education in every area during your two short years in the program. Furthermore, if you don’t already have a robust skill set to contribute, they shouldn’t admit you in the first place.

This is where your ‘personal brand’ or ‘application thesis’ is critical. Think, really think, about the specific skills you will need for success in your post-MBA career, both short-term and long-term. To name a few, these could include: management frameworks for leading a large team, negotiation skills for dealing with external and internal clients, tools to conceptualize and launch a product, or advanced data analytics skills to monitor and grow a product or business.

Hopefully, your future career aspirations build on some of the skills you already have, in which case you don’t need to spend time in business school developing them. Key in on the gaps and focus your research there. Does ‘school X’ have a robust course offering to develop the skills you need to acquire? Beyond the classroom, are there experiential learning opportunities to apply what you have learned? These are the examples you want to cite in your essays.

3. Craft a specific, multidimensional argument

Building on this point, when it comes time to put your thoughts on paper, focus on building a specific, multidimensional argument. What do I mean by this? Oftentimes, I see clients write a laundry list of courses they’d like to take.  As noted above, it’s important to find courses the school offers that will help fill in your skill gaps but go further than just naming them. Draw the connection for the adcom as to what this course will teach you and why that matters for your success post-MBA.

Additionally, while classes are important, the MBA experience is much broader than this. What clubs are active on campus that will allow you to network with likeminded peers as well as your target companies? Speak to what you will contribute to these clubs (perhaps you’ll shoot for a leadership role?) and demonstrate knowledge of the types of events they host.

The last ‘dimension’ you should try to work into your ‘why school X’ argument is culture. Despite what I said earlier, this may involve mentioning one of the more common things the school is known for (i.e. Booth appeals to quant rock stars); but, the key is to apply this cultural element to your own situation. How does it mirror prior settings in which you’ve excelled? Why will it benefit you in your specific career ambitions?  This is the logic you want to convey.

To demonstrate these points in practice, here is a recent client’s stand out answer to ‘Why do you feel Columbia Business School is a good fit for you?’ (250 words):

Competition and collaboration are often seen as opposing forces, but I respectfully disagree. I am personally motivated by both, and I have seen both exemplified at CBS, contributing to a dynamic community in which I have felt like I belonged since my first visit to Columbia’s campus. While all CBS students share my high drive to succeed, they are also active contributors to each other’s success through programs such as the CMC Fellows and Peer Advisors. The monthly Investment Idea Club (IIC) offered by CSIMA, a platform under which students practice stock and credit pitches, is another unique way not found in other MBA programs that I would learn from constructive criticism from my peers and alumni.

Looking to continue my career in NYC, I will capitalize on CBS’ unmatched geographic advantage, which will enable me to work with adjunct professors, such as Prof. Hendrickson, and network with industry leaders at monthly panels and conferences such as the Annual Columbia Energy Symposium. The convenience of location will also allow me to leverage my network in the energy and finance industries to bring in executives, such as [renewable energy company] CFO [name] or [renewable energy company] CFO [name], for campus events to facilitate discussions on the importance and economic feasibility of achieving net zero carbon footprint.

Lastly, having a strong understanding of global financial trends is an indispensable ingredient to managing an investment fund. The high composition of international students at CBS will expand my knowledge on ESG issues around the globe and aligns with my own multinational background.

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