How to write MBA Essays: The ‘What Has Shaped You’ Essay

While writing MBA essays related to personal and professional experiences, what you choose to write is as important as how you present the facts. Nupur Gupta shares another post with MBA Crystal Ball readers on how to write MBA essays for the best business schools. This time it’s all about experiences that have had a deep impact on you, as a person and a professional.


MBA Essay Topic: The ‘What has shaped you’ essay
by Nupur Gupta

Wharton MBA - Nupur Gupta

How different schools ask the same question?

Columbia Business School: Describe a life experience that has shaped you. The goal of this essay is to get a sense of who you are, rather than what you have achieved professionally. (500 words)

Chicago Booth MBA: At Chicago Booth, we believe each individual has his or her own leadership style. How has your family, culture, and/or environment influenced you as a leader? (750 words)

On the face of it, the above questions may not seem very similar. However, on deeper introspection, one will realize that they essentially aim to get to the bottom of the same question i.e. What experiences have shaped who you are?

What is the AdCom trying to understand by asking this question?

The AdCom wants to understand the life shaping experiences you have undergone and how you have reacted to situations you have faced to become who you are. The focus here is not necessarily on the gravity of the situation itself BUT on your reaction and approach to it. It’s a great way for AdCom to assess your attitude and get a sense for whether or not you are a “go-getter”.

Some things that schools are trying to screen for here:

  • Are you someone who rationalizes and makes excuses for life having handed you lemons or are you the kind of person to make lemonade? (Cliché, but important)
  • Do you have the maturity to be allowed entry into their program?
  • Are you able to exercise sensible judgment?
  • Do you have meaningful experiences that have shaped your personality?
  • How do you handle difficult/ challenging situations?
  • How do you approach problems and/or people?
  • Are you able to introspect and take away key lessons from your experiences?

A range of responses from the same candidate and our commentary and rating for each response

1. Weak: Being a third-generation scion of a family business, business runs in my blood and I am prepared to take over and handle all aspects of the family business.

CTM’s Observations: the only value-add from the above statement is that it tells the reader that the business is in its 3rd generation, which gives it some credibility. Aside from that, the statement does not provide the reader with any flavor as to what experiences the candidate has had and how he/she can add value to the MBA program. In fact, it almost makes it seem like the candidate has taken it for granted that they will be managing the family business.

2. Average: I grew up in a family business where I observed my father and my grandfather working hard to expand the footprint of the business from being a local setup in New Delhi to having 30 offices across India and an export outfit with exports to 15 countries. My goal now is to expand the footprint further and have offices all over the world.

CTM’s Observations: The above response starts to add some color as to the kind of experiences the applicant would have had. It’s most certainly interesting to hear about a story wherein someone is able to take a business from 1 location to 30 locations. The applicant loses out when they just delve into their goal straight up without talking about their specific experiences with the business and also when they mention a vague goal without any sense for how it will be achieved.

3. Strong: I grew up in a family business where I observed my father and my grandfather working hard to expand the footprint of the business from being a local setup in New Delhi to having 30 offices across India and an export outfit with exports to 15 countries. From an early age, I started attending meetings as a passive observer as I was fascinated by the workings of the business, the negotiations, the operational aspects as well as the client management.
In college, I was able to immerse myself into operations and since the time I graduated, I have been able to expand our unit production by 30%. Now, with the help of an MBA, I wish to further expand the business by establishing retail operations and I also wish to expand on the global operations inorganically by way of an acquisition. My experiences owing to my upbringing in a business environment, my work experience in the business as well as my MBA education will together ensure my ability to achieve these objectives.

CTM’s Observations: This is the story that dreams are made of! The writing is engaging and it shows you that this applicant has been involved with the business, cares deeply for its success, has worked in it, understands the business and has specific goals and a roadmap to achieve those goals. The reader can certainly find this narrative compelling, which should be the intent of any candidate.

MBA Essay Writing Do’s for the ‘What has shaped you’ Essay

  • Build a compelling narrative that shows significant experiences and try to relate them to your goals
  • Exercise good judgment in choosing the experiences you wish to share. Personal tragedies are best avoided, unless they involve overcoming a huge financial, emotional or circumstantial setback
  • Exercise caution while writing your essays, and ensure that the essay does not turn into a sounding board of your hits and misses in life. Instead, the essay should leave a clear imprint of your personality in the mind of the readers
  • Demonstrate a passion for life, learning, achievement and for leaving a legacy behind you
  • Talk about your specific role within the experience to allow the ad-com an insight into how you work, and how you approach problems and difficult situations

MBA Essay Writing Don’ts for the ‘What has shaped you’ Essay

  • Do not rationalize or make excuses
  • Do not get so personal in sharing your experiences that it makes your reader feel uncomfortable
  • Do not harp on extenuating circumstances outside your control because of which you’ve been a failure
  • Do not gloss over what you did or how you reacted to certain experiences

Nupur Gupta is an admissions consultant and the Founder of Crack The MBA. She graduated from the full-time MBA program at The Wharton School in 2010 with majors in Entrepreneurship and Finance. Nupur obtained her Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree in Computer Science from Rochester Institute of Technology in Upstate New York.
If you want to get in touch with her, drop us a note on: info [at] mbacrystalball [dot] com


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Sameer Kamat //
Sameer Kamat

Founder of MBA Crystal Ball. Author of Beyond The MBA Hype & Business Doctors. Here’s more about me. Connect with me on Google+ | Twitter | Facebook | Linkedin

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