With Dawna Clarke back at the admissions helm for the University of Virginia’s Darden School after almost a decade and a half since her previous tenure there (and a stint as an mbaMission Senior Consultant), we were not surprised to see that she has put her stamp on the application process for this season, completely revamping the essay prompts. The single question Darden has posed the past few years has been replaced with five new prompts, each requesting a short blast of an essay that together total 750 words and cover applicants’ personal, professional, and educational objectives, while subtly acknowledging Darden’s character (its learning teams and 80-country reach, in particular). Our analysis follows…
“Tell us what you would want your learning team to know about you – personal, professional or both.” (100 words)
Before you start writing, we suggest you do some background work on what a learning team is and how it functions. At Darden, learning teams are carefully selected groups of five to six students, assembled with the intent of creating an eclectic mix of personalities and backgrounds. This group meets in the evenings, Sunday through Thursday, to tackle the next day’s case work together (and if you are not familiar with the case method, now is the time to do your homework on it as well!). Learning teams are a core element of the Darden experience, in part because some cases are so voluminous that students must take a divide-and-conquer approach and teach one another the material. In short, learning teams are intense and complex, requiring strong teamwork skills and contributions but capable of providing support and camaraderie as students work their way through Darden’s notoriously challenging first year. For your essay response to be successful and compelling, you will need to show that you have something to offer your future teammates.
So, in a mere 100 words, you must reveal that you have a perspective, attribute, or background that will better enable your learning team to function. We are advocates of using anecdotes to reveal this kind of information and suggest you consider focusing on a single experience that demonstrates your positive team attributes and can represent how you would function on your learning team. This does not mean that you must describe a clichéd team experience to prove you are a team player. The key is simply to show you bring something of value to the table in this context—perhaps you are a great debater and can clearly see and elucidate multiple sides to a story, or you have particular experience with and insight into geopolitics, or you are naturally intellectually curious and have amassed a broad range of basic knowledge. Within reason, the trait does not matter! Establish that you have a skill or attribute that would be advantageous to Darden’s learning team experience, and you will send a compelling message.
“Each year, Darden connects with over 80 countries. If you could choose any location in the world, where would you want to go with Darden? And why?” (50 words)
In just two or three sentences, you have an opportunity to show your adventurous or intellectual side by selecting a country that reveals something interesting about you. However, this should not be a travelogue. Just succinctly explain why and how your choice will enhance your education and others’ as well.
(Note that that paragraph is exactly 50 words long!)
“Darden strives to identify and cultivate leaders who follow their purpose. At this stage, how would you describe your evolving leadership style and please provide an example.” (200 words)
An example! Fantastic. We love requests for examples, because they all but force you to write using a compelling narrative structure. In revealing your “evolving leadership style,” you will have to choose an experience that changed your approach. For example, you might start by briefly describing a challenge: “I had never led a committee that spanned three departments before, but I found myself…” By launching into the narrative this way, you are clearly explaining the “newness” of your experience, and the idea of evolution is naturally understood. We recommend allocating approximately 125–150 words to recounting the experience and then spending the rest of your limited space reflecting on the change that occurred, and most importantly, your growth! Avoid just reiterating the thesis—“I grew by leading others across the firm, and it was meaningful!”—and instead share some insight into how the experience was meaningful, the tools you developed, and possibly even what takeaways you could apply in similar situations in the future. All in 200 words? Piece of cake!
“Please provide an example of a situation in which you have made a meaningful impact.” (200 words)
As with the previous essay, we suggest that once you have identified a compelling relevant experience, you launch directly into your narrative. In this case, Darden wants to know about “impact,” which means you have to show very clear results of your actions. Simply saying that you have experience leading is not enough here—leadership is not impact. The admissions committee needs to understand that the decisions you made and steps you took clearly paid off and that a project, company, organization, coworker, or product experienced some kind of change as a result. Although the school’s prompt does not specifically ask you to reflect on the experience, wrapping up your story with some brief thoughts about why it was significant for you might make your essay slightly more compelling, and certainly would not hurt.
“What is your short-term, post-MBA career goal and why?” (150 words)
Darden wants to know that you are approaching the MBA experience with purpose—that you have a clear and attainable goal in mind. Note that the admissions committee is asking only about your short-term goal, which is often a pretty practical one, compared with applicants’ typically more idealistic long-term goals. So, first make sure that the path you have chosen is a sensible one for you. Ask yourself, “Will a Darden MBA help me get from where I am now to where I want to be?” If, for example, you are a journalist and have dreams of working at a hedge fund after you graduate, the admissions committee will probably not respond very positively to your plan, because hedge funds tend to be the domain of math PhDs and seasoned finance professionals. The school wants to feel that you will be able to attain your aspirations after completing its program, so you want to avoid goals that could sound farfetched. Instead, as a journalist, you would need to identify a far more realistic path, but one that is true to who you are. Being ambitious is great, but the goal you present must be connected to reality, and to demonstrate that connection, you will have to spell out why your objective is a reasonable one for you. Establishing briefly that you have the skills and knowledge to enter your target field will make that logical connection for your admissions reader, reassuring them that you can be a happy and productive graduate.
One’s short-term goal is a common topic in a traditional personal statement, so we encourage you to download your free copy of the mbaMission Personal Statement Guide, which helps applicants write this style of essay for any school. This complimentary guide offers detailed advice on approaching and framing these subjects, along with multiple illustrative examples. Be sure to claim your copy today.
For a thorough exploration of Darden’s academic offerings, defining characteristics, crucial statistics, social life, community/environment, and other key facets of the program, please download your free copy of the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to UVA Darden School of Business.
The Next Step—Mastering Your Darden Interview: Many MBA candidates find admissions interviews stressful and intimidating, but mastering this important element of the application process is definitely possible—the key is informed preparation. And, on your way to this high level of preparation, we offer our free Interview Primers to spur you along! Download your free copy of the UVA Darden Interview Primer today.