Georgetown McDonough Essay Analysis, 2018–2019

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We have noted in the past our appreciation for the opportunity Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business gives its candidates to share who they are beyond the statistics and other facts presented in the rest of their application, and the school’s essay prompts for this season continue to support that approach. McDonough’s required first essay now involves three options from which candidates can choose, so applicants can select the one that addresses an aspect of their candidacy they most want to highlight for the admissions committee. The school’s video essay then allows candidates to creatively showcase their individuality and personality. And any aspiring McDonough MBAs with specific concerns about or issues in their profile can use the program’s optional essay to address and mitigate them. In our analysis that follows, we give our ideas and advice for addressing all the school’s prompts for this year.

We want to hear your story. When responding to our required essays, be authentic and take time to reflect on your goals and past experiences. Craft a response that explains how these experiences led you to pursue an MBA.

Please select one of the following three essays to complete in 500 words or less and include the essay prompt and your first/last name at the top of your submission.

Essay Option One: It can be said that life begins outside your comfort zone. Describe a situation when you were asked to lead outside of your comfort zone. What leadership characteristics did you exemplify in this situation that allowed you to succeed?

Success tends to come easily when one is engaged in something he/she is already good at and does so in a familiar and comfortable setting. However, business school is not a familiar environment for most and definitely requires individuals to regularly step outside their comfort zone. It is a dynamic, rigorous, demanding, intense, and exacting experience—albeit in exciting and rewarding ways, of course—and McDonough wants to know you are truly ready for the challenge ahead and that your time in its program will extract the best from you.

With a 500-word allowance for this essay, you should have ample space in which to present a narrative-style description of the incident you choose. The school does not specify that the story must come from your professional endeavors, so consider incidents from your personal life and community work as well to ensure you select a topic that effectively addresses and provides what the school is seeking with this prompt. Note that you are being asked to share a leadership experience, not simply one in which you found yourself.

Once you have introduced the basic situation, be sure to clarify what about it made it unfamiliar or uncomfortable to you. Ideally, to better illustrate the contrast between your usual style and the one you were required to take in this specific instance, touch briefly on what you might have normally done in the situation or what approach you would have taken. Then explain how you arrived at your novel idea/attitude/approach/strategy. For example, did someone or something in particular inspire you? The admissions committee is interested in hearing your thought process and influences and in understanding how you assess new situations, digest information, and subsequently react.

Next, describe the actions you took and, of course, the situation’s outcome. Be sure to pinpoint which attributes you relied on to make your contribution effective and ultimately successful—and, if applicable, how these attributes affected those you led.

Essay Option Two: “Failure is not something to be ashamed of, it’s something to be POWERED by. Failure is the high-octane fuel your life can run on. You’ve got to learn to make failure your fuel.” –Abby Wambach.

Describe a situation when failure has been your fuel. What was your failure (or when did you not succeed to your full potential), and how did you use this as motivation to move forward and be successful in a future situation?

We feel fairly confident saying that no one proceeds smoothly through life without ever encountering a failure or setback, so no doubt you have at least one story from your past that could be fitting for this essay. The key is to identify a time when you were derailed or prevented from achieving an objective and were subsequently inspired to try again or to attempt something different but equally (or even more) challenging. The admissions committee wants to know that you are the kind of individual who gets back up after being knocked down and is not easily deterred.

For this essay, start by thinking of a time when something got in the way of you attaining a goal you were pursuing in an important area of your life. This could be an internal issue or an external force. Consider incidents from your career, personal life, and community activities to find the one you feel is most compelling and reveals the most about you. For example, perhaps you miscalculated the budget on a critical work project, suffered an injury at mile 20 of your first attempt at running a marathon, or had a volunteer event you organized be shut down by inclement weather.

The way the school’s essay prompt is worded leads us to believe that McDonough is less interested in hearing the minute details of your failure story—though you will need to sufficiently explain what happened, of course—and more interested in what you took away from the experience. You will need to expound on how the defeat taught you a specific lesson of some kind and how this has influenced your subsequent actions and/or decisions. The incident you share in this essay needs to have compelled you to pursue another goal down the line.

Begin your essay by providing some narrative context that sets the stage for the significant moment or experience, showing your progress and mind-set to that point and setting the baseline as far as what you expected to do or gain. Then, describe the incident or issue that foiled your efforts and detail your reaction and thought processes. Finally, share how the experience altered who you are and/or how you view or interact with the world and later inspired you to strive for a new objective of some kind. With 500 words, you should have sufficient space to present all these facets of your story, especially if you jump directly into your narrative and avoid unnecessary preamble.

With this essay, McDonough hopes to understand how the situation has contributed to the person you are today and how you might function in similar situations in the future, whether in its MBA program or your post-MBA career. Clearly presenting this will help demonstrate your self-awareness, capacity for growth, and ambition.

Essay Option Three: Your personal brand reflects your values and beliefs, and impacts your relationships and community. Describe the personal brand that you will bring to business school using examples or experiences that support how you’ve developed it. How do you believe your personal brand will strengthen the McDonough community? As you complete your MBA program, how do you hope to see your personal brand evolve through the transformative experience of business school?

First, do not assume the phrase “personal brand” means that McDonough expects you to be the next famous business mogul or celebrity with thousands of eager Instagram followers or the like. At its core, this prompt is basically asking, “Who are you as an individual? What are some key experiences and influences in your life that have helped make you into the person you are today? How will your personality and skills contribute to the McDonough community? And how will McDonough in turn influence who you are and hope/expect to be in the future?” We hope this translation of sorts helps allay any trepidation this prompt may have initially triggered in you. At its core, this essay is largely about two key things you should already know rather well—yourself and McDonough.

We would venture that “brand” in this case encompasses personality, individual strengths and characteristics, and a sense of conviction and ownership. First, think about the aspects of your personality and profile that you believe truly define you as an individual—not just what you do and have done, but who you are—and fully explore your background, hobbies, talents, experiences, values, goals, and quirks. Brainstorm an extensive list and then eliminate any items that seem too common (e.g., a BA in finance) or basic (e.g., your hometown) until you have a collection of truly distinctive qualities you can weave into your response. Your goal is to provide a well-rounded picture of yourself that draws from multiple areas and shows that you possess characteristics and/or knowledge that would make you a positive addition to the McDonough community.

You will then need to go one step further and spell out how you came to possess these qualities. Were you influenced by someone in your family or community to learn a particular skill? Did you encounter a subject or activity in school that has since become a passion of yours? Once you have presented some of what you believe are your distinctive characteristics, describe for the admissions committee where you feel those characteristics originated.

The next element of the essay concerns how your particular personality and attributes will contribute to the community and environment at McDonough. And to know how to contribute, you must first understand the community and environment in question. So, if you have not already done so, start researching the school in depth. Ideally, this means moving beyond the school’s website, viewbook, and related marketing materials and making direct contact with students, alumni, and even school representatives. Attend an admissions event in your area, if available, and schedule a campus visit and sit in on a class. This kind of firsthand observation of what and who the McDonough program truly entails, paired with a profound knowledge of how it works, is key in identifying what is unique about you viewed against this backdrop—and will help highlight what you can bring to the mix and how.

Pay special attention to aspects and areas that speak to you personally in some way, and consider social events/clubs and professional development opportunities along with course work and academic offerings. Business school is meant to be a comprehensive environment and experience that enriches students in ways not just related directly to business, and perhaps your best potential for contribution lies in one of these areas. If you have years of experience teaching, for example, you could perhaps help facilitate discussions among the students in your study group or on team projects. If you have a depth of knowledge or years of experience in a particular area, whether through your job or in a personal capacity (such as being a dedicated wine aficionado), you could serve as a kind of subject matter expert for those around you in the program or even a valuable component in someone’s recruiting network. If you are particularly funny, creative, or athletic, you may be the ideal fit to lead an extracurricular group or play a significant role in a nonacademic project or event.

Lastly, you need to explain how you see the McDonough experience contributing to who you are and who you want to be by graduation and going forward. In a sense, you need to spell out “Why McDonough?” The assumption is that something you have learned about the program leads you to believe the school is the right fit for you and where you want to go in the future. So what makes you feel this way? The admissions committee wants to know that you are are truly excited to be a part of the community and expect to benefit from your learning experience there. Demonstrating your authentic interest in the program by outlining a clear connection between who you want to be and what the school offers is key to crafting a compelling essay response.

Video Essay:  We ask that you introduce yourself to your cohort in one minute or less. The Admissions Committee would like for you to appear in person during part of your video, and we strongly encourage you to speak outside of the experiences we can read on your resume. Use this video as an opportunity to bring life to your application. For more instructions, view our Video Essay Guide.

  • You may use your phone, computer, or other means to record the video, but please ensure all audio and visual components are clear. We recommend a well-lit room and minimal noise distraction.
  • Upload your video to an accessible website (such as Youtube, Vimeo, Youku, or Tudou), and submit the direct video URL into your online application.
  • Please note that all videos must remain active and accessible to the admissions committee online for a minimum of five years for record retention purposes.
  • For your privacy: Do not include your name in the title of your video. You may submit “unlisted” videos via YouTube or password protected videos through Vimeo. If using a password, please include immediately after your link in the text box below. [Ex: www.youtube.com/123, password: Hoyas]

McDonough’s video essay is another opportunity for you to offer the school a glimpse into your character and personality. As the prompt says, this is a chance to “bring life to your application,” so your focus should be on ensuring that it as authentic and natural as possible. This is not a job interview, and the school specifically states that you should consider your future cohort—your fellow students—as your intended audience, which certainly implies that a less rigid and traditionally “professional” demeanor is okay, though we of course caution you to always be appropriate and inoffensive. Do not use the video as an opportunity to pitch your candidacy or to pander to the school, and avoid repeating any information that is already clearly conveyed in your resume. (When an admissions committee tells you so specifically what to do [or not do] in an essay prompt, pay attention!) This is also not the time to detail your career goals or express your admiration for the program. You have only one minute in which to make an impression, and even without knowing you personally, we are confident in our belief that you have more to your character than can be conveyed in a mere 60 seconds—so do not waste any of them!

Given that this is a video, you will obviously need to think beyond what you will say and consider the clothing you will wear, the setting or background of your video, your tone of voice, your language style, whether you will include music, and a host of other details. Brainstorm ways of nonverbally communicating some of your strongest attributes and key aspects of your life to help permeate your submission with as much information as possible. For example, if you are an avid biker, consider using a GoPro or similar camera to film your video while you are actively riding. If you are a dedicated guitar player, perhaps strum your guitar as you speak (or, if you are especially confident, you could even sing about yourself!). Think about what makes you who you are today, decide what you most want to share with your future classmates, and then let your creativity flow.

On a practical note, be sure to speak clearly in your video. You naturally do not want any part of your message to be lost or misunderstood, and the admissions committee may view your communication skills and style as indicators of how you might interact with your classmates and/or speak in the classroom. Spend some time practicing in front of a mirror or a friend, but do not overrehearse. You still want to come across as genuine and natural.

Optional Essay: Please provide any information you would like to add to your application that you have not otherwise included. (500 words or fewer)

We tend to believe that the best use of the optional essay is to explain confusing or problematic issues in your candidacy, and this prompt offers an opportunity to do just that. However, because McDonough does not stipulate that you can only discuss a problem area in this essay, you have some leeway to share anything you feel is that you think may be pivotal or particularly compelling. So, if you need to, this is your chance to address any questions an admissions officer might have about your profile—a poor grade or overall GPA, a low GMAT or GRE score, a gap in your work experience, etc. In our mbaMission Optional Essays Guide, we offer detailed advice on how best to take advantage of the optional essay, with multiple examples, to help you mitigate any problem areas in your application.

However, because the question can be interpreted rather broadly, it does open the door for you to discuss anything that is not addressed elsewhere in your application and that you feel is truly critical for the admissions committee to know to be able to evaluate you fully and effectively. We caution you about simply trying to fill this space because you fear that not doing so would somehow count against you. Remember, by submitting an additional essay, you are asking the admissions committee to do extra work on your behalf, so you need to make sure that time is warranted. If you are using the essay to emphasize something that if omitted would render your application incomplete, take this opportunity to write a very brief narrative that reveals this key new aspect of your candidacy.

Re-Applicant Essay: Required for re-applicants. How have you strengthened your candidacy since your last application? We are particularly interested in hearing about how you have grown professionally and personally. (500 words or fewer)

Whether you have improved your academic record, received a promotion, begun a new and exciting project, increased your community involvement, or taken on some sort of personal challenge, the key to success with this essay is conveying a very deliberate path of achievement. McDonough wants to know that you have been actively striving to improve yourself and your profile, and that you have seized opportunities during the previous year to do so, because a McDonough MBA is vital to you. The responses to this essay question will vary greatly from one candidate to the next, because each person’s needs and experiences differ. We are more than happy to provide one-on-one assistance with this highly personal essay to ensure that your efforts over the past year are presented in the best light possible.

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