February 4, 2022

Tackling MBA Leadership Essay Prompts

Graduate management schools emphasize leadership in their MBA curriculum and experience, and look for it high and low in applicants’ applications. As former Kellogg and INSEAD Dean (and current CEIBS co-president) Dipak Jain once noted, “five or six years after you receive your MBA, 80% of your responsibility is managing people.”  However, business schools know your leadership will be a work in progress for most applicants who average only about four to five years of work experience.  Thus, while you should look to share leadership stories across your application, you should not worry if they involve small groups or indirect authority. Remember that you get to define what your idea of leadership is.


Leadership is not only defined narrowly in terms of formally managing and directing large groups of people with profit and loss responsibility.  On the broadest level, leadership means assuming personal ownership of some project or initiative in a group situation in order to create a positive result that would not have occurred without you.  The “in a group” piece is essential: leadership stories must show your ability to influence the action of others.  You can frame leadership stories in multiple ways — through traits (self-confidence, integrity), specific environments (boardroom, sports field), or functions (organizing, mentoring).


A good way to start any essay about your leadership is by thinking through leadership experiences as far back as college (and if impressive enough, even earlier) involving academic, work, personal or community environments.  You start asking questions like these:


  • When have you been specifically praised for your leadership?
  • What methods do you use to motivate people?
  • Have people ever followed your lead?


Often, leadership in a recent professional environment will add the most value, but leadership impresses no matter where it occurs, especially community leadership which often requires leading when you have no formal authority.


Once you’ve identified an appropriate leadership experience, the next step is structuring the essay.  We recommend that you follow the four-part structure below.


  1. The Challenge: this first section is to lay out the context including the timeframe, the situation, and your specific role. Get to the heart of the challenge as soon as possible and remember that leadership is about people and the interactions between people.  Describing too much of the project details such as industry background or technical topics will lose the reader.


  1. Your Response: use this section to bring in the live-action elements. What leadership traits did you use to resolve the challenges and obstacles from the first section?  Think about the tactical actions you took to tackle the challenge and remember your leadership interactions with people.  Also, think about how you lead – inclusively, intuitively or analytically?


  1. The Outcome: this can be as short as one sentence. Use this section to provide the punchline.  Ways to describe the resulting impact can be either quantitative (cost savings, revenue increases) or qualitative (supporting a team member’s promotion, improving the retention rate of the team).


  1. Lessons Learned: this is a critical reflective section to show your leadership progression, self-awareness, and humility. Ask yourself what you learned from this challenge and help the school visualize how this experience modified or strengthened your leadership approach or thinking.


If you need support to tackle the challenges of writing the leadership essay, contact Admitify today!