The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School has not yet opted to take the ultra creative approach with its application essays as we have seen other top programs do in recent years, with requests for “introduce yourself” videos, hypothetical tables of contents for one’s life story, lists of “random things,” representative songs, and so on. In fact, the school’s essay prompts for this season are exactly the same, including word limits, as they have been for the previous two, so the program appears to have hit on a formula that works for it. Only one essay is required, covering many of the elements of a traditional personal statement, while three optional essays allow candidates to address various other angles of their profile and candidacy, as needed. In our analysis, we share our ideas on how to address the various essay choices you have been given to best present yourself to the Kenan-Flagler admissions committee.
We have one required essay and three optional essays. The essays for the 2016–2017 application season are
Essay 1 (Required): Please describe your short and long term goals post-MBA. Explain how your professional experience has shaped these goals, why this career option appeals to you, and how you arrived at the decision that now is the time and the MBA is the appropriate degree. (500 words maximum)
Although the word “why” appears only once in this prompt for Kenan-Flagler’s sole required essay, the overall query actually includes multiple implied “why” requests. In addition to soliciting the reasons behind your specified career aspirations, the school wants to know why you believe an MBA is the next logical step on your professional path and why you need the degree at this particular time. We believe that the crux of the prompt as a whole is that Kenan-Flagler wants to know that you have considered this next step in your career very carefully and thoroughly and are applying to business school for very clear, specific reasons—not because you feel you are supposed to or because you are following in a parent’s footsteps, and definitely not because you do not know what else to do at this juncture in your life! (Believe it or not, these are all actual reasons some people choose to pursue an MBA.) Kenan-Flagler, like all top programs, wants engaged, driven, and focused students who are ready to be an active part of its MBA experience and to do big things with the knowledge and skills they acquire from it.
This prompt encompasses many of the core elements of a traditional personal statement essay for the most part, so we first encourage you to download our freembaMission Personal Statement Guide, which helps applicants respond to these types of questions for any school. In short, the most effective way to address this query is to simply provide the information the school is seeking, though we encourage you to also try to incorporate a sense of your personality and individuality into your essay to make the delivery of these basic facts more interesting to your admissions reader.
Note that the school does not ask you to explain “why Kenan-Flagler?,” so you do not need to dedicate word count to addressing this point, and you certainly should not waste space pandering to or flattering the school. However, if you have chosen Kenan-Flagler largely because it offers a particular resource or experience that you believe is vital to you in achieving your goals and is not available elsewhere, that would definitely be worth including.
Optional Essay 1:What personal qualities or life experiences distinguish you from other applicants? How do these qualities or experiences equip you to contribute to UNC Kenan-Flagler? (300 words maximum)
This essay is a great opportunity to provide the Kenan-Flagler admissions committee with a better understanding of you as a unique individual, particularly given that Essay 1 focuses more on your professional and academic life. Start by thinking about the aspects of your personality 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, values, motivations, and quirks. Put together an extensive list and then eliminate any items that seem too common or basic (e.g., your age, hometown) until you have identified some truly distinctive qualities you can use in your response. You want 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 school’s diverse community.
As for the other option here, the “life experiences” angle, do not worry if you have not climbed Mount Everest or launched a $50M venture capital–backed start-up. You are not expected to have a particularly spectacular achievement to share—the value is not in the scope, size, or shock value of the incident you describe. Kenan-Flagler just wants to get to know you better by learning about an interesting event in your life. Perhaps you spent a month volunteering in Peru, helped put your sister through school, taught yourself three languages using just a phone app, or are a passionate, competitive flamenco dancer; these are all suitable stories, and one is not necessarily better than the other. What is important is that you offer a narrative that engages the reader and showcases an interesting and distinctive angle of your profile.
Do not overlook that the school also asks you to address how this aspect of your character or life has prepared you to add value in some way to the Kenan Flagler MBA experience. To effectively do so, you must have a thorough understanding of the program and community—well beyond what you can readily find on the school’s Web site. Connect with students and alumni, visit the campus if you can, read through blogs and news stories, and evaluate the school’s special events, offerings, and resources until you find a related opportunity or avenue that speaks to you.
We feel compelled to add that if after thoroughly brainstorming, combing through the various facets of your candidacy, and conducting in-depth research into the Kenan-Flagler MBA program, you still find yourself struggling with how to respond to this query, you should probably consider skipping it rather than forcing the issue. Focusing your energy on other, more accessible, and perhaps effective topics is better than ultimately submitting an essay here that risks portraying you as one of the crowd rather than as a standout applicant.
Optional Essay 2: If your standardized test scores are low, or if you have not had coursework in core business subjects (calculus, microeconomics, statistics, financial accounting), please tell us how you plan to prepare yourself for the quantitative rigor of the MBA curriculum. (300 words maximum)
The issue at hand here is pretty straightforward. Kenan-Flagler needs to know that if you enroll in its program, you will be able to keep up with the necessary course and project work, both for your own sake and for that of your fellow students. Likewise, the admissions committee want to be sure that you will be extracting what you should (and what you need) from your classes and assignments, not struggling just to keep up and handle basic calculations and concepts. After all, the school’s goal is to teach you about business, not math. If you are in this position, we recommend pursuing relevant quant and business courses in your area that you can complete well before matriculation time. Doing so not only helps prepare you for the work ahead but also demonstrates drive, determination, commitment, and problem solving on your part. Recognizing where you are lacking in certain skills and experience and taking the proper steps to address this lack reveals your self-awareness and reinforces the message that you are serious about attaining your goals and will not hesitate to seek out and apply the appropriate resources and opportunities to stay on track.
Optional Essay 3: Is there any other information you would like to share that is not presented elsewhere in the application? (300 words maximum)
As a general rule, we believe that the best use of this kind of optional essay is to explain confusing or problematic issues in your candidacy, which this prompt allows. However, Kenan-Flagler leaves the door open for you to discuss something other than a problem area if you feel you have information to convey about your candidacy that may be pivotal or particularly compelling. So, if you need to, use this opportunity to address any questions the admissions committee might have about your profile (except about poor or missing quant experience/training, which should instead be covered in the school’s second optional essay). If you elect to take this route, consider downloading our mbaMission Optional Essays Guide, in which we offer detailed advice (and multiple examples) on how best to approach the optional essay to mitigate any problem areas in your application.
However, as we noted, the question can be interpreted rather broadly, so you could opt to share something that is not covered elsewhere in your application and that you feel the admissions committee truly needs to know to be able to evaluate you fully and effectively. We caution you against submitting a response to this prompt just because you fear that not doing so would somehow count against you, though. Remember, with each additional essay you write, you are asking the admissions committee to do extra work on your behalf, so you must make sure that added time is warranted. If you decide to use this essay to impart information that if omitted would render your application incomplete, strive to keep your submission brief and on point.
What personal qualities or life experiences distinguish you from other applicants? How do these qualities or experiences equip you to contribute to UNC Kenan-Flagler? (300 words maximum)
This is a fun one. An opportunity for you to let your personality bleed through a bit. Don’t be afraid of taking some risks here and cutting loose. In doing so, you’ll be proving THAT you have qualities that distinguish you from others. What does taking risks mean exactly? Well, it could be in the CHOICE of the qualities you talk about, or in the way you DELIVER it. Perhaps you take on a more conversational tone. Perhaps you tell us an incredible story (as opposed to a more dry explanation OF the thing). Whatever it is, your personality should shine through here. Someone who doesn’t know you should be able to read this essay and get a sense of what you must be like in person.
But okay, let’s talk about the actual STUFF now (in the abstract). What kind of thing distinguishes you from other applicants? Well, this is where you’re gonna have to be super hard on yourself. Or, extremely self-aware. Recognize that many of the things you THINK are unique to you are in fact quite common. Oh no.
Recognize further that some of the things you think you own…. others not only have, but have cooler versions of! Double oh no.
Start with that as your challenge. Don’t just pick stuff to talk about. Sell us on why these are cool. Because chances are, we’ve seen it a thousand times before. If you can “sell” it well, then the sky’s the limit. Then you can make even the most COMMON thing seem uncommon. And that—by itself—is a cool skill.
What could possibly distinguish you from other applicants? Couple tricks here to get the juices flowing. Think about cool oxymorons and surprising aspects of yourself. Let’s say you’re a mid-20s Indian male IT guy from India. Well, rather than talk about how you play cricket, what if your thing is lacrosse? Or, hell, BALLET? Or something else that makes us go… “what just happened.” Think about the predictable, and then try to make it go upside-down. You’re an IT guy, but you were a contestant on American Idol. You’re a corporate, Wall Street type, but you write children’s books in your spare time. You’re a Chinese guy who hates numbers. Find things that surprise WITHIN YOUR OWN REPERTOIRE. Don’t just look for ways in which you think you might be cool. Those juxtapositions are there already. Find ‘em. This should get you 2/3 or 3/4 the way there.
But once again, don’t ignore that second question about how you APPLY these. The “what’s in it for us” aspect. What’s the VALUE in that trait? Be careful here, there doesn’t need to be a 1:1 relationship between your cool traits and the way you apply it.
Let’s say you’re a potter, and that you have a ridiculously cool life history in clay pot making. Well, that doesn’t mean you need to “start a clay pot making club” at Kenan-Flagler. There must be some other WAY in which you can apply this cool thing. Maybe your passion for art can be channeled toward something neat and productive while at school.
Maybe it is starting a club, but maybe that club is focused on helping raise money to provide opportunities for students studying art at a local elementary school. Or maybe it’s even simpler than that. Maybe clay pot making is a pure distraction for you from work. Maybe there’s value in that, and in you bringing that out in other students. Maybe it ends up making for a healthier campus life, and more productive, happier students. There are all sorts of possibilities. But you’ve got to argue it, and convince us that there are. And it can’t seem canned. We’ll know in an instant whether you’re just saying it to impress, or whether you’ve actually thought it through. (Never try to impress; it won’t work!)
Now that that’s handled, check out our analysis of the rest of UNC Kenan-Flagler’s application essays.
Read more and explore each step of the Kenan-Flagler full-time MBA application process here.