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Most Challenging Experience Essay Samples

What are the most challenging essay questions business schools ask applicants? That’s a question we hope to answer in the second feature in this new six-part series. Stacy Blackman, founder of the MBA admissions consulting firm that bears her name, is picking out what she considers to be the most challenging and then providing advice for how to approach each essay.

What constitutes a highly challenging essay? It may force you to be incredibly introspective, surprisingly creative or perhaps highly succinct. Some essays are not as straightforward as they seem, others are very straightforward, but it is tempting to stray off topic. Whatever the reason, we are here to help, with some tips taken straight from the Stacy Blackman Consulting series of school specific essay guides.

Most Challenging MBA Essay Question #2:
Wharton School of Business:

Answer one of these two questions:

Reflect on a time when you turned down an opportunity. What was the thought process behind your decision? Would you make the same decision today?

Discuss a time when you faced a challenging interpersonal experience. How did you navigate the situation and what did you learn from it?

A question that begins with “tell us about a time” is what is known as a behavioral essay question. The admissions committee wants you to describe and tell a story about what you thought, felt, said, and did during a specific time in your life. The behavioral question relies on a philosophy that the best predictor of future actions is what you have actually done in the past.  It is important to describe your past experiences in enough detail to allow the reader to understand your thoughts and motivations as well as your actions.  The behavioral question lets the reader draw the conclusions about you, it is a classic “show don’t tell” narrative.

These two new questions deal with two fairly different topics – opportunities vs. interpersonal difficulties.   Turning down an opportunity could be about a job, a project, moving to a different city or country, or a leadership offer for an extracurricular activity.  This question seeks to understand not only what you have done in your life, but those things you decided not to do.  It would be ideal to choose a topic that has global implications in your life.  Either this path not taken was an inflection point for you and changed your career or life afterwards, or you can demonstrate your larger goals and decision making process through this example.  What you choose to say “no” to demonstrates what you have decided to focus on and develop.  We all have limited bandwidth in our lives, and as careers grow they often lead to more and more requests for your time and interesting opportunities.  How will you decide which to pursue and which to decline?  This question seeks to understand the answer to that question through an example of past behavior.

Navigating a challenging relationship is an opportunity to demonstrate maturity and strong interpersonal skills.  While Wharton is an analytical program, it’s also a team based one.  You will be placed in a learning team with classmates who are deliberately very different from yourself, and it will be important to demonstrate you have the skills to manage any relationship – even one that was a challenge for you.

These questions both require applicants to narrate a story, sharing not just what they learned but what they actually did. You need to tell the admissions committee how you responded.  Certainly, sharing the universal lessons learned and how you grew and changed from the experience is still an important component of a complete essay.


Tip #1 Provide the setting of your story

For the first essay question the action of the story will focus on your thought process as you decided whether to take the opportunity or not.  For the interpersonal question the action is in how you navigated the relationship to ultimately reach your goals.  Before launching into the how of the question, the reader needs to understand the basic situation.  What was the opportunity?  Who was the difficult relationship with? You’ll want to be as concise as possible while still supplying enough information to orient your reader and to properly set up the story you are about to tell.

Many of us faced challenges in our formative years and we struggled with them. Some of those struggles might have changed who we are or how we later approached life. Marilyn Campbell is an overcomer. She wrestled with shyness in her young years. Before you read her essay, learn a little more about Marilyn’s background from an update she sent to me:

“I never did quite get the opportunity to thank you [for helping me develop my essay]. Regarding my college process:

I applied to three schools early action: Harvard University, Brown University, and Georgetown University; I applied to Tulane University as a backup school regular decision (it can be considered a backup for those people who reside in-state).

I am happy to say that I was accepted at Brown, at Georgetown (thank you very much!), and at Tulane; I was deferred from Harvard; I am not applying to any more schools.

If there’s something I learned about applying to colleges and watching my friends apply to them, I would recommend applying to as many early action schools as possible by the deadlines. This takes away the stress and work of doing several applications at a very busy time of the year (one is taking exams or they are hanging over our heads).

At the very least, if one applies to one school early action or early decision, s/he should not wait until they receive that school’s response to begin filling out all the other applications waiting in the wings. I know that it is very tempting to wait, but after seeing what this has done to several of my friends, I highly recommend getting an early start.

Finally, I suggest that students don’t blow off their freshman year. If that happens, one will spend the next three years trying to bring up those grades.

Thanks again!


* * * *

Marilyn’s essay:

When I was a young, awkward adolescent, I considered myself to be a shy person, especially around boys. Because of this, my experiences at a coed middle school intimidated me somewhat. So, for the past five years, I have attended an all-girls school, which has helped me to become a stronger person. I have overcome my shyness and insecurities and developed much more confidence.

Ironically, I believe that my shyness, something that I consider a communication barrier, has ultimately led me to focus on a field for my life’s work: communications. Despite my aversion to it early on in life, I now love speaking to and interacting with people, be it as a friend, teacher, or public speaker. I now have a passion for stimulating conversation, and that enthusiasm manifests itself in three different and important aspects of my life outside of the classroom: peer support, volunteer work, and music.

Peer support is a high school-sponsored program through which juniors and seniors are selected to work with eighth graders who attend Sacred Heart. It involves an intensive three-day workshop where student leaders learn how to listen effectively to and become mentors for the younger students. I love this work. Once a week, I get to speak to these impressionable boys and girls about anything that I feel is important. I enjoy learning about their lives and their issues and exploring possible solutions to their problems. We study today’s society and its impact on them. I see much of my old self in these young people and that memory has helped me to help them become more confident about their everyday lives.

My volunteer work centers on teaching, through a program called Summerbridge. After school, I go to a nearby public school and tutor learning-disadvantaged preteens. Instead of dealing with the students’ personal issues, as I do in peer support, the Summerbridge focus is more on communication through education. By working with these younger students, I have come to understand the importance of helping them comprehend and apply what they learn in the classroom. Their motivation, given their circumstances, is remarkable. We discuss in detail what they are learning so that I can keep them interested and motivated. Summerbridge is another example of how communication issues are very important to me.

Not surprisingly, music has emerged as another, perhaps indirect, avenue for me to communicate with others. Singing allows me to convey my deep and personal emotions with others. When I sing, I am transported to another realm. The mundane everyday world around me disappears, and I am enveloped in my own, new space, especially when I am performing onstage. When I act, I am transformed, feeling the happiness, sadness, impishness, or even confusion that my character feels. My performance taps into that part of me where those qualities dwell, and I love sharing it with my audience. Music is a very special form of communication for me.

Perhaps the person I am today is a compensation for who I was years ago. That awkward twelve-year old, however, is no more. Now I want to show the world what I can do. Communication has become my passion. It will be my future.