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UVA / Darden MBA Essay Topic Analysis 2017-2018

Following up on the announcement of the Darden essay topic for 2017-2018, we wanted to take a closer look at this season’s prompt for UVA MBA Class of 2020 hopefuls.

This is the fifth consecutive year that the Darden essay section has comprised a single 500-word essay asking applicants to recount the specifics of a past experience. This year, Darden has set the spotlight on their use of the case study method and asked applicants to showcase their potential ability to thrive in their learning environment.

UVA / Darden MBA Essay Topic Analysis 2017-2018

Let’s take a closer look at the Darden 2017-2018 essay topic:

Essay 1

When preparing for class at Darden, students formulate an opinion on each case before meeting with their learning teams and class sections. When encountering different views and perspectives from their own, opinions frequently shift. Tell us about a time when your opinion evolved through discussions with others. (500 words)

Darden has replaced their usual prompt about constructive feedback for one focused on communication and teamwork amidst diverse points of view.  In Darden’s MBA application video tip series, Sara Neher, long-time assistant dean of admissions, talks more about the new essay.

In the video tip, Neher notes that the adcom wants to see how applicants would fit in the classroom – not only listening to and learning from other people, but also having ideas and opinions to share.  As a relatively small program, Darden seeks to assemble as wide of a set of viewpoints as possible in their classrooms and within learning teams – and to foster an environment in which diverse points of view are welcome.  Therefore, having an open mind and showing respect for others in your essay would leave a positive impression of your potential role as a Darden MBA student.  Of course, it’s absolutely fine to discuss a time when differences in opinion led to discomfort, conflict or confusion – as long as you then detail how you worked through this and what lessons you learned.

Effective responses will open by providing context; explaining the setting and situation for the opinion and discussions, the people involved, and the events that inspired one’s evolution. Discussing your engagement with others and your reactions to differing points of view will entail a level of self-reflection on your personal growth and shift in perspective. That said, while the prompt places emphasis on discussions, keep in mind that taking action is a key part of demonstrating leadership as well.  So, while the base communication is important, it would be ideal to recount a situation in which the evolution of your opinion led to a positive, tangible impact.  In wrapping up the essay, it would make sense to comment on how the particular situation would translate to thriving at Darden.  The adcom sets the stage of the learning environment in the opening of the prompt—you can conclude with how you would add to it based on the experience you share.  You might also comment on your enthusiasm for the type of debate and exchange that case-based instruction fosters.

Clear Admit Resources
Thanks for reading our analysis of this year’s Darden MBA essay topics. As you work on your Darden MBA essays and application, we encourage you to consider all of Clear Admit’s UVA offerings:

Posted in: Application Tips, Essay Topic Analysis, Essays

Schools: UVA / Darden


Kyle Coleman


University of Virginia, Darden School of Business

Hometown: St. Louis, MO

Undergraduate School and Major: Syracuse University, Policy Studies

Employers and Job Titles Since Graduation:

  • Teach For America, Corps Member
  • Teach For America, Director of Data Management at Atlanta Summer Institute
  • Teach For America, Recruitment Manager
  • Teach For America, Regional People Engagement Manager
  • Cultivate Salon, Co-Founder

Recalling your own experience, what advice do you have for applicants who are preparing for either the GMAT or the GRE? First, take the exam that best caters to your strengths.

Second, don’t fall into the “herd mentality” when it comes to “the best” prep sites. There are many prep programs out there that are suitable for multiple learning styles and schedules. Take advantage of the free trials to see which one is best for you.

Third, graduate school entrance exams are a beast, which may take multiple attempts to slay. Shoot for your target school’s middle 80% and put it to rest. Remember, the score is only one part of your application. If you’re applying to top programs you likely have much more to offer than three numbers on a page.

Based on your own selection process, what advice do you have for applicants who are trying to draw up a list of target schools to which to apply? Make a list of at least 10 – 12 schools and another list of the things you want in an MBA program (class size, location, case vs. traditional, etc.). Conduct informational interviews, visit programs, go to prospective MBA receptions, etc. and check off your list as appropriate while taking detailed notes on your experiences. From there, you’ll have a good feel of the type of programs that are great mutual fits.

What advice do you have for applicants in actually applying to a school, writing essays, doing admission interviews, and getting recommenders to write letters on your behalf?

Make sure you fully address the essay questions: It sounds silly, but not doing so can really hurt your chances. Admissions committees work very hard to capture specific skills, knowledge, etc. that will inform their decision to interview and ultimately admit you. If you read your essay to a stranger without stating the essay question first, he or she should be able to tell you what the prompt is with good accuracy.

Conduct multiple mock interviews with MBAs at the program you’re targeting: This has major benefits! First, they’ll likely ask you a subset of questions they received in their own interviews so you’ll have a better idea of what to expect from that specific school. Second, they’ll likely underscore parts of your responses that particularly resonates with the program’s unique offerings. Third, if they really like you, they may speak well on your behalf to the admissions committee. Remember to treat every interaction as if it is evaluative – it usually is!

Manage your recommenders on dates, content, and discretion:

  • Who should you choose? First, make sure you choose people who managed you directly or can speak with great detail about your performance in the workplace. A generic letter of recommendation from a CEO will fail to go as far as a detailed one from a direct manager.
  • Making “the ask.” Once you have a list of 2-3 people, send them a humble “ask” letter with an attached package that contains your “why MBA” essay and a sample exemplar recommendation responses to guide them. Clearly state that you are requesting their discretion about your MBA plans, and other specific items related to your profile. They’ll appreciate the structure and are more likely to give it proper attention.
  • Be strategic. Be specific. Within the packet, you should guide your recommenders on the content they should include to underscore your strengths and mitigate your growth areas. It may be helpful to attach excerpts from previous performance reviews. Understand that the content you want highlighted may vary by school.
  • Be vigilant with logistics. First, always ask your recommenders to complete everything about a week before it’s actually due – things come up. Second, your application will likely auto-generate an email to your recommenders after you enter their email addresses, so make sure it doesn’t get sent to their spam folders.
  • Say “thank you” meaningfully. Usually recommenders want to share in your excitement about getting into programs. Send them a hand-written “thank you” note after you’ve successfully submitted your materials, email them updates to interview invitations, and acceptances, and send them a coffee mug shortly after you arrive to your MBA program.

What led you to choose this program for your full-time MBA?

The people: When I first visited Darden, it felt like I came home for the first time. MBAs came up to me as I sat in-between programmed events just to learn more about me. When I shared my background they texted their classmates with similar backgrounds to come meet with me too. Even beyond my visit to the stately, Jeffersonian-inspired grounds that rests gently against the bucolic backdrop of tree-lined mountains, I received regular check-ins from MBAs about how my application progress.

Darden’s Case Method: Darden has a reputation of being among the most rigorous top MBA programs given our heavy case load, unique daily cycle of learning, and top-rated professors. This was a plus for me because I am transitioning to business from a “non-traditional” background and I strongly value academics that have practical application to my intended post-MBA career.

Top-Notch Recruiters: As you’d expect from any top MBA program, employment opportunities among some of the world’s best firms are abundant.

What would you ultimately like to achieve before you graduate? Darden case mastery. There seems to be a clear positive relationship between my ability to successfully work through cases and my ability to climb a c-Suite trajectory in my post-MBA career.