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Admissions Director Q&A: Maria Pineda of UMD’s Smith School of Business

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CA: How does your team approach the essay portion of the application specifically? What are you looking for as you read the essays? Are there common mistakes that applicants should try to avoid? One key thing they should keep in mind as they sit down to write them?

MP: The essay is the only part of the application that talks about your future. Use it to your advantage! All other parts of the application are historical documentation of how you performed academically or professionally. This is your chance to tell us about yourself.

Prior to the interview, we see the essay as an applicant’s clean slate to paint a picture of himself/herself. What new information is the applicant sharing that we do not see anywhere else in the application?

Fundamentally, we look for answers to our questions. We want to know about post-MBA goals, what is it about Smith that interests the applicants, how can we help them achieve their goals and why they want an MBA. If they can answer these questions, they are on track to completing a strong application.

There are several common mistakes that we see in essays. The first one is not answering our questions. We understand that some applicants are applying to more than one school. However, this does not mean copy and paste paragraphs or essays! We want to hear their voice when they answer our questions. Can they concisely communicate to us what we are asking?

The second common mistake we see is people repeating information in the essay that can be found in other parts of the application. For example, some applicants use the essay to explain a work project’s success that was already mentioned in the résumé. Applicants should use the essay as prime real estate: Do you want to use up the space to repeat information already mentioned in other parts of the application or do you want to use it to tell us more about yourself?

The third most common mistake we see is typographical errors. Use spell check and grammar check! Also, having someone reliable review the essay for content, spelling and grammar will only strengthen the application. This reviewer can also tell applicants if they are answering the question, which is fundamentally what we want to see.

CA: What, in your opinion, sets Smith MBA students apart from other business school students?

MP: Our expectation is, over the two years, a student will experience a transformation. This transformation happens because people care and are vested in each student. Whether it is a staff member, a faculty member, a current student or alumnus, students know that others are helping them transform to reach their goals.

Here at Smith, one does not transform by himself/herself. Thus, the expectation is that everyone will give back to the community. Smith students give back by helping each other, whether is it helping a classmate in presentation skills, a finance class or opening up his/her network. Many are also involved in clubs and/or volunteer work.

Our students genuinely want their classmates to succeed. I don’t know of anyone who isn’t willing to help another student if he/she can. Smith MBA students know that each person’s success helps strengthen the entire community.

CA: What do you see as the biggest shift in graduate management education taking place right now?

MP: Over the past year or so, I’ve seen applicants from more diverse professional backgrounds. Historically, the MBA attracts candidates from the business field, but recently, there has been an uptick in interest in entrepreneurship, social value, education and other non-traditional opportunities post MBA. This means not all of our students want to transition to a traditional business job post-MBA. Students are using the MBA as an aid to reach almost any career goal!

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