What follows are my brief comments on this year's MIT Sloan essay topics.
The school's own instructions: We are interested in learning more about how you work, think, and act. For each essay, please provide a brief overview of the situation followed by a detailed description of your response. Please limit the experiences you discuss to those which have occurred in the past three years. In each of the essays, please describe in detail what you thought, felt, said, and did.
Essay 1: The mission of the MIT Sloan School of Management is to develop principled, innovative leaders who improve the world and generate ideas that advance management practice. Discuss how you will contribute toward advancing the mission based on examples of past work and activities. (500 words or fewer, limited to one page)
MIT has removed their cover letter this year, however in its place some remnants of what it asked for are now here, in essay 1. At first glance this question only seems to be asking for 2+ examples from your past. I think in reality it gives you the chance to address a slightly wider story, while also focusing in on those examples.
This question is asking for examples of your past work and non-work activities. Ensure that the examples you choose demonstrate your ability (and therefore potential) to innovate and generate ideas that have impacted those around you in a positive way. Space may be at a premium, however still take care to ensure your examples include detail related to what you thought, felt, said and did.
Notice how there is no mention of what your specific career goals are in the essay question. This is likely because MIT admissions pride themselves on their ability to see your potential to achieve great things in the future based on how you have approached and dealt with situations in the past. Make that the recent past - as MIT requests that your examples be from within the past three years. Despite this, I do recommend that clients at the very least mention the career direction they envision for themselves post-MBA, as well as why that is important or meaningful to them, in this essay. Doing so allows you to demonstrate the gap between those goals and your current skill set, in order for you to then show clearly your plan for your studies while at MIT. This is important, and is referred to in the question when you are asked "how you will contribute towards advancing the mission".
In summary, after a brief introduction move into a quick assessment of your future plan and what you plan to get from MIT to get you there. Then, show through detailed recent examples (perhaps one work-related and one non-work related) that you have the initiative and principles to achieve these goals and add value while at MIT. Walking through these steps should - if you've brainstormed contents effectively - help you put together a strong initial draft towards this essay question.
Essay 2: Describe a time when you pushed yourself beyond your comfort zone. (500 words or fewer, limited to one page)
I mentioned "detailed examples" in my treatment of essay 1. Detail is important - and perhaps more important to MIT than to just about any other program. Note the instructions that proceed these essay questions: We are interested in learning more about how you work, think, and act. For each essay, please provide a brief overview of the situation followed by a detailed description of your response. Please limit the experiences you discuss to those which have occurred in the past three years. In each of the essays, please describe in detail what you thought, felt, said, and did.
The idea here is that MIT can evaluate your actions, thinking and methods from recent experiences to assess your potential to be successful in the future. In order to help your reader do this effectively, you need to ensure that your essays are sufficiently detailed and therefore revealing about how you think and how you react to different situations.
In this essay you need to describe a time when you dealt with a situation that may have been new to you, or "over your head" or beyond what was your typical level of responsibility within your organization (or equivalent if you are dealing with an extra-curricular activity). The idea that you pushed yourself most likely means that you made decisions that forced you into a situation as described above.
To tell this story properly, you need to include each of the following elements: the initial situation and what was at stake for you and/or the organization, the decision(s) you made, and the result. The latter means the result on the project or situation involved, the company itself, and finally, the result on you - literally the impact this experience had on you and the takeaway(s) you gained from the experience. This is a lot of detail, but really all of it is necessary to give your story the level of context required. I've modeled this approach after the STAR storytelling approach. Read here for more on this highly logical method of storytelling.
Within these "high-level" details, however, you must focus in on the specifics of the push you gave yourself that moved you out of your comfort zone. This could have been a reaction to a particular decision made by someone else, the result of a quick brainstorming session done after a key meeting on a project, or as part of your preparation for leading a team on a certain day. Whatever the case make sure that when you detail the thoughts and words that went into your actions, you focus in on the moment in which they occurred. In other words, don't generalize about how you usually react to situations. Instead offer one clear episode and be specific.
Optional: The Admissions Committee invites you to share anything else you would like us to know about you, in any format.
An essay will likely be the most popular format, but don't let that stop you from trying something a bit more creative as long as it helps you to get across whatever message you are aiming for here.
In terms of that message, start by asking yourself if there are any weaknesses or other such things you feel may need to be explained here, such as a relatively low GPA from university or from one year of university. If you do this, try to emphasize the positive (i.e. for this example what you were doing at the time and how the learning from it was relevant and important to you).
Other than that, look to your responses to the two essays above and ask yourself if you've offered a good balance between work and non-work examples. If you haven't, and for instance have emphasized professional experience, then consider introducing your extra-curricular activities here. MIT leans towards recent examples, and that's always good advice to follow, but the question here does offer a lot more freedom, so something from more than three years ago could be considered a topic as long as you detail the takeaway or impact or whatever makes the experience still relevant today.
Finally, some may use this optional essay as an opportunity to detail the specific reasons they feel MIT offers the best fit for them, given their past and their future. If this is the route you have chosen, read my article on demonstrating fit with an MBA program to ensure your examples are as concise as possible.
If you do go with an essay to answer this question it appears there is no word limit - so use 500 words (their limit on other essays) as your absolute maximum here, while noting that shorter may in fact be better. MIT optional essays used to be about 250 words - so obviously conciseness is valued.
In closing, let me remind readers of the MIT slogan "MInd and Hand". In doing so I am not proposing that this theme be pasted all over your essays, nor am I saying that "because MIT is looking for this kind of thing, you need to write about it no matter what your background is". In fact I often propose the opposite - rather than writing what you think they're looking for you're always better off representing what makes you exceptional on its own terms. Having said this, the concept of Mind and Hand is the ability to bring practical application to learned things, and to me, this defines what it takes to be successful not only during the MBA, but also in applying the experience to challenges you'll face in the future. Read here for an interesting (if slightly older) take on this, and go here for a deeper reading on this topic.