HBS Class of 2017 MBA Application Essay, Resume, and App Form
Sep, 11, 2014
In this post I will be analyzing the optional essay question and key components of the HBS Application for the Class of 2017 as indicated by the optional MBA essay topic:
You’re applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your resume, academic transcripts, extracurricular activities, awards, post-MBA career goals, test scores, and what your recommenders have to say about you. What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?
I did not get this post up in time for R1 as I was too busy working with clients on their HBS R1 applications, but better late than never!
SORRY ABOUT THE FORMATTING ISSUES BELOW. I WILL ADDRESS THEM AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.
My comprehensive service clients have been admitted to the regular HBS for the Classes of 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, and 2005. My clients’ results and testimonials can be found here. In addition to providing comprehensive application consulting on HBS, I regularly help additional candidates with HBS interview preparation. I have worked with a large number of applicants from Canada, Europe, India, Japan, other parts of Asia, and the United States on HBS application. I think that this range of experience has helped me understand the many possible ways of making an effective application to HBS.
My best HBS client results were the best ever for the Class of 2016. I had six clients admitted from five different counties. Their backgrounds and essays varied greatly. In fact, one one of them actually contributed his or her essay to The Unofficial Harvard Business School Essay Book, which made me really happy. I can’t tell you which one. I do highly recommend reading this book because it will give you a really good idea about the range of possible answers and dispel any myths about needing to submit something that is professionally written. I would also recommend the old book that contained HBS admits essays. That collection is still a good read for understanding how to put together an MBA essay though the specific questions are no longer being asked by HBS. Combined, both books are really great guides for someone looking to see sample successful MBA essays. Beyond those essay books, a piece of absolutely required reading for HBS admissions is Poets & Quants’ John Byrne’s interview with Dee Leopold, Managing Director of MBA Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard Business School. If you are looking for one article to give you overall insight into how HBS makes admissions decisions, John Byrne has done an exceptional job of asking Dee Leopold the right questions. I will quote from that interview below.
Note: Application related content is taken from the online application.
Instructions: Please provide a current resume or CV. Ideally, this would be about 1-2 pages in length, but we’re not going to make a fuss if yours happens to be longer than that.”
The resume has always been an important part of any HBS application. You can find a resume template I have linked to on my blog here. That resume template can also simply serve as a checklist for what to include. While many schools prefer a one-page resume, HBS really does not care. Depending on a client’s background, I will recommend 1 or 2 pages. I think it best to think of a resume as a record of accomplishment. If you have sufficient accomplishments, 2 pages is fine. Some applicants try to a use an MBA student’s recruitment resume format as the basis for their own resume, but I generally don’t consider this a good idea as such resumes serve a very different purpose. An MBA resume should really designed to focus on you overall, that is your academic, professional, and personal accomplishments and key facts. A recruiting resume is meant for a different kind of audience, recruiters, and typically focuses on a much more narrow range of information.
When I first start working comprehensively with any client, whether they are applying to HBS or not, I always start with the resume for a couple of reasons:
1. It is a great way for any applicant to summarize the most important information about them and their accomplishments. It sometimes helps applicants actually remind themselves of what they have done.
2. For me, it is a way I learn about a client so that I can better understand their background.
One key thing to remember about what you include on your resume: Anything that is there, just like any component of the application, may become the basis for a HBS interview question. Therefore if you don’t want to talk about it and don’t need to write about it, leave it off the resume.
While not mentioned in the HBS essay question, there is also an Employment Section of the application that provides space for you to discuss two positions in detail including providing brief descriptions of your professional accomplishments and challenges. To some extent this information will overlap with the resume. This is nothing to worry about. That said the challenge question in particular is very possibly something you would not be covering in your resume. Stanford has a similar detailed employment section in their application, which they seriously. I assume HBS does as well, so just as with the resume, make sure your answers in the application are as effective as possible. Don’t treat it like some form you do at the last minute.
First, keep in mind that admissions officers read transcripts and are trained to know what they are reading. They don’t just look at GPA (If your school calculates it). If there is something really bad on your transcript (a fail, a withdrawal, etc) or odd, you really do want to explain it in the additional section or, in some cases, in the essay. If is just a C and you have no specific excuse, don’t bother trying to explain it. If your academic performance varied greatly from year to year (or semester to semester), was there a reason for it? Is it one that you want to provide? I don’t recommend discussing how you became depressed after your boy/girl friend broke up with you, but, if, for example, you were taking a major leadership position in a student organization, running a start-up, working a lot to pay for school, doing major research, or playing a varsity sport, you do have a topic worth discussing. Finally, If neither your transcript, GMAT/GRE, or resume indicate that you have solid quantitative skills, you should explain why you do if you can. The proper place to provide that explanation is in the additional section or the essay.
Given HBS’ instructions on this, I do highly recommend including your best extracurricular activities with perhaps 2 out of 3 being focused on college/university activities, unless you have some particularly impressive post college/university activities, where I might see including only 1 activity from college/university. If you have done nothing impressive extracurricular-wise after graduating and have 3 good activities from university, feel free to just use use this section for those activities. If you did nothing but study during college or university and really have no activities, hopefully you have three post-college things to include. If you have any activities that are directly relevant to your professional goals or to your personal story and you really want to emphasize them, use this space accordingly. While I would surely emphasize the most impressive activities in terms of leadership or engagement, if you need to focus on personal interests that were not group focused (running for example) because you simply don’t anything better, put it here. Activities that show you are well-rounded, civically engaged, artistic, athletic are all possibilities here.
Keep in mind that extracurricular activities can (and usually should) also be fully accounted for on the resume and given the fact that you can submit a two-page resume, there is no reason that can’t account for an activity. Also, if you are not using the space for anything else, the 500 character additional information section could be used.
Awards and Recognition
Instructions: Were you on the Dean’s List? Did your apple pie win a blue ribbon at the state fair? Tell us about it here. List any distinctions, honors, and awards (academic, military, extracurricular, professional, community) in order of importance to you (i.e., list the most important first). You may list up to three awards.
For some applicants this section is really easy to fill out because they have won a number of awards, distinctions, or honors and just need to prioritize them. Other candidates will freak out about this section because they never won anything that they think fits. While, it is sometimes really the case that I will have perfectly great applicant who has nothing to report in this section, most applicants are actually likely to have something. HBS is not asking you a narrow question here, so think broadly.
INTENDED POST-MBA CAREER GOALS
(This is found on the Employment page of the application)
“Intended Post-MBA Career Goals
500 characters remaining”
You don’t have to perfect post-MBA plan, but you need to have a plan. You most likely will spend more time thinking about what you are going to write here than writing it. I think it is fine to include the longer term here if it helps to explain the rationale for your short-term objectives. Keep in mind that your wider vision is a perfectly acceptable topic to discuss in the essay and not here. Also, since this question does not ask about HBS, you should include any why HBS content in the essay. If you are having difficulty with your career goals, see my analysis of the Stanford essays for a method for thinking about goals. I frequently work with my clients on their goals.
Instructions: Please only add additional information here if you need to clarify any information provided in the other sections of your application. This is not meant to be used as an additional essay.
Please limit your additional information to the space in this section. We’ll know you’ll be tempted, but please don’t send us any additional materials (e.g., additional recommendations, work portfolios). To be fair to all applicants, extra materials won’t be considered.
500 characters remaining”
HBS gives you unlimited word count for your essay, but the Additional Information section is rather limited. Use to explain anything that can be effectively explained in the space provided. If you need more space, for example, if you want to discuss your reapplication to HBS in detail, do it in the essay. This is a great place to explain choice of recommenders, a problem in your past, or to add in information about something you really think HBS needs to know. It is completely fine to leave this space blank if you have nothing you need to add.
My analysis of HBS recommendations will be forthcoming and in a separate post.
THE “OPTIONAL” ESSAY QUESTION
Here it is — the moment you’ve been waiting for! Time to do your essay!
(If you want to, that is. Believe it or not, the essay is optional.)
The essay question is:
You’re applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your resume, academic transcripts, extracurricular activities, awards, post-MBA career goals, test scores, and what your recommenders have to say about you. What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?
Use your judgment as to how much to tell us. We don’t have a “right answer” or “correct length” in mind. We review all the elements of your written application to decide who moves forward to the interview stage.
Upload your Word or PDF document below. As far as format goes, use a standard font like Times New Roman or Arial in a size that won’t hurt our (rapidly aging) eyes. No need to repeat the question above unless you want to.”
“Only about ten applicants out of 9,543 for the Class of 2016, she said, decided not to turn in an essay at all. She admitted one of them, Impressed by the candidate and the rest of his application—even though he failed to turn in an essay. Leopold points out that the acceptance rate for the group that didn’t write an essay was roughly the same as the 12% of admits who did.”
-John Byrne’s interview with Dee Leopold.
All of my comprehensive service clients admitted to the Class of 2016 wrote essays. These essays varied in length between 650-1200 words. I did interview prep with someone else who was admitted with an essay that a bit longer than that. I did not work with one of the ten who did not write an essay. Clearly the guy who was admitted must have been really impressive. If you are really impressive and feel other parts of the application speak for themselves, well maybe you don’t need to write the essay either. If you are not certain about how impressive you are, I recommend writing the essay. If you are certain about how impressive you are, I recommend writing the essay. If you have no time to write a good essay and are really impressive, you might be a good candidate for not writing an essay.
Assuming you are writing the essay, you essentially need to ask yourself one question:
What else does HBS admissions need to know in order to offer you an interview?
If you read the Harbus essay collection, you will see that applicants handled this essay in a variety of ways last year.
Four Ways HBS Evaluates Applicants
My objective when working with each of my clients is to help them identify the best content in their essays, resume, interview and other application components to show fit for each school they apply to. My approach is to understand the audience that is being communicated to because the only objective of your application is to communicate effectively to your audience, the admissions committee.
The following summarizes what HBS is looking for in terms of three stated values (Habit of Leadership, Analytical Aptitude and Appetite, and Engaged Community Citizenship) plus Diversity and the possible places where you can demonstrate these in your initial application (Interview and post-interview not considered below):
These four core ways that HBS evaluates applicants need to be communicated in your application and one or more of them should be used in your essay.
In addition to those four elements (which are discussed in detail below), other possible common topics for inclusion here would be:
-Your wider post-MBA career vision that you could not explain in the 500 character answer on the Employment page. Some applicants will not touch on this topic at all in their essays.
-Why you want an MBA in general? Again, some will address this, others will not. Since there is no place in the application to indicate this otherwise, it would reasonable to explain your rationale for doing an MBA, whether you state this in general and/or terms of HBS in particular is your choice, but my bias is certainly for being HBS specific.
-Why HBS? I don’t think one has to necessarily write in detail about why you want to go to HBS, but providing your overall rationale for why you want to go HBS now is certainly reasonable. If your career vision is something you are writing about and there are particular aspects of HBS that really relate to it, feel free to mention them.
For a discussion of career vision, why an MBA? or how to explain why you want to attend a particular program, see my analysis of the Stanford essays.
If you are a reapplying to HBS, I do recommend addressing that issue either in the essay or, if you only need a brief amount of words, in the Additional Information section. If you are reapplicant, please see here. It is usually the case that ones tries to show growth since the last application. Whatever form(s) this growth takes, you might need a brief amount of word count or significant word count. Common topics:
1. Changes in career goals since the previous application. Feel free to alter your goals, just explain why.
2. Why you are a better candidate now. This could be everything from a career change to increased GMAT scores to improved English ability to taking courses to overcome an academic weakness to a valuable extracurricular activity.
Habit of Leadership
The mission of HBS is to educate leaders. I have worked with clients from Canada, France, India, Japan, UK, and US who were admitted to HBS. They had a diversity of educational, extracurricular, and professional backgrounds, but were united by one thing: In one or more aspects of their lives, they demonstrated this habit of leadership. HBS takes a very broad view of what they are looking for:
Leadership may be expressed in many forms, from college extracurricular activities to academic or business achievements, from personal accomplishments to community commitments. We appreciate leadership on any scale, from organizing a classroom to directing a combat squad, from running an independent business to spearheading initiatives at work. In essence, we are looking for evidence of your potential.
HBS does not explicitly ask you to show your potential for leadership in this essay, but it may very well be something you decide to write about. Leadership is no easy thing. Nor is it always obvious. If you leadership is fully obvious from resume, than perhaps your essay not discuss it, but the worst possible thing is to conceive of leadership as simple formal responsibility or a title because this conveys nothing about the person in that position. While some applicants will have held formal leadership positions, many will not. Formal leadership positions are great to write about if they involve the applicant actually having significant impact, making a difficult decision, being a visionary, showing creativity, or otherwise going beyond their formal responsibility, but the same is true for those showing leadership without having a formal title.
If you are having difficulty really understanding leadership, one great place to read about leadership, and business in general, is Harvard Business School Working Knowledge. Also, if you have not done so, I suggest reading relevant essays in 65 Successful Harvard Business School Application Essays: With Analysis by the Staff of the Harbus, The Harvard Business School Newspaper. Reading these essays should help you to understand the great diversity of topics that are possible and not only in terms of leadership.
Some clients I have worked with have never really considered themselves as leaders. I think it is critical that if you are applying to HBS that you have idea about what kind of leader you are. While there are number of ways to describe leadership, I particularly like this formulation of leadership types that INSEAD Professor Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries has used in one of his Harvard Business Review blog posts (Disclosure I am a student in an INSEAD program that he co-directs):
I have previously suggested that applicants who are having difficulty really understanding leadership find out what kind of leader they are by taking this quiz based on Lewin’s classic framework. While leadership is more complicated than Lewin’s framework, the quiz is a great way to get you started thinking about yourself, a key part of answering any leadership essay question effectively. However I think the 8 archetypes above provide a much better guide for those who both have extensive leadership experience and those who think they lack it. Think of these 8 archetypes as aspirational images of certain kinds of leader. You may fit into more than one category. You may find you don’t feel like you are really good at any of the above in comparison to the descriptions above, but that is OK because you are trying to identify your potential even if it seems based on relatively little “objective evidence.” If leadership is not obvious from your resume or likely to be a topic your recommenders will focus on, you should certainly consider how you show your leadership potential. I have never worked with anyone who could not demonstrate potential in at least one of the categories above.
Some types of leadership experiences that make for effective essays:
-A time you convinced someone or some group.
-A time you lead others.
-A time you demonstrated courage.
-A time you made a difficult decision.
-A time you were innovative.
-A time you formulated and executed a strategy or tactics.
-A time you turned around a situation, overcame an obstacle.
-A time reformed something.
-A time you changed something.
-A time you effectively negotiated with someone.
-A time created something.
-A time you managed or organized something.
-A time you mentored or coached someone.
-A time you represented an organization in public.
-A time you managed up, down, or across an organization.
Some of these are simply derived from the archetypes above, but all reflect what I have seen in my clients essays over the years.
Engaged Community Citizenship
While “Engaged Community Citizenship” might take the form of leadership, it is quite distinct:
So much of our MBA experience – including the case method, section life, and student-organized events – requires the active collaboration of the entire HBS community. That’s why we look for students who exhibit the highest ethical standards and respect for others, and can make positive contributions to the MBA Program. The right candidates must be eager to share their experiences, support their colleagues, and teach as well as learn from their peers.
HBS and other MBA programs are looking for students who will make a contribution. This really makes sense because of the collaborative nature of MBA education. While professors play an important role in the classroom, students learn from each other on a continuous basis both inside and outside of class. An MBA education is very much one based on relationship building. One of the chief functions of an MBA admissions committee is to select people who will be good classmates. The director and the rest of the committee have done their job properly if they have selected students who can work well together, learn from each other, and if these students become alumni who value the relationships they initially formed at business school. Given that two of the major takeaways from an HBS education are the relationships that a student forms during the program and access to the alumni network, HBS is looking for candidates who will fully engage with others.
The essay question that HBS asks does not require one to directly discuss contributions. Actually in most HBS essay sets in the past, community engagement is not directly requested. I would argue, in fact, that even if a school does not ask an applicant to tell them what he or she can contribute, the applicant should make that clear in the essay(s) by showing the ways one has added value to others, teams, organizations, projects, etc. Interviews are usually a further opportunity to discuss how one will make a contribution. It is important to show engagement with others in your HBS essay, in your interview, in your post-interview essay, in your application, and in your resume. You should also make it a point to get your recommenders to discuss how you add value to the team, to whatever “community” (A workplace is a community) they worked with you in.
Engagement in a community may take many different forms. Over the years, I have found the following types of activities to be very effective for MBA applications:
-Volunteer or social activities at work, whether it is actually organizing them or participating in them.
-Volunteer or social activities at school, whether it is actually organizing them or participating in them.
-Volunteer or social activities outside of work or school, whether it is actually organizing them or participating in them.
-A volunteer activity related to your post-MBA goals
-A volunteer activity that allowed for the development of leadership and/or teamwork experience
-A volunteer activity that put you in contact with people who are quite different from you in terms of nationality, income level, and/or educational background
-An international volunteer or social activity
-Active involvement in an alumni organization
-Active participation in a sports team
-Active political involvement (Not just voting or knowledge of politics, but actual activities)
-Participation in an orchestra, band or other musical group
-Participation in drama or dance
-Organizing trips or other activities for a group of friends
-Serving as the leader, organizer, or active member of a team-based educational activity such as a seminar, project, or overseas trip
The above are just some possibilities.
Some people will no doubt worry that they lack extracurricular activities to demonstrate such community citizenship, but in my experience there is always some way to demonstrate this. Part of my job is to help my clients identify such activities and communicate about them effectively. If you have demonstrated extensive community citizenship in your resume, you may very well not need to write about in the HBS essay, but you might still find that explaining your motivation for such activities is something you want to convey to HBS. For those with limited objective resume content in this area, if there is an effective way to get some positive aspect of your community citizenship into the essay, do so.
Analytical Aptitude and Appetite
Harvard Business School is a demanding, fast-paced, and highly-verbal environment. We look for individuals who enjoy lively discussion and debate. Our case and field-based methods of learning depend upon the active participation of prepared students who can assess, analyze, and act upon complex information within often-ambiguous contexts. The MBA Admissions Board will review your prior academic performance, the results of the GMAT or GRE, and, if applicable, TOEFL iBT and/or IELTS, and the nature of your work experience. There is no particular previous course of study required to apply; you must, however, demonstrate the ability to master analytical and quantitative concepts.
HBS is a highly competitive and challenging academic environment. It is not for anyone. “Analytical Aptitude And Appetite,” what can more generally be thought of as academic potential, will be very easy for some candidates to demonstrate without ever writing an essay on the topic. You must demonstrate your analytical intelligence somewhere in your application. Yes, a solid GPA and GMAT are enough for that purpose, but if you think your academic record and GMAT are weak, I do suggest demonstrating your high analytical aptitude and appetite in your essay. Also, whether you address your analytical abilities in your essay, for most applicants, it would also be very useful to have one or more recommenders discussing this.
Some effective ways to demonstrate analytical intelligence include the following:
-Solving a complex problem at work, school, or elsewhere
-Discussing the successful completion of complex analytical tasks
-Breaking down a complex problem that you solved and communicating it a very brief and clear way
– Demonstrating great personal insight into ones weaknesses, failures, and/or mistakes
-Showing the ability to learn from weaknesses, failures, and/or mistakes
-Showing the ability to learn and master something highly complex
-Demonstrating a high level of creativity
Those with truly outstanding academic background and test scores need to likely focus less attention on this area. If you think you have weaknesses in this area, consider how to use the essay to mitigate them. The above list provides some effective ways to do that.
A truly diverse student body — in background, nationality, interests and ambitions — is the foundation of the HBS experience. Indeed, these differences are critical to the HBS learning model, which thrives on the many perspectives and life experiences our students from all over the world bring to their classes. From academic assignments to casual conversations, the unique qualities of individual lives enrich the education of the entire community.
This overall intention to create a highly diverse class significantly impacts HBS admissions’ decisions. The critical thing is that you demonstrate why you are unique and how you will add to the diversity of the class. In your essay you need to show what makes you stand out. Especially if you think your academic, personal, professional, and/or extracurricular experiences are not inherently unique, it is very important that your essay demonstrates what makes you stand out.
Some ways of demonstrating diversity that my clients have used successfully include the following:
-Being the first person or kind of person to do something
-Being the youngest person to do do something
-Making an original contribution to something
-Having an unusual family, academic, personal, or professional background
-Unusual skills or talents
-Extensive international experience
-Receiving prestigious awards or scholarships
-Even post-MBA goals might be used for this purpose if your goals help to make you stand out.
Keep in mind that diversity is a matter of interpretation and presentation and it is each applicant’s responsibility to best demonstrate how they will add value to their classmates. One of my jobs as a consultant is always help my clients identify ways that make them distinct even if they think they are not special. I operate on the assumption that everyone is unique.
So far I have discussed topic selection. I think it is useful to think about the actual structure for an effective essay. When it comes to telling stories, which is what the two essays for HBS require you to do, I think it is most important to think about your audience. You are not writing these essays for yourself, you are writing them to convince your audience. How to convince them?
The following grid connects the parts of an essay (the first column) to three core aspects of writing an effective essay. The table should help you see the relationship between the components of a story and what I would consider to be three major questions to ask about any story.
|Essay Outline||What was your role?||What does it mean?||Why will this essay sell them on you?|
|Effective answers to when, where, who, what, and how should all relate directly to your role in the situation. You are the hero or heroine of your story.||Your reader should have a clear understanding of the situation. They are not reading a mystery story, a poem, or some other form of writing where withholding information will be valued.||The situation needs to be one that the reader will believe, consider to be important, and hopefully be impressed by.|
What actions did you take?Action Step 1:
Action Step 2:
Action Step 3:
|Stories break down into steps. For each step, make sure you are clear about what you did.||Each action step should be meaningful and demonstrate your potential. This is the core of the story and it is important the rationale for your actions be stated as clearly as possible. Effective essays involve both description and interpretation.||If you are actions are clear and their value is clear in terms of your leadership, analytical, engaged community citizenship, or unique background, you will be on a firm basis for selling your story to admissions.|
|Result||Results should be stated as clearly as possible. Your relationship to the results should be clear.||Explain the significance of results clearly.||Make your results meaningful so that they will be impressive.|
The grid above is based on the following assumptions, which I consider to be basic for writing effective essays:
Your reader must understand you. HBS emphasizes this in the essay instructions: Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don’t know your world can understand. Provide a clear interpretation of what you have done. Write in simple language, even about complex things. Assume your reader has a basic business background, but don’t assume any expertise. Cause-effect relationships should not be merely implied where possible. Showing your actual action steps is critical. A full explanation might be impossible because of word count, but if you tell things in sequence, it usually provides that explanation.
You reader must believe you. If your reader is not convinced by your story, you are dead. I am all in favor of telling the best version of a story that you can, provided it is also believable. Bad self-marketing is frequently based on lies that can be seen through. I have met many admissions officers and while not all of them were brilliant, all the good ones had finely tuned “bullshit detectors.” If your essays have a seemingly tenuous relationship with reality, you are likely to be setting yourself up for a ding.
Your reader must be engaged.If a reader does not become interested in what they reading, there is a problem. The problem may be that the essay is simply generic or it might be the way a story is being told is boring or it maybe a lack of passion in the writing. Whatever the case, it needs fixing. One of my roles as a consultant is to coach my clients on writing essays that will be engaging.
You must sell your reader on your high potential for admission. Great essays don’t just need to be believable and interesting, they have to be convincing. You are trying to get admissions to take a specific action after they read your file: admit you or invite you for an interview. Thus, essays must convince them to take action, they have to see why you should be admitted. I help my understand how to do this and give very specific advice on how to do so.
Your reader should be interpreting your essay the way you intend. In writing there is always room for misinterpretation. If you have not effectively interpreted yourself, there is always the possibility that your reader will draw opposite conclusions from what you intended. I help my clients make sure that they understand and correct for all such negative interpretations.
My final point is that HBS is looking for people who want to be leaders, not mere managers. They are looking for people who will use their “one precious and wild life” to achieve great things, not those who will be satisfied at being mediocrities. If you can’t show the potential for that now, when will you?
I am a graduate admissions consultant who works with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form. Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.
Harvard Business School graduation for the Class of 2016
Last year was Chad Losee’s first as Harvard Business School’s (HBS’s) director of admissions, and he entered the position at the beginning of the 2016–2017 admissions cycle. Given this timing, whether he was the one behind the change in the program’s essay prompt last season or whether he was simply implementing changes that had been decided before his arrival is unclear.
Either way, Chad and his team must have been happy with HBS’s approach to its essay and application process, because the admissions committee is sticking with the program. HBS is posing the same essay question as last year and one that was first used by his predecessor, Dee Leopold, during the 2013–2014 admissions cycle, with only the slightest adjustment from “what else would you like us to know” to “what more”:
As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA Program? (no word limit)
You may be wondering how to tackle such a broad and open-ended prompt, so here are a few things to keep in mind as you start framing your thoughts and getting to work on your first draft.
Express Your Values: Before you start writing, consider for a moment what information the admissions committee already has about you via the other parts of your application. This includes your resume, GPA, GMAT score, recommendations, and some personal history provided in your responses to the short-answer questions. This information is either “black and white” or consists of someone else’s impression of you. This essay is your opportunity to add your own personal “color” and voice to your application. Your goal is not to show off your writing abilities, however, but to share your experiences so that they demonstrate who you are as a person, revealing what inspires and motivates you. In other words, this essay relies on your experience as a vehicle to communicate your values. If you simply lump a variety of anecdotes together and try to foist a theme upon your admissions reader, you will miss the mark. But if you are truly thoughtful about who you are as a person and can speak to a sincere thread that runs through your experiences (or can be powerfully exemplified by a single experience) and that motivates or excites you, you should be on the right track.
Stay Away from “Type”: The enemy of sincerity is “type.” If you believe the admissions committee wants something particular from you or for you to be a specific kind of individual and you strive to portray yourself that way in your essay, you will very likely fail this exercise. If, for example, you write explicitly about “leadership” or offer a number of unsubtle hints that you would master the case method, the admissions committee will recognize the pandering and will be neither fooled nor impressed. The HBS environment is diverse—the admissions committee is not interested in selecting 900-plus individuals who will all bring the same qualities to campus and make identical contributions. So relinquish your belief that HBS is looking for certain themes or profiles in this essay, because it is not. The admissions committee wants to learn about you as an individual—whoever you may be—so return to point one and think about your values.
Recognize This Is Not a Career Goals Essay: For the vast (and we do mean vast!) majority of applicants, this essay is not the place to discuss career goals. If you work in private equity and plan to return to private equity after graduating, this would not be a worthwhile topic for your essay, largely because it would not provide any novel information to better illuminate who you are as an individual. However, if your goals are part of a journey that clearly relates to or expresses your values or if they elucidate an otherwise unclear connection between your past and your business school aspirations, then you might be an exception. For example, a medic at a bush hospital in Uganda who dreams of commercializing low-cost technologies to fight infectious diseases would likely be well served discussing his journey to HBS via this essay. Doing so would clarify this candidate’s path and reveal something critical—something “more”—that the committee could use in evaluating the applicant’s candidacy.
Avoid Writing Your Biography: Although we see absolutely nothing wrong with taking a biographical approach to this essay, this essay cannot be a biography! This means you can discuss your family history and how it has influenced you and shaped your values, but you simply do not have enough space to discuss your entire personal history, and more importantly, it is not relevant. If some interesting and clearly significant inflection points in your life have shaped who you are today, these could make good essay fodder, but you must focus on conveying the why and how of their profound impact on you and filter out everything else in between. The admissions committee wants to learn “more” about you—not everything.
Do Not Rehash Your Resume: Just because HBS is a business school, you do not need to offer a detailed discussion of your professional experience to date. In fact, many successful applicants will not discuss their past career at all. That said, the topic is not entirely off-limits. If you feel that detailing some aspect of your professional life is the ideal way to offer more about you and your values, then you can explore this approach more deeply. On the other hand, we would not recommend simply describing a work accomplishment with no connection to a central theme or purpose. Your resume or recommendations should do the trick as far as informing the admissions committee about a core professional achievement, but if a particular element of or achievement in your professional life truly strikes at the heart of who you are as a person, this could be a fitting topic for your essay. Just make sure that at its core, the story you share serves as a manifestation of who you are, rather than what you have done.
Consider Word Count: HBS offers no word count guidance for this essay, so we will. In the past few years, ever since the school first eliminated its word count limitation, we have advised many successful applicants who submitted essays in the 750- to 1,250-word range. Although we acknowledge that some candidates who exceeded that top limit were accepted into the HBS program, we feel confident that this is a comfortable and appropriate range, whereby you should be able to fully share your thoughts without demanding an inordinate amount of the admissions reader’s time. Be aware that if you submit 2,500 words, you are asking a very busy person to dedicate more time to your essay than to others, so you need to be confident that in the end, he or she would feel that this was time well spent. Again, we recommend 750–1,250 words as your target. Focus first on writing an essay that showcases your personality and experiences, and if it ultimately exceeds that range, do what is necessary to reduce your verbiage without sacrificing effectiveness.
Make Sure You Are Offering More: In its prompt, HBS very specifically asks for more information about you, so by the time you are finessing your final draft, you will hopefully be able to conclusively determine whether you are truly providing the admissions committee with additional useful information. Applicants tend to write, revise, and revise again until they ultimately lose the forest for the trees. Before you press “submit,” step away from your essay for a while so you can return to it later with fresh eyes and evaluate it more objectively. You could also share it with someone who knows you well and ask that person whether it truly illuminates your personality and experience. More is critical, but more of the same is a recipe for disaster!
Jeremy Shinewald of mbaMission
Jeremy Shinewald is founder and President of mbaMission, a leading MBA admissions consulting firm. You can read more about Shinewald and his firm in our MBA admissions consulting directory.