Harvard Business School Essay Analysis

1. What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience? (400-word limit)

This question is quite open-ended, so you are not constrained to discussing all of your experience; you can be selective and showcase the aspects that put you in the most positive light. This is an opportunity to explain your choices (school/major) and show intellectual vitality, not review all of your coursework (the AdCom has your transcript) or explain bad grades (there is still the additional information section).

While “academic” is the operative word in this essay question, it can be interpreted broadly. Your academic experience can extend beyond the classroom to vigorous discussions with professors during office hours, for example. The idea is to show that while you were an undergraduate, you were seizing opportunities to explore ideas and then develop your own interests, thoughts and worldview. You should try to create momentum and show that your time was generally a period in which you discovered your passions and committed yourself to a course of study (regardless of whether your major was electrical engineering, history, management, etc.). Still, this does not mean that you can only discuss your major; that quirky “surrealist cinema” or fascinating “modern architecture” course that was well outside of your major might be the perfect fodder to prove your intellectual growth. Even if your time was not academically fulfilling, it is important that you show that such experience gave you a clear direction.

Finally, it is almost a cliché, but HBS is looking for leadership in everything that you do. So, if you can illustrate that you aided others in learning or expanding their horizons (peer tutoring, facilitating a conference, etc.) then this part of your academic experience could be a clear implication of future contributions at HBS which could be quite appealing.

2. What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such? (600-word limit)

This is a mainstay of the Harvard application, an essay which challenges the reader to display depth of experience. Generally, the candidate should be showcasing different dimensions within this essay; a selection of professional, community and personal accomplishments (not all need to be represented) is important.

While this is the longest essay in terms of word limit, it is the most challenging for many, because one can only dedicate 200 words or so to each experience. It is important that you not forget that there are two elements that need to be tackled, the story of your accomplishment itself and then a reflective element (“why do you view them as such?”). The second half of this question should not be ignored; your personal thoughts are no one else’s and can differentiate you from the pack.

3. Discuss a defining experience in your leadership development. How did this experience highlight your strengths and weaknesses as a leader? (400-word limit)

This new essay is a hybrid of two essays from last year. The key here is to show that your experience was powerful in that it shaped you and your outlook on leadership. Clearly, there needs to be a climactic moment in your story in which your philosophy changed or was revolutionized. Thus, your momentum is crucial and this transitional event needs to standout and show its force. It is important to note that this essay does not need to come from your work experience; the magnitude of the event is more important than the “locale”.

Again, the second aspect of this essay demands introspection. You cannot merely trot out clichés about strengths and weaknesses, but should reflect and try to get to the core of your leadership style. You might find it difficult to be forthright about your weaknesses, but by identifying those that are not damning (meaning those that are not critical to your success at HBS) and explaining what you learned from them, you will get the credit that disingenuous statements (i.e. “My weakness is that I am too passionate about my work…”) will only undermine.

4. In your career, you will have to deal with many ethical issues. What are likely to be the most challenging and what is your plan for developing the competencies you will need to handle these issues effectively? (400-word limit)

This essay made applicants apoplectic last year. It is very important that you first discuss the challenges you expect to encounter and not attempt to solve an ethical dilemma. The committee is seeking to understand that you are already challenging yourself to think about the issues that you will face and that you understand that all situations will not be clear cut. (Essentially, the spirit is such that if you are constantly developing your thoughts, you will be enlightened and less susceptible to involving yourself in an Enron debacle).

To simplify the latter part on “developing the competencies,” the committee wants to understand that you have an agenda for continuing to grow and evolve as an ethical thinker in the future. (Again, they don’t want the solution to a problem; they want to know about the tools that you will surround yourself with to ensure that you will be capable of considering possible solutions to problems). While you can identify specific aspects of your HBS experience as potentially seminal in your development, this is an avenue that is available to all. You should attempt to think creatively and identify other resources that will force you to stay grounded and consider a variety of ideas and opinions.

5. What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you? (400-word limit)

This is a new spin on the previous “what are you short and long term goals” question. This question offers you greater flexibility to discuss your career path, but should not be whimsical. You still need to be focused in your ambitions and ensure that your path flows from an existing foundation to ensure credibility. HBS wants to be sure that they restrict the illustrious HBS experience to those with clear vision, potential and purpose.

The latter aspect of the question (“why is this choice meaningful to you?”) places the onus on you to explore your own motivations. The structure of this question prevents superficial answers and forces you to truly understand your choices. The fact that essay five does not explicitly ask, “How will HBS help you achieve your goals,” means that many applicants will seize essay six to explain some form of this question. It is possible to integrate aspects of “Why HBS?” into your answer, although this is not mandatory, as the question simply does not ask for it.

6. What other information do you believe would be helpful to the Board in understanding you better and in considering your application? (400-word limit)

This question allows you to creatively highlight an experience that may have required more depth than was available in your three accomplishments, explore an interest/passion, explain your potential academic/personal/professional contribution to HBS or reasons for applying to HBS (to identify a few possible avenues). The challenge in this essay — after five essays – is to offer a new dimension of your personality and enable the committee to get to know something unique about you, which connects with your application as a whole.

Because Harvard no longer offers an additional information section, this is now also the place to discuss a bad grades, low GMAT etc. Still, this can be tactfully mentioned as an addendum and need not take over the entire 400 word essay.

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