Harvard University (Harvard Business School) Essay Analysis

As announced by HBS’s Director of Admissions and Financial Aid, Deirdre Leopold, in an online chat with BusinessWeek in late May, HBS’s essays have indeed changed. Whereas HBS previously did not offer its candidates any flexibility in its six required essays, the admissions office will now only ask candidates to complete two required essays and then to select from three of six optional essay topics. Beyond these structural changes, most notably, HBS has added questions on global/cultural experiences and dropped its question on ethics.

Our analysis of each essay follows:

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

This mainstay of the Harvard application challenges the reader to display depth of experience. Generally, the candidate should be showcasing different dimensions within the three subsections of this essay; a selection of professional, community and personal accomplishments (not all need to be represented) is important. While this is the longest single essay in terms of word limit, many treat it as three mini essays, so it is actually quite challenging to construct it within these confines. Further, it is important that you remember that the experiences themselves are not everything. Indeed, there are two elements that need to be addressed — the story of your accomplishment itself and then a reflective element (“why do you view them as such?”). The second half of this question cannot be ignored; your personal thoughts are no one else’s and can differentiate you from the pack.

What have you learned from a mistake? (400 word limit)

As noted above, HBS has dropped its question on ethics and may have replaced it with this essay, which is a different test of character. What is interesting about this question is that AdCom is not asking you for a failure or a setback (both of which allow you to shift the blame to others or to circumstances) but for a mistake (where there is no avoiding responsibility). Simply put, mistakes are due to decisions, not circumstances. Thus, candidates are forced to be much more honest about their experiences and either take or place responsibility. Of course, this essay is not just about the mistake itself, but is about learning from the mistake. So, you will need to be introspective and show that learning led to tangible change in thought or action.

Please respond to three of the following (400 word limit each)

Discuss a defining experience in your leadership development. How did this experience highlight your strengths and weaknesses?

With HBS’s emphasis on leadership, it is unsurprising that this essay remains from last year. However, the keyword is not “leadership,” but “defining.” Clearly, there needs to be a climactic moment in your story in which your philosophy changed or was revolutionized. Thus, strong momentum in a single direction is crucial, and then this transitional event needs to stand out 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 will not undermine your ability to succeed 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.

How have you experienced culture shock?

As mentioned above, this is a new essay question and one that seeks to explore how you can relate to others or a new environment, amid significant change. Many will restrict their thinking to international experiences, but you may have experienced a new culture in your home country or backyard. In this essay, the key is to show that you are adaptable and embrace change with ease. For you to write a solid essay, you will need to discuss a moment/experience in which you were well outside of your comfort zone, and then reveal your ability to create a new comfort zone or accept another’s.

What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience?

This question is quite open-ended, so you are not constrained to a discussion of your entire academic career; 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 to review your coursework (the AdCom has your transcript) or explain bad grades. While “academic” is the operative word in this essay question, it can be interpreted broadly. Your academic experience can extend beyond the classroom and into 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 world view. You should try to create momentum and show that you seized the opportunity to discover your passions and commit 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 an implication of future contributions at HBS, which could be quite appealing to the AdCom.

What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?

This question offers you flexibility in discussing your career path, which is almost unheard of amid the top-ten schools. Still, just because there is no blatant request for short- and long-term goals, you still cannot afford to be whimsical. You 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 show a fundamental understanding of your choices going forward.

What global issue is most important to you and why?

We start our analysis of this essay with a cautionary note: this is not the place to voice your political views or air grievances. In this essay, you have the opportunity to show that you are keenly aware of the world – not preachy — and that you take personal ownership of issues that are affecting your conscience, community and beyond. So, you should not just attack a political or social issue, but must consider your personal connection with it. An excellent essay will show an unusually strong “relationship” with the matter and prove that you are deeply affected by its implications. Further, it will hopefully showcase more than your emotional reaction to it, but also show that you have been active in raising awareness or taking steps to address it.

What else would you like the MBA Admissions Board to understand about you?

Last year, HBS stopped offering a place for “additional information” in its application, likely frustrated by how many candidates used the space to make excuses about their GMAT or grades. By creating this essay, HBS essentially forced candidates to make choices about how they would use their precious essay space and therefore mitigated those who were justifying that which did not need to be justified. Regardless of the history of this essay, if you have an unusual problem within your profile, this is the place to discuss it. If you do not, this question allows you to creatively highlight an experience that did not fit neatly into your other essays. Keep in mind that — after four other essays – the challenge will be to offer an entirely new dimension of your personality.

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