Harvard University (Harvard Business School) Essay Analysis, 2008-2009

As we noted on our blog the other day, Harvard Business School (HBS) has released its essay questions—and is the first major MBA program to do so—thereby marking the start of the 2008–2009 MBA application season. We are interested to see whether other schools rush to follow HBS’s lead or whether they will wait to release their questions until the first week of July, when the questions are typically released. If Wharton is any indication, some schools will not be in a hurry to match HBS’s accelerated agenda.

As those who follow all things HBS will quickly discern, this year’s application differs in only a few small ways from last year’s. HBS’s first two essay questions remain the same. Thereafter, candidates need to complete two of four essay choices, rather than three of five, and two new essays are included among these options (“Discuss how you have engaged with a community or organization” and “What area of the world are you most curious about and why?”). We can’t help but speculate that the Admissions Committee, coming off a year when the number of applications increased by 15% (to approximately 8,500), chose to reduce the number of required essays to make processing the applications more efficient.

(Note: For additional information on the Harvard Business School experience, please consult the MBA Mission Insider’s Guide series.)
1. What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such? (600-word limit)

This mainstay of the Harvard MBA application challenges the applicant to quickly “wow” the reader with three individual accomplishments that, together, reveal a true depth of experience. Generally, the candidate should showcase different dimensions of his/herself within the three subsections of this essay. Candidates can select from their professional, community, personal, academic (must be truly outstanding), athletic, interpersonal, experiential and entrepreneurial accomplishments, but certainly, no formula for the right mix of stories exists.

While this is HBS’s longest single essay in terms of word limit, many candidates treat it as three mini essays, and constructing individual stories within 200-word subsets is quite challenging. Candidates must remember that the experiences described are crucial, but they are not everything. Indeed, two elements need to be addressed in this essay—the story of your accomplishment and an analytical reflection on that story (“why do you view them as such?”). The second half of this question should not be ignored; your personal thoughts and reflections are yours alone and will differentiate you from the pack.

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

What is interesting about this question is that the Admissions Committee is not asking you to recount a failure or setback, which would allow you to shift the blame onto others or external circumstances. Instead, they are asking about a mistake that you made or were in some way involved in making—which means that you cannot avoid taking personal responsibility for the error. We cannot emphasize this enough: the Admissions Committee wants to know that you can honestly and critically assess yourself. You do not need to be brutal, but your essay must leave you exposed in some way. Attempts to hide or minimize your mistake, or your role in it, will be transparent and will lessen the import of what you learned from it—as well as the strength of your essay.

Fundamentally, this essay is not so much about the mistake itself as it is about what you learned from the mistake. So, you will need to explain the error, take responsibility in a mature manner and then be introspective, showing that learning occurred and led to real change in your thoughts and actions.

3. Please respond to two of the following (400-word limit each):

a. 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 historical recounting of your entire academic career; you can be selective and showcase the aspects that present you in the most positive light. This is an opportunity to explain your choices (of school/major) and highlight your intellectual vitality, not to review your coursework (the Admissions Committee has your transcript) or justify 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, for example, vigorous discussions with professors during office hours. The idea is to show that while you were an undergraduate, you seized various opportunities to explore ideas and develop your own interests, thoughts and world view. You should try to create momentum, illustrating how you worked to discover your passions and committed yourself to a course of study. However, this does not mean that you can only discuss your major; that quirky “surrealist cinema” or fascinating “modern architecture” class that was well outside of your core course of study might be the perfect fodder to prove your intellectual growth.

Note: we generally do not recommend this essay question to candidates who are several years removed from their undergraduate experience, but exceptions are made for those who had truly extraordinary academic careers.

b. Discuss how you have engaged with a community or organization.

“How” is the key word in this essay question. The Admissions Committee does not want you to simply recite your activities (they will have access to a complete list of these from the “short answer” section of your application). They want to understand the thought process behind your involvement and the actions you have taken to create your impact.

Clearly, a candidate should choose this essay only if he/she has a profound connection to a community or organization. In many ways, this essay should be an expression of that connection, showing the spirit, meaning and purpose that inspired the engagement, as well as the efficacy of the involvement. Indeed, mere participation will not suffice. The Admissions Committee must take away from this essay that the applicant is a leader and has influenced a community or organization in an indelible way.

c. What area of the world are you most curious about and why?

This essay question presents quite a challenge. Candidates have to identify an area of the world that intrigues them and then create an immensely personal connection to it that justifies its selection. Simply choosing the Asia Pacific region or China because these areas are experiencing immense growth, for example, will not suffice. If you imagine yourself as a reader for the Admissions Committee, you will realize that you will not be drawn in by a stranger informing you of things you already know about certain areas or countries. So, if you choose to answer this question, you will be obliged to provide evidence of or the background behind an intense intellectual, spiritual and/or professional connection to the place that is driving this curiosity. Indeed, candidates are best advised to focus on the curiosity (what is personally intriguing) more than on the merits of the area (what everyone tends to know). 

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

Many candidates feel anxious about not answering this question, because, for the most part, every top school asks candidates to directly discuss their goals. Well, for the record, mbaMission worked with candidates who were admitted to HBS last year without answering this question. It is, indeed, optional.

Essentially, we feel that if you are truly passionate about a certain career path and this path has some distinctiveness to it, then you should answer this question. However, if you are still contemplating your career or can reveal something unique about yourself by answering one of the other essay questions instead, then you need not use this one.

If you choose to address it, this question offers you flexibility in discussing your career path, because the Admissions Committee wants to hear about vision, not narrow goals. Still, even though no blatant request is made for a description of your short- and long-term goals, you cannot afford to be whimsical. To ensure your credibility, you must show that you are focused in your ambitions and ensure that your desired career path is built on a legitimate, existing foundation.

HBS strives to restrict the illustrious HBS experience to those with clear vision, potential and purpose. The latter portion of this essay question (“why is this choice meaningful to you?”) places the onus on you to explore and explain your motivations. The question’s structure prevents superficial answers and forces you to show a fundamental understanding of, and personal connection to, your goals going forward.

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