Harvard University (Harvard Business School) Essay Analysis, 2010–2011

As is usually the case each year, Harvard Business School (HBS) has not completely overhauled its essays, but has just tweaked them slightly. We would guess that this is likely an issue of variety and change, rather than some shift in attributes sought by the admissions committee. The first two essay questions remain the same, but the optional essays have changed—notably, applicants must now answer two of four questions, rather than two of five. “Discuss how you have engaged with a community or organization” is a thing of the past. Meanwhile, the “career vision” and “undergraduate academic experience” essay questions remain among the options, and the final two queries (“Tell us about a time when you made a difficult decision” and “Write a cover letter to your application introducing yourself to the Admissions Board”) have been altered. Overall, even with fewer options this year, HBS offers you a great deal of flexibility, allowing you to selectively showcase the best of your candidacy. Resist the urge to immediately start writing, though—take time to brainstorm thoroughly and carefully consider the messages your essays will communicate about you before you put pen to paper or your hands on the keyboard.

Mandatory: 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 him-/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.

This is HBS’s longest single essay in terms of word limit, and many candidates treat it as three mini essays. Remember, though, that constructing individual stories within 200-word subsets can be quite challenging. Candidates must keep in mind that the experiences they describe are crucial, but these descriptions only address half of HBS’s question. Indeed, two elements need to be discussed in this essay: (1) your accomplishments and (2) an analytical reflection on them (“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.

Candidates often wonder if all three stories must link thematically. We have seen many an applicant skip a formal introduction and simply launch into a story, grabbing and holding the reader’s attention by placing him/her in the middle of the action. An essay in which each accomplishment described flows naturally into the next is good, but candidates should not fret if their essay covers three distinct stories instead.

Note: Avoid beginning each accomplishment with such phrases as “My first significant accomplishment is…” and “My second most significant accomplishment is….” Because many candidates start their essays this way, you risk losing your reader’s interest almost immediately if you do so as well. Further, by telling the reader what the accomplishment is in the first sentence, you kill the mystery, and your reader is left with nothing to discover—nothing is driving him/her to want to continue reading your story.

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

What makes this question interesting is that the admissions committee is not asking you to simply recount a failure or setback, which might allow you to shift the blame onto others or external circumstances. Instead, they are asking about a mistake that you have 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 took away from the experience—as well as the strength of your essay. That said, however, be sure to note that 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 subsequent thoughts and actions.

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

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 required to historically recount your entire academic career; you can be selective and showcase the aspects that present you in the most positive light. This can be an opportunity to explain your choices (of school/major) and highlight your intellectual vitality—but not to review your coursework (the admissions committee already has your transcript) or justify bad grades.

Although “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 to develop your interests, thoughts and world view. You should try to create a sense of momentum in your essay, illustrating how you worked to discover your passions and then committed yourself to an appropriate 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 your core course of study might be the perfect fodder to prove your intellectual curiosity and growth.

We should mention that we have seen successful candidates hone in on one spectacular academic experience that defined their academic career as a whole. Again, this essay need not be a historical recounting of an entire four-year degree experience. You have the freedom to offer what is important to you and showcase what will set you apart from others.

Note: We generally do not recommend that candidates who are several years removed from their undergraduate experience choose to respond to this essay question, but exceptions may be made for applicants who had truly extraordinary academic careers.

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. For the record, mbaMission has worked with candidates in each of the past three years (i.e., since this essay first became an option) who have succeeded in gaining admission to HBS 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 respond to this one.

If you choose to address this question, it 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 demonstrate that you are focused in your ambitions and that your desired career path is built on a legitimate intellectual and professional foundation.

The school 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.

Note: We strongly advise candidates to not try to anticipate the “types” of careers that HBS admissions “prefer” and then attempt to game the system. Whether you write about a potential career in nonprofit or one in private equity, your chances are no better or worse. Vision—we repeat, vision—is key.

Tell us about a time in your professional experience when you were frustrated or disappointed.

At first glance, this question may seem to be an odd addition to HBS’s optional statements. After all, the mistake essay already asks you to present yourself in somewhat of a negative light—now they are asking you to discuss a frustrating or disappointing experience as well?

If anything, this essay reveals that HBS is seeking people who are “real” and know that they are fallible. It may sound like a cliché, but often, far more can be learned by navigating a path strewn with obstacles than by taking the clear and easy road to success. For this essay, HBS is not asking you to recount an experience in which you were culpable in some way (as it does in the mistake essay), but rather one in which you were challenged and had to struggle. For example, if you took on a corporate bureaucracy to bring about a positive change, and you did so with conviction and determination, whether you lost or won is not relevant—what is crucial is how you navigated your path and dealt with the obstacles in your way. Relaying a professionally frustrating experience does not need to reveal that you are tempestuous, but can instead reveal positive traits, such as diplomacy, thoughtfulness, determination and/or entrepreneurship. We encourage you to carefully consider this question and not dismiss it outright as another challenge to your character. In fact, you may find that your character truly shines through in this essay.

When you join the HBS Class of 2013, how will you introduce yourself to your new classmates?

Many candidates will consider writing this essay in first person, likely in quotes. If you consider taking this approach, we caution you against using the typical opening: “Hi. My name is Tom Brown and I am excited about joining the HBS Class of 2013. I was born in…” This is not a time to blend in with the crowd, so you will need to use a more compelling approach. HBS is not asking for a biographical statement but is essentially giving you a free opportunity to showcase your strongest attributes and experiences as a potential contributor to the broader HBS experience. In this case, you do not need to restrict your focus to the academic sphere. Instead, consider offering a narrative that reveals your strengths in various areas—academic, community, extracurricular, social—which would thereby demonstrate your ability to contribute to many different facets of the HBS community, not just in the classroom. Although we strongly discourage you from writing a disguised “why HBS” essay, tactfully linking some of your proposed contributions to specific offerings at the school may be appropriate.

More than outlining your contribution, however, your overarching goal in this essay should be to find your voice and convey your true personality/style so the admissions committee can gain a better understanding of you as an individual. Again, the committee is not looking for a specific “type” of candidate, and you should not try to be anything other than yourself. (If you are a shy person, for example, there is no point in trying to depict yourself as the life of the party.) Your sincere story and personality need to materialize for you to stand out among the thousands who apply to this school.

For a thorough exploration of Harvard’s academic program/merits, defining characteristics, crucial statistics, social life, academic environment and more, please check out the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to Harvard Business School.

From Sept. 13, 2010:
Recently, mbaMission Founder Jeremy Shinewald discussed the Harvard Business School essays as part of Beat the GMAT’s “Write Like an Expert” Series. Check out the video from that presentation below. To see the video alongside the presentation slides, visit Beat the GMAT:

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