A few years ago, Harvard Business School (HBS) made a change to its application essay questions that surprised many. Its previously mandatory “long- and short-term goals” essay question changed its focus more broadly to “career vision” and became one of four essay topic choices from which applicants select two. Immediately, MBA candidates tried to read between the lines and decipher HBS’s hidden agenda behind such a change. As a result, many an applicant called us, perplexed, asking, “Every other school asks about goals, so HBS must want to know about them, too. I must answer that essay question option about career vision, right?”
Although this may seem obvious to some, we nonetheless ask rhetorically … Why would HBS make a question an option if the admissions committee absolutely wanted you to answer it? If it did, why wouldn’t the question be designated as mandatory, as it had been previously? The answer is, of course, that HBS made this question an option because the admissions committee does not feel that you must have a definite vision for your career for you to be admitted to the program. Essentially, HBS is saying, “If you have a well-defined career vision that would help us better understand who you are as an MBA candidate, then tell us about it. But if you don’t, we would love to hear something else that is interesting about you.”
Essay options are just that—options. There is no “right” selection to make among HBS’s choices, Kellogg’s choices, the Yale School of Management’s choices or those of any other MBA program. The admissions committees are not trying to trick you, and there is no special essay question to choose or secret answer to give that will guarantee you will be accepted. The MBA programs offer multiple essay question options because they know that each applicant is different, and they want to provide an opportunity for each candidate to tell his or her unique story. So, as you approach your essays, think about what you want to say—not what you think the admissions committee wants to hear.