Harvard Business School Essay Analysis, 2011–2012

The 2011–2012 MBA application season is officially afoot. Harvard Business School (HBS) has just released its essay questions, maintaining its tradition of being the first school to do so each year. HBS usually strikes first in early May, and the other top 15 schools follow suit shortly after, throughout May and even into early June.

The HBS watchers among you will notice two significant changes this year, the first of which is that the school has released almost all new questions. Of the six essay prompts that HBS offered last year, only one remains—the school’s famed “three accomplishments” essay. The second major change is to a streamlined application that offers candidates few options. For the past few years, HBS has required MBA candidates to respond to two essay questions, allowing them to choose from among four. Now applicants face four mandatory questions, leaving them nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. So, this change could limit your ability to play to your strengths and mitigate your weaknesses. Our analysis of HBS’s essay questions follows:

1. Tell us about three of your accomplishments. (600 words)

This mainstay of the Harvard MBA application challenges the applicant to quickly “wow” the reader by recounting three individual accomplishments that, together, reveal a true depth of experience. Generally, candidates should showcase different dimensions of themselves within the three subsections of this essay. Applicants 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 essay—along with its sister essay, which follows—is one of HBS’s longest 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. Keep in mind that the experiences you choose to describe are crucial and that shamelessly bragging in this (or really any) essay is unwise. No one wants to hear “I am awesome because….” However, if you have a story that is truly worth telling (that is unquestionably “awesome”), the reader will naturally conclude on his/her own that you too are indeed “awesome” after learning how you performed. In fact, this question previously read, “What are your three most substantial accomplishments, and why do you view them as such?” This year, HBS has dropped the portion of the question that asked, “Why do you view them as such?” We believe this indicates that the admissions committee is content to glean this information from your discussion of the experience itself.

Candidates often wonder if the three stories they discuss in this essay must all link thematically. 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. Moreover, 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.

Note: Avoid beginning each accomplishment with such phrases as “My first significant accomplishment is…” and “My second most significant accomplishment is….” Because many candidates actually do present 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 each 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.

2. Tell us three setbacks you have faced. (600 words)

HBS obviously wants to learn about your ability to overcome, because they want to know about not one, not two, but three different setbacks you have faced. If you have not encountered any obstacles in your life, then HBS seemingly does not want you! Well, that may be a bit extreme, but clearly HBS is acknowledging that success is earned, not given, and requires a certain resilience and fortitude.

The word “setback” should not be construed to mean outright “failure” and is instead fairly broad—it incorporates events that happened to you, not just those you yourself created. So if, for example, you went to a football tryout and earned your way onto the team, only to break your ankle in your first game, that is a setback—the unfortunate break derailed your initial plans, but you did not cause it. Basically, the experience was still a tough one and required you to pick yourself up and refocus your energies. Of course, if you created a problem for yourself—say, for example, you started a small business that ultimately failed because you were still employed full-time elsewhere and thus were not completely committed to the venture—that experience is fair game as well. Do not be afraid to stand accountable for your actions, and do not seek to shirk responsibility by only sharing stories in which things happened to you.

Although this question is not directly asked, it is implied: What did you learn? The setbacks you choose to describe are important, but your ability to overcome or learn from a setback that could not be redeemed is crucial and must be conveyed.

3. Why do you want an MBA? (400 words)

If you are planning to spend $100,000 in tuition and $100,000 in living expenses (minimum) and to accept the opportunity cost of two years of missed salary, we hope your answer to this question is already crystal clear. However, if not, now is the time for you to examine this aspect of your future carefully and develop clear—and genuine—goals. Do not try to guess what HBS “wants” or game the system by trying to present yourself as something a friend told you to be. You cannot be anything or anyone that you are not and will not fool anyone by offering insincere career plans.

This HBS essay question incorporates both aspects of a typical personal statement question: “What are your short- and long-term goals?” and “How can our school help you achieve them?” In writing your essay, you should present solid educational goals that pertain to your career aspirations, but take care not to take a rigid “My career goals are…” approach. Because this question is so open-ended, we feel that HBS is seeking to understand your purpose and the impact you hope to have. We also believe that the admissions committee is interested in learning about the particular tools you need (and the school can provide) to help you get there, but your response needs to be a thoughtful discussion of the specifics and not a clichéd lauding of the case method or the program as a general whole.

4. Answer a question you wish we’d asked. (400 words)

As we noted earlier, because all of HBS’s essay questions are now mandatory, you have “nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.” Yet this question may provide a bit of latitude. If you have not yet had the chance in your HBS application to share a few crucial stories about yourself, this is the place to do so. Because this question is so flexible, you have the opportunity to create a question that allows you to present these important stories you still need to tell. However, this essay should not be just a story “receptacle.” You still need to be thoughtful about what the school already knows about you from the other essays and portions of your application and then ensure that you, as we are constantly saying at mbaMission, keep the reader learning. Ask yourself, “What does the admissions reader know about me thus far?” Then, scour your memory for key experiences that will help fill in the gaps in your story and present a more complete and compelling image of you as a candidate. Thinking strategically with this essay will ensure that you have offered a full picture of yourself.

Note: We strongly advise against simply reusing the best essay you wrote for another school and changing the question ever so slightly to appear original here. HBS will easily recognize a slightly altered and basically redundant Stanford, Chicago Booth or Wharton essay. You will need to actually work at this—after all, as the school clearly demonstrates in essay question two, HBS does not want people who take the easy way out.

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