Harvard Business School 2+2 Essay Analysis, 2011-2012

Harvard Business School’s (HBS’s) 2+2 essay questions are not all that different from HBS’s full-time MBA essay questions, the main difference being a mandatory question about the candidate’s undergraduate academic experience, rather than an opportunity to pose a question of your own. Still, the 2+2 questions have changed significantly from past years, most notably with the addition of a question on setbacks. 2+2ers have gained a reputation on campus—justified or not—for being comparatively immature. So, the admissions committee may just be testing 2+2ers’ resolve by adding this question, ensuring that they have a class of students who are not entitled, but determined.

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

This mainstay of the HBS 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 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. What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience? (400 words)

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.

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