Harvard Business School Essay Analysis, 2012-2013

Harvard Business School (HBS) kicks off the MBA application season again, and this time it is doing so with a significant overhaul of its entire application. HBS has shrunk its written requirements from four mandatory essays of 400 to 600 words to two essays of 400 words each, but has added a new post-interview 400-word write-up (for the approximately 25% of applicants who are selected to interview), giving interviewees a mere 24 hours to submit their “last word” to the school.

Managing Director of MBA Admissions Dee Leopold has long held that essays play too prominent a role in the business school admissions process, but does giving candidates just two essays (analyzed later in this post) truly reduce the emphasis? We suspect that having only 800 words with which to make a lasting impression on the admissions committee, candidates will worry that they do not have enough space to successfully convey a full picture of themselves. We therefore expect that applicants will fret even more than usual over their essays, debating whether the two stories they have chosen to share will be sufficiently powerful and compelling, and giving their essays an incredible amount of attention. Meanwhile, to make up for this lack of space—and thus allay their fears that they have not shared enough information about themselves in their essays to persuade the admissions committee to admit them—they will likely “stuff” their resumes, interview sessions and recommendations with as much crucial information as they can squeeze in. In some ways, then, HBS is just forcing candidates to play a game of “whack-a-mole”—the school is trying to push information out of the essays, but the information will undoubtedly pop up elsewhere!  As long as the admissions process is competitive and requires that applicants submit qualitative data, candidates will seek to gain an edge any way they can.

Here is our analysis of HBS’s essay questions for this year—we hope it will give you that edge. And remember, you can always contact us for a free consultation:

Two required essays:

1. Tell us about something you did well. (400 words)

Many candidates will worry that the one thing that they “did well” will not stand up against what others in the applicant pool will have to offer. Although some candidates will be able to differentiate themselves with tales of spectacular accomplishments (earned an Olympic medal, cashed in a start-up, etc.), most will have to rely instead on how they did their thing particularly well to differentiate themselves.

Remember, the end result of the thing “you did well” and that you are showcasing in this essay is only part of your story. So, you should take care not to lead with that end result; if you do, you will kill the mystery—and with it, the admissions reader’s interest. For example, if you write, “I am proud of having earned the earliest promotion ever at my firm,” your reader immediately knows the climax of your story and has little incentive to keep reading to learn more about you and what you have to offer. Where is the opportunity for discovery when you know the conclusion up front?

You want the reader to learn about you and what you “did well” to earn that (in this example) remarkably early promotion. Therefore, you should focus on telling your story from the beginning, leading the reader through your actions and decisions, which will ultimately reveal how you “did well.” Similarly, definitely avoid starting your essay with the statement “One thing I always do well is…” For one thing, such a declaration conveys an immodest—if not cocky—tone, and for another, you can be sure that other candidates will begin their essay this way and that the admissions committee reader will almost involuntarily lose interest. Start your essay by telling your reader exactly what you did—just launch into your story and let the conclusion come where it should, near or at the end.

This essay question may seem a bit confining at first, but the vagueness of the phrasing actually makes it rather “applicant friendly,” leaving you with more freedom and flexibility than you might initially realize. You don’t need to focus on a single fact/experience (like the “earliest promotion” example we offered), though you can certainly do so. With this essay, offering a rather broad answer is a legitimate option. For example, if you were a particularly talented mentor, you could tell more than one story of how you helped someone else develop their talent particularly “well.” Or perhaps if one thing you “do well” is standing up to consensus, you could share more than one anecdote that reveals this strength.

Before you even dream of starting to draft your essay, though, you will need to brainstorm very thoroughly. Do not try to “game” this question and anticipate what the admissions committee wants to hear—there is no “secret code” that will unlock the key to a spot in the next HBS class. Instead, think long and hard about what you truly do well and who you are as a person. Ponder your core experiences—what is the common thread that connects them? In the end, you may describe a single experience in your essay, or you may offer more. The key is that the story you tell be sincere and true to who you really are.

2. Tell us about something you wish you had done better. (400 words)

Several of the directives we have offered for HBS’s first essay also apply to this one. Do not start with “I wish I had done X better,” and do not begin with “My deepest regret is (insert conclusion!)” Again, your success in writing this essay will come down to sharing with the admissions committee how you do things.

Clearly, the phrasing of the question requires you to honestly reflect on your past experiences. And being truly honest does not involve making a brazen and/or disingenuous statement (“I earned the earliest promotion, but I wish I could have gotten it even earlier!”) that is really just an attempt to indirectly highlight a strength instead. The admissions committee members are smart and will see through this ploy immediately. We can virtually guarantee that anyone who does not admit some form of weakness or deficiency in this essay—some sincere area in which they hope to improve —will end up on the school’s “ding” list.

So, what should you write about?  Again, brainstorming is key. Think about your experiences and your regrets. Even think about times when you achieved something that was significant but yet still suboptimal in some way, or a time when you experienced a consequential stumble along the way (not a fake stumble that did not hurt!). Think about your core character traits and what you could work on or change. Can you identify a pattern or trend in your behavior? If you could have managed a project better, join the club. But when you think about how exactly you managed the project poorly or suboptimally, what core trait does that reveal? Where else can that characteristic be found in your past?

When you write this essay, do not try to hide or talk around your shortcomings in the situation you are describing, in fear of exposing your chosen vulnerability. The admissions committee members want to understand who you are—to do this, they want and need to hear your honest voice. You don’t need to beat yourself up or be overly critical, but the school wants to know that you have the maturity and insight necessary to recognize areas in which you can improve and the willingness to do so.

One final warning—do not pander! Avoid the temptation to end this essay with a trite statement about how this situation would be improved with an HBS education. It will come across as cloying and transparent.

Have the Last Word: The Post-Interview Reflection (conditional on being interviewed)

From the admissions committee: “Following the interview, candidates are required to submit a written reflection using our online application system. This must be submitted within 24 hours following the completion of the interview. Detailed instructions will be provided to those applicants who are invited to the interview process.”

Within 24 hours of interviewing, you must submit some final words of reflection. Some applicants may find this requirement intimidating, but we encourage you to view this additional submission as an opportunity to delve into new aspects of your profile and share them with the admissions committee.  Because your HBS interviewer will have read your entire application before your interview and could therefore ask you questions based on information in your resume, essays, recommendations, etc., he or she just might provide an opening for you to discuss new elements of your profile in this post-interview reflection. Hypothetically, then, if you could not find a way to work the story of a key life experience of yours into your essays, but your interviewer touches on this story or a similar one in your meeting, you may now have the license and opportunity to do so.

During your interview, your focus should definitely be on the interviewer’s questions and your responses. However, be prepared to jot down all of your interview responses as soon as the conversation is over. A helpful approach may also be to write up a few bullet points about parts of your profile that do not appear in the other parts of your application—and thus that the admissions committee is missing—as you prepare to write your reflection statement. With only 24 hours, you will need to be organized in advance and ready to make an impact one last time.

As more becomes known about this portion of the admissions process, we will update this section of our analysis.


Finally, in addition to the two required essays, applicants must also write a brief career essay, which is asked in the online application. Candidates will first be asked to select a target post-MBA industry and function, and then must answer the following question: How does pursuing an MBA support your choices above? (500 characters)

HBS is limiting its essays this year but has snuck in one more important one—a mini-essay of 500 characters (that is roughly four sentences). In this short space, HBS wants to know you are serious about your studies—that you understand your target industry/function well and can relate your need for an HBS MBA to your desired advancement. But do not make this an “HBS is great” piece. What the school wants to understand is that the academic value of your MBA is what is key to achieving your goals.

(By the way, the paragraph above is exactly 500 characters, the length you have for this mini-essay.) For more information on how to demonstrate that your past experiences offer transferable skills that will logically lead to your future goals, please download our free Personal Statement Guide.

For a thorough exploration of HBS’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.

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