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Harvard Business School Essay Analysis, 2013–2014

Harvard Business School (HBS) is taking a bold new approach to its application essays this year by offering just one question—and one that is much more open to interpretation than many applicants would probably like:

Harvard Business SchoolYou’re applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your resume, school transcripts, extracurricular activities, awards, post-MBA career goals, test scores and what your recommenders have to say about you. What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?

There is no word limit for this question. We think you know what guidance we’re going to give here. Don’t overthink, overcraft and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don’t know your world can understand.

Few things strike more fear into an MBA candidate’s heart than vague essay directions. Because of HBS’s lack of guidance with respect to word limits and its extremely open-ended question, knowing whether you are truly responding with information that the admissions committee wants and needs will be difficult. The committee further complicates things by specifically noting the information it will already have—transcripts, extracurricular activities, awards, etc. This may make you wonder if mentioning such information is a complete no-no and would weaken your chances for admission.

First, we would like to allay your fears to some degree and help you reframe your view of this question. Think of it as an opportunity to round out your candidacy in the admissions committee’s eyes the way you want, not within the parameters of a narrowly focused topic someone else has chosen. This is your chance to tell the school what you really feel it should know about you—what you believe makes you a worthy  candidate, deserving of a spot in HBS’s next incoming class.

So now let us take a step back and think about what the non-essay portions of your application—your resume, for example—actually convey, so you can start to determine which parts of your profile need presenting or could benefit from more detail. Your resume is a map of your professional, educational and extracurricular life to date, and although it may provide a narrow window into your personal life, by and large, it does not offer profound insight into your values, emotions, challenges, important relationships and other key elements of your character and journey. An appropriate analogy might be that the admissions committee will learn about you in black and white from the other parts of your application, and this essay is what will transform your story into bright colors.

Definitely heed the school’s directions—thoroughly consider what the other elements of your application provide and identify the information that is missing that you believe is key to your candidacy. Then ask yourself whether these missing elements constitute information that is simply important to you or that will effectively enhance the admissions committee’s knowledge of you—not as a professional but as a human being. If you are grouping together a few accomplishments and searching for a theme to link them, you are on the wrong track. However, if you are thinking carefully about key moments, experiences and people in your life that are central to who you are and what you offer—and that the admissions committee could not possibly surmise from your “black and white” application—then you are likely on your way to writing a compelling essay.

Will what you are planning to write tell the admissions committee about your values—about who you are, rather than what you have accomplished or tried to accomplish? Be sure to clearly convey why you have made certain choices in your life and, most importantly, how you have conducted yourself and made those choices. For example, sharing the story of how you started over as an immigrant in your essay is profoundly more compelling than merely stating your citizenship via a drop-down menu in the application’s short-answer section. Detailing how you resigned from a nonprofit board to expose rampant chicanery on that board will convey much more than including a list of extracurriculars at the end of your resume. We do not expect that you will have these stories, but be sure to pinpoint situations and characteristics that bring “color” to your file. Remember that your goal is to reveal your personality and stand out as an individual, not by claiming specific life accomplishments, but by demonstrating perspective and values and by showing you have lived an interesting life that your classmates will appreciate and that will allow you to bring depth to class discussions.

As we have noted, the school stipulates no word limit for this essay. We expect that most applicants will write between 500 and 1,000 words and that the average will be right in the middle at roughly 750. This is not to say that there is a right word count, but this is a reasonable range you can use for guidance. If you truly feel that you have more to say that is critical and that you simply cannot fit within these parameters, then you can go longer, but we think that such cases will be rare. You will need to show some restraint and recognize that you cannot share “everything.” Writing excessively—and unnecessarily—will only reveal that you lack self-awareness and the ability to censor yourself. Keep in mind that HBS operates on the case method, in which you will be expected to identify the most important facets of a situation and be able to discuss them clearly and succinctly in a class setting. This essay could be, on some level, the admissions committee’s way of evaluating your ability to do just that—only with yourself as the subject. You do not want to send the message that you are the self-important individual who will speak inordinately in class, but instead that you are the thoughtful one who understands what is important and can pinpoint and reveal truly interesting and relevant information.

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.

Mini-Essay:

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.




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