Harvard Business School Essay Analysis, 2015–2016

*Please note: You are viewing an essay analysis from the 2015-2016 admissions cycle. Click here to view our collection of essay analyses for the current admissions season. 

So, the truth is out: Harvard Business School (HBS) applicants like to write essays. How do we know this? HBS Director of Admissions Dee Leopold noted in a recent admissions blog post, wherein she released this year’s sole essay question, that every single applicant last year submitted an application essay, even though doing so was technically optional. HBS typically gets more than 9,000 applicants each year, and not one even accidentally neglected to submit an essay! We have to wonder, then, if everyone feels compelled to complete a task, is it truly optional? Not really. Leopold admitted that by unanimously submitting an essay when they were not required to, the school’s candidates essentially told her that the essay is in fact mandatory, and she is listening. This makes sense to us, because who would want to limit their narrative by not taking advantage of an opportunity to communicate with the admissions committee? We can assure you that we advised every HBS client of ours to write an essay last year to help develop their stories. The school may be changing its approach this application season, but its essay prompt is basically the same. It offers an open-ended opportunity for you to tell the admissions committee whatever you want about yourself—to give the school a sense of your experiences, personality, and ultimately, your likeability. Our analysis follows…

Harvard Business School Essay Analysis, 2015–2016Harvard Business School Essay 1: It’s the first day of class at HBS. You are in Aldrich Hall meeting your “section.” This is the group of 90 classmates who will become your close companions in the first-year MBA classroom. Our signature case method participant-based learning model ensures that you will get to know each other very well. The bonds you collectively create throughout this shared experience will be lasting.

Introduce yourself.

Let us start our analysis with another snippet from Leopold’s recent blog post: “We have no pre-conceived ideas of what ‘good’ looks like. We look forward to lots of variance.”

Read this statement a few times. Internalize it. Inevitably, you will have questions about how you “should proceed. We can certainly guide you, and that is of course the purpose of this essay analysis, but there is no single right way to approach this essay. Here are some questions that many applicants will agonize over, assuming that they must find the “right” way to respond and that they risk making a major misstep if they do not:

“HBS will want to know that I have goals, right? Do I have to discuss my goals?”

Nope. You actually do not need to discuss your goals. As Leopold herself asserted, HBS has “no pre-conceived ideas of what ‘good’ looks like.” If the admissions committee wanted to know about your goals, this would have been part of the essay question (and such a question probably exists somewhere else in the application). This is not to say, however, that HBS actively does not want to hear about your goals. If sharing your aspirations will help you craft a compelling introduction to your classmates, then do so. Keep in mind that you must own your goals for your essay to be effective. They need to truly define you and your expected contribution to the school. If that is indeed the case, and you can imagine your classmates being really captivated by your ambitions, then discussing them just might be the right choice for you.

“HBS will want me to discuss why I am applying to HBS, right?”

Nope. Again, if you feel confident that your reason for choosing HBS for your MBA would definitely be interesting to an outsider to whom you are introducing yourself, then you should certainly address this topic in your essay. But do not do so just because you think HBS is expecting you to. If the admissions committee had wanted an extensive explanation of “Why HBS?” then the essay prompt would have explicitly asked. Anyone who has ever spoken to Leopold knows that she is a real straight shooter—she has no interest in obfuscating anything, especially admissions issues. Let us repeat, she has “no pre-conceived ideas,” so if explaining “Why HBS?” is an important part of introducing yourself to your future classmates, then proceed.

“HBS has a video about the case method that it suggests applicants watch. Should I relate my essay back to this video?”

Are you sensing a theme in our analysis yet? You can relate your personal story to the case method if it is compelling, but you certainly do not have to, and we would caution against trying too hard to make such a connection. Take a moment and actually imagine introducing yourself to your classmates by repeatedly referencing the case method. Do you think that would seem sincere or be engaging?

Whatever approach or story you ultimately choose, perhaps the most important step of this process is this: when you feel that your essay is done, go to a quiet spot alone and read it out loud. Really listen to what you sound like. The HBS application page notes that “should you enroll at HBS, there will be an opportunity for you to share this with them,” meaning your classmates. So as you read your essay aloud, try to listen to it as a stranger might, and ask yourself whether you would be proud of the impression it makes. Ask yourself whether it reveals information that you want your classmates to have about you. Of course, we can be our own harshest critics, so definitely be kind with yourself. Your essay does not need to read like a work of literary genius or be about rare and incredible accomplishments. It simply needs to sound like… you. Share the experiences that are unique to you, that reflect who you are as an individual. Doing so will reveal a level of sincerity that will compel others to listen. If you are still unsure after reading your essay aloud on your own, try reading it to a family member or friend. If you are comfortable sharing it with them in this way, and if they agree that your essay sounds true to who you are and is interesting to listen to, you most likely have a draft that would be effective for HBS and your potential classmates as well.

Indeed, sincerity is key to showing true ownership of your stories. Arguably one of the most famous comedians in the world right now, Louis C.K., recently received an award from the storytelling organization The Moth and reflected on this concept of ownership:

“I want to thank the people who told their stories, the kids and all these people, because I think stories [are] the only thing you have that’s really only yours. … Your stories are the only things that you’re the only one that has them and then just by telling them, then everybody else has them, so that’s why I think stories are great.”

The nice thing about getting to that sincere level of storytelling is that great stories almost always tell themselves. If a story has stuck in your mind for years, and it is something that you are proud of or that somehow makes you an interesting human being, then you are holding on to it for a reason. Explore those stories, and ask yourself whether any of them are worthy of being shared with your classmates. Consider what the stories say about you. You do not need to have a single theme weaving through your essay—though that can work—so you can offer a few disparate anecdotes or brief vignettes that capture your persona and would be engaging without being cloying or braggy. (Note that we strongly advise against repurposing the essay you wrote for the Stanford Graduate School of Business’s “What matters most?” prompt for this submission. The HBS admissions committee will clearly see through this tactic!)

Once you have identified the stories you believe are worthy of representing you to your classmates, simply write them as they happened. This is the old “show, don’t tell” maxim. Sharing your story as it happened will result in a much more interesting essay than your directly stating what you want your audience to know about you. Consider the following examples to see the difference between these approaches.

Tell: “I am a risk taker. I am willing to try anything—even stand-up comedy—in front of friends and colleagues. I have performed eight times and feel better each time I am out there, though I actually started out a bit shaky with some unintentional jokes.”

Show: “When I took the stage for the first time at Laugh Tracks, I quickly spotted my friends and even some of my colleagues in the audience. With the bright lights shining in my face, I searched for a paper towel to pat down my sweaty forehead—and got my first laughs quite unintentionally.”

These two examples share the same story, so why is the “show” option better? It allows the reader to visualize the scene the writer is setting and provides a sense of the writer’s risk without it needing to be explicitly spelled out. When you take a “show” approach, you lead your reader and compel him/her to stay engaged with the story to see what happens next, rather than simply presenting a conclusion. Sincerity results from the sharing of experiences, not of conclusions. If your narrative is well developed, your reader will arrive on his/her own at the conclusion you desire.

As far word count, we should point out that our essay analysis here is longer than your HBS essay should be. At this point, it is over 1,500 words and counting, if you include the question itself. We recommend that your essay be 600–1,200 words and expect that most applicants will submit essays of approximately 750–1,000 words. Keep in mind that with this essay, you are introducing yourself to your classmates—would you want to listen to a stranger speak about his/her life and experiences for ten minutes (about 1,350 words)? You might if that person had something absolutely gripping to say, but most people’s stories will fall short of gripping. An effective, well-crafted essay will be interesting, reveal the writer’s character, and give a window into his/her “owned” experience, and this can definitely be achieved within our recommended word-count range.

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.”

For the third consecutive year, HBS is stipulating a final written task for candidates who are granted an interview. Within 24 hours of interviewing, you must submit some final words of reflection, addressing the question “How well did we get to know you?” As with the application essay, this post-interview reflection is open-ended; you can structure it however you wish and write about whatever you want to tell the committee. HBS urges interviewed applicants not to approach this reflection as a formal essay but instead “as an email you might write to a colleague or supervisor after a meeting.”

Some candidates may find this additional submission intimidating, but we encourage you to view it as an opportunity to reveal new aspects of your profile to the admissions committee. Because your HBS interviewer will have read your entire application before your meeting, you will likely discuss information from your resume, essays, recommendations, etc., during your interview. This post-interview reflection, then, could provide an opening for you to discuss new and different elements of your profile, thereby adding depth to your candidacy. For example, if you could not find a way to include the story of a key life experience of yours into your essays, but your interviewer touches on a similar story or something connected with this experience in your meeting, you would now have license to share that anecdote.

During your conversation, focus exclusively  on your interviewer’s questions and your responses—in other words, do not try to identify possible topics for your post-interview reflection while you are still in your meeting—but as soon as it is over, jot down all the topics covered and stories you discussed. If you interview on campus, note also any observations about your time there. For example, sitting in on a class might have reminded you of a compelling past experience, or participating in the case method may have provided insight into an approach you could use in some way in the future. Maybe the people you met or a building you saw made a meaningful impression on you. Whatever these elements are, tie them to aspects of your background and profile while adding some new thoughts and information about yourself. This last part is key—simply describing your visit will not teach the admissions committee anything about you, and a flat statement like “I loved the case method” will not make you stand out. Similarly, offering a summary of everything the admissions committee already knows about you will not advance your candidacy and would constitute a lost opportunity to keep the committee learning about who you are.

HBS offers some additional advice on the post-interview reflection that we strongly urge you to take seriously and follow:

  • We will be much more generous in our reaction to typos and grammatical errors than we will be with pre-packaged responses. Emails that give any indication that they were produced BEFORE you had the interview will raise a flag for us.
  • We do not expect you to solicit or receive any outside assistance with this exercise.

As for how long this essay should be, HBS again does not offer a word limit. We have seen successful submissions ranging from 400 words to more than 1,000. We recommend aiming for approximately 500, but adjust as appropriate to thoroughly tell the admissions committee what you feel is important, while striving to be succinct.

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.

(Note: As a complement to our essay analysis, be sure to also read Jeremy Shinewald’s article for Poets & Quants, “Before You Write That HBS Essay,” in which he offers his top five dos and don’ts for this essay question.)

The Next Step—Mastering Your HBS Interview: Many MBA candidates find admissions interviews stressful and intimidating, but mastering this important element of the application process is definitely possible—the key is informed preparation. And, on your way to this high level of preparation, we offer our free Interview Primers to spur you along! Download your free copy of the Harvard Business School Interview Primer today—and be sure to check out our one-of-a-kind service: HBS Mock Interview and Post-Interview Reflection Support.

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