In the late 2000s, Harvard Business School (HBS) made a change to its application essay questions that surprised many. Its previously mandatory “long- and short-term goals” essay prompt changed its focus more broadly to “career vision” and became one of four topic choices from which applicants could select two. Immediately, MBA candidates tried to read between the lines and decipher HBS’s hidden agenda behind the change. As a result, many perplexed applicants called us, asking, “Every other school asks about goals, so HBS must want to know about them, too. I need to answer the essay question option about career vision, right?”
This question, in turn, compelled us to ask rhetorically: Why would HBS make a question an option if the admissions committee expected you to answer it? If it did, why would the school not simply designate the question as mandatory, as it had been previously? We believe that in this case, HBS made the question an option because the admissions committee did not feel that applicants must have a definite career vision to be admitted. Essentially, HBS was saying, “If you have a well-defined career vision that would help us better understand who you are as a candidate, tell us about it. If not, we would love to hear something else that is interesting about you.” Note that HBS no longer poses this particular essay question, but we offer it here as a way of illustrating how candidates can sometimes overthink or misinterpret the “optional” elements of a school’s application.
Essay options are just that: options. None of HBS’s essay choices—or those of any other MBA program—are necessarily “right” or “wrong.” The admissions committees are not trying to trick you, nor does a secret answer exist that will guarantee your acceptance. The programs offer multiple essay question options because they know that each applicant is different, and they want to provide an opportunity for each candidate to tell his/her unique story. So, as you approach your essays, focus on what you want to say—not what you think the admissions committee wants to hear.