Harvard Business School 2+2 Deferred MBA Program Essay Analysis 2024

The majority of classes at Harvard Business School (HBS) are based on the case method, which depends entirely on students’ contributions. (If you are unfamiliar with what the case method is, this video will help you quickly get up to speed!) In Part 1 of its essay questions for the 2+2 program, the Personal Essays, HBS challenges you to reveal the unique experiences, perspectives, and circumstances that have shaped your world view and will enable you to contribute to the program. You are given three options, from which you must choose and respond to two. You then have a very tight 600 words (300 per essay) in which to reveal distinct and compelling elements of your background. Then, for Part 2, the Career Essay, the admissions committee wants you look forward. You are asked to share your professional ambitions and discuss what the future holds—laying out a plan for your pre-MBA period and relating it to your post-MBA period—in another 300 words. So, in 900 words total, your goal is to discuss your past as a prologue to your desired future. You will need to be thoughtful about every word to ensure that you are both thorough and affecting.

Part 1: Personal Essays (choose two – up to 300 words per prompt)

The HBS classroom and community thrive when we bring together people who can share a variety of perspectives. To get to know you better and how you will engage at HBS, please choose two of the three prompts below to tell us more about yourself:

  • How have your experiences shaped who you are, how you lead, and how you will contribute at HBS?
  • What intellectual experiences have influenced your approach to learning and have led you to pursue an MBA?
  • What communities have you been engaged with that have defined how you invest in others?

 You are given the opportunity here to choose two of the three prompts to write on, and we can assure you that the admissions committee has no preference for which two you choose. None are technically the “right” or “wrong” prompts in the school’s eyes. What matters is that you select the questions that will allow you to share your strongest stories. Start by brainstorming thoroughly; create a complete inventory of your professional, academic, personal, extracurricular, and community experiences, and then identify the ones that fit best with each question. And you absolutely must write honestly about your life. You will not earn points with the admissions committee by pandering or writing what you think they want to hear. For example, we strongly suggest not submitting a piece on “engaging diversity” if that is not true to who you actually are. It will not help you at all! Let us break down each prompt individually.

  • How have your experiences shaped who you are, how you lead, and how you will contribute at HBS?

 Ask yourself what experiences—both positive and negative—have truly catalyzed your development and defined your life. If you can draw a clear cause and effect between the inflection points or circumstances of your emotional and personal development and where you are today, then this prompt could be a good option for you. Again, those experiences or circumstances can be either positive or negative—your story does not need to be all roses—but take care not to dwell on the past. Instead, you want to show how your past informs who you are today, what kind of leader you are, and how you will contribute at HBS. With respect to that last element, you cannot simply say, “And I will bring this experience to class each day!” You need to get specific about the spirit of your contribution and about where it will be felt. In a class? In a particular club? In FIELD? All of the above? Wherever you believe you could be additive and beneficial to the HBS experience, you need to show the admissions committee that you understand the journey you are aspiring to embark on and the community you hope to join.

  • What intellectual experiences have influenced your approach to learning and have led you to pursue an MBA?

Delving into one’s “intellectual experiences” is likely more challenging than exploring one’s general experiences. How do you discuss how you have expanded your thoughts? Well, to start, we should take a broader look at the word intellectual. You can, of course, experience intellectual growth by reading a philosophy textbook, for example, but you can also do so by engaging in conversation with others. This could be as simple as regularly sitting at a shared table at a local café and conversing with fellow community members, or as advanced as interviewing people on specific topics for the podcast you launched. Where you experienced growth is not really what matters, though contextualizing your discussion could be additive. What is important is how you experienced that growth and how it has subsequently affected you. Of course, you must connect your perspective to your desire for an MBA, and you would be wise to explain how earning your MBA will continue to foster your intellectual development!

  • What communities have you been engaged with that have defined how you invest in others?

This essay prompt is ideal if you are someone who represents or promotes diversity. It offers you the opportunity to share that aspect of your identity, but only if you have made an impact. For this essay, you cannot simply say, “I am Hispanic,” for example. You must instead say, “My Hispanic identity has led me to [do XYZ].” We are not suggesting you write these exact words, of course, but we want to ensure that you are coming at this prompt the right way. Ideally, you would start this essay by establishing your identity and then continue by offering examples of truly impactful work you have done in support of others. You want to offer the reader clear instances of cause and effect that make sense and support your claims. And, to build on our example of diverse representation, maybe you have been profoundly involved in student government and used your position to improve others’ experience on campus. Or you might have helped grow your school’s debate society and then led a team to intensify its commitment, upskill, and ultimately win a competition. Whatever the community you engaged in, remember to focus on demonstrating cause and effect!

Part 2: Career Essay (up to 300 words)

How do the career plans you shared in the Career Plans section of the application fit into your current long-term career vision? What skills and/or professional experiences do you hope to obtain in the deferral period that will help build the foundation for your post-MBA career?

This is a question that, in our humble opinion, has been missing from the HBS 2+2 application since the inception of the program. Most early-career applicants feel that they need to explain their purpose—give the admissions committee a sense of where they are going—because this aspect of their profile is not terribly clear when they are still in college or completing a master’s degree. Although HBS gives you 400 characters within the application to present your post-MBA career goals, that only equates to roughly 60 words. So having 300 in which to offer more context and detail is a welcome relief!

This question is about as straightforward as they come. You should start by briefly contextualizing your short-term career goals, basically explaining why they are a fit for you. Then, you can choose one of two approaches. You might immediately connect your short- and long-term goals—and we emphasize connect, because the latter must flow naturally from the former—and then explain how you intend to develop your skills so you are prepared for that path. Or you could start by contextualizing your goals and then discuss your career development expectations, which would lead into a discussion of your long-term goals—which, again, need to represent the natural extension of your professional growth.

A word of caution: be thoughtful about your discussion of your professional experiences. Avoid your industry’s generalities and cliches, and instead, show the admissions committee that you truly understand how you will develop. Compare the following two statements: 

“I am excited to join my consulting firm full-time, because it will expose me to a breadth of global clients and enable me to solve problems with business leaders…” 

“I am excited to rejoin the Boston office after graduation, because the managing directors, who are in the office five days a week, take an active role in helping Analysts develop. I view the coming three years as an apprenticeship, where I will learn from others through observation and practice. In particular…” 

The first statement simply repeats basic industry cliches, but the second reveals an individual who fully grasps the value of the experience and feels a sense of purpose in reentering the field. Of course, this are just examples, but remember, you have to make this essay yours. It needs to be tailored to your desired experiences and developmental needs. Your goal is for the admissions officer to read your submission and think, “Now, that is a plan!” If you feel you are not yet able to formulate a clear path for yourself, we suggest conducting informational interviews with people in your chosen field to ensure that you will be able to write with the proper level of sincerity and authenticity. The admissions committee is aware that you might change your mind about your career path over time, but for now, you need to show conviction!

If you have any questions about how to best position your candidacy or approach these challenging prompts, we encourage you take advantage of a free, 30-minute consultation to discuss your options with one of our experts.

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