How do you write a standout Harvard Business School (HBS) admissions essay? The answer might surprise you. Your goal is not to “wow” the admissions committee with fancy adjectives or to share spectacular achievements that admissions officers have never read or heard about before. Instead, your HBS admissions essay is your opportunity to share your values—to stand out on the basis of who you are and what you stand for.
Let us start with the basics. HBS actually has just one essay question, with no word limit: “As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program?”
The first thing to note about this question is that it is totally open-ended. Because it is so open-ended, many applicants have no idea where to start. And without a word limit, many also have no idea where to stop! Let us address the end first. We recommend that applicants target 1,000 to 1,250 words, but some candidates’ essays might be as short as 800 words or as long as 1,500. However, anything longer than 1,500 words can start to seem like an imposition on the admissions reader, while anything shorter than 800 could mean that you are short-changing yourself and not giving the admissions committee as full a picture of who you are.
As for the open-ended nature of the question, the whole essay really hinges on the word more—“what more would you like us to know?” The admissions committee should already be able to learn a lot about the path you have taken via your resume and short answers, and they should also learn about your professional performance and character via your recommendations. But through your essay, they should truly learn more about you. As I noted earlier, the goal of your essay is to share more about your values—possibly even about your soul.
To help illustrate my point, I would like to review here a successful application essay from my book “What Matters?” and “What More?”: 50 Successful Essays for the Stanford GSB and HBS (and Why They Worked), titled “Shhh! Can You Hear Me Listening?” If you do not have a copy of the book, you can download the essay here. I want to start by highlighting a few key takeaways. First, this is not an essay about the kind of vocal leadership many people expect from an HBS MBA. In fact, it is the exact opposite; it is an essay about the often undervalued skill of listening and how it is reflective of the applicant Paul’s empathy. Those are the values Paul highlights throughout the essay: listening, empathy, better listening, more empathy. Rather than trying to hew to some perceived notion of who he thinks he “should” be for HBS, Paul discusses who he actually is! By doing so, he gets to a truly authentic place—he shares his soul. Second, this essay, like almost all essays should be, is a story of growth and change. We get a sense of both who Paul was and who he is now, and although he is not a radically different person, his growth and his ability to effectively wield his sense of empathy reveal themselves as very powerful, making his story compelling for the reader.
Third, Paul makes almost no mention of his work. In his 11-paragraph essay, his work does not come up until the ninth and tenth paragraphs, and even then, his workplace is merely a setting. Paul does not reveal a big product launch or a huge win for the team. He simply shares how he used his listening and empathy skills to break down interpersonal logjams at work, as he also does in his community and personal life. Now, I am not saying that you cannot write about your work accomplishments in this essay. My point is that you should not feel compelled to do so, and you definitely should not make your essay a work biography. Lastly, Paul does not mention his career goals or why he is targeting HBS for his MBA, and if you reread his essay, you will probably recognize that for him to suddenly shift gears at the end and begin discussing them would be very odd. His professional goals do not have much to do with listening or empathy, though these skills will serve him well. In short, the HBS prompt does not ask you to write about your career goals or “why HBS,” so do not feel that you must share this information in your essay, especially if you would have to force it to fit!
Okay, so, let us dig into how Paul gets to that authentic place with his story. He does so by writing with honesty and simplicity. In this case, it is almost an equation: honesty plus simplicity equals authenticity. Consider this excerpt from the essay:
The 10-hour surgery, though harrowing, was a stunning success. Assuming my work was done, I flew home to San Francisco with an enormous burden lifted. In the subsequent months, though, my mother would call me almost every day crying. Sometimes she was upset that my father—struggling with his recuperation—wasn’t appreciative or, worse, was harsh with her; other times she was stressed by the body- and mind-numbing labor that goes into postsurgical care. I listened and would tell her that everything was going to be alright, but no amount of reassurance seemed to make her feel better.
In this short paragraph, we learn that Paul and his family have experienced a medical miracle, but Paul is not giving us the Hollywood ending. He talks about the emotional struggle of the recuperation and the helplessness he experiences during this time. Because of his straightforward language and his honesty in terms of the ups and downs, we can trust him as a narrator. In short, he reveals his authentic persona, and the admissions officer reading the essay will know that this applicant is a real person.
I want to highlight in a little more detail how well Paul uses that simplicity in another part of his essay. The directness and clarity of the language is really wonderful.
One evening, I stumbled upon an opportunity to volunteer at Helping Hands, a suicide prevention hotline that focuses on providing emotional support. I knew that helping strangers would be rewarding in itself but also thought the program could expand my own perspective and help me guide my family through this emotional crisis, so I signed up on the spot.
Paul did not need to write, “I stumbled upon a compelling opportunity and urgently lunged for the phone. It was now my dream to volunteer with Helping Hands!” In short, creating faux drama is not an effective tactic. Your story either has a compelling angle or it does not. Because Paul’s does, the language does the work for him.
Of course, authenticity on its own is not enough. As I noted earlier, Paul’s story is compelling because we experience his growth. In the following excerpt, Paul discusses the impact of a challenge he faced, one for which he had to listen thoughtfully to a deeply troubled person as part of his volunteer work with the hotline. Clearly, he is tested when he has to empathetically listen to someone with whom he never would have engaged otherwise, and this becomes a unique catalyst.
Working with Helping Hands also taught me the importance of knowing my own emotional limits, so I learned to practice self-care as a means to engage others. I started journaling regularly and became far more open to being vulnerable. Having inherited a stoicism from my father, I had to take an honest, critical look at myself in order to manifest this shift. When I allowed myself to truly unmask my feelings, I started to find real strength and resilience within.
As you write your HBS essay, remind yourself that you are not just sharing your journey or a theme—that is an oversimplification. Almost everyone, at some level, is going to be sharing how they have grown, developed, and become the person they are today.
In the end, Paul’s essay is straightforward, yet fiercely original, not because he climbed Everest or cured cancer, but because he has engaged in life with tremendous self-awareness, faced deeply personal challenges, and grown by helping others. There is no magic recipe for how one should write their essay, but we can recognize a few key ingredients in Paul’s essay.
Of course, your story will be your own, and it will be distinct. For even more successful HBS essay examples, be sure to download a copy of our book “What Matters?” and “What More?”: 50 Successful Essays for the Stanford GSB and HBS (and Why They Worked). If you would like to learn more about what your best story might be, or if you have any questions about your profile, sign up for a free 30-minute consultation. Members of our team are available to connect and give you thoughtful advice and feedback.