Harvard Business School Essay Analysis, 2023–2024
Applicants to Harvard Business School (HBS) have incredible leeway in their essay (with respect to both topic and length) to write about whatever they believe is most important for the admissions committee to know about them, beyond what is conveyed via the other elements of their application. Given that the program’s prompt has not changed in years, we assume that the program’s admissions committee must feel confident that this approach and question are effective at eliciting the kind of information they find valuable when evaluating candidates. Our analysis of the prompt and advice on the best way to approach it likewise remain largely unchanged. If you would like even more targeted guidance on approaching and writing your HBS essay, along with annotated essays from actual past applicants, check out our book “What Matters?” and “What More?”: 50 Successful Essays for the Stanford GSB and HBS (and Why They Worked).
“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?” (900-word limit)
Take special note of the word “more” in this straightforward question. With it, the admissions committee is acknowledging that it already has a lot of information about you that it can and will use to get to know you better, including your resume, extracurricular activities, recommendations, short-answer question responses, academic transcripts, and test scores. You should therefore approach this essay by first thinking about what these portions of your application convey about who you are as an individual and candidate, so you can determine which parts of your profile still need presenting or could benefit from more detail. Now, some applicants might think this means they absolutely cannot mention anything that is included elsewhere in their application, for fear that this will annoy the admissions committee, leading to a rejection. However, HBS is not asking only for fresh information—it is asking for more, and specifically, whatever “more” you believe the committee needs to evaluate you thoroughly and fairly. So, even though a bullet on your resume might inform the school of a certain fact, if a profoundly important story lurks behind that fact that you feel effectively expresses a key part of your personality or skill set, you should not feel hesitant to share that story. That said, we are not advocating for you to explore your resume in depth, just trying to convey that “more” here does not mean strictly “thus far unmentioned.”
Before we discuss a few approaches you might take in framing this essay, we must note that your goal in writing it is sincerity. The admissions committee is not staffed by robots, seeking to detect a certain “type” of applicant. These are human beings who are trying to get to know you and really want to end up liking you! With this essay, you essentially want to forge a meaningful connection with a complete stranger, and if you try to present yourself as something or someone you are not, you will fail.
You, like many other applicants, might worry that your sincere stories will sound clichéd. For example, if you want to write about making a difference, you probably cringe simply thinking those words: “making a difference.” But the power of your story does not lie in the theme you choose (if you choose to write thematically, that is) but in the manner in which you reveal your actions. If you have truly made a significant difference in the lives of others and can own that angle by offering powerful anecdotes and demonstrating a deep emotional connection to others and profound purpose in your acts, you can write on this topic. Although more than a few candidates will undoubtedly submit clichéd pieces on making a difference, if you can capture your admissions reader’s attention fully and make a strong enough impression, the cliché aspect will disappear, and they will be impressed by your actions and character.
So, what approach might you take to this essay? The prompt is so open-ended that we cannot possibly capture all possible options, but here are a few:
- Thematic approach: You could write about a characteristic or attribute that has woven its way throughout your life or that you have incorporated into your life. Do some self-exploration and see if you can identify a thread that is common to your greatest achievements, thereby illustrating its importance in bringing you to where you are today. Simply stating that theme is not enough, though—you need to really guide your reader through the illustrative events in your life to show how and why this theme manifests. In the end, your values are what need to come to the fore in this essay, rather than just a series of discrete episodes. (Note that highlighting your values is necessary with any approach you take to your HBS essay.)
- Inflection points: Maybe the key events and aspects of your life cannot be neatly captured or categorized within a neat and tidy theme. People are complex, meaning that many are not able to identify a singular “force” that unifies their life experience. If this is you, do not worry—instead, consider discussing a few inflection points that were instrumental in shaping the individual you are today. This does not mean writing a very linear biography or regurgitating your resume in detail. The admissions committee does not need or want such a summary and is instead interested in your ability to reflect on the catalysts in and challenges to your world view and the manifestations thereof. Likewise, you do not need to offer a family history or an overarching explanation of your existence. Simply start with the first significant incident that shaped who you are as an adult, and again, ensure that your essay ultimately reveals your values.
- Singular anecdote: Although this is rare, you might have had a single standout experience that could serve as a microcosm of who you are and what you stand for. If this experience or moment truly defines you and strikes at the essence of your being, you can discuss it and it alone. Do not worry that offering just one anecdote will make your essay seem “skimpy” or present you as one-dimensional, as long as the story has inherent strength and power. You will need to delve into the narrative and let the story tell itself; if you are choosing to write a singular anecdote, the story should be sufficiently compelling on its own, without a lot of explanation.
- Mosaic approach: As complex humans, we are not driven by just one value, but by several. The mosaic approach allows you to connect seemingly unrelated stories that reveal different sides of you. The challenge with this approach is that you must be thoughtful about how you link everything; otherwise, your essay might easily read like a random assortment of examples, leaving the admissions reader scratching their head and wondering what they were supposed to learn from it. For this approach to work well, the transitions between the themes need to be smooth and natural.
You might have read through these four options and thought, “What about a fifth option, in which I discuss my goals and why HBS? Certainly they want to know about that!” HBS admissions officers are straight shooters—if they wanted candidates to write about their goals and why HBS, or wanted them not to, the prompt would come right out and say so. The reality is that most people should not use this essay to discuss their career ambitions and interest in HBS, because doing so will not reveal that much “more” about them. For example, if you are a consultant who plans to return to consulting after graduation, we cannot imagine a scenario in which discussing your goals and why you need an HBS MBA would constitute an effective use of this essay. However, if you are a medic at a bush hospital in Uganda and are applying to HBS with the goal of commercializing low-cost technologies to fight infectious diseases, this might well be a fitting topic for your essay, as you seek to connect the dots between your unusual (in a positive sense) career path and your aspirations. In short, for most candidates, we would suggest eschewing a “Why MBA? Why HBS?” approach, but in a few rare cases, it could be appropriate and compelling.
Finally, let us talk about the word limit. Before HBS elected to stipulate any such parameter, most of our clients used between 850 and 1,000 words, so the 900-word restriction should not prevent anyone from sharing their full story with the admissions committee. In short, take the space you need to tell your story properly and showcase your personality and experience, and then work to reduce your essay to fit the allowed word count in a way that does not sacrifice any impact or effectiveness.
Have the Last Word: The Post-Interview Reflection (conditional on being interviewed)
HBS asks candidates who are granted an interview to complete one additional written task. Within 24 hours of interviewing, you must submit some final words of reflection in response to the following prompt: “What was the highlight of your interview and why did this resonate with you? Is there anything else you would like to share now that you’ve had time to reflect on your interview?” HBS urges interviewed applicants not to approach this task with the intent to produce a “formal” essay but instead one that is “informal, unrehearsed, and in your own words.” The length of the essay should be roughly 300 to 450 words.
Some candidates might find this additional submission intimidating, but we encourage you to view it as an opportunity to reveal more of your personality and values to the admissions committee, and possibly even a new aspect of your profile. Be genuine in your response and share what you learned, heard, or discussed in your interview that made the biggest impact on you and further heightened your enthusiasm about attending the school. The moment or topic that had the most pronounced effect on you will give the admissions committee further insight into your character and motivations (this is a good thing, not something to fear!). The more the school can see you as a dynamic individual, the better, so do not try to formulate what you think the “right” answer must be and instead share your authentic thoughts and feelings.
The latter part of the prompt invites you to include new information as well, if this is appropriate. Perhaps something you discussed with your interviewer later triggered a thought, observation, or memory of an event or accomplishment that you think would be interesting to the admissions committee and additive to your candidacy. If so, this is your chance to convey that additional input or story. Be careful not to just tack on something new for the pure sake of doing so—it should relate clearly to some aspect of the conversation you had. If your interviewer touched on a similar or related story or subject in your meeting, that would open the door for you to introduce the new content or anecdote.
As soon as your interview 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 might 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 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 has offered 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. Reflections 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.
For a thorough exploration of HBS’s academic offerings, defining characteristics, crucial statistics, social life, community/environment, and other key facets of the program, please download your free copy of the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to Harvard Business School.
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. Download your complimentary copy of the Harvard Business School Interview Guide today, and be sure to also check out our tailored HBS Mock Interview and Post-Interview Reflection Support.
Please use this space to share with the Admissions Committee how you have reflected and grown since your previous application and discuss any relevant updates to your candidacy (e.g., changes in your professional life, additional coursework, and extracurricular/volunteer engagements). (250 words)
Thankfully, this essay is pretty straightforward. Whether you have improved your academic record, received a promotion, begun a new and exciting project, increased your community involvement, or taken on some sort of personal challenge, the key to success with this essay is conveying a very deliberate path of achievement. HBS wants to know that you have been actively striving to improve yourself and your profile, and that you have seized opportunities during the time since you last applied to do so, because a Harvard MBA is vital to you. The responses to this essay question will vary greatly from one candidate to the next, because each person’s needs and experiences differ. We are more than happy to provide one-on-one assistance with this highly personal essay to ensure that your efforts are presented in the best light possible.