Harvard Business School MBA Admissions Director Dee Leopold is once again shaking up the admission world. With the 2013-14 Harvard MBA application she is simultaneously demanding less and much more of applicants: Fewer essays. Fewer words. Fewer characters. More thought. More brevity. And as much substance as you can cram into the responses limited not to to a few hundred words, but to a few hundred characters.
If any of you think creating a compelling HBS app will be easy, think again.
The required portions represent what Harvard wants to know about you. The HBS admissions committee is quite clear and specific about what it wants to know. And how much it wants to know. Please realize that your resume and the boxes are now the heart of your application
Before you begin completing the application, first review Harvard’s three criteria for admission. Write your descriptions and response so that you show these qualities:
• Habit of leadership.
• Capacity for Intellectual Growth
• Engaged community citizenship.
Because of the brevity required – most of the longer answers have a 500-character limit — you must be succinct:
• Focus on business and leadership achievements, not technical feats.
• Don’t merely describe your responsibilities; highlight your accomplishments– where you have made a difference, where you have gone above and beyond the expected, the typical, and the ordinary.
• Quantify as much as possible.
• Write tight.
The Optional Essay: (No word limit)
“You’re applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your resume, school transcripts, extra-curricular activities, awards, post-MBA career goals, test scores and what your recommenders have to say about you. What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?”
Now what else – really and truly — do you want HBS to know about you? The HBS admissions committee has told you what it wants to know. That’s in the required sections of the application. What do you want the HBS readers to know?
The answer to that question is not something I can give or even suggest to you in a blog post aimed at the many. (For individual advice, please see Accepted’s MBA Admissions Consulting.) It should be different for each of you. Again, refer to the HBS criteria, as you contemplate possible topics, but the options are infinite. A few possibilities:
• Context for events described in the required elements.
• Motivations for the decisions or commitments you have made.
• Challenges you have faced.
• Something you would like to do at HBS.
• More depth on an activity or commitment that is particularly important to you.
Please don’t limit yourself to these suggestions. I am offering them to stimulate your creativity, not to shut it down.
Some of you may wonder if you should write this essay given that it is optional. If you don’t have anything to say, say nothing. Nonetheless, I can’t believe that accomplished, remarkable people have nothing valuable to add to the required portions of Harvard’s application. Persuasive, impressive essays simply give Harvard more reasons to accept you, and you should want them to have those reasons. On the other hand, if you slap together something hastily or rehash or copy-and-paste another school’s essay, then you run the risk of actually reducing the quality of your application. Bottom line: Make it worth reading. Write a thoughtful essay that reflects you and complements the required components.
Since I’ve been in MBA admissions consulting (almost 20 years now), HBS has valued concision. And, in today’s tweet- and sound-bite-driven world, it is requiring even shorter responses, at least in the required portion of the application. Don’t take the absence of a word limit on the optional essay as a license for verbosity. Say what you have to say succinctly. Make every word count. If you must pull a number out of me, don’t go over 800 words. And if you can say what you need to say in less than 800 words, do so.
A few caveats and warnings on the essay. It is not:
• Stanford’s “what matters most to you and why?”
• The kitchen sink in which you throw everything.
• An autobiography.
On a personal note: While I have no way to know if anyone at Harvard read my post proposing an effective revealing MBA application — and Harvard’s 2013-14 app is certainly quite different from what I proposed — the idea of writing about the three most meaningful experiences in greater depth is something I suggested then.