Last year, Harvard Business School (HBS) took a new approach to its application essay questions, moving from multiple queries to one very open-ended prompt with no clear word limit. This year, HBS Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Dee Leopold seems to have surprised even herself, judging from a recent blog post, by announcing that the school will be keeping its questions… err, question… exactly the same.
With the benefit of a year of HBS acceptances under our belt using this specific question, we can at least offer some confident guidance on word limits, an issue that really perplexed last year’s candidates. Last season, we had many successful applicants to HBS, some of whom used as few as 750 words while others used as many as 1,250. In general, we encouraged our clients to stick with 1,000 or fewer, but certain candidates who had plenty to say used more, expressed themselves well and ultimately succeeded. Although Leopold notes that the essay is actually optional, we report—and this will likely come as no shock to applicants—that we had no clients audacious enough to completely forgo submitting an essay. Every single one of our successful candidates did so, as expected.
Here is our analysis of the sole HBS essay question and the accompanying post-interview assessment…
Essay 1: You’re applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your resume, school transcripts, extracurricular 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?
Few things strike more fear into an MBA candidate’s heart than vague essay directions. Because of HBS’s lack of guidance with respect to word limits and its extremely open-ended question, knowing whether you are truly responding with information that the admissions committee wants and needs may be difficult. The committee further complicates things by specifically noting the information it will already have—transcripts, extracurricular activities, awards, etc. This may make you wonder if mentioning such information is a complete no-no and would weaken your chances for admission.
First, we would like to allay your fears to some degree and help you reframe your view of this question. Think of it as an opportunity to round out your candidacy in the admissions committee’s eyes the way you want, not within the parameters of a narrowly focused topic someone else has chosen. This is your chance to tell the school what you really feel it should know about you—what you believe makes you a worthy candidate, deserving of a spot in HBS’s next incoming class.
So now let us take a step back and consider what the non-essay portions of your application—your resume, for example—actually convey, so you can start to determine which parts of your profile need presenting or could benefit from more detail. Your resume is a map of your professional, educational and extracurricular life to date, and although it may provide a narrow window into your personal life, by and large, it does not offer profound insight into your values, emotions, challenges, important relationships and other key elements of your character and journey. An appropriate analogy might be that the admissions committee will learn about you in black and white from the other parts of your application, and this essay is what will transform your story into bright colors.
Definitely heed the school’s directions—thoroughly weigh what the other elements of your application provide and identify the information that is missing that you believe is key to your candidacy. Then ask yourself whether these missing elements constitute information that is simply important to you or that will effectively enhance the admissions committee’s knowledge of you—not as a professional but as a human being. If you are grouping together a few accomplishments and searching for a theme to link them, you are on the wrong track. However, if you are thinking carefully about key moments, experiences and people in your life that are central to who you are and what you offer—and that the admissions committee could not possibly surmise from your “black and white” application—then you are likely on your way to writing a compelling essay.
Will what you are planning to write tell the admissions committee about your values—about who you are, rather than what you have accomplished or tried to accomplish? Be sure to clearly convey why you have made certain choices in your life and, most importantly, how you have conducted yourself and made those choices. For example, sharing the story of how you started over as an immigrant in your essay is profoundly more compelling than merely stating your citizenship via a drop-down menu in the application’s short-answer section. Detailing how you resigned from a nonprofit board to expose rampant chicanery on that board will convey much more than including a list of extracurriculars at the end of your resume. We do not expect that you will have these exact stories, but be sure to pinpoint situations and characteristics that bring “color” to your file. Remember that your goal is to reveal your personality and stand out as an individual, not by claiming specific life accomplishments, but by demonstrating perspective and values and by showing you have lived an interesting life that your classmates will appreciate and that will allow you to bring depth to class discussions.
As we noted, the school stipulates no word limit for this essay. We offered some guidance above, but this is not to say that there is a right word count. More people are tempted to push the “limits” on the upper end of the spectrum, but you should show some restraint and recognize that you cannot share “everything.” Writing excessively—and unnecessarily—will only reveal that you lack self-awareness and the ability to censor yourself. Keep in mind that HBS operates on the case method, in which you will be expected to identify the most important facets of a situation and be able to discuss them clearly and succinctly in a class setting. This essay could be, on some level, the admissions committee’s way of evaluating your ability to do just that—only with yourself as the subject. You do not want to send the message that you are the self-important individual who will speak inordinately in class, but instead that you are the thoughtful one who understands what is important and can pinpoint and reveal truly interesting and relevant information.
Have the Last Word: The Post-Interview Reflection (conditional on being interviewed)
From the admissions committee: “Following the interview, candidates are required to submit a written reflection using our online application system. This must be submitted within 24 hours following the completion of the interview. Detailed instructions will be provided to those applicants who are invited to the interview process.”
For the third consecutive year, HBS is stipulating a final written task for candidates who are granted an interview. Within 24 hours of interviewing, you must submit some final words of reflection, addressing the question “How well did we get to know you?” As with the application essay, this post-interview reflection is open-ended; you can structure it however you wish and write about whatever you want to tell the committee. HBS urges interviewed applicants not to approach this reflection as a formal essay but instead “as an email you might write to a colleague or supervisor after a meeting.”
Some candidates may find this additional submission intimidating, but we encourage you to view it as an opportunity to reveal new aspects of your profile to the admissions committee. Because your HBS interviewer will have read your entire application before your meeting, you will likely discuss information from your resume, essays, recommendations, etc., during your interview. This post-interview reflection, then, could provide an opening for you to discuss new and different elements of your profile, thereby adding depth to your candidacy. For example, if you could not find a way to include the story of a key life experience of yours into your essays, but your interviewer touches on a similar story or something connected with this experience in your meeting, you would now have license to share that anecdote.
During your conversation, focus exclusively on your interviewer’s questions and your responses—in other words, do not try to identify possible topics for your post-interview reflection while you are still in your meeting—but as soon as it 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 may 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 background and 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 offers 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. Emails 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.
As for how long this essay should be, HBS again does not offer a word limit. We have seen successful submissions ranging from 400 words to more than 1,000. We recommend aiming for approximately 500, but adjust as appropriate to thoroughly tell the admissions committee what you feel is important, while striving to be succinct.
For a thorough exploration of HBS’s academic program/merits, defining characteristics, crucial statistics, social life, academic environment and more, please check out the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to Harvard Business School.
Be sure to join us on Thursday, June 5, for a free, live webinar: “Writing a Standout HBS Application Essay,” where we will help you conceptualize your essay ideas and understand how to execute them, so that your experiences truly stand out! Register here!
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