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HBS Single Essay 2017-18: How to Approach?!! (Don't Panic!)

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HBS Single Essay 2017-18: How to Approach?!! (Don't Panic!)  [#permalink]

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New post 21 May 2017, 15:01
From Dr. Shel (Shelly Watts),, email:

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HBS Single Essay 2017-18: How to Approach?!! (Don't Panic!)

Just as in recent prior years, the rejection rate at Harvard Business School (HBS) last year for applicants to the Class of 2018 was 89%. Approximately 9,759 candidates applied to Harvard’s MBA program and HBS admitted a mere 11%. Harvard boasts a 90% yield – that is, 90% of admitted candidates matriculated. The take-away: Harvard is in great demand and those candidates who are admitted are more than happy to attend this prestigious and renowned institution. Competition is keen, and hence it is imperative that you prepare an outstanding application if you hope to gain admission.

As candidates survey the newly released 2017-2018 deadlines and essay, they see that Harvard has one of the earliest Round 1 deadlines this year and Harvard has once again offered only one essay prompt as a part of its MBA application – and this sole essay has no specific topic and no word limit! This year once again, Harvard’s MBA essay topic is:

“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?” No word limit.

If you are like candidates in the last few years, this essay topic may have you nearly panicked, uncertain of what material to present. Here are some practices to observe and ideas to guide you as you assess how you should approach the one admissions essay topic that HBS is offering this year.

Review the Business School Materials Offered

In introducing their MBA programs, many business schools including Harvard provide links to information about the programs. For instance, there are HBS videos about the Harvard Business School experience and common qualities of current students. There are also other HBS videos that allow you to take a good look at the school’s culture. You can glean a strong understanding of what qualities are valued in students at HBS. After reviewing materials like this, take a solid look at your credentials and experiences. Do you have some of the valued characteristics and experiences? How can you show that you can fit in and contribute? Consider including comments about these matters in your essay.

A Holistic Approach

Even with one open-ended, no-word-limit single essay to write, it is important that your entire application conveys the strengths of your candidacy and also addresses any weaknesses (indirectly or directly). All parts of your application must work wonderfully together to convey your message and story to the committee. The resume, recommendations and application form take on much more importance in this context. Indeed, the application form and resumes are often “missed opportunities” where candidates fail to showcase their greatest assets for admission. Remember, the admissions committee sees your application form and resume before the essays. They are your “first impression” – and first impressions last! Use this space well. It will free you to focus more deeply on important themes in your essay.

You should stand back, determine which of your achievements, experiences, skills, activities and credentials are most important for admissions success, and make certain that these are highlighted somewhere in your application. HBS, for instance, provides space for the applicant to mention very important parts of their portfolio. These spaces are divided mainly into three sections on the application form: employment, academics, and activities. Take the time to consider what you will highlight on your resume and application form. Try to communicate well with your recommendation writers so that they can introduce useful information through their recommendations for you.

With such a holistic view of your application, you can be confident that if you have explained on the application form how you contributed excellently as you served as a board member of an important nonprofit, you may not need to elaborate on that also in the essay. Likewise, if you have clearly indicated the strength of your GPA and awards on your resume, you may not need to refer to this again in your essay.

Strategy is the Key

After reviewing your key strengths in the areas of your professional, academic, extracurricular and personal achievements, and after checking to make sure most of these are reflected somewhere in your application (resume, recommendations and application form), you are free to focus in on the essay. Make certain to shine a light on value-added information that can help get you to an “Admitted!” outcome. Taking the opportunity to shine a light on your winning attributes in your essay is what we at MBA call “strategic content”. Whether you convey your unique strengths and attributes effectively can make all the difference between acceptance and rejection. You should strive to present a compelling blend of topics that highlight your strengths and minimize your weaknesses.

“Creative Strategy” for the Open-Ended Single Essay

Even though Harvard’s sole essay is open-ended, you are still seeking to paint a clear, well thought-out picture of who you are and your qualifications to the admissions committee. With an open-ended, no-word-limit essay, you have ample space and creative freedom to implement your strategy. In addressing the no-word-limit essay, blend in references to the topics you have determined merit more space in your application and, in addition, think about these matters:


Don’t submit a book-of-an-essay that is 3,000 words or longer. We are sure you have led an amazing life and have enough accomplishments to fill a 3,000 essay, but the admissions committee will not want to read something that long and may be left thinking your ego is a little too healthy in size.

In most cases, you also should not submit a hyper-short essay that is 100 words or less. To do this can be read as arrogant, even if your credentials are outstanding in every way (professional, academic, and extracurricular). Are there exceptions to this? Of course. If you are an under-represented candidate who graduated Summa Cum Laude from college, have had promotions at a prestigious company like Morgan Stanley, have always received the top performance ratings, scored a 770 GMAT score, were student government president for three years during college and are certain you will receive glowing recommendations, perhaps you can afford to submit the 100-word essay. The rest of your application will speak amazingly to your credentials! But, most candidates don’t fit this profile, so you should use the essay as premium space to “make your case” to the admission committee.

As you decide on the ideal length, bear in mind that in the past couple of years, a typical-length MBA admissions essay set allowed for approximately 1,000-1,600 words, so that can give you a sense of what might be considered appropriate and not excessive in terms of a word limit. You may be able to state your case in 600-1,100 words.


What about the tone of the essay? Is it okay to make the essay tone more casual? Yes. Is it okay to make the essay tone more formal? Yes. There is not necessarily a right or wrong choice; it is a matter of what is the best choice for the needs of your candidacy and application. There are countless ways to compose a compelling essay. But remember, the ultimate purpose of the essay is to persuade the Harvard admissions committee to say “yes” to your candidacy. Adopt a style that can advance you toward that end.

Self-constructed prompt

When an essay topic is as open-ended as Harvard’s this year, some candidates make the mistake of constructing an essay that wanders in too many directions, rambles in parts and is not coherent. One way to help ensure you write a strong essay is to determine your own essay prompt. Thinking about what that prompt is can help you create a theme that permeates the whole essay. You may end up mentioning a mixture of professional, academic and extracurricular successes, and that is fine. But they should not be clumped together in a scattered sort of way. Flesh out what your theme is. For instance, a successful essay might present topics that reflect the theme, “This is what has influenced me to be who I am today.” Alternatively, a successful essay might reflect themes such as, “These are the things that motivate my future goals,” or “This is who I intend to be in 10 years,” or “This is my personal story and why my passion for my profession is so deep.” The possibilities go on. With such a potentially long essay, make sure your essay holds together well.

Specific personal values

As you draft, also bear other matters in mind. Certain schools value specific personal values and characteristics. Schools like Harvard, for instance, value proven leadership, strong ethics, curiosity and innovation. Consider including topics that show you have these traits.

Why HBS? Long-term goal? What can you contribute?

It is okay to touch on more traditional topics also. For instance, what are your long-term goals? Why is Harvard right for you? What can you contribute to HBS and through your future career? But try not to present a dry essay that simply answers the common MBA essay question, “What are your long-term goals and why our school?” If that was precisely what HBS wanted to hear about, it would have presented that as the essay prompt.

Other elements of style

Please also bear in mind that your style can vary greatly with an open-ended, no-word-limit essay. Even if you choose to write the essay as if the topic was about what has influenced you to be who you are today, you can do this by taking us back in time to a pivotal life event. Or you can take us forward in time to who you intend to be and reflect on the influence. Or you can adopt a straight-forward style and simply recount your main messages. Don’t restrict yourself, but also don’t forget that your adopted style should be – above all else – effective. It is better to have a straight-forward style that got you an “Accepted” reply than a creative style that failed to convey the key attributes that would have elicited a positive response from the admissions committee.

Good luck in your writing process and feel free to reach out to us at if you need some assistance!! The application is your very important "marketing package", so use it well!

Best wishes,
Dr. Shel (Shelly Watts)
President, MBA
From MBA Proudly, one of the most affordable MBA admissions consulting companies.

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HBS Single Essay 2017-18: How to Approach?!! (Don't Panic!)   [#permalink] 21 May 2017, 15:01

HBS Single Essay 2017-18: How to Approach?!! (Don't Panic!)

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