The 2013-2104 Harvard Business School Essay Analysis

by on June 12th, 2013

Harvard Business School (HBS) is taking a bold new approach to its application essays this year by offering just one question—and one that is much more open to interpretation than many applicants would probably like:

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?

There is no word limit for this question. We think you know what guidance we’re going to give here. Don’t overthink, overcraft and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don’t know your world can understand.

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 will 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 youwant, 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 think about 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 consider 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 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 have noted, the school stipulates no word limit for this essay. We expect that most applicants will write between 500 and 1,000 words and that the average will be right in the middle at roughly 750. This is not to say that there is a right word count, but this is a reasonable range you can use for guidance. If you truly feel that you have more to say that is critical and that you simply cannot fit within these parameters, then you can go longer, but we think that such cases will be rare. You will need to 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 the thoughtful one who understands what is important and can pinpoint and reveal truly interesting and relevant information.

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