A Winning Approach To The HBS Essay Question

by on August 7th, 2018

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At first glance, the Harvard Business School essay question, which remains unchanged again this year, seems fairly simple. What more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy? However, after giving it some more thought, many candidates find themselves quite lost, trying to figure out what the adcom is looking for and what stories and experiences from their background would be the best to write about in an essay like this.

With this lack of direction, it can be tempting to start writing a stream of consciousness that includes “everything.” Or, even worse, write your autobiography. Please don’t! From our years of advising successful applicants to HBS, we’ve found the below approach to provide just the right amount of structure to the brainstorming and writing process while leaving plenty of room for personal expression and creativity.

To start, here are a few ideas for you to consider how your own story could fit in as well as a sample framework for how we’ve seen applicants lay out these stories. We start broad because we find that applicants can get really creative when we don’t push them in a single direction from the get-go. (Note that anything hyper professionally-specific or undifferentiated like a banking deal team story should probably only be an example story somewhere in your essay, not the essay topic itself – our strong, strong recommendation.)

Frameworks

  1. Pick a theme in your life that you can point to as a common thread (e.g. if you had moved every year growing up and how that impacted your world view). Is there something from your life that’s been a theme and you can point to how it’s impacted you personally, professionally and otherwise? It can be cultural heritage, family, traditions (large and small), etc. We’ve even had clients write about something as simple as a hobby like soccer or riding horses.
  2. Pick a trait that you believe really exemplifies who you are (e.g. last year, we had a client write about how he got comfortable not always being the best, and sometimes being the worst; and how overcoming his fear of failure led him to some of his greatest achievements). This is probably the most common tact to take. Stanford GSB’s prompt in prior years has been “What matters most to you, and why?” and sometimes people find that to be an easier framework to think inside. This approach could result in a similar essay for HBS and Stanford GSB (but please do not copy and paste – these two schools are very different and your essays need to be positioned for the school you are applying to).
  3. Pick something you’re really passionate about (your work is often hard to swing here but maybe there’s another thing that you strongly believe you need to do to change the world?) Or maybe you have a strong passion behind what’s driving your goals that you can point to? In the past, we’ve had clients write about diversity and inclusion in the workplace, wanting to change industries, etc. But it’s atypical to spend an HBS essay focused on work.

This thing that drives you / motivates you / has made you who you are could be a thing, person, influence etc. We’ve had applicants write about personal mantras that coaches gave them, specific situations that happened to them as children that impacted the way they think, hobbies that helped them think outside the box, cultural influences that impacted the way they think, etc. So settle in and get comfortable turning the microscope on yourself!

Structure Ideas

Ultimately, you want an essay that is no more than two pages long and follows a structure somewhat like this:

P1: Intro (really interesting and summarizes the main point)

P2: Context / history of what you asserted about yourself in P1

P3: Example leadership story from some point in life (can be any time really)

P4: Example leadership story from another point in life (stories should demonstrate leadership and teamwork as much as possible – these should be your most impressive stories of stepping up to the plate)

P5: Conclusion

In reality, your essay will be more like 8-9 paragraphs because your stories can take up multiple paragraphs.

What to Avoid

You should never write about “Why HBS,” nor really “Why MBA.” It’s possible that you integrate some “Why MBA” in the conclusion, but try to avoid that initially and see how it goes without it. This essay should be deep and personal. What drives you? Who are you as a person (if someone were to start writing a biography on you right now?) And importantly, for HBS, it should point to good examples of how you are a leader.

What Does HBS Look For

HBS looks for 1) Habit of leadership; 2) Analytical aptitude and appetite; 3) Engaged community citizenship. It wants strong leaders who will change the world. Nearly every successful candidate meets the criteria above so it’s important you demonstrate all of these throughout your application (but not necessarily all in the essays).

Get Personal

Your experiences and accomplishments don’t have to be massive things relatively speaking – not everyone has started a non-profit or is on a mission to save the world — but if they are significant to you and your trajectory and evolution as a person, then that’s the point. The goal is to show who you are, what drives you, and what has helped you become who you are today (and that person today is a strong, amazing leader). For a more in-depth example of how important it is to get personal and connect your personality, passions and goals in your application, see our case study on how an HBS re-applicant who we worked with was able to adjust her application and get in this past year.

We hope this helps get you started with the HBS essay! The ambiguity of the question makes it a really tough one but with some self-reflection, vulnerability, and a good bit of patience, you can write a great essay and hopefully have a bit of fun with it along the way.

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