Harvard Business School Essay Analysis, 2020–2021
Although Harvard Business School (HBS) has not made an official announcement about its 2020–2021 application essay question, the admissions committee has verbally shared that the program will be using the same prompt it has posed for the past few seasons. Candidates have incredible leeway (with respect to both topic and length) to share what they believe is most pressing for the school’s admissions committee to know about them, beyond what is captured in the other sections of the application. As we posited last year, HBS Managing Director of MBA Admissions Chad Losee must feel this approach and query do a good job of eliciting the kind of information he and his team find valuable in evaluating potential students. Our analysis of the prompt and advice on the best way to approach it likewise remain constant. (For even more targeted guidance on approaching and writing your HBS essay, download our free admissions guide, “What Matters?” and “What More?”: A Guide to the Stanford GSB and HBS Personal Essays.)
How will you ensure that your essays will grab the attention of an overworked HBS or Stanford GSB admissions officer? Join us on Wednesday, July 8, 2020, for “What Matters?” and “What More?”: Standout GSB and HBS Essays, a free webinar during which an mbaMission Senior Consultant will help you conceptualize your essay ideas and understand how to execute them, so that your experiences truly stand out!
“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)
Take special note of the word “more” in this straightforward question. With it, the admissions committee is acknowledging that it already has a lot of information about you that it can and will use to get to know you better, including your resume, extracurricular activities, recommendations, short-answer question responses, academic transcripts, and GMAT/GRE score. You should therefore approach this essay by first thinking about what these portions of your application convey about who you are as an individual and candidate, so you can determine which parts of your profile still need presenting or could benefit from more detail. Now, some applicants may fret that this means they absolutely cannot mention anything that is included elsewhere in their application, for fear that this will annoy the admissions committee, leading to a rejection. However, HBS is not asking only for fresh information—it is asking for more, and specifically, whatever “more” you believe the committee needs to evaluate you thoroughly and fairly. So, even though a bullet on your resume may inform the school of a certain fact, if a profoundly important story lurks behind that fact that you feel effectively expresses a key part of your personality or skill set, you should not feel hesitant to share that story. That said, we are not advocating for you to explore your resume in depth, just trying to convey that “more” here does not mean strictly “thus far unmentioned.”
Before we discuss a few approaches you might take in framing this essay, we must note that your goal in writing it is sincerity. The admissions committee is not staffed by robots, seeking to detect a certain “type” of applicant. These are human beings who are trying to get to know you and really want to end up liking you! With this essay, you essentially want to forge a meaningful connection with a complete stranger, and if you try to present yourself as something or someone you are not, you will fail.
You, like many other applicants, may worry that your sincere stories will sound clichéd. For example, if you want to write about making a difference, you may wince simply thinking those words: “making a difference.” But the power of your story does not lie in the theme you choose (if you choose to write thematically, that is) but in the manner in which you reveal your actions. If you have truly made a significant difference in the lives of others and can own that angle by offering powerful anecdotes and demonstrating a deep emotional connection to others and profound purpose in your acts, you can write on this topic. Although more than a few candidates will undoubtedly submit clichéd pieces on making a difference, if you can capture your admissions reader’s attention fully and make a strong enough impression, the cliché aspect will disappear, and he or she will be impressed by your actions and character.
So, what approach might you take to this essay? The prompt is so open-ended that we cannot possibly capture all possible options, but here are a few:
- Thematic approach: You could write about a characteristic or attribute that has woven its way throughout your life or that you have woven into your life. Do some self-exploration and see if you can identify a thread that is common to your greatest achievements, thereby illustrating its importance in bringing you to where you are today. Simply stating that theme is not enough—you need to really guide your reader through the illustrative events in your life to show how and why this theme manifests. In the end, your values are what need to come to the fore in this essay, rather than just a series of discrete episodes. (Note that highlighting your values is necessary with any approach you take to your HBS essay.)
- Inflection points: Maybe the key events and aspects of your life cannot be neatly captured or categorized within a neat and tidy theme. People are complex, meaning that many are not able to identify a singular “force” that unifies their life experience. If this is you, do not worry—instead, consider discussing a few inflection points that were instrumental in shaping the individual you are today. This does not mean writing a very linear biography or regurgitating your resume in detail. The admissions committee does not need or want such a summary and is instead interested in your ability to reflect on the catalysts in and challenges to your world view and the manifestations thereof. Likewise, you do not need to offer a family history or an overarching explanation of your existence. Simply start with the first significant incident that shaped who you are as an adult, and again, ensure that your essay ultimately reveals your values.
- Singular anecdote: Although this is rare, you may have had a single standout experience that could serve as a microcosm of who you are and what you stand for. If this experience or moment truly defines you and strikes at the essence of your being, you can discuss it and it alone. You do not need to worry that offering just one anecdote will make your essay seem “skimpy” or present you as one-dimensional, as long as the story has inherent strength and power. You will need to delve into the narrative and let the story tell itself; if you are choosing to write a singular anecdote, the story should be sufficiently compelling on its own, without a lot of explanation.
You may have read through these three options and thought, “What about a fourth option, in which I discuss my goals and why HBS? Certainly they want to know about that!” The HBS admissions committee is a straight-shooting group—if the school wanted candidates to write about their goals and why HBS, or wanted them not to, the prompt would come right out and say so. The reality is that most people should not use this essay to discuss their career ambitions and interest in HBS, because doing so will not reveal that much “more” about them. For example, if you are a consultant who plans to return to consulting after graduation, we cannot imagine a scenario in which addressing your goals and why an HBS MBA is critical would constitute an effective use of this essay. However, if you are a medic at a bush hospital in Uganda and are applying to HBS with the goal of commercializing low-cost technologies to fight infectious diseases, this may well be a fitting topic for your essay, as you seek to connect the dots between your unusual (in a positive sense) career path and your aspirations. In short, for most candidates, we would suggest eschewing a “Why MBA? Why HBS?” approach, but in a few rare cases, it may be appropriate and compelling.
Finally, let us talk about word limits! HBS has not stipulated any particular parameters, but keep in mind that with each word, you are making a claim on someone else’s time—so you better make sure that what you have written is worth that additional time and effort. We expect that most of our clients will use between 850 and 1,000 words, with some using as few as 600 and a small minority using as many as 1,250. We have difficulty imagining a scenario in which an applicant would truly need more than 1,250, but we certainly know of candidates who were accepted with essays that exceeded that high target. In short, take the space you need to tell your story properly and showcase your personality and experience, and then work to reduce your essay to its lowest possible word count, without sacrificing any impact or effectiveness.
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 fourth consecutive year, HBS ask candidates who are granted an interview to complete one more written task. 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 integrate 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.
As soon as your interview 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 has offered 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 offerings, defining characteristics, crucial statistics, social life, community/environment, and other key facets of the program, please download your free copy of the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to Harvard Business School.
The Next Step—Mastering Your HBS Interview: Many MBA candidates find admissions interviews stressful and intimidating, but mastering this important element of the application process is definitely possible—the key is informed preparation. Download your complimentary copy of the Harvard Business School Interview Guide today, and be sure to also check out our tailored HBS Mock Interview and Post-Interview Reflection Support.