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The HBS Essay: Writing Strategies that Work and What to Avoid

For the last few years, Harvard Business School has challenged MBA applicants with its sole, open-ended essay question:

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? 

With its broad nature, lack of word limit and optional completion, it’s no surprise that many prospective business students have trouble getting started with the Harvard MBA essay, and wonder what direction they should take to answer this perplexing prompt. 

Candidates who are applying to HBS in future rounds will likely face the same essay question. In this article, we highlight common mistakes that applicants make and consider the best way for future applicants to approach this unapologetically unlimited essay prompt.

The Harvard MBA Essay: What Doesn’t Work

Playing it safe. 

HBS wants to see several qualities in the applicants it admits: aptitude, accomplishment, character, and passion. Your GMAT and GPA will speak to your analytical aptitude, your resume to your accomplishment, and your recommenders to your character. That leaves your HBS application essay to speak toward your passion: will you have interesting stories and opinions to contribute to the HBS case discussions? Will you involve yourself in the broader Harvard community? Do you have the drive to achieve ambitious things after you graduate? To give the admissions committee confidence in your candidacy, you must let your quirks and passions come through. You cannot play it safe and write a simple, boring essay.

Although you cannot be boring in your MBA essays, you do NOT want to go overboard. In the video below, our co-founder Alice talks about things to avoid while writing the personal essay, namely:

Alice van Harten on Common Mistakes in HBS Essays

Answering the HBS prompt like a typical MBA essay question.

The key point of the Harvard Business School essay is the phrase “what more,” which is a clear signal that HBS does not want you using the essay to rehash things that are already covered by your resume, career goals statement, professional recommendations or written application form.

If the HBS admissions team wanted to know why you wanted a business degree, or why you wanted to go to Harvard, or what your career path was, then they would ask. They certainly have asked applicants those questions in years past. But realize that, in providing this very open-ended prompt, HBS expects very open-ended answers. They want answers from applicants that could never be prompted by any questions the admissions committee could ask. They want to learn the things that make you different as an applicant. So take the hint, and realize that HBS ditched the standard essay prompts for a reason. They are looking for something different here. Be creative, and be genuine.

Focusing on one or more of your weaknesses. 

Every year, candidates seem to battle insecurities over the same issues: their GPA was only a 3.2; their GMAT is just a fraction too low; they don’t have many significant extracurriculars. It’s possible that those issues need to be addressed in your MBA application, but this essay is absolutely not the place to do it. HBS will never admit you for mitigating every possible weakness; they will only admit you for showing remarkable strength in one or two really interesting areas. Take the HBA essay question as the opportunity to demonstrate the latter, and leave addressing your GPA or extracurriculars for other parts of your application.

The HBS Essay: What This Year’s Applicants Should Consider

First off, applicants must realize what they are up against before approaching the infamous HBS MBA admission essay. The Harvard Business School acceptance rate is just 11%. Of the roughly 930 individuals who are accepted, there is a very small slice of amazingly fantastic applicants who write the essay as merely a formality. For the rest of the applicants fighting for the available slots–perhaps loads of you reading this article–there are several candidates who are equally qualified fighting for the same seat: great jobs, great career trajectories, great GPAs and GMATs. This means that your personal essay is meant to differentiate you and show the admissions committee why they should select YOU rather than competing applicants.

Learn from those applicants that came before you and make sure to give special thought on how you can really convey who you are in answering this essay question. It is not your typical essay prompt, so it deserves an atypical answer.

Menlo’s Most Experienced Consultant, Yaron Dahan, on: “What more would you like us to know?”

The best advice I can give applicants answering the HBS essay question is this: select a topic that will play as well in the case method as it does with an admissions committee. Ultimately that is what HBS is looking for in its admits: Will this candidate be able to contribute something unique in a case discussion?

Think about the nine areas covered in HBS’s year-one required curriculum (finance, accounting, leadership, marketing, operations, entrepreneurship, strategy, ethics, and government/economics), and figure out where you will be able to add the most value. Dee Leopold, the former admissions director at HBS, told the story of one student who did this very successfully in his interview, and was admitted to the HBS class the following year:

“This is a guy who worked in a small manufacturing facility in a tiny town in Michigan where they make baby formula. He was in quality control, working with union people. Early on the job, they discovered there were bugs in the machinery of the factory. They are contaminating the product, and management was obviously deeply concerned about the problem. The news trucks have gathered outside. The CEO comes. That is an amazing voice to bring to our course on Leadership and Corporate Accountability.”

As an applicant, it’s your job to accomplish the same thing in your essay that this candidate did in his interview. Show them you have a unique contribution to make. If you can do that, then you’ve mastered the HBS essay question.

In the video below, Yaron elaborates on how to approach the personal essays at HBS and Stanford.

Yaron Dahan on Personal Essays for HBS and GSB Admissions

One Menlo Client’s Experience Working on the HBS Essay

Harvard’s MBA admissions essay is not for the faint of heart. It takes dedication, perseverance, and quite a bit of time. It is not a personal essay that you can whip out in one sitting, and we’ve heard many clients say that they woefully underestimated the time and effort needed to complete it well.

For Menlo Coaching client Vicky, the secret to HBS success was to go beyond just talking about her successful career in consulting and retail, and talk about her long-term vision for her family’s manufacturing business.

In the video below, she discusses how we helped her through the MBA admissions process generally, and with finding the right story for HBS specifically (use the chapter “Essay Writing Process” to jump directly to that part).

HBS Essay Example: How Vicky Approached the Harvard MBA Essay and Won Admission

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