Tuesday Tips – Harvard Business School (HBS) Essay Tips

The essay questions and deadlines for Harvard Business School’s class of 2014 are now posted online on the HBS admissions website along with the questions for recommenders.

Set your strategy before you approach any set of MBA essays. This year Harvard has given applicants four required questions, requiring you to address specific aspects of your candidacy. A thorough self assessment of your strengths and weaknesses will be an asset as you approach this essay set. If you are working with a consultant, it’s a great idea to brainstorm about the best stories you have to demonstrate your key leadership, management, academic and personal qualities and that also fit the required essay prompts.

The limited word count for Harvard Business School essays forces applicants to be focused and concise. When you answer a question, think about a discrete example that can be efficiently described, leaving you room to discuss lessons learned.

Harvard Business School is interested in knowing how you work as a person, how you think, and what kind of leader you are. Community involvement and a broad international perspective are certainly valued, as you can see by the topics. Most importantly, specific and concise examples are the best way to demonstrate who you are. Without specifics, a claim to be a leader is empty.

1. Tell us about three of your accomplishments. (600 words)

This HBS classic remains largely unchanged from prior years. This is your opportunity to highlight your most impressive accomplishments, especially those that are very unique to your experience. When you think about topics for this question make sure you are pulling from all aspects of your life, not just work. If you have an impressive accomplishment in a volunteer or extracurricular activity, this is the ideal place to showcase both the accomplishment and your commitment to the activity.

While an incredibly impressive accomplishment may seem important to this question, it’s actually better to show the moments where you grew, changed or realized something crucial about yourself. If you were an Olympic gold medalist yet this objectively impressive accomplishment wasn’t meaningful in your life, it has far less impact in an MBA application. Even a seemingly humble accomplishment can be illuminated with your own reflection.

That being said, this is also an opportunity to “brag” about your own key achievements. Make sure you provide detailed information about your own individual contribution to the achievement to highlight your ability to lead and achieve through your direct efforts.

2. Tell us three setbacks you have faced. (600 words)

In past years HBS has required an essay about a mistake. While this essay is similar because it requires you to reflect upon your ability to learn from difficult circumstances, it also a mirror reflection of the “three accomplishments” essay.

As you think about the triumphs in your life in essay 1, essay 2 leads you to consider the difficulties. Setbacks can be either a result of your own actions or of circumstantial, however the most important aspect of a setback is how you were able to move past and overcome the situation. Leadership can be effectively formed through difficulty (often referred to as “crucibles”) and HBS is interested in your own personal reaction to setbacks. Are you someone who can effectively navigate disappointment? How do you react when challenged? Are you able to learn from experience?

Use most of the allotted space to describe your reaction to the setback rather than the background story. As you recount your setbacks it will be crucial to demonstrate what you have learned. Think about why you selected each experience and what change and growth resulted from the situation. This essay is your opportunity to demonstrate your maturity, flexibility and leadership qualities.

3. Why do you want an MBA? (400 words)

In past years Harvard has asked about your career vision. This new essay prompt allows much more latitude in your response, yet should be focused entirely on the overall “why MBA” question.

For all applicants career goals are a crucial reason to pursue a professional degree like an MBA, and it will be important to communicate what you hope to accomplish with the degree. While this question is not focused on your career vision, it may be a useful exercise to imagine the future career of your dreams. What will you need to do to achieve this goal? What will an MBA from Harvard add to your life to bring you closer to your dream career? Thinking about the deeper motivations for your career like helping others, being part of a transformation in your country or industry, or serving as a role model for underrepresented types of leaders can help you crystallize what you truly want and how an MBA fits.

Also consider exploring personal motivations for your MBA. Focusing only on professional advancement may not describe the full range of motivations for an MBA. For many applicants there are additional reasons to pursue an MBA that can range from networking opportunities to cross functional inspiration. It is certainly likely that you hope to learn from your classmates and professors, and that you plan to take advantage of clubs and extracurricular opportunities.

4. Answer a question you wish we’d asked. (400 words)

Entirely open ended questions can be a gift to an applicant, or can derail an otherwise strategic application.

While this question may look similar to the “optional essay” asked by many other business schools, do not be tempted to use this space to explain a low GPA or GMAT score. If you must discuss a significant weakness in this application there is a brief space in the online application for that information. This essay is your opportunity to leave a positive impression with the admissions committee and you should take full advantage of the 400 words available.

Before you select a topic for this question refer to your application strategy and list of strengths and weaknesses. Have you covered your key professional experiences? What have you demonstrated about leadership? If you have not addressed important extracurricular or volunteer activities or a story from your background that illuminates your interest in HBS and potential contribution to the class, this is the ideal space to provide that information.

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