Pro Tips for the Harvard MBA Essay
Harvard Business School receives roughly 10,000 applications each admissions cycle. Now, pause for a moment to appreciate that mind-boggling number. We’re not mentioning it to scare off potential applicants. Instead, we want to drive home the point that a high percentage of those people are intelligent and impressive—just like you! That’s why it’s crucial to approach the Harvard MBA essay strategically to increase your odds of receiving an interview invite.
Our SBC team includes several former HBS Admissions Officers who evaluated thousands of applications and made decisions on whom to interview and admit. We asked these experts, “What does HBS Admissions look for?” The consensus is that HBS seeks people who demonstrate ingenuity and innovative thinking and who also want to make a positive difference in the world with their MBA degrees.
For years, Harvard Business School has bucked the trend of refreshing its essay prompts each season. Here is the perennial Harvard MBA 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?
Besides asking an open-ended question, HBS doesn’t have a word limit, which can be a real issue for many candidates (more on that later). But first, let’s get back to the question at hand. There’s one key word that everyone should be paying attention to, and that word is more. What more would you like us to know?
One little word with oh so much meaning.
Savvy applicants will realize that the word “more” is critical. It can help narrow down ideas of what to write about because you don’t want to repeat things HBS already knows from the rest of your materials. First, let’s take a look at what they’ll have already seen by the time they get to your essay:
- Your resume and all your career and college achievements.
- GMAT or GRE scores that demonstrate your quant proficiency.
- GPA and college transcripts that speak to your academic aptitude.
- Recommendation letters that likely address compelling accomplishments and projects.
- The data form information covering job description, cultural/racial identity (for US applicants), key accomplishments, challenges and responsibilities, and why you left any given company. There’s also a section to list your extracurriculars.
In addition, past applicants have had 500 characters to share more about their career aspirations. When you think about all that, the admissions committee already knows a lot about you by the time they get to your essay. There’s a good chance they may have developed some preconceived notions about you or what you might write about.
So, your goal with the Harvard MBA essay is to move or inspire the AdCom—and maybe even surprise them. Don’t play it safe and write about what they expect you to say. And definitely avoid blending in with all other applicants who might look like you on paper. The essay is one of the only places in your materials where you can let some of your personality come through and set yourself apart.
To hear this advice straight from Harvard MBA / SBC consultant Erika Olsen, Listen to B-Schooled Podcast Episode #62: How to Approach the HBS Essay.
How to Find Inspiration for the Harvard MBA Essay
We encourage applicants to think about what motivates them, what they’re passionate about, or why they’ve made some of the big decisions they’ve made so far in life. For some people, there’s an obvious answer to what motivates them. Or there’s a clear reason they chose certain classes, got involved in certain clubs, and even worked at a particular company. For these lucky candidates, their essays tie back to a core passion or something in their life that motivated them to pursue their current path.
But for many, many others, it’s not at all clear. Applicants can get frustrated or feel defeated, thinking they’re “too normal” or boring and haven’t done anything extraordinary to stand out. Thus, they believe they don’t have any shot of getting in. To those people, we say you don’t have to have done anything extraordinary. But you need to do some soul-searching to think about how to fill in the blank spaces about yourself. You want to share something about yourself that there’s no way they could know from the rest of your application.
Start by asking your friends and family what they think stands out about you. What concrete examples can they offer that give “proof” of the unique personal qualities they see? Often, there’s an overlap between your best qualities and things that already appear on your resume. And that’s okay. But the idea is to bring in new dimensions that fill in the blanks for the HBS admissions committee.
If your essay reads like a laundry list of accomplishments, or like a paragraph version of your resume that just rehashes the bullet points, that is … not good.
For example, a client in the healthcare industry might connect to a highly personal reason for wanting to get into healthcare consulting after their MBA. Perhaps they learned something during a project that wouldn’t appear on a resume, but that led them to realize what they wanted their future career to look like. So, it’s fine to mention an accomplishment or something that might already be on your resume. But you’re filling in the details that make it come to life for them. That’s the difference. You want to ensure that when you read your essay draft, it couldn’t be about anyone else but you.
One of SBC’s resident HBS experts shared an anecdote of an applicant who had engineered a soccer ball that could be kicked around and then used to provide electricity for a short period of time. He wanted to bring this technology to underdeveloped areas in Africa, and it made quite a compelling story. “However, it’s important that the stories you tell are genuine,” our SBC consultant cautions. “It can often show through when it’s been fabricated or forced.”
Need help with your Harvard MBA essay? We’ve got you! Here’s a sample of the HBS Admissions expertise on our team:
But what if you can’t think of an overarching theme? Are you doomed?
If you’re struggling to come up with an all-encompassing, comprehensive theme, don’t worry. That’s going to work for some people but not for everybody. The following is the next best thing. First, make a list of the most defining moments and experiences of your life and the things you are passionate about. Next, ask friends and family members to share some standout memories they have of you. Did you have a life-changing travel experience? Do you have an unusual hobby? Are you known for making everyone feel welcome, no matter the scenario?
It’s okay if you end up with a bunch of unrelated things. The final step is to choose three or four top passions or defining moments or experiences. Then you can write mini-essays about each of them as your response.
Do not drive yourself crazy trying to come up with an overarching theme that feels corny or forced.
We’ve had clients take this approach and get admitted. Sometimes, they chose to open their Harvard MBA essay with something like, “I wanted to share the following three anecdotes to give insight into what motivates me.” That way, a setup at the beginning brings structure to the subsequent sections.
A note of caution: Do not include any ‘Why HBS?’ content in your essay response. Whereas other schools want to know why you think they are a good fit for your career plans, Harvard knows why applicants choose to apply to their program. (See annual application numbers above.)
What about word count?
While there’s no explicit word count, the Harvard Business School AdCom has always valued brevity. Why? Because when you look at most leaders across any industry or domain, they usually know how to make their point succinctly. So if your essay clocks in at 2,000 words, they might get a pit in their stomach before they even start reading it.
We’ve had countless clients write about mind-blowing life experiences in under 1,000 words. Again, it doesn’t have to be something crazy that they did. It could just be really unique in the sense of beautiful and small but passionate and authentic. Don’t be the person who thinks their story is so incredible that it justifies being twice that long. Your safe bet is to aim between 800-1,200 words.
Writing the Harvard MBA essay is not going to be a quick process. This isn’t like a more straightforward goal or achievement-focused essay with an obvious topic in the question. You can’t rush this one. Our advice is to start early, write and rewrite, and then don’t look at the draft for a week. When you come back to it, do some more tinkering.
Your Harvard MBA essay should make the AdCom excited to meet you to see if you’re as engaging in person as you’re coming off in that essay. If you approach the essay the right way and take enough time to do the required introspection, you stand a great chance of setting yourself up to receive one of those coveted HBS interview invites.