Tuesday Tips: Harvard Business School MBA Essay Tips

The essay questions and deadlines for Harvard Business School’s class of 2015 are now posted online on the HBS admissions website along with the questions for recommenders. This year’s essay questions are a strong departure from previous years, specifically in the number and length of the essays.

At Stacy Blackman Consulting we always take a holistic approach to our clients’ MBA admissions process, and this approach will be especially well suited for the application changes this year.

As you approach the HBS application you will need to think about more than just the essay questions ”“ make sure your resume is a compelling view of your career path, your recommenders are providing specific examples of your management potential and leadership qualities, and approach the two essay questions as opportunities to showcase who you are and what motivates you. The final essay, written in 24 hours after your interview, should fit in holistically with the rest of your application. A thorough self assessment of your strengths and weaknesses will be an asset as you approach this essay set.

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. 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.

Essay 1: Tell us about something you did well. (400 words)
Similar to the “three accomplishments” essay prompt of prior years, this is your opportunity to highlight one of your most impressive accomplishments. When you think about the ideal topic 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 could be an opportunity 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 a key achievement, and it should be something that you are proud of not only because of the result but also the process. 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.

Essay 2: Tell us about something you wish you had done better. (400 words)

In past years HBS has required an essay about a mistake. This essay is similar and asks you to consider situations that did not turn out as you wanted.

As you think about a triumph in your life in essay 1, essay 2 leads you to consider a challenge. As you consider how to approach this question, make sure you evaluate 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?

As you recount the situation that you wish had gone better, it will be crucial to demonstrate what you have learned. Think about why you selected this specific experience and what change and growth resulted from the situation. This essay is your opportunity to demonstrate your maturity, flexibility and leadership qualities.

New this year is the opportunity to “have the last word” in your HBS application. If you are invited for an interview you will be asked to submit an essay quickly afterwards. HBS is selective in the interview process and does not conduct interviews “blind.” Therefore, you will likely have a detailed opportunity to talk about your specific situation in the interview and also in the written reflection.

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.
This essay is your opportunity to leave a positive impression with the admissions committee and you should take full advantage to accomplish that goal.

This essay is designed to give you an opportunity to provide all relevant information, even after you have submitted your application and conducted an in-depth interview. At that point you may feel like you have contributed everything you can to the application process. Therefore, it will be useful to think about how you will approach this essay before you are even invited for the interview.

Before you select a topic for this question refer to your application strategy and list of strengths and weaknesses. Did you cover 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.

If you have an outline of what you are likely to write in this essay it will make it much easier to submit a coherent and self-aware essay in 24 hours. Then you can tailor the final essay to incorporate your perception of the interview and any thoughts about areas you could have illuminated further. Overall, the entire application should formulate a holistic view of you and your fit with HBS.

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