HBS Essay Samples

For HBS, an applicant’s personal narrative is often the most influential factor in the admissions decision process. Highlighting personal qualities and triumphs is essential. HBS admit success is driven by how “interesting” the candidate appeared to admissions officers. Applicants convey this through both their overarching story and positioning as well as execution through detailed anecdotes and nuances.

As we review your HBS application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program?

My mom likes to tell the story of when I was four years old and we went to visit my aunt in Texas. My aunt had a pool, but I didn’t know how to swim. For some reason, I decided I was going to learn to swim—that day. I got into the pool with my parents and held onto the brick edge. I tried to doggy paddle back and forth across the shallow end, and, slowly but surely, I moved further away from the wall. We stayed in the water for hours. But by the time I got out, I could swim. If I tell myself I am going to learn to swim, then that is exactly what I am going to do.

When I was in my freshman year of high school, I signed up for the girl’s [sport] team. However, as the tryouts neared, I got cold feet; I had only played [sport] for one year prior to ninth grade. The high school coach was my gym teacher at the time, and she knew I was supposed to go out for the team. I could not imagine telling her that I had gone back on my word, so I dragged myself to the first practice.

That turned out to be one of the best decisions I have made. My coach gave us individualized index cards before every game with that day’s goals—evidence of how deeply she cared for her players. I was a starting defender by my sophomore year, and she would make me yell out directions to organize my teammates. This included telling the seniors who to cover, which was very intimidating. Her confidence in me translated into confidence in myself, and I went on to play for her in the state championship game my junior year. I was also voted captain of my college [sport] team. I know my life would have been very different if I did not try out for [sport] like I said I was going to.

More recently, following through on my commitments has made me a reliable partner at work, and has helped me earn the trust of senior mentors and managers. For example, a few months into my time on the Multi-Asset team, we were asked by the head of the European Sales desk to host a meeting with C-level management from a European company. My boss thought it was a waste of time, but I had already committed one of us to attend. Further, I recognized that showing up at the meeting was important to [employer]’s relationship with the company. I held my ground and argued that I should go to the meeting given it was only a small investment of time in the grand scheme of the things, and we would build goodwill with the European Sales desk. He agreed to let me go, and after I returned, he said he was impressed by my conviction and commitment, and he was glad we had decided to attend.

This commitment to my word and conviction in my beliefs developed over many Sunday night dinners at my parents’ house. These dinners usually included some combination of my immediate family, my grandparents, my dad’s brother and sister, and their families. I am the oldest grandchild on my dad’s side, so I got to sit at the adults’ table. We never made it past the main course before my grandmother would bring up something controversial she had read in the newspaper or saw on TV that week. We would inevitably launch into a heated debate—everyone in my family has different political views. Many a dinner guest has left a little harder of hearing since everyone constantly talks over each other. I loved those dinners because I had the opportunity to hear other people’s opinions, support my own inclinations, and ultimately develop my views on challenging topics.

In high school, I was a “lawyer” on my school’s mock trial team. We would be presented with a case each fall and spend months preparing our arguments (both as the prosecution and the defense). I gave the closing argument when we competed against other schools, and I believe those Sunday dinners prepared me well for articulating my thoughts and confidently defending them in front of others.

As we review your HBS application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program?

I was always fascinated with James Bond films. But it was not the cars, the action, or the exotic travel locations that attracted me; rather, it was the gadgets. Before each mission that Bond was sent on, he would meet with Q Branch, a fictional unit in the British Secret Service that provided advanced technology to give their agents a competitive advantage in the field. The contraptions that they came up with were often unassuming tools with a hidden secondary usage – a wristwatch with a metal-cutting laser, a cigarette case with an X-ray emitter used for safecracking, even a bit of pocket lint with a radioactive tracker. Without these futuristic gadgets, Bond was just a man with a gun, but with them, he was a superhero that saved the world.

The idea that technology can enable otherwise normal people to engage in harrowing acts of bravery to aid their country is powerful. As I went through my teenage years, taking apart and building all sorts of electronics, I would fantasize that I was in Q’s lab, putting the finishing touches on a calculator, lighter, or some knickknack to defeat a megalomaniacal villain. I knew that one day I would engineer solutions to contribute to a cause greater than my own. I would get that opportunity much sooner than expected. Early into my senior year of high school, I received a recruiting envelope from one of our nation’s most important intelligence agencies, X. They were offering to pay for my full college tuition in exchange for me dedicating the next seven years of my life to X. While I could not have imagined the course that this would set me on in my career, the prospect that I, at only age 18, had an opportunity to serve in our country’s equivalent to Q Branch was too exciting to pass up.

From the day I raised my right hand and took an oath to the Constitution, I knew I would not be content just treating this opportunity as a generic summer internship program between school years. My mission at X was my top priority and I, without the usual collegiate pressures of needing to find a job, geared my education entirely toward learning skills that I could translate to my new career. I focused on X and X, spending many hours a week in college on a X leading an effort to design ways for a Xt to securely be commanded from the ground. I even became a licensed amateur radio operator in order to learn the fundamental concepts of X critical to X communications. My dedication paid dividends immediately, facilitating opportunities to design creative solutions and travel throughout the country and the world helping national policymakers meet their most critical intelligence priorities.

When I matriculated into full-time employment at X, I was prepared for a lifelong career in X Intelligence – designing software and hardware to X against our nation’s adversaries. I excelled, earning multiple awards and an advanced promotion a year ahead of schedule. However, as I developed a greater understanding of the global X war, I began to see how vulnerable much of this country’s industry is. The wars of the future will not solely be fought on the battlefield, and the layers of government bureaucracy are not designed for a quickly moving X war where our power grid can be shut off at any moment and our companies’ X can be stolen in the blink of an eye. I concluded that in order to make a lasting impact, I would need to design the shield, not the sword.

As my term of obligation to X neared completion, I knew that I would need to step outside of government into a fast-paced entrepreneurial environment. I decided to join a small startup that was designing X solutions with the potential to protect some of the most important, but vulnerable, systems powering the US economy. At X, I have led efforts to not only advance the state-of-the-art in X technology, but also to bring these technologies to market so that our country’s aircraft carriers, biological research facilities, automobiles, and pharmaceutical labs can defend themselves against the most sophisticated X adversaries.

However, throughout my endeavor in the private sector, I have been exposed to more than a few inefficiencies in how information security technology is evaluated, transitioned, and used. As the media talks about a future “cyber 9/11” and the financial risk of computer intrusions is becoming increasingly salient, the cybersecurity issues of the future will not be solved by just using longer passwords or installing another antivirus program. I plan to use my time at Harvard Business School to learn the organizational and strategic skills that underpin successful decision-making in order to drive change in the way the private and public sectors allocate resources and make decisions about cybersecurity.

With an MBA and a foundation in the HBS Case Method accompanying my unique technical background in the cybersecurity industry, I’m confident that I can cut through red tape and find new ways to quantitatively evaluate future information technologies, quickly transition advanced research to the private sector, and advise companies and government on effectively mitigating their operational risks.

As we review your HBS application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program?

Sharing a makeshift cake with strangers at the Charlotte airport as the clock strikes midnight on my birthday. Meeting with a Partner on the mountains of Park City, so breathless by the elevation I can barely get a word in. Dashing from an anniversary dinner to catch an impromptu flight to London for a project kick-off. My resume will have detailed my professional experiences to-date, but underneath each of the bullets are dozens of memories like the above. Upon reflection of these memories, one thing I know for sure is that I am not the typical Consultant. I have chosen adaptability to define me above other characteristics that may have hindered me from pursuing this path.

My favorite personality test will tell you that I am introverted, intuitive, a thinker, and a planner. Growing up, I was markedly different from my sisters, and you could typically find me reading in the clothing racks as my mother took us shopping, or out loud in the back seat of our family car while my sisters tried to listen to their favorite N*Sync song. As I considered my future career, my instinct told me that an introverted bookworm should not pursue a client-facing, heavily social and unpredictable career filled with endless experiences like the above.

Three years later, I am thankful that I overcame these fears and insecurities and adapted myself to the life of a Consultant, fully embracing these experiences. For others, adaptability might mean something else, but everyone will have to embrace some version of adaptability in the near future. At X, my focus has been building a market around the Future of Work – how technology, demographics, and globalization will change the nature of work. I have become a leader in this space, crafting our response to clients’ questions for dozens of discussions, pursuits, and conferences. I have succeeded at developing compelling thought leadership, but the fundamental challenge of driving this point of view in market is similar to the fears I once held as I embarked on my career.

I believe the central theme of the Future of Work is the concept of adaptability – the need for companies and individuals alike to be agile and willing to engage in lifelong learning to keep up with today’s constant rate of change. In the same way that I overcame my fears to pursue my passions, millions of workers (and their leaders) will have to overcome theirs in order to succeed in a future that is increasingly uncertain and irrevocably different – and that is a difficult pill to swallow.

Adapting to uncomfortable situations does not come naturally to many. Fortunately, my personal journey and background has accelerated this skill for me. I am the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and the daughter of a failed small business owner who reinvented himself at 50. The epitome of strength and adaptability, my grandparents came to America after being liberated from the camps, started a family in Queens and opened a small Jewish bakery that was eventually passed on to my father. By the time I was born, the business was being overrun by supermarkets and my father’s lack of passion became its downfall. I grew up in an environment of uncertainty, but also with a role model who learned an entirely new trade after a 25-year career and found a job that excites him every day.

The time came for me to embrace the strength and adaptability of my forefathers this past November, when my mother suffered a sudden and fatal heart attack. Moving forward seemed inconceivable, but the following year turned out to be the highlight of my career to-date. The same week that my mother passed, I was offered a role directly supporting a Human Capital Partner in building a new practice grounded in the thought leadership I helped to develop in the Future of Work space. Despite my personal hardships, I could not pass up the opportunity to be involved in transforming the face of Human Capital. I took on the role, and was immediately immersed in setting the strategy for the new business that will deliver large-scale transformations following Future of Work discussions. This has meant gaining experience with cognitive technologies, considering how they will fundamentally change jobs, and developing new ways to transform the workforce for the future. It has been a fast-paced role, vastly different from traditional Consulting client work. Adaptability has revealed itself not only in the wake of life’s hardest moments, but also during exciting times like these, pushing me to take on ambiguous and advanced roles at X.

My insight into adaptability has been a personal journey that impacted not only my professional focus, but also my community work. Much of the struggle my father experienced in changing his career path came from not having a college degree. As a first generation college graduate, my passion for literacy and education access has steered me to become a leader in my community as a founding Board member of X and a volunteer high school mentor. I try to instill adaptability in the students I mentor and the non-profit leaders and school administrators I have the pleasure of working with, sharing the opportunities afforded by the same disruption my clients face such as rethinking the skills we teach our students, crowdsourcing global expertise to the classroom, and augmenting the physical classroom with digital tools. Adaptability in this context does not only mean prevailing over hardship to pursue your passions, but also fundamentally changing the way we think about delivering education in the future.

Grounded in the concept of adaptability, my personal, professional and community experiences have informed my dream of becoming an eminent strategist on transitioning Fortune 500s to the Future of Work and a Board member of innovative education NPOs transforming how we develop the future workforce. In pursuing an MBA from HBS, I will be able to bring my own unique perspectives and ability to adapt to the unparalleled case method, peer and alumni network and global community. This will accelerate and broaden my thinking on how to instill adaptability into organizations and our future workforce, ultimately deepening my ability to lead through the transition to the Future of “X”– work, education – you fill in the blank.

As we review your HBS application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program?

I distinctly recall the leather hat box where my dad saved reminders of our family’s service in the Army. I was initially fascinated by the adventure each medal, dog-tag and faded photo held. As I matured, and learned more about others who served before me, I saw my fascination was rooted in becoming a leader. Along this journey, I learned that servant leadership is about self-awareness, humility, inclusion and above all, people. HBS will provide the interactive, case-based environment to continue learning, reflecting, and developing.

In high school, a story from my grandfather’s service as a Special Forces Team Leader during Vietnam fueled my desire to become a leader. One mission during Vietnam was coined Recon by Fire – a tactic designed to find the enemy by shooting without provocation into suspected areas. On a specific Recon by Fire mission, he couldn’t justify the high potential for collateral damage. Despite dialogue with superiors on the unnecessary risk, the order stood. He decided to disobey; he took his team out, helped in a village, set up security for the night, and reported completion. I recognized the power of this even at a young age; leadership, and ultimately life, isn’t about simply following orders, it’s about understanding your values and acting in accordance no matter the situation.

I can only imagine the self-awareness and humility it took for my grandfather to make that decision. These critical qualities are only honed through experience. I didn’t fully embrace this until my first failure at Ranger School. This 62-day leadership course tests your ability to lead in a simulated combat environment. In the second, arguably most physically challenging phase, I failed what is called “peers”; essentially a peer-review of your leadership style that can vote you off the team. Although I would be given another attempt, I was crushed mentally because of the personal nature of peers. For the first time in my life I thought about quitting. Debating whether to try the phase again, I got a letter from dad with some motivational thoughts. He closed the letter with a clever acronym he had almost jokingly developed for harder times: STOP-P … Smile, Think, Observe, Plan, Pray. I realized I failed because I was trying to be someone I wasn’t; being stereotypically loud, cocky, authoritative, and aggressive isn’t the only way to lead. The next week, I restarted with a smile on my face and a mental cue to remember who I was.

The world, and war, have changed drastically since Vietnam and even since my time at Ranger School, but the timeless lessons on leadership remain. These experiences remind me to know myself, be humble and build relationships. I saw the true power of this equation when I deployed to Iraq in 2015 as the Executive Officer, or second-in-command, of an Airborne Infantry Company. We had a unique mission to re-train the recently defeated Iraqi Army. Our Company Commander, or leader of the 130-soldier organization, was not great at building consensus or communicating vision. The ambiguous, grand scope of our mission, and pressure from higher, made him apathetic; a dangerous affect while deployed. Although typically outside of the Executive Officer’s realm, I saw this issue and started taking significant responsibility for the main training operations. I quickly brought in all of our experienced Drill Sergeants, or those who had trained US Army new recruits, and was up front that I didn’t hold the key to what the best training path looked like. I empowered this ad-hoc task force to analyze the current Iraqi shortfalls and build a plan to prepare them for combat. Simultaneously, I built relationships with our Spanish Legion partners to gain buy-in and leverage their specific strengths. As I back briefed our Commander on the way ahead, he was impressed and I recall him saying, “Wow, you built and planned all this?” My response was automatic, “No sir, We built this.” As trite as it may sound, this always reminds me life’s a team sport. Now, any time I feel overwhelmed, I remember to look to those around me.

The challenging, interpersonal nature of my Iraq deployment inspired me to stay in the Army past my initial obligation. It also gave me the unique opportunity to apply my understanding of leadership and transform an organization as an Infantry Company Commander. I took command of a 130-soldier team from an authoritative leader. His style had built an organizational culture where if it wasn’t ordered, it wasn’t done; I saw a lot of inefficiency and frustration as experienced leaders’ ideas went to waste. The first thing I did was engage all the key leaders to build a vision; not a generic mission statement, but a tailored picture of who we wanted to be. With this ground work laid, I changed how I interacted with the Platoons, or subordinate organizations in the Company. Our weekly all hands meeting, or training meeting, shifted from the commander dictating tasks and identifying shortfalls, to a participative structure; I talked less, subordinates talked more. I had us start with feedback from the last week’s operations and the safe, inclusive environment stimulated discussion. Then, we developed a new structure to plan Company operations. During the meeting, I provided broad intent and assigned responsibility for the training operation 12 weeks away. Platoon leaders, or Lieutenants, then presented key milestones for shorter term operations and garnered input from our whole team. The dialogue and ideas that percolated from this small change were astounding. This set the tone for how we would work together under stress. Two months after these changes, we were praised for our performance in a 36-hour training operation to secure an enemy-held village. After the operation, my boss asked why I thought we succeeded. I pointed to my subordinate leaders that took initiative, thought creatively, and didn’t simply wait to be told what to do.

What’s meaningful about leadership is your impact outlasts your tenure in a job or in life. I never even met my grandfather – he passed away just before I was born. Yet, he inspired me to know myself and think freely even in a hierarchal environment. As I transition off active duty, I’m proud to add a fourth generation of medals, dog-tags, and photos to that leather hat box. My experiences, and mantras like STOP-P, remind me that leadership, much like life, has no perfect equation. But, if you properly weight some critical variables along the way, it is truly rewarding.

You’re applying to HBS. What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?

I would like to share with the admissions committee several unique personal and professional experiences that have helped shape my leadership style and qualities.

I learned the art of communication and became articulate with much confidence and poise at an early age. As the son of a first-generation immigrant in the US, I have maintained the household for my divorced father since the age of nine including speaking on his behalf during job interviews, filing annual income taxes, and negotiating apartment lease terms.

My public interactions representing my father have taught me that in order to be taken seriously at any age, I need to project gravitas. For example, when I was 12 years old, my father traded in his car to the dealer to purchase a new car. I used Kelley Blue Book and recent sales postings of similar vehicles in the local newspaper to determine a comparable trade-in value.

Leveraging my research, I haggled with the car dealer to obtain a favorable price for the trade-in automobile. While the dealer initially held steadfast at a lower estimated value, he conceded to the comparable trade-in value after I presented such convincing research.

The development of these communications skills from an early age has been very helpful in my professional career as well where I often need to command the attention of peers and senior leadership during presentations and meetings.

During a project last month, I led the identification of potential North American and Australian buyers in association with the deployment of a new B2B client product. When I advised the head of the client’s global sales team on the findings, he was initially skeptical about the recommendations as several previous consulting firms had provided advice that was generic and not actionable. After I presented to him quantified sales volumes of potential customers and a thorough approach for engaging his prospects by geographical region, he became convinced and prescribed to adopt my proposed strategy.

I grew up attending an inner-city middle school where few extracurricular activities were offered due to minimal public funding. Given this shortage of options and my single mother’s limited income, I did not participate in many after-school activities. It was not until I started playing chess that I learned valuable lessons in weighing risks and rewards, forming contingency plans, and learning from mistakes.

Now that I am in a fortunate position to give back to my community, I founded a 501(c) non-profit organization featuring the game of chess to provide public school students with extracurricular opportunities that I never had. I designed the chess nonprofit organization to improve academic performance and build self-esteem among elementary and middle school students by teaching chess lessons through an afterschool program and organizing nationally rated chess tournaments.

Additionally, the nonprofit chess organization partners with schools around Columbus, Ohio, by providing both financial and resource sponsorship to help set up their chess programs and tournaments.
Through this program, I intend to inspire urban youths to utilize critical thinking and problem-solving skills acquired through playing chess as tools for a lifetime of success and achievement.

A year ago, I completed a project providing talent management advice to an asset management company seeking to establish a coast-to-coast footprint through an acquisition. As the upfront due diligence phase of the deal had been rushed with inadequate attention focused on retention planning, many of the financial advisors had left the target firm upon hearing rumors of the acquisition. After developing a strategic solution to address the issue, I presented my team’s recommended plan during a board meeting where the client agreed to implement the strategy immediately.

During the next three months, I managed a support team based in India that assisted our US team in executing the plan. Due to the support team working remotely in opposite time zones, it was initially challenging to involve them with daily developments of the project and win their trust. To quickly gain their support, I accommodated to their work schedule, debriefed them with daily client meeting takeaways, and delegated client deliverables to them.

This approach proved especially productive as it allowed project progression to continue on a 24-hour basis. Furthermore, by motivating the team to take ownership of their assignments and empowering them to make decisions, they felt enthused that their talent and discretionary efforts directly advanced the project. As a result of the strong collaboration between the Indian and US teams, the acquisition was able to successfully close in accordance with the proposed plan.

At HBS, I will continue to demonstrate strong public and interpersonal communication skills, give back to the communities that have contributed to my personal and professional growth, and contribute to collaborative team dynamics where everyone’s strengths and potentials are maximized.

SBC’s star-studded consultant team is unparalleled. Our clients benefit from current intelligence that we receive from the former MBA Admissions Officers from Harvard HBS, Stanford GSB and every elite business program in the US and Europe.  These MBA Admissions Officers have chosen to work exclusively with SBC.

Just two of the many superstars on the SBC team:
Meet Erin, who was Assistant Director of MBA Admissions at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business (GSB) and Director of MBA Admissions at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

Meet Andrea, who served as the Associate Director of MBA Admissions at Harvard Business School (HBS) for over five years.

Tap into this inside knowledge for your MBA applications by requesting a consultation.


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