Harvard HBS Essay Examples
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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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Most of the top business schools in the United States accept the GMAT and GRE exams for MBA admission. But how do you decide which test you should take, the GMAT or GRE? Many ... →
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Applicants to HBS must have the following:
A degree program at an accredited U.S. four-year undergraduate college/university or an international equivalent (unless you are a college senior applying to our 2+2 Program ). Equivalent programs include international three-year bachelor degree programs.
Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) or Graduate Record Examination (GRE) test taken in the timeframes on the chart below. The GMAT or GRE is a prerequisite for admission. We will accept the new, shorter GRE beginning September 2023. We will accept the GMAT Focus beginning with the 2+2 round in April 2024.
A TOEFL, IELTS, Pearson Test of English (PTE), or Duolingo English Test is required if you did not attend an undergraduate institution where the sole language of instruction is English. If you completed a graduate degree which was taught in English, it is recommended you submit one of these tests, but it is not required.
To apply to Harvard Business School, we ask you to assemble and prepare a variety of materials that will help us assess your qualifications. Remember, all materials must be submitted to HBS online by the application deadlines. The following serves as a preview of what you need to prepare.
Candidates must have the equivalent of a U.S. bachelor's degree from an accredited institution (unless applying through the 2+2 program — please see information for college seniors). Degrees from international universities offering three-year baccalaureate degrees are valid equivalents.
We require uploaded transcripts from all undergraduate and graduate academic institutions that you have attended (full- or part-time).
You may upload an "unofficial" or student copy of your transcript; however, we will request an official copy for verification purposes should you be admitted to HBS.
When the Admissions Board looks at your transcripts, we are looking at the whole picture — not just your GPA. We take into account where you went to school, the courses that you took, and your performance. We understand the structures of different grading systems worldwide. There is no minimum GPA to apply, although our students usually have strong undergraduate records. Undergraduate academics are just one factor the Admissions Board uses to evaluate a candidate.
- There is no minimum GMAT or GRE to apply and we do not have a preference toward one test or the other. If you look at our class profile , you can see that we have a range of GMAT and GRE scores in the current first-year class.
- We will accept the new, shorter GRE beginning September 2023. We will accept the GMAT Focus beginning with the 2+2 round in April 2024.
- When submitting your application, you may report the unofficial GMAT or GRE score given on the day of the test, or your official score if you have received it. Every applicant must request that the testing agency sends an official score report directly to HBS. We accept online versions of the GMAT or GRE.
- We require you to complete the AWA portion of the exam; however, you do not need the results in order to submit your application. Note: If you took the online version of the GMAT prior to the addition of the AWA section (i.e. before May 20, 2021), we will accept those test scores without the AWA as long as they have not expired.
- Be advised that in order to apply for admission, scores must be dated as follows:
Please note that the HBS code for the GMAT is HRLX892 and the HBS code for the GRE is 4064.
- A TOEFL, IELTS, Pearson Test of English (PTE), or Duolingo English Test is required if you did not attend an undergraduate institution where the sole language of instruction is English.
- If you completed a graduate degree which was taught in English, it is recommended you submit one of these tests, but it is not required.
HBS does not have a minimum test score to apply, however, the MBA Admissions Board discourages any candidate with a TOEFL score lower than 109 on the IBT, an IELTS score lower than 7.5, a PTE score lower than 75, or a Duolingo score lower than 145 from applying.
HBS only accepts the Internet-based (IBT) version of the TOEFL. Please note that the HBS code for the TOEFL is 3444.
There is one question for the Class of 2026 application:
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? (900 words)
We invite you to share personal or professional experiences from your background that give you a unique ability to contribute to HBS. Try to remember to not overthink or overwrite in this essay; it is best to answer the question in clear and concise language that those of us who don't know your world can understand.
You will need to have two recommendations submitted online by the application deadlines. It is the applicant's responsibility to ensure that all recommendations are submitted online by the deadline date for the round in which the applicant is applying.
Use your best judgment on who you decide to ask - there is no set formula for who should be your recommenders. We know it is not always possible to have a direct supervisor write your recommendation – we would not want you to jeopardize your current position for the application process. Look at the questions we are asking recommenders to complete. Find people who know you well enough to answer them. This can be a former supervisor, a colleague, or someone you collaborate on an activity outside of work. How well a person knows you should take priority over level of seniority or HBS alumni status.
How do the candidate's performance, potential, background, or personal qualities compare to those of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? Please provide specific examples. (300 words)
Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant's response. (250 words)
This can be your standard business resume or CV. You do not need to have it in any special format. You can use whatever you would use to conduct a job search. Note: The HBS MBA Program is designed for students who have full-time work experience. While it is important for candidates to assess their own readiness to apply, the Admissions Board recommends that applicants have at least two years of full-time work experience (prior to enrolling).
- There is a nonrefundable application fee (credit card only) of $250 USD* to offset the cost of reviewing applications. All active duty military applicants do not have to pay the application fee.
If your annual income at your current or most recent place of employment is $65,000 USD or less, the need-based application fee waiver will automatically apply. If you do not automatically qualify but would like to request a fee waiver due to financial hardship, you may apply for a need-based application fee waiver after starting your application.
*Applicants to our 2+2 Program have a reduced application fee of $100.
After your written application has been submitted and reviewed, you may be invited to interview. Interviews are 30 minutes and are conducted by an MBA Admissions Board member who has reviewed your application. Your interview will be tailored to you and is designed for us to learn more about you in the context of a conversation.
The interview is a positive indicator of interest, but is not a guarantee of admission; it serves as one element among many that are considered as we complete a final review of your candidacy. All interviews are conducted by invitation only, at the discretion of the Admissions Board. If invited, however, you must participate in order to complete the application process.
Interviews may be scheduled on campus, in domestic or international hub cities, or via Zoom. Neither the timing of your interview invitation nor its format, whether in person or via Zoom, implies anything about the status of your application or affects your candidacy.
Within 24 hours of the interview, candidates are required to submit a written reflection through our online application system. Detailed instructions will be provided to those applicants who are invited to interview.
MBA Application Tips Video Series
Every HBS MBA student has been where you are right now. In this video series, we hope to help you learn how to break down your application into small, actionable steps so that you can submit a successful application that is true to you and your journey.
Joint Degree Programs
Applications for both Harvard Business School and the partnering Harvard graduate school must be submitted as explained on these overview pages:
- MS/MBA Engineering
- MS/MBA Life Sciences
- MPA-ID / MBA
- Student Applicants (2+2)
How To Write Harvard HBS Essay With Examples
Harvard Business School’s MBA is one of the most well-known, acclaimed professional degrees in the world. When applying to HBS is a competitive next step in your education and career, every aspect of your application deserves careful deliberation and preparation, especially your HBS essay.
The application essay requires even more thought because Harvard Business School views essays as a real-time representation of who you are (besides the interview and statement of purpose ), professionally and personally. This blog will take you through a step-by-step process so you’ll know exactly how to write the Harvard Business School essay.
Hopefully, it will also help invigorate your pride in your own story, for Harvard Business School will be more likely to see your potential if you demonstrate that you see it too.
Harvard Business School Essay Prompts
The Harvard Business School essay is just one component of a complete MBA application, but it certainly has its own considerations. So, it is important that you take time to consider the essay separately from the rest of the documents and information in your application. The essay prompt is as follows:
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?
This essay question is particularly challenging for many applicants due to its vague nature. The other potentially unexpected kicker to this prompt: there is no word limit. Regarding the length of your essay, the Harvard Business School webpage suggests that you “use your best judgment, and try to be clear… and concise.”
We’ll discuss how to best work on this deliverable later in the blog, as it is an important factor in the overall presentation of your writing.
Unless you have an exceedingly in-depth resume, the essay is definitely going to be the most personal aspect of your application. The essay is your chance to use your own words to describe yourself, your values, and your insights.
It will be the most significant signal to the admissions committee as to how your background has influenced you and how HBS would fit well into your future.
How to Write Harvard Business School Essay in 6 Steps
Organization is key to ensuring quality in your HBS essay. It’s important to order tasks in an accomplishable, reasonable way where each goal is clear and manageable.
Exploring blogs about MBA essay writing is one way to get ideas flowing. To help wrap your head around organizing your essay-writing efforts, here are some beginning-to-end steps for the creation of your HBS essay:
- Decide on the Right Story and Its Theme
- Write an Outline
- Start Your Essay Carefully and Deliberately
- Draft Your Essay and Revise
- Get an Outside Perspective
Start the process of HBS essay writing with something as equally fundamental as it is simple: thought. Consider the role that the essay will play in your application and how to make the essay benefit your goal of getting into Harvard Business School.
There are two sides to useful self-reflection regarding a goal like a Harvard MBA.
First, think purposefully about your career goals and tie them to an MBA at Harvard Business School. Ask yourself, how would a Harvard MBA help you get to where you want to go, professionally? What would you most like to gain from your time studying at HBS?
Thinking about these things and then including them in your essay will demonstrate to the admissions committee that you have a clear trajectory for your MBA experience and your career.
Additionally, revealing these considerations in your essay will speak to your confidence in your aspirations and in your decision to apply for Harvard Business School, which will likewise be attractive to the admissions committee.
The other side to a useful introspection would be considering what you as a student would contribute to Harvard and to its MBA program. A US News article about successful MBA essays encourages you to highlight what you would contribute to the HBS MBA program, so that you come across as a useful addition instead of simply a “taker.”
If you were in the admissions committee's shoes, what would be the most enticing aspects of your past education, your experiences , and your personality. Essentially, you should think, specifically and without judgment, about what your biggest strengths as an applicant are, realistically.
Knowing this will help you, both consciously and subconsciously, weave your most compelling characteristics into your essay so that the admissions committee gets to know your best side.
2. Decide on the Right Story and Its Theme
You absolutely do not want to use your essay as a canvas on which to dump information about yourself. Harvard is not interested in reading an essay that expands on your entire resume or simply describes you. Tell a story!
Elucidate on an impactful experience or explain a significant lesson you’ve learned. You’ll probably either overflow with abounding exciting examples to choose from, or you’ll struggle to find even one compelling anecdote.
Don’t worry if you sit in this situation for a while; after all, you’ll ultimately still need to decide on just one topic, whether that means whittling down your options or sifting through your past to isolate that one perfect story.
Once you finally do settle on that one excellent, fascinating subject that excites you enough to write about, you should also deliberate about what you intend your themes and tones to be. What would the ideal takeaway(s) be for a reader of your essay?
Additionally, and this is annoyingly subjective, so apologies; how do you want to sound ? You should have a picture of how your essay will present your information, and you should have a picture of how your essay will present you .
The admissions committee will use the essay to try to imagine you and the role you’d play at Harvard , so keep in mind how they would do this with the essay you write.
3. Write an Outline
This step is fairly straightforward. Take the most important points of your topic, and put them in an order that would flow well as you write. Make sure, as you lay these points out, that they align with each other coherently and that they reflect your intended theme.
From there, write out some thoughts on how best to integrate each point into a complete essay. You might want to explicitly write out which details are most crucial to each part of your story or subject. For example, let's say your compelling story about a transformative internship abroad begins by explaining what you were doing before it.
Then, intuitively, you’d have to include details about where you were at this stage of the story and whether you were working, studying, traveling, etc. Put this information in your outline, so you know that you don’t leave things out and lose your reader.
4. Start Your Essay Carefully and Deliberately
The way you begin your essay is quite important and will in many ways determine how the rest of your essay will shape out. First things first, make sure you feel good about your first sentence.
Just like the opening scene of a movie, the first statement or two of your HBS essay will introduce your writing style and general tone to the admissions committee readers. Consistency always improves readability, and consistency starts with your opening sentence.
Try to make the first couple sentences intriguing to garner some interest right from the get-go.
From the first sentence, ensure you’re keeping to your tone, at least peripherally. We can all agree a shift in tone tends to break the flow of good writing, and to have that break early on in your essay might throw the admissions committee off.
The more sentences you write in a consistent tone and manner, the easier it will be to continue to write in holding with them. Because you’re trying to tell one, coherent story, the reader will be most interested if your writing follows an intuitive flow of ideas.
5. Draft Your Essay and Revise
From this last point, try as best you can to find a steady pace, and begin expanding on your outline. The nice part of this step is that you don’t have to get carried away with wording, sentence structure, or length. Again, focus on including all the relevant details and continue matching your tone.
Try to write at a reasonable rate for decent chunks of time instead of writing intermittently while giving in to distractions. The more consecutively you write each sentence and paragraph, the better they’ll run together when someone’s reading them.
The reason you’ve already prepared an outline, and plan to edit throughout the rest of your writing process, is to make your first attempt at writing the essay as easy as it can be.
Mistakes and breaks in your thinking can easily be caught by careful reading after the fact, so capitalize on inspiration when it hits and simply get your first draft onto the page. When writing an important, personal essay like this one, it also serves you well to keep boosting your confidence.
If you fixate on word choice and how your writing is sounding, you’ll be more likely to break up the flow of your statements and make reading your essay feel choppy. You are telling your own story, and the point of the essay is for the admissions committee to get a better idea of your personality and character, so take pride in the fact that you’re unambiguously the best writer for this subject.
6. Get an Outside Perspective
Once you’ve written the entirety of your essay and edited it carefully and precisely, get some extra peace of mind by having one or two other people read your essay. The more insightful and writing-experienced your readers of choice are, the more you’ll benefit from their critiques and opinions.
The crucial part of this step is to get thoughts from someone unattached to your writing. As fervently and specifically as you may edit your own essay, you’ll always struggle to distance yourself from your emotional attachment to certain phrases, details, or even words. It’s ok. Every writer goes through this with the things they write. Trust us.
This other person allows you to hear a perspective from someone who read every sentence as how it sounded, not how it was intended. In this way, they fill the shoes of the admissions committee, but at a stage where you can still make changes to your essay.
Don’t take criticisms personally; it's better to hear them now than to be at their mercy after submitting your application.
No, you don’t need to force yourself to accept every change proposed by your reader(s). The point of an outside perspective is not to find a qualified editor and let them rewrite an essay about something important to you.
This step is more useful just in reinvigorating your own thoughts about your paper because, in the late stages of your essay writing, it's much easier to get bogged down with the same considerations and forget the bigger things you’re trying to say to the admissions committee.
3 Successful Harvard Business School Essay Examples That Worked
Here are successful Harvard Business School essay examples to give you an idea of what to write.
Sample Essay #1
“Start again,” my mother would demand after tossing my less-than-perfect homework into the trash. As a kid, I was taught that ‘work is finished when it’s not just your best work, but the best.’ Most kids would resent a parent for this, but I didn’t: my mom practiced the same rigor with her own work. She had to—a Latin immigrant with only a high school degree in 1980s [City] was held to a higher standard, especially one fighting to change both the media’s and corporations’ impressions about Latinx consumers.
I have applied this doctrine of “do better, be better” throughout my life, focusing on improving my own communities, be it through offering students a taste of food around the world with a college underground pop-up kitchen or planning a [Latinx event] as a conference chair. Last year gave me the chance to continue to work on being an inclusive leader in the Black/Latinx (B/LX) community as a ‘white-passing’ individual. Ultimately, however, these concerns were unimportant when given the opportunity to improve things now for the B/LX community. My new work projects helped me confront leaders I felt had not supported teams during the summer’s tragedies. I learned how feedback framed as suggestions could have powerful consequences. In fact, one of my managers actually came to me for advice on how to engage his peers in order to help his local community use pooled funds from [consulting group].
These experiences have helped me refine my long-term aspirations. Though I would still like to build on my mother’s legacy of a community-minded entrepreneur, I dream of founding my own venture capital fund. I want to alter the face of business by empowering young, diverse entrepreneurs who will bring novel approaches to lingering problems from past generations. Rather than improve my community only through projects supporting others’ priorities, I intend to be an active participant, building an incubator for entrepreneurs of color to eliminate barriers that maintain inequality such as urban food insecurity and underfunded education systems.
HBS will immerse me in the rapidly evolving entrepreneurial environment, helping me to understand process and practice creating ideas as both a founder and funder. On campus, I intend to be an active participant in HBS’ Anti-Racism goals, fighting to bring equity and inclusion with the same passion I have brought to my office and B/LX network. After graduating, I plan to continue engaging with HBS, either by working with student-run investment groups (like IVP’s Steve Harrick and the students behind the inclusion-focused Phoenix Fund) or working with professors to influence HBS’ future (like alumni Lulu Curiel and Eric Calderon, who helped develop a case study with Professor Alvarez to improve Latinx representation in MBA programs). Internalizing the case-method and the hands-on experiences acquired in my two years on-campus will embolden me to disrupt the status quo, both from the grassroots and executive levels.
What Made It Successful
So, what works well in this thoughtful, personal HBS application essay? Starting with the introduction, the anecdote that this writer starts their essay with grabs attention through the strict rigor that their mother required for them growing up.
Again, the key to the first few statements of an application essay lies in their ability to compel the reader to read on. An excellent introduction. will ensure reading your essay is a pleasure instead of a chore.
Further on in this essay example, the reader understands where the applicant's motivation for equality and fair representation stems from, and this theme persists throughout the piece. It’s through demonstrating strong points like these that the reader reaches a higher empathy for the writer, which never hurts when applying to Harvard Business School.
We also gain appreciation for the leadership skills of the writer due to their clear descriptions of past examples. Crucially, do not just hear how these examples played out, but what lessons the writer learned from them that they continue to apply.
Finally, the essay’s conclusion cites both short-term and long-term goals for the writer's schooling and career, and this section feels very specifically written for HBS.
Including references to Harvard Business School and its alumni, as done in this example, shows the admissions committee that your efforts in writing this essay are totally aimed at getting into HBS’s MBA, and that you’ve thought hard enough about the decision to do in-depth research.
Sample Essay #2
Our life experiences shape our skills, perspective and help define our paths. Reflecting on my personal and professional journey, I would like to share three lessons which have strongly shaped my journey and outlook.
My first lesson is about people. I feel fortunate to have understood the enormous potential in empathizing and collaborating with individuals to achieve community success, organizational targets and personal goals.
Perhaps due to my father’s frequent job transfers, I grew-up as a reticent, lone worker, shying away from forging long-lasting relationships. While excelling academically, I skipped participating in anything at school that required dependence on other people. It was only at my undergraduate institution, [University] that I really started building relationships with my hostel-mates and exploring the various opportunities [University] offered.
However, soon dark realities came to the forefront when a final-year student committed suicide while my close friend, [Name], got sucked into a vortex of depression due to his poor academic performance. Deeply shaken, I resolved to address mental-health issues on campus and joined the Institute Counseling Service, comprising student volunteers, faculty and professional counselors who sought to provide emotional and academic help to students.
Driven to make a difference, I led 240 student volunteers, strengthened our mentorship program to identify students in need of professional help and organized Orientation Programs. To dispel the stigma associated with mental-health and build trust, we increased the approachability of counsellors by initiating hostel visits and collaborated with NGOs to use theatre and generate awareness. I personally mentored students and it was heartwarming to create an environment in which people were able to discuss their personal issues freely with me. While I gained friends for life, I realized there is no greater happiness than witnessing one’s mentee overcome difficulties and be successful! Listening to varied personal experiences inculcated empathy and fostered ability to forge strong interpersonal connections.
This experience stayed with me during my professional journey with [Consumer Goods Company]. Just out of college, I had to navigate union strikes, reconcile socio-political contexts and motivate 600+ unskilled workers, several years my senior to transform the quality performance of an $800M factory in a small town. Leveraging interpersonal skills, I understood employee concerns and created an experiential training program. Listening to them, educating them, sharing success and owning failures together, I immersed myself in the workforce environment, instilling a culture of innovation and change. Our efforts reaped dividends as we eliminated all consumer complaints and achieved the best-ever performance in quality metrics, securing [Consumer Goods Company] market-share and launching 24 premium product variants. Thus, I learnt to drive organizational change by harnessing people’s potential.
My second life lesson is about values. I feel long-term success can only be achieved if one has the character to stand by one’s principles during testing times.
At age-5, I recall accompanying my mother to court hearings to witness a long-drawn trial involving my father. Overtime, I understood how my father had been slapped with a fake harassment case because he refused to accept a bribe for professional favors. Standing by his principles, he was later acquitted emerging as my inspiration and teaching me values of honesty and integrity.
After 17 years, these values were tested. Early-on in my role as Quality Manager of [Consumer Goods Company] plant, consumer complaints for a particular defect inflicted 10% market-share losses in [Big City]. On probing, I realized that we had overlooked an important data trend during manufacturing that could have averted the disaster. While corporate auditors were preparing a report attributing the occurrence of defect to chance, I presented the true picture, taking full responsibility. It was a difficult decision as our factory had already lost credibility prior to my joining. Our General Manager intervened to manage the crisis and while recognizing my ethics and courage, placed faith on my ability to redeem myself.
Motivated to prove myself, I worked incessantly with my team, ensuring that I drive systemic changes and build a culture of continuous improvement. Within one-year, we achieved benchmark performances, restoring faith in the unit/team. During our annual performance review, our unit was appreciated for data-integrity, reinforcing my belief in my value system.
The third lesson is about impact. I believe true success is achieved when people are guided by a desire to create sustainable impact and make a positive difference in society.
During a factory-visit, I engaged with our CEO, and advocated driving growth by monetizing [Consumer Goods Company] distribution network to service regional firms/startups. Intrigued, he inducted me into his office in the Trade Marketing and Distribution function in a strategic role, a move unheard for any non-MBA engineer. Initially, I engaged with product entrepreneurs to offer them [Consumer Goods Company] distribution for scaling-up. One case was [Company], a [City]-based startup that innovated on cost-effective sanitary napkins. We are helping them reach 60M consumers in [Country], a country where 75% women resort to unhygienic alternatives. Curious to understand their success, I engaged with the founder, [Name]. I realized [Name] was driven by a desire to positively impact the lives of rural women and this motivated him to innovate continuously.
Reflecting on this conversation, I identified how [Consumer Products Company] could play a larger role in adding to consumer-value and go beyond giving distribution access to CPG startups. If tech leaders such as Google, Microsoft could incubate technology startups, we needed to explore similar models in the CPG space. I formulated a strategic investor model to incubate and eventually acquire CPG startups, a first for an Indian CPG firm, and pitched it to senior leadership. They appreciated my vision of synergizing with startups, providing [Consumer Products Company] marketing expertise and product development insights to encourage product innovation, thereby creating an inorganic growth roadmap for [Consumer Products Company] vision of achieving $15B by 2030.
These lessons provide the foundation to succeed and define my professional ambitions. Going forward, I envision energizing the [Country] CPG startup ecosystem, stimulating innovation and strengthening symbiotic relationships with Corporations to deliver high social-impact products, creating sustainable value for 1.2B Indian consumers. While my experiences have created the primer, I see Harvard as the perfect catalyst to transform me into a change leader. Building on my life lessons, I can’t wait to engage with classmates who bring with them a wealth of global experiences and stories!
Sample Essay #3
I remember my hands trembling as I clenched the scissors, and my mother’s gorgeous locks fell to the ground − I was six years old. Compelled to quit her studies after marriage, my mother resumed her masters in [course] after ten stifling years. With my father’s solitary income going into tuition for my mother, sister and me, a proper haircut was a wasteful luxury. My parents shielded us from their struggles, but the gravity of our situation hit home as I cut my mother’s hair.
When my mother finally cleared her examinations, I expected things to change. Instead, she declined lucrative offers to join public-services, catering to marginalized populations through [country’s] public healthcare system. My parents unwavering desire to lead a life of meaning, fuelled my own. Over the course of my journey, I have carved my own path to making a difference – one of spreading my ideas and impact, beyond what I could accomplish alone. I would like to share how three transformative experiences, starting over a decade ago, have progressively shaped this lifelong approach.
At 13, I was devastated to see my sister’s tiny frame shake violently as she coughed from asthma. What affected me most was learning that we had all contributed to these respiratory problems, by making [city] the most polluted city in the world.
I refused to remain a silent spectator and started an environment club, [club], at school. Digging-up compost pits and conducting tree-plantation drives, our team explored every opportunity to make our premises greener. The efforts of our small 10-member team indicated to me the potential to spur larger change by motivating all 1500 students to step-up. Our idea to achieve this, by integrating environmental-awareness within our curriculum, was dismissed by the administration for lack of resources. Undeterred, I started writing applications to garner financial support, and within months, led our team to the first place in a national competition. The $15K we won infused both resources and enthusiasm to implement our eco-friendly curriculum.
Juggling my graduation-examinations and endless hours of organizing activities for the entire school, we grew [club] five-fold. Students stepped-up to expand our efforts, from transitioning our school to using solar energy to organizing large-scale zero-waste campaigns. ‘Exponential’ was no longer just a graph I studied, I could tangibly see my impact multiplying by mobilising individuals around me.
Eager to replicate our success beyond school, I initiated environmental workshops for children from urban-slums in [city].
“Boys don’t need to save money for dowry, do they not have to conserve environmental resources either?” asked 11-year old [name]. Half-way into my first workshop, my analogy of saving money to explain the concept of conserving environmental resources, had derailed my session-plan.
Having witnessed the consequences of gender-disparity in my own childhood I started my non-profit [non-profit], during college, to promote holistic life-skills education to uproot such evils. I was happiest spending weekends in community-centres and public-classrooms, with my team of student-volunteers, conducting activity-based workshops for hundreds of children. I vividly remember when, beaming with pride, [name] told me that she had saved enough money to buy her house. She not only grasped complex concepts of banking and savings, but acknowledged herself as a financially-independent female – albeit in a game of Monopoly!
By graduation, we grew to a 20-member team and reached 1,000+ children. However, once I moved to join Investment-Banking, our student-volunteer model disintegrated and fundraising for a full-time team seemed impossible. While struggling to sustain momentum, I saw a class-teacher enthusiastically taking initiative to support our program, during a workshop. Watching her, it struck me that scaling-up [non-profit] was not the only way to further impact.
"Over the course of my journey, I have carved my own path to making a difference – one of spreading my ideas and impact, beyond what I could accomplish alone."
Restructuring our workshops into a comprehensive curriculum, we showcased it to the state academic department. Winning their support, we trained 100 public-school teachers and principals to deliver the program. Within two years, these teachers extended our program to 10,000 children and even co-opted their colleagues. Their efforts reaffirmed my conviction that enabling change-agents at a systemic-level could accelerate impact at scale.
To steer my journey in this direction, I decided to quit my investment-banking job in [country] and return to [country]. Forgoing the financial comfort I was finally providing my family weighed on me, but I chose to follow my heart. I joined [foundation], a philanthropy focused on driving systemic change to tangibly impact India’s education landscape.
Innovative, low-cost teaching-aids developed by [company], my [foundation] portfolio-organisation, drastically improved learning for children in rural classrooms. However, their low-monetization potential generated minimal funder interest, threatening their existence. Their question, “How will we serve these children, when we can barely stay afloat?” echoed my own struggles at [non-profit].
Collaborating with the [state] government, I helped [company] reduce costs through subsidies and extend their program to 40,000 students. I was leading large-scale projects with public systems at [foundation], but I realized that empowering social-enterprises such as [company] to drive systemic change could create ripple-effects throughout the ecosystem.
My ten-year-old self wouldn't believe just how far I have come – my hands no longer shake when I take decisive actions, whose outcomes I cannot always predict.
Today, non-profit social-enterprises in India fail to reach their potential, owing to lack of financial and strategic support - the largest remains 1/100th the size of its global peers. So, I took on the mandate to launch an Accelerator within [non-profit], to ensure this support, even though this meant leaving my team and starting out alone. My path was uphill, given [non-profit’s] strategic shift towards working directly with governments − the initiative was peripheral for every decision, be it budget-allocations or team-building.
The eagerness of portfolio-organizations in leveraging every support opportunity kept me going. Months of co-creating monetization strategies and facilitating government meetings paid off, in one instance, enabling immense expansion for the portfolio-organization to reach 800,000 children. Such successes helped evangelize our potential and we are now raising an independent fund to support 30 entrepreneurs to help transform education for 5M children.
My ten-year-old self wouldn’t believe just how far I have come – my hands no longer shake when I take decisive actions, whose outcomes I cannot always predict. Striving to continually widen my impact has helped me progress from empowering school-students to supporting social-entrepreneurs, towards enabling an entire ecosystem of social change-makers.
Battling one constant challenge throughout, that of inadequate resources, has highlighted how social-finance could be the ‘driving-force’ towards my goal. Most importantly, I have learnt that beyond individual efforts, by spearheading thought-leadership and global alliances, I can mobilize the entire ecosystem, catalyzing robust social-investment markets in India.
My friend [name] described how assimilating diverse perspectives through the case-method at HBS helped him understand nuances of business across cultures, while the vibrant community provided access to global networks. HBS equipped him to launch and grow his company across eight emerging economies, through partnerships with local entrepreneurs. Similarly, I am convinced that the ideas, experiences and relationships built at HBS will help me realize my vision where every [club], [non-profit] and [company] can go on to create the change it aspires to.
Mistakes to Avoid in Your Harvard Business Essay
1. Show Don’t Tell
If you use your essay to outright explain what you’re trying to show the admissions committee about yourself, you run a much higher risk of losing readability and taking your application from an opportunity to a plea. Instead, demonstrate your takeaways, your best qualities, through your story and its examples.
The reader is far more likely to be compelled by the conclusions of your essay if they feel like they came to them themselves. By not explicitly explaining the point of your essay, you come across more sure in the topic you’ve chosen and its ability to reveal the point.
2. Avoid Lackluster Anecdotes
Your essay will be bolstered or weakened by the intrinsic quality of the experiences about which you write. Only include anecdotes that you’d be just as comfortable and confident about retelling to dinner guests or friends at a bar.
Obviously, the formality of those situations and the Harvard Business School MBA application differ starkly, but the gist of this statement is that if you’d feel awkward telling a story to your friends, it’d be hard to make it sound good for an unseen admissions committee reader.
If it’s a story you’ll enjoy writing about, it’ll stand a better chance of being enjoyable to read.
3. Don’t Narrate – Craft a Compelling Story
Ensure your topic flows seamlessly through relevant experiences and lessons. Establishing clear cause-and-effect relationships among different events not only maintains the reader's interest but also justifies each inclusion in your essay. While coherence is essential, be cautious not to force connections between unrelated experiences or anecdotes; instead, strive for a well-integrated narrative with a cohesive beginning-to-end structure."
4. Don’t Do This Yourself
Utilize guides and blog posts about the undertaking of applying to an MBA program, getting as specific to Harvard Business School as you can.
Reviewing a concise guide about applying to Harvard Business School can be the best way to ensure that your application is sound, not just for any MBA program, but for Harvard Business School’s MBA.
Many resources, like Final Application Reviews, will focus heavily on your essay, but will also provide insight on every aspect of your application so you feel best about your attempt.
If you still have questions about the HBS essay, check out these frequently asked questions.
1. How Can I Best Edit My Essay?
To best edit your essay, focus on refining syntax, word choice, and common mistakes in MBA application essays. Research prevalent errors, specifically addressing them to catch the admissions committee's attention. Utilize tools like Grammarly for a comprehensive review, increasing the likelihood of submitting an error-free essay.
2. How Long Should My Essay Be If There's No Word Limit?
In the absence of a specified word limit, aim for conciseness while conveying your message effectively. Generally, one to three pages or around 500-1000 words is a reasonable guideline, allowing you to present a comprehensive narrative without unnecessary information.
3. Is the Essay Portion Different If I’m Reapplying?
No, if you're reapplying to Harvard Business School, the essay portion remains the same as for first-time applicants. There is no distinct essay prompt for reapplicants.
4. Can I Use the Same Essay If I’m Reapplying?
HBS does not explicitly prohibit this, but, intuitively, it’s probably a better idea to write a new essay. You would have no way of knowing that your essay and the topic you chose played no role in your initial rejection.
5. Are There Bad Topics to Write About?
Yes, some topics are best avoided in your essay. Steer clear of overly controversial or sensitive subjects and refrain from solely highlighting academic or professional achievements unless they contribute to a broader, more personal theme.
Also, avoid repeating stories already addressed in recommendation letters to provide the admissions committee with new insights. Choose an original and unique topic that reflects your character, emphasizing its personal significance.
If you struggle to justify your topic's importance, consider opting for a more compelling subject for your essay.
6. Can I Over-Edit My Essay?
Excessive editing can make your writing sound stiff and fragmented. The concept of "over-editing" suggests a misuse of time better spent on other tasks. It's challenging to determine the perfect editing point, but if changes result in minimal, unclear differences, you may be over-editing.
Recognizing this, it's advisable to ease back on editing efforts, especially if changes are made simply because they come to mind.
Harvard Business School's MBA program is highly competitive, and the HBS essay is your chance to stand out. Choose a topic that excites you and reveals your unique experiences. Use organizational resources and time management for effective essay development.
Simplify the process with outlined steps, ensuring authenticity and enthusiasm. Maintain confidence in your chosen topic and writing style for a more assured essay. This is an opportunity to showcase why you're applying to Harvard Business School, so approach it with confidence and purpose.
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May 18, 2023
Harvard Business School Essay Analysis, 2023–2024
Applicants to Harvard Business School (HBS) have incredible leeway in their essay (with respect to both topic and length) to write about whatever they believe is most important for the admissions committee to know about them, beyond what is conveyed via the other elements of their application. Given that the program’s prompt has not changed in years , we assume that the program’s admissions committee must feel confident that this approach and question are effective at eliciting the kind of information they find valuable when evaluating candidates. Our analysis of the prompt and advice on the best way to approach it likewise remain largely unchanged. If you would like even more targeted guidance on approaching and writing your HBS essay, along with annotated essays from actual past applicants, check out our book “What Matters?” and “What More?”: 50 Successful Essays for the Stanford GSB and HBS (and Why They Worked) .
“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?” (900-word limit)
Take special note of the word “more” in this straightforward question. With it, the admissions committee is acknowledging that it already has a lot of information about you that it can and will use to get to know you better, including your resume, extracurricular activities, recommendations, short-answer question responses, academic transcripts, and test scores. You should therefore approach this essay by first thinking about what these portions of your application convey about who you are as an individual and candidate, so you can determine which parts of your profile still need presenting or could benefit from more detail. Now, some applicants might think this means they absolutely cannot mention anything that is included elsewhere in their application, for fear that this will annoy the admissions committee, leading to a rejection. However, HBS is not asking only for fresh information—it is asking for more , and specifically, whatever “more” you believe the committee needs to evaluate you thoroughly and fairly. So, even though a bullet on your resume might inform the school of a certain fact, if a profoundly important story lurks behind that fact that you feel effectively expresses a key part of your personality or skill set, you should not feel hesitant to share that story. That said, we are not advocating for you to explore your resume in depth, just trying to convey that “more” here does not mean strictly “thus far unmentioned.”
Before we discuss a few approaches you might take in framing this essay, we must note that your goal in writing it is sincerity . The admissions committee is not staffed by robots, seeking to detect a certain “type” of applicant. These are human beings who are trying to get to know you and really want to end up liking you! With this essay, you essentially want to forge a meaningful connection with a complete stranger, and if you try to present yourself as something or someone you are not, you will fail.
You, like many other applicants, might worry that your sincere stories will sound clichéd. For example, if you want to write about making a difference, you probably cringe simply thinking those words: “making a difference.” But the power of your story does not lie in the theme you choose (if you choose to write thematically, that is) but in the manner in which you reveal your actions. If you have truly made a significant difference in the lives of others and can own that angle by offering powerful anecdotes and demonstrating a deep emotional connection to others and profound purpose in your acts, you can write on this topic. Although more than a few candidates will undoubtedly submit clichéd pieces on making a difference, if you can capture your admissions reader’s attention fully and make a strong enough impression, the cliché aspect will disappear, and they will be impressed by your actions and character.
So, what approach might you take to this essay? The prompt is so open-ended that we cannot possibly capture all possible options, but here are a few:
- Thematic approach: You could write about a characteristic or attribute that has woven its way throughout your life or that you have incorporated into your life. Do some self-exploration and see if you can identify a thread that is common to your greatest achievements, thereby illustrating its importance in bringing you to where you are today. Simply stating that theme is not enough, though—you need to really guide your reader through the illustrative events in your life to show how and why this theme manifests. In the end, your values are what need to come to the fore in this essay, rather than just a series of discrete episodes. (Note that highlighting your values is necessary with any approach you take to your HBS essay.)
- Inflection points : Maybe the key events and aspects of your life cannot be neatly captured or categorized within a neat and tidy theme. People are complex, meaning that many are not able to identify a singular “force” that unifies their life experience. If this is you, do not worry—instead, consider discussing a few inflection points that were instrumental in shaping the individual you are today. This does not mean writing a very linear biography or regurgitating your resume in detail. The admissions committee does not need or want such a summary and is instead interested in your ability to reflect on the catalysts in and challenges to your world view and the manifestations thereof. Likewise, you do not need to offer a family history or an overarching explanation of your existence. Simply start with the first significant incident that shaped who you are as an adult, and again, ensure that your essay ultimately reveals your values.
- Singular anecdote : Although this is rare, you might have had a single standout experience that could serve as a microcosm of who you are and what you stand for. If this experience or moment truly defines you and strikes at the essence of your being, you can discuss it and it alone. Do not worry that offering just one anecdote will make your essay seem “skimpy” or present you as one-dimensional, as long as the story has inherent strength and power. You will need to delve into the narrative and let the story tell itself; if you are choosing to write a singular anecdote, the story should be sufficiently compelling on its own, without a lot of explanation.
- Mosaic approach: As complex humans, we are not driven by just one value, but by several. The mosaic approach allows you to connect seemingly unrelated stories that reveal different sides of you. The challenge with this approach is that you must be thoughtful about how you link everything; otherwise, your essay might easily read like a random assortment of examples, leaving the admissions reader scratching their head and wondering what they were supposed to learn from it. For this approach to work well, the transitions between the themes need to be smooth and natural.
You might have read through these four options and thought, “What about a fifth option, in which I discuss my goals and why HBS? Certainly they want to know about that!” HBS admissions officers are straight shooters—if they wanted candidates to write about their goals and why HBS, or wanted them not to, the prompt would come right out and say so. The reality is that most people should not use this essay to discuss their career ambitions and interest in HBS, because doing so will not reveal that much “more” about them. For example, if you are a consultant who plans to return to consulting after graduation, we cannot imagine a scenario in which discussing your goals and why you need an HBS MBA would constitute an effective use of this essay. However, if you are a medic at a bush hospital in Uganda and are applying to HBS with the goal of commercializing low-cost technologies to fight infectious diseases, this might well be a fitting topic for your essay, as you seek to connect the dots between your unusual (in a positive sense) career path and your aspirations. In short, for most candidates, we would suggest eschewing a “Why MBA? Why HBS?” approach, but in a few rare cases, it could be appropriate and compelling.
Finally, let us talk about the word limit. Before HBS elected to stipulate any such parameter, most of our clients used between 850 and 1,000 words, so the 900-word restriction should not prevent anyone from sharing their full story with the admissions committee. In short, take the space you need to tell your story properly and showcase your personality and experience, and then work to reduce your essay to fit the allowed word count in a way that does not sacrifice any impact or effectiveness.
Have the Last Word: The Post-Interview Reflection (conditional on being interviewed)
HBS asks candidates who are granted an interview to complete one additional written task. Within 24 hours of interviewing, you must submit some final words of reflection in response to the following prompt: “What was the highlight of your interview and why did this resonate with you? Is there anything else you would like to share now that you’ve had time to reflect on your interview?” HBS urges interviewed applicants not to approach this task with the intent to produce a “formal” essay but instead one that is “informal, unrehearsed, and in your own words.” The length of the essay should be roughly 300 to 450 words.
Some candidates might find this additional submission intimidating, but we encourage you to view it as an opportunity to reveal more of your personality and values to the admissions committee, and possibly even a new aspect of your profile. Be genuine in your response and share what you learned, heard, or discussed in your interview that made the biggest impact on you and further heightened your enthusiasm about attending the school. The moment or topic that had the most pronounced effect on you will give the admissions committee further insight into your character and motivations (this is a good thing, not something to fear!). The more the school can see you as a dynamic individual, the better, so do not try to formulate what you think the “right” answer must be and instead share your authentic thoughts and feelings.
The latter part of the prompt invites you to include new information as well, if this is appropriate. Perhaps something you discussed with your interviewer later triggered a thought, observation, or memory of an event or accomplishment that you think would be interesting to the admissions committee and additive to your candidacy. If so, this is your chance to convey that additional input or story. Be careful not to just tack on something new for the pure sake of doing so—it should relate clearly to some aspect of the conversation you had. If your interviewer touched on a similar or related story or subject in your meeting, that would open the door for you to introduce the new content or anecdote.
As soon as your interview is over, jot down all the topics covered and stories you discussed. If you interview on campus, note also any observations about your time there. For example, sitting in on a class might have reminded you of a compelling past experience, or participating in the case method might have provided insight into an approach you could use in some way in the future. Maybe the people you met or a building you saw made a meaningful impression on you. Whatever these elements are, tie them to aspects of your profile while adding some new thoughts and information about yourself. This last part is key—simply describing your visit will not teach the admissions committee anything about you , and a flat statement like “I loved the case method” will not make you stand out. Similarly, offering a summary of everything the admissions committee already knows about you will not advance your candidacy and would constitute a lost opportunity to keep the committee learning about who you are.
HBS has offered some additional advice on the post-interview reflection that we strongly urge you to take seriously and follow:
- We will be much more generous in our reaction to typos and grammatical errors than we will be with pre-packaged responses. Reflections that give any indication that they were produced before you had the interview will raise a flag for us.
- We do not expect you to solicit or receive any outside assistance with this exercise.
For a thorough exploration of HBS’s academic offerings, defining characteristics, crucial statistics, social life, community/environment, and other key facets of the program, please download your free copy of the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to Harvard Business School .
The Next Step—Mastering Your HBS Interview
Many MBA candidates find admissions interviews stressful and intimidating, but mastering this important element of the application process is definitely possible—the key is informed preparation. Download your complimentary copy of the Harvard Business School Interview Guide today, and be sure to also check out our tailored HBS Mock Interview and Post-Interview Reflection Support .
Please use this space to share with the admissions committee how you have reflected and grown since your previous application and discuss any relevant updates to your candidacy (e.g., changes in your professional life, additional coursework, and extracurricular/volunteer engagements). (250 words).
Thankfully, this essay is pretty straightforward. Whether you have improved your academic record, received a promotion, begun a new and exciting project, increased your community involvement, or taken on some sort of personal challenge, the key to success with this essay is conveying a very deliberate path of achievement. HBS wants to know that you have been actively striving to improve yourself and your profile, and that you have seized opportunities during the time since you last applied to do so, because a Harvard MBA is vital to you. The responses to this essay question will vary greatly from one candidate to the next, because each person’s needs and experiences differ. We are more than happy to provide one-on-one assistance with this highly personal essay to ensure that your efforts are presented in the best light possible.
2023-2024 Business School Harvard University (Harvard Business School) MBA Essay Tips
Tags: business school essay Harvard Business School MBA application essays
- Feb 27, 2024 Choosing the Right B-School (Online)
- Mar 26, 2024 Your 2024 MBA Application Action Plan (Online)
- Feb 22, 2024 Duke Fuqua (Round 3)
- Feb 25, 2024 Ohio Fisher (Round 3)
- Feb 27, 2024 Vanderbilt Owen (Round 3)
- Mar 1, 2024 USC Marshall (Round 3)
- Mar 4, 2024 Carnegie Mellon Tepper (Round 3)
- Mar 4, 2024 Toronto Rotman (Round 3)
- Mar 5, 2024 INSEAD (Round 4)
- Mar 11, 2024 Cambridge Judge (Round 4)
- Mar 14, 2024 UW Foster (Round 3)
- Mar 19, 2024 Notre Dame Mendoza (Round 3)
- Mar 20, 2024 Emory Goizueta (Round 3)
- Mar 20, 2024 Oxford Saïd (Round 3)
- Mar 21, 2024 IESE (Round 3)
- Mar 25, 2024 Dartmouth Tuck (Round 3)
- Mar 25, 2024 London Business School (Round 3)
- Mar 26, 2024 Texas McCombs (Round 3)
- Mar 26, 2024 Vanderbilt Owen (Round 4)
- Mar 28, 2024 Berkeley Haas (Round 4)
Click here to see the complete deadlines
2023–2024 MBA Essay Tips
- Berkeley Haas School of Business Essay Tips and Examples
- BU Questrom School of Business Essay Tips and Examples
- Cambridge Judge Business School Essay Tips and Examples
- Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business Essay Tips and Examples
- Chicago Booth School of Business Essay Tips and Examples
- Columbia Business School Essay Tips and Examples
- Cornell Johnson Graduate School of Management Essay and Examples
- Dartmouth Tuck School of Business Essay Tips and Examples
- Duke Fuqua School of Business Essay Tips and Examples
- Emory Goizueta Business School Essay Tips and Examples
- Esade Essay Tips and Examples
- Georgetown McDonough School of Business Essay Tips and Examples
- Harvard Business School 2+2 Deferred MBA Program Essay Analysis 2024
- HEC Paris Essay Tips and Examples
- HKUST Business School Essay Tips and Examples
- IE Business School Essay Tips and Examples
- IESE Business School Essay Tips and Examples
- INSEAD Essay Tips and Examples
- International Institute for Management Development (IMD) Essay Tips and Examples
- Ivey Business School Essay Tips and Examples
- London Business School Essay Tips and Examples
- Michigan Ross School of Business Essay Tips and Examples
- MIT Sloan School of Management Essay Tips and Examples
- Northwestern Kellogg School of Management Essay Tips and Examples
- Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business Essay Tips and Examples
- NYU Stern School of Business Essay Tips and Examples
- Ohio Fisher College of Business Essay Tips and Examples
- Oxford Saïd Business School Essay Tips and Examples
- SMU Cox School of Business Essay Tips and Examples
- Stanford Graduate School of Business Application Essay Tips and Examples
- Texas McCombs School of Business Essay Tips and Examples
- The Consortium for Graduate Study in Management Essay Tips and Examples
- The Wharton School Essay Tips and Examples
- Toronto Rotman School of Management Essay Tips and Examples
- UCLA Anderson School of Management Essay Tips and Examples
- UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School Essay Tips and Examples
- USC Marshall School of Business Essay Tips and Examples
- UVA Darden School of Business Essay Tips and Examples
- UW Foster School of Business Essay Tips and Examples
- Vanderbilt University Owen Graduate School of Management Essay Analysis, 2023–2024
- Villanova School of Business Essay Tips and Examples
- Yale School of Management Essay Tips and Examples
Click here for the 2022–2023 MBA Essay Tips
MBA Program Updates
- Boston University (Questrom)
- Cambridge Judge Business School
- Carnegie Mellon University (Tepper)
- Columbia University (Columbia Business School)
- Consortium for Graduate Study in Management
- Cornell University (Johnson)
- Dartmouth College (Tuck)
- Duke University (Fuqua)
- Emory University (Goizueta)
- George Washington University (GWSB)
- Georgetown University (McDonough)
- Harvard University (Harvard Business School)
- IE Business School
- IESE Business School
- Indian School of Business
- Indiana University (Kelley)
- Ivey Business School
- London Business School
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Sloan)
- New York University (Stern)
- Northwestern University (Kellogg)
- Notre Dame (Mendoza)
- Ohio State University (Fisher College)
- Oxford University (Saïd Business School)
- Penn State Smeal College of Business
- Rotman School of Management
- Saïd Business School
- Southern Methodist University (Cox School of Business)
- Stanford University (Stanford Graduate School of Business)
- University of California Los Angeles (Anderson)
- University of Cambridge (Judge)
- University of Chicago (Booth)
- University of London (London Business School)
- University of Michigan (Ross)
- University of North Carolina (Kenan-Flagler)
- University of Pennsylvania (Wharton)
- University of Southern California (Marshall)
- University of Texas at Austin (McCombs)
- University of Virginia (Darden)
- Vanderbilt University (Owen)
- Villanova School of Business
- Yale University (School of Management)
How to Write the Harvard HBS MBA Admissions Essay – Tips for 2022-2023
- May 10, 2022
7 Steps to Answer the Harvard MBA, HBS 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?”
When you’re putting together a successful HBS essay, the most valuable thing you can do is tell an Epic Story . Before I get into what that means, let’s clear one thing up: There is no set formula for writing the Harvard essay. There’s no “right” way to do it, no “right” thing to say. But, take it from me, an Epic Life Story is the best thing you could possibly have in your application toolkit.
Table of Contents
Find out how to ace Harvard’s admission essay in 2022
So what is an Epic Story?
An Epic Story is a narrative that takes the reader — any reader, adcom members included!— on a journey through a series of key events .Epic Stories situate the reader in space and time and establish a crucial emotional connection between writer (you!) and reader. Emotional connection is king when it comes to MBA applications. It’s how you stand out from the pack. And that wide-open Harvard MBA Essay is the perfect platform for doing this work.
What if I don’t have an Epic Story?
If you’re afraid you don’t have what it takes to tell an Epic Story, let me let you in on a little secret: You do . It’s not about having the most page-turning life events under your belt—you don’t need to have cured cancer or sailed solo around the world, although that would be totally awesome if you did!—it’s about being human and sharing that essential, inspiring, loveable humanness with your reader in the most effective way possible.
Each of us has an Epic Story to tell. Promise. You just have to dig deep and tap into it. So before you protest that your life (or your writing skills) just don’t fit the bill for this kind of thing, take a look at the foolproof steps I’ve put together below for how to tell an Epic Story and write your Best Harvard MBA Essay !
1. Take a closer look at that HBS Essay Question; it’s not as open ended as you think!
Let’s take a closer look at that question. Here’s the Harvard Business School essay prompt, straight from the horse’s mouth: “ 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? ” And here are the essay tips HBS gives: “ There is no word limit for this question. We think you know what guidance we’re going to give here. Don’t overthink, overcraft and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don’t know your world can understand .”
Before we get into the how-to of all this, it’s worth pausing for a minute to pick those last two statements apart. Harvard asks you not to overthink, overcraft, or overwrite . They’re really driving at something here. They want YOU to remain in your essay—your essence, who you are at the core. They want a real person to come through the page, not some hollowed out, cookie-cutter façade designed to meet some assumption about who they want you to be.
Okay, that was a mouthful. But what I’m saying—and what Harvard is saying—is simple: be you . Don’t obscure (or write over ) who you really are by trying to fit some imaginary mold or by writing what you *think* “they” want to hear. As the HBS admissions director warns in their App Tips Series , “Be careful in all that polishing that you don’t ‘shine away’ your personality.”
Lest you forget, the adcom is made up of humans . And all humans want the opportunity to connect with and contribute to other humans. So give them that chance with your essay.
So what is Harvard really looking for?
“ What more would you like us to know?”
It’s a wide open question—and that’s part of what makes it so intimidating, as John Byrne, editor-in-chief of Poets & Quants, points out in a helpful piece written earlier this year—but Harvard does give you two key pieces of information about what they’re looking for in the essay instructions: clear language, and a ticket into your world . They want to know more about who you are based on where you’ve been (literally and figuratively speaking). The background, life experiences, and human encounters that shaped you.
“What more ” is the other key part of this equation. As the Harvard App Tips highlight, this essay should NOT be a rehashing of your resume. The adcom will be bored to tears if you give them your resume (again) in paragraph form.
Instead, your Harvard Essay should be a supplement: think of it as one key building block in the larger structure of your application. It builds on the rest, fits in with the rest, but it adds something completely new. Even more than that, it should create a world that is all your own for the reader to step into. (More on how to do that momentarily.)
With an essay question that leaves so much in your court, Harvard is really looking for evidence of self-knowledge . They want to know that you’ve done the deep introspection necessary to communicate what drives you and what you, as a one-of-a-kind human being, will contribute to their incoming class. They also want to see that you resonate with their values and their mission —that you can demonstrate a habit of leadership , among other qualities.
If you aren’t familiar with Harvard’s mission, here it is : “The mission of Harvard Business School is to educate leaders who make a difference in the world.” This is a really concrete mission that they have. They're not out to teach business; they're not out to help people make more money. They're out to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. And if you're talking to a leader, the most important question you can ask that person is, “What do you want me to know about you?” With this question, you're given free license to say whatever is meaningful, interesting, and important to you about yourself.
Soooo before you start getting too caught up in what they might “want” to hear from you (keep resisting that urge!), let’s talk about the most vital step in the entire application process: self-discovery .
2. Use Self-Reflection to ensure that your HBS Essay is unique
Step 1 in our magical essay process at Career Protocol is always self-discovery.
Self-discovery is a really underrated process. Seriously. Sooo SO underrated. As we’ve learned in over 30 years of collective admissions experience, the very best MBA applications are built on foundations of deep self-awareness, self-compassion, and clarity. Our Discovery Process is the tried-and-true, totally irreplaceable first step to essay-writing MAGIC. (I can’t get enough of it. Can you tell?)
So what should you write about for your Harvard essay?
Glad you asked! You’re gonna love the answer: It depends.
On what? On what you find out about yourself during the vital process of self-discovery. This is your starting point. There are no shortcuts to self-knowledge, and no successful Harvard Application Essay will come to fruition until you’ve taken a good hard look at yourself, your life, your accomplishments, and—most importantly—how you define all of the above.
One of the most valuable things the Discovery Process will teach you is that, as a candidate for admission, you are more than your GPA. You are more than your professional record. You are far more than any one component of your application, and Harvard’s adcom—like any other group of humans—wants to see the whole picture . The essay is where this all comes together.
There are 5 key areas of inquiry that you should dig into when you’re preparing to write the Harvard Essay (or any essay for a school of your choice).
1. Your Back Story
If you had to sum up your life story in a couple of paragraphs (or even pages), what would you choose to write down? What would you tell others, if you had to give a succinct “back story” for who you are? What snippets of information would make the cut? Which life experiences? As you explore your back story, you might also think about the people in your life who have had the greatest influence on you. Consider your hobbies and what makes you tick—even if it’s something you used to love to do, but haven’t found the time for lately. Write it all out.
2. Your Academic Achievements
I like to think in terms of achievements during the self-discovery process, because—as you’ll discover if you undertake this work—everyone defines achievement differently. We each have our own yardstick for measuring accomplishment. (Some of us find it painfully difficult to call anything at all an achievement.) What you deem an achievement is telling, and thinking in this way encourages you to drill down to what really matters (and has mattered) to you. So, first, consider what your top academic achievements would be.
3. Your Community and Extracurricular Achievements
Same thing here, only with community work and extracurricular involvement. What have you accomplished outside of school and work that really meant something to you?
4. Your Professional Achievements
You know the drill by now. If you had to list your top professional achievements, what would they be?
5. Your Personal Achievements
Last, but certainly not to be underestimated, what are your top personal achievements? What are some of the moments in your life that really stay with you—those poignant human-to-human experiences, the times when you were able to make a contribution, pure and simple, to another person (or group of people)?
If you want a sense of how all that discovery rolled up into successful essays for our clients, here is a smattering of general topics and big picture summaries of successful MBA essays:
- A few days in the life
- Career story twists and turns
- Difficult relationship with a parent
- Journey into entrepreneurship
- Journey to master confidence
- Lessons from observing managers
- Lessons learned through an important hobby
- Life story told through difficult decisions
- People who influenced me
- Perspectives on success and leadership in career to date
- Problem solving
- Rags to riches through failure, leadership style
- Sports and career
- Struggle to be a woman in male-dominated field
- Struggles to live up to values and culture
- Travel and passion for understanding others
The thing to notice is that there really isn’t anything special about any of these topics. You, too, could probably write an essay about a number of them. What made these essays unique wasn’t the executive summary of the story, it was the depth of character they revealed in the telling. Depth of character flows from values.
Homing in on your Values
By the time you’re done listing and evaluating your personal achievements, you’ll have built up some muscle for defining what matters to you at a fundamental level: what your intrinsic values are.
Values are the basis of a person's principles or standards of behavior—their judgment of what is important in life. These are the things you would never change about yourself, because if you did, you would no longer be recognizable to yourself as you. Without them, you’d be some other person. Any great Life Story Essay should encapsulate and reflect these intrinsic values, even if they’re never overtly mentioned, and that’s part of what makes any essay founded on self-discovery unique .
One great piece of advice from a Harvard alum is to ask yourself, after you’ve drafted the essay, “Could this essay also describe someone else?” If you’ve done the hard but rewarding work of self-discovery, the answer will be: No .
In an essay like Harvard’s, you are the hero of your own story. If you use the steps above to home in on your values, you will significantly deepen your awareness about the specific kind of hero you are. We want to get clearer and clearer about what kind of hero you are, because that's where your uniqueness lies.
Finding your Voice
The final aspect of essay-writing that self-reflection will help you tap into is your voice .
Your voice is critically important to your success in your MBA applications. It sets you apart, instantly and continually, from any other writer. Even if another applicant narrated the exact same experiences, it wouldn’t come out sounding the same. (Because they wouldn’t have your voice .)
So how do you find it? What defines it? It's really choice. When I help clients find their voice, what I’m really doing is helping them identify the key choices that produced their life as they know it and developed them into the people that they are.
Character is the combination of values and choices.
As I hope I’ve driven home by this point, values are an important part of the equation. But they're not the whole story. We become who we are by virtue of our choices . Sometimes those choices result in (or include) failure, whether it’s failing to live up to your values or failing in some other way because you adhered to those values. Keep in mind that these brushes with failure are a very important part of your story . They reveal your humility and your vulnerability.
Talking about success without revealing the human part of it—your failures, fears, and setbacks— will not inspire someone . It might read like an interesting set of facts, but the reader isn’t really going to understand, or respect, or feel connected to you. In order to be inspired, they need to see your humanity .
As you wrap up the self-discovery process and start planning your essay, ask yourself: What are some of the most important choices that I've made so far? And why did I make them? How did I make them? And what were the consequences? Where did they lead me? These kinds of questions will help you clarify your values and decide which life stories you want to include.
3. Create an Essay Outline
If you ever learned how to write college essay outlines, you may know a thing or two about the general outlining process. (Get some tips from the experts here and here .)
We’re not sticklers when it comes to the kind of outline you should make for your Harvard Essay—or any essay. It could be anything from a paragraph-by-paragraph or point-by-point game plan for your essay to a sketch of the general flow. (I prefer the latter, but if detailed outlines are your jam, have at it!!)
For me, the outlining process is a means to an end: a way to determine what’s in and what’s out, structure your thinking, and get that scary ole writing process kicked off!
However you choose to do it, don’t spend a lot of time trying to perfect the outline . Personal essay writing is an iterative process: You are learning the story as you tell it, and it's impossible to figure it all out before you sit down to write it. Use the outlining stage (even if you never actually create an outline!) as a space for answering this vital question: What will you include?
What’s In and What’s Out ?
As you probably know, Harvard has three criteria that they're looking for in every applicant:
- engaged community citizenship
- a habit of leadership
- and analytical aptitude and appetite.
(This is in their stated evaluation criteria .) Most applicants will show analytical aptitude and appetite through grades and scores, possibly in work experience and recommendations, and very definitely in some ways through the resume.
Likewise with a habit of leadership. If you're doing your resume right (check out our bomb crash course in MBA resumes ), it should show all the ways in which you've been a leader so far in your community and in your career. And your recommendations should further corroborate that, because your recommenders *should* be speaking to your leadership qualities. (More on our coaching for recommenders here , ‘cause that’s a whole other story.)
So for most people, the essays include an element of engaged community citizenship. This one is the hardest to quantify, and it's the hardest to turn into a resume bullet. One of the things that most of our successful HBS client essays have in common is that they are covering—in some way—the candidate’s penchant for being an engaged citizen of the communities that they've been a part of.
But—I can’t stress this enough—your resume is going to do the heavy lifting in conveying your accomplishments. The essay really isn't about how great you are, or how accomplished you are, or what you've achieved in your life. It's about the intangibles. It's about your values and your character. To put it one more way: it’s essentially about what you stand for.
Leaders of Consequence
Harvard wants to admit and shape Leaders of Consequence . But what does it mean to be a Leader of Consequence? First of all, it doesn’t mean that you’ve checked off a certain set of accomplishments. Rather, it’s a very powerful way of being .
- Leaders of Consequence are empathetic, so they have the ability to connect with other people.
- They're inspiring people, but they're also very human. They exude a sense of humility and vulnerability.
- They have a vision. To be a leader, you're going to have to have some kind of vision.
Schools are also looking for these qualities in the application. And the HBS Essay is the ideal place to exhibit them. This doesn't mean you won't talk about success and accomplishments in the essay, it just means that that's not really the point. The point of the Harvard MBA Essay is to reveal these softer and less tangible qualities about you, your values, and your character.
It’s a platform for sharing your authentic self. Sharing is the key word here: It's not about talking about or telling them who you are. Instead, it's about sharing your experiences, values, beliefs, thought processes and strategies, feelings, desires, hopes, and fears through some of the strategies I’ll discuss below. These are all the things that make you human.
What about my goals?
One of the most common questions I get from clients is whether the HBS Essay should include your goals. The quick answer ? Probably not. In our experience, for only one in about 9 or 10 MBA applicants is career vision an essential part of their Epic Story. For these people, fully sharing who they are and how they want to be known for the purposes of admission requires a discussion of the future. For everyone else, your goals belong squarely in the 500-character short answer box about goals.
Building a Narrative (Or, as we like to call it, Storyboarding )
Alright, now the next step in the process is storyboarding . You’ll take all of the material, all of the amazing things about your life that you identified in the Discovery stage, and boil it down into the few components that you're going to put together to answer this question.
The big thing you have to keep in mind when you're approaching the Harvard question, and really any essay question, is that you need to answer the question directly . Harvard is asking, “what more would you like us to know?” So you're going to have to tell them, “here's what I'd like you to know.” You don't have to have that sentence in there , but it is effectively the question that you're answering. So start from that place.
The Discovery Process will also help unearth the building blocks of your HBS Essay: key stories . In order to tell an Epic Story, you need to determine the pivotal anecdotes it’s comprised of. If your Epic Life Story is a constellation, think of your key stories as the individual star points.
Pro Tip: Imagine your Epic Life Story as a biopic.
I prefer to think about the Epic Life Story Essay in cinematic terms. From this perspective, it’s essentially a biopic : it’s a movie about your life so far. (You know, like that one about Mike Tyson that’s coming out?) So instead of using a traditional outlining framework—point one; subpoint A, B, C; point two; and so on—we’ll map your Life Story and your narrative in terms of scenes. At Career Protocol, we treat your essay like we would a screenplay.
In my experience, this leads to a much more dynamic version of your story. It also gives you more breathing room for the creative process than a tightly structured outline. So as you plan your Harvard essay, try thinking about it in these terms: What comes first in the movie? And then, what comes next? And what comes after that?
Oh, and make sure you nail that opening line.
TL;DR (A Step-by-Step Cheat Sheet for Our Storyboarding Process)
- Choose the core value that you want the Harvard adcom to know about you. You can choose at most two to focus on. (Typically one is enough. You don't need to boil the ocean on the values front.)
- Determine the three or four most important scenes in the film of your life related to this value. Think about which life choices were most revealing of your character and/or which experiences most shaped you and forced you to change. These are the key anecdotes (a.k.a. key stories).
- Decide what other scenes or details from your life are going to help fill in the rest of your film.
- Get writing! See what your story says, and then refine it around your values so that it reflects what you want the adcom to know about you to the greatest possible extent.
4. Decide how to start your essay (Note: That first line is crucial.)
Sitting down to write the first words of an essay can be an intimidating moment. Maybe you love that fresh start, that blank page staring back at you, but more likely you dread it. Never fear! I’m about to give you some great advice for tackling that first line and starting your writing process off on the right foot. (Er, finger?)
You want to be in the mindset of upliftment and inspiration before you sit down to write. That will ensure that what comes out will actually resonate with your best self and not, you know, the you who woke up on the wrong side of the bed and didn't drink your coffee.
So be sure that you're caffeinated if you drink caffeine. Be sure that you ate and slept well. Be inspired, and then sit down and see what comes out. For more great advice on how to write your Best MBA Essay—including how to get inspired!—check out our new article, Pro Tips: How to Write a Great MBA Essay. (The long and short of it is: Pixar movies .)
What should a first line look like?
Here are some first lines from actual winning Harvard essays:
Here are some examples. Some of these are from our clients, others are from The Harbus MBA Essay Guide (Summer 2020 Edition or the 2016-2017 Edition):
“On March 1st, 1995 my family boarded a plane at [INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT] with our entire lives packed into a few suitcases.”
“An early influence on my worldview was my father.”
“I never got along with my father.”
“As a six foot tall sixth grade girl, you really only have two choices: (1) stand up and be proud of your height or (2) slink off awkwardly and hide.”
“While my application materials have highlighted some of my proudest professional achievements, I want you to also know about the influence my parents have had on my life, my values, and the direction of my career.”
“I am defined by my appreciation for beauty.”
“I have cried exactly four times at work.”
“A wise woman once told me that I have had an extraordinary number of failures for someone my age. I’d never thought about it that way before, but she’s got a good point.”
“It’s summertime, I’m 11, and the cool things to do are ride around town on bikes, eat ice cream, and play tennis.”
“The proudest moment of my lacrosse career is also my most embarrassing one.”
“I didn’t do well in school as a kid.”
“‘What should I do about praying at work?' [Name] asked me, concern emanating from her voice.”
“I had a near-death accident in September last year that knocked me out and ended me up in a hospital with a brain haemorrhage, a broken shoulder and a fractured ankle.”
“My mother fully believed in being ahead of the curve at all times.”
What you'll notice about these opening lines is that they're very workmanlike. They're direct. They get right into the story—say what happened, what was happening, sum it up, hop to it.
Each one of these is also interesting . It grabs you. It makes you want to keep going. And that's because each of these first lines uses the rules of narrative to bring you into the story. One of the most important rules to remember is that stories take place in space and time . Good stories, stories that grip the reader, have to be grounded in these dimensions.
As you may have noticed, most if not all of these winning first lines set the stage: They give you something you can picture, a scenario or location you can imagine—something to sink your teeth into.
Excuse me, rules of narrative?
There are some rules to how you think about your first sentence. It doesn't have to be flowery, it doesn't have to set an elaborate scene (in fact, for gosh sake, please don’t do any of that!!). It's almost certainly better if it's not dialogue or a quotation, despite some things you may have read here or there on the internet. (That can sometimes work, but it's rarely the most jet-fueled, engaging way to bring the reader into your world.) Instead, you want to dive right into the story and let the story carry you as you're writing it.
Outline it if you want to, but don't waste a lot of time on that. Then get yourself to a position of being inspired. Decide on the opening line, and then just write—just write the story. You've got the big scenes, you've got the ideas in your head. Write it and see what comes out, and then iterate. The key scenes will come into focus as you edit.
For more on this—and for all my auditory learners out there—watch my MBA Monday video on how NOT to write a boring first line (or essay) .
And for an even more in-depth read on the storyboarding and essay writing processes we’ve developed at Career Protocol, dive into “ A Screen writer's Guide to Epic MBA Narratives. ”
5. Draft your HBS Essay (Write. Revise. Rewrite.)
“Good writing is essentially rewriting.” – Roald Dahl
“The only kind of writing is rewriting.” – Ernest Hemingway
The next step on this essay-magic journey is storyshaping . This is a huge labor of love.
Let me say that again. It’s a HUGE labor of love .
Drafting continues to deepen the Discovery process. (By drafting, or storyshaping, I mean some combination of writing and rewriting and revising.) Most of our clients are still discovering their story as they're in the process of telling it. Your understanding of your values and exactly how you want to communicate them is clarified with each passing draft. So that's why we call it storyshaping.
The first thing to know about this stage is that there is no right number of drafts . Everybody needs a different number of iterations. Here’s how many drafts it took some of our clients who got into Harvard to write their masterpieces:
Our process includes unlimited drafts and boy do we mean it!
It may take a while because you’re a perfectionist, or because you totally changed gears in the middle, or because the story continues to evolve. You have to follow that inspiration and allow the story to go where it wants to go.
There's nothing better or worse about taking more or fewer drafts. Like everything else in this process, it depends on you, your writing habits, and how much time and space your story needs to achieve its potential. So for those of you who plan to go through this process on your own, give yourself plenty of time to revisit your draft and shape the essay as you go.
And what about word count ?
Okay, so word count. This is one of my favorite subjects. If you had to guess the upper limit of word count for a successful HBS Essay, what would you say? The lower limit?
If you read any other advice about the Harvard Essay, you're going to find that almost everyone says 1000 words. Tops. Or 750-1250 words . Tops. Or 1100 words. Tops . Or something like that. So let me be the one to tell you: Any firm answer to this question is a load of hooey. The length of the essay is totally irrelevant.
A few stats from some of our recent Harvard admits will help you get a sense of just how varied and individualized the writing process is for the HBS Essay.
Here’s a sampling of our successful clients’ word count in recent years:
You want to tell the story in as much time as it takes to really do it justice. For most people—it’s true—that’s somewhere in the 1200-1400 range. But not for everyone! Some essays will take a lot more than that, and some will take less.
For successful essays in the 1000-word range, they’re shorter because they have a simpler and more straightforward story to tell. The successful client essays that broke into the 2000-word range had the most amazing, fascinating, and riveting life stories and experiences I’ve ever come across.
I repeat: There. Is. No. Right. Number.
The takeaway here is that each story has its own cadence and its own pace. It takes place in its own time. Again, the number of words that it has is completely irrelevant. You want to tell the story in the amount of space that allows you to fully show the admissions committee your best self . Because, ultimately, it's not your essay that gets you in. It's not your GMAT. It's not even your resume. It's who you are .
6. Seek out feedback
Please remember : Essays need readers . Every storyteller needs an audience.
One of the best things you can do for yourself when you’re writing the HBS Essay is find someone to bounce drafts off of. (Trust me, you’ll be SO thankful you did.) You need to know how the story that you’re telling is going to land for someone else.
Gauging a reader’s reaction and asking for feedback can help you answer questions like: Do any of my anecdotes need more detail? Is everything spelled out clearly enough? Do any parts of my essay seem to drag on endlessly? Am I emphasizing the right things? And—in more extreme but all-too-common cases—do I come off sounding like a selfish jerk? Or an airhead? (Obviously you’re not those things, which is exactly why we don’t want your essay putting off those vibes!!)
This back-and-forth between you and a trusted reader is a fantastic way to give greater definition to your narrative. If you move from draft 1 to draft 2 to draft 3 all inside the vacuum of your own mind, you’ll get caught up in one big smush of perfectionism and wordsmithing and miss the most important point: the big picture—emotional connection with the reader.
But do choose wisely . We’re the best at what we do (in large part, I’d argue, because we love doing it ). So if you want a buddy for your HBS essay-writing and beyond, start your journey with Career Protocol today.
If working with a professional is out of the question, ask a friend, peer, or mentor to be your trusted reader. Choose someone you can count on to be honest with you—to give you their true reactions and ask questions freely, rather than petting your ego. (This isn’t the time for that!!!)
But also make sure to choose someone whose opinions about you are generous and who doesn’t feel the need to control your narrative or grammar. Moms can sometimes be great. But sometimes they have their own preconceived notions about who they think you are that isn’t well aligned with who you ACTUALLY are today. And that grammar stickler friend of yours just might wordsmith all the life out of your writing voice.
More advice on this here:
So, I’ll say once more, choose your reading buddy wisely! To collect great feedback, try using our Friends-Family Fly Test . And remember, we’re here if you need us.
7. When in Doubt: Read more great advice & some solid essay samples
Here’s some advice on approaching the hbs essay from a few of our harvard admits:.
“I think for HBS, I always considered it a long shot, so I wasn't afraid to present what I felt was my true story. I think it's more of an opportunity to reflect on what the most important part of your story is. I wanted to be honest and true to myself, because I knew that I'd otherwise look back and think, ‘Wait a minute. What if I had just told the story I wanted them to know all along?’”
“Be honest! Show the school your capacity for self-reflection, give a thoughtful appraisal of your past actions/mistakes.”
“Be authentic! It is really easy to be caught in the trap of saying what you think is important or focusing on what may be perceived as ‘most impressive,’ but from what I have seen, admissions committees are so good at sniffing out inauthentic essays that it may end up backfiring!”
(are you noticing a trend here?)
“After you have a few drafts under your belt, take a break on your application for a few days. When you come back, reread your essay while asking yourself ‘does this cut to the core of who I really am?’ Share your essay with your family and close friends with the same question. If you don’t get a resounding yes from all parties, go back to the drawing board.”
“DON’T SUBMIT SOMETHING THAT FEELS FORCED OR FAKE. I wrote an entire draft of my HBS essay and spent two weeks trying to edit it into something I believed reflected who I really am, and at the end of it I decided to start over. Don’t be afraid to start over.”
One more nugget of wisdom from an HBS admit:
“Definitely try to be as concise and to-the-point in your essays as possible. Also, do not feel the need to crack open your SAT vocab books!”
And now a final word from me…
This is my most important piece of advice in approaching the Harvard Essay:
There are no guarantees. Most of you will not get in. That's a fact. So you might as well do yourself proud in the essay. Write it in such a way that you can look back on the choices that you made on this journey with no regrets , because you told the story that you wanted to tell. You authentically answered the question. You told Harvard what it was that you really wanted them to know about you.
If you remember, choice equals voice. You're making choices continually—even as you go through this process. I recommend that you make strong choices in your essays, and especially when you're applying to Harvard.
Harbus 2021 Essay Guide. Need I say more? (Check out earlier editions, too, to broaden your sample set.) But be sure to read SEVERAL essays so you get clear about the fact that there is no right answer. Don’t anchor your story to someone else’s. Own it.
Subscribe to our Career Protocol YouTube channel to watch my MBA Pro Tips, including my Top Tips for Writing the Harvard Essay.
And if you’re wondering how to write those other Epic Life Story essays, listen to me tackle Stanford’s “What Matters Most to You and Why?” (also on our YouTube channel)
Aaaaanddd on that note: Our Top 10 Tools for Your Creative MBA Essays
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10 Tips for Your HBS Essay (From HBS Students)
As current HBS students, we can offer tips about the essay writing process, pulling from our own successful HBS application essays . Although each and every applicant’s background and story is unique, we feel passionate about sharing what we feel will benefit others as they approach this reflective and sometimes overwhelming writing and editing process.
Essays submitted this year for the Class of 2018 will respond to the following prompt:
It’s the first day of class at HBS. You are in Aldrich Hall meeting your “section.” This is the group of 90 classmates who will become your close companions in the first-year MBA classroom. Our signature case method participant-based learning model ensures that you will get to know each other very well. The bonds you collectively create throughout this shared experience will be lasting.
Introduce yourself. (No word limit)
Here are 10 ‘Helpful Harbus Tips’ for approaching your HBS application essay, written by current HBS students:
1. Think about an experience that demonstrates and combines both the things you are passionate about and the strengths that you would bring to HBS.
2. Don’t let the open-ended nature of the essay prompt intimidate you too much. Work a good amount of pre-writing into your schedule so you can try a few different options before honing in on and committing to one. Once you’ve found the right one, material should naturally start to flow.
3. If you are applying to more than one school, try to make the core learning(s) of your essay applicable to as many of the essay prompts as possible.
4. Consider incorporating a common theme that can be traced throughout the entire application, from start to finish. This will help the essay come full circle.
5. Consult your family and friends along the way to make sure that your various topics of choice are an accurate and genuine representation of who you are. You’d be surprised how much you can learn about your own experience by talking to family members and friends who know you the best.
6. You don’t necessarily have to think about standard workplace experiences when figuring out different situations that demonstrate key skills and qualities. Your best success stories, for example, aren’t always going to be those that transpired during work hours.
7. When brainstorming about examples of your leadership experiences , for example, come up with a list of about five, and decide which situation or experience shows what aspect of your personality is the hardest to see in your application.
8. Write a cohesive story that aligns with both why you want to go to business school and what you want to do after business school with your MBA degree.
9. Not everyone writes about conventional topics in their essays, so don’t be afraid to center your essay around an unconventional one that brought inspiration to you. For example, a current student in the Class of 2017 centered his essay around The Simpsons T.V. show. In the essay, he explores the parallels between themes contained within the T.V. show and those within his philosophical thinking, driving his adolescent curiosities and adulthood decisions.
10. Your essay doesn’t necessarily need to emphasize your professional accomplishments. Remember, your resume, awards, and recommendation letters may already sufficiently do this. Be careful not to repeat as the essay is your opportunity to highlight and communicate aspects of your life that the admissions team doesn’t already know from other material.
11. Bonus Tip: This should be obvious, but make sure you don’t misspell the names of the faculty members you say you dream of working with one day!
• Top MBA Essay Questions: How to Answer Them Right [Free Guide] • An HBS Student Helping HBS Applicants • What Does Harvard Business School Want?
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- The HBS Essay
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? (900 words)
Where to Begin?
With its broad nature and 900-word limit, 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 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 your time and attention.
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Menlo’s Expert 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
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:
- Using the essay to show literary creativity
- Boasting in ways that are off-putting
- Dishonesty and trying to conceal failures
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.
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).
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HBS Essay Examples: How Former Clients Approached the Harvard MBA Essay & Application Journey and Won Admission
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Advice, tips and insights from the admissions dream team., table of contents, hbs essay: what is harvard looking for.
Baker Library ©Susan Young for Harvard Business School
Harvard Business School relies on a singular 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 this wide-open prompt, Harvard offers a wide-open opportunity to tell them who you are and what drives you — and they offer a generous limit of 900 words to tell your story. This is considerably longer than most schools’ essays, but other schools offer you more defined topics. Having just under two pages to work with gives you the space to tell a detailed story, but the defined limit has a focusing effect. It takes discipline to share meaningful, authentic details in a succinct and memorable way, without repeating facts from other application components.
This leaves you with the prompt itself to contend with. Where do I begin? What do I share? As a Fortuna Admissions coach and former Associate Director at HBS leading PhD admissions and supporting the MBA Interview Board, I spend a lot of time putting this essay into context for anxious candidates. Everyone wants to know, what is HBS looking for? (You can request a copy of the latest HBS application guide on Harvard’s website.)
Beyond credentials, HBS is looking for character. The Admissions Committee seeks principled, passionate individuals who have the potential to fulfill the HBS mission to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. While this aspect is readily understood, the process of how to do this effectively is far more complex.
Before I dive into your strategy, let me put a fine point on this: it’s all about your essay. Indeed, the essay is often the make-or-break factor for HBS. Character doesn’t show up on a resume, in your test scores, or through grades or your transcripts. Your opportunity to show them what you are made of, what drives you, is in the essay. The competition is fierce, so this is the place where you can convince them you have what it takes to be part of this incredible community.
Remember that the majority of applicants (roughly 10,000 of them) will come with impressive credentials. Those credentials get you to the threshold, but they won’t get the interview, because Harvard has seen it all. Once you’ve reached a certain level of exceptionalism in terms of being brilliant, driven and dedicated, it’s all about your story. Think of it like drafting a “movie trailer” for your life – your essay should be engaging, interesting, with a level of drama and a pace that keeps the story moving. A great essay will entice the reader to say “wow, I cannot wait to meet this person and learn more.”
5 Tips To Writing a Powerful Harvard MBA Essay
1. do not display a highlights reel of professional achievements..
The biggest temptation — and the biggest snooze — is a “resume-to-prose” essay, which will put your wearied admissions reader to sleep. (Truthfully, staying awake was the biggest challenge I faced when reading applications, from my time at INSEAD to HBS and even admissions work at Stanford . )Too many applicants wrote essays that were boring, lifeless and dull. What really made my eyes glaze over were narratives from candidates who sailed through life, having never failed or struggled, who always excelled at everything and then segued to the details of some deal or consulting project. This can’t be overstated: Your essay must not read simply as a story of successes and accomplishments. It’s a common pitfall, and it robs your story the potential for making an emotional connection.
So, when HBS asks you, “what else do you want us to know?” the focus is on the “what else .” You have already detailed your job experiences in the short answer section of the application along with your resume. Do not restate these same facts again and again. Remember, they know what consultants and bankers do in the office, so unless you are introducing something new or connecting your work to a broader theme, avoid trying to “show off” by writing at length about work achievements.
Above all, write an essay you yourself would want to read.
2. Be open, imperfect and real .
I find it disheartening that my strongest piece of advice, which is to tell the truth and be yourself, is also so difficult at times. Most people are afraid to be real, and they spend hours polishing and perfecting an “image” or “brand” that is an illusion. When you take the risk to be yourself, to be vulnerable, it inspires a human connection. It gives you credibility. What’s more interesting to read – the story of someone who sailed through life and had everything work out perfectly, every single time? Or the story of someone who struggled, faced extraordinary challenges, and demonstrated the tenacity and resilience to not only survive but to thrive?
That’s why the more personal and open you can be in terms of why you do what you do, the more memorable and appealing you’ll be. Because so few people are. Few people are rigorously honest, and fewer are vulnerable in the process of storytelling. Some of the best essays I have ever read open with the story of a failure and how that shaped them. From my perspective, if you are never making mistakes, you aren’t working hard enough. Besides, there is something so powerful about the truth when you read it – it hits you and tunes up your curiosity. And that’s what you want to inspire — enough enthusiasm and curiosity for the admissions committee to want to meet you and learn more. Always remember: this is a search for authenticity.
3. Show vs. tell.
In the process of storytelling, the details are everything. Avoid the temptation to qualify your experience or tell the readers what they are supposed to think. Show them instead. For example, what is more powerful – someone saying, “I had a horrible flight,” or, “We pulled onto the runway, and I could see from my window the dark clouds above; the captain announced once cleared for takeoff, we were in for a bumpy ride. I could feel my pulse quickening.” While you want to avoid detailing a terrible flight experience for the HBS adcom, this concept is critical for effective storytelling. Show them what you have been through and the challenges you have faced through vivid recollection. An admissions consultant can help you sift through your experience to help you identify what to focus on. Generally, experiences that shaped your values and attitude toward life are a great place to start. You might talk about a challenge, for example, or a time you fell and picked yourself back up. Underscore how it shaped you as a human being and what you learned from the experience and remember to SHOW them the impact vs. simply telling them.
4. Connect the dots.
Your essay should have what I refer to as the “thread of continuity” that will serve as a unifying theme. Perhaps, you can introduce an experience that was momentous or marked an important milestone in your opening paragraph. As you weave together stories that show the committee who you are and the twists and turns your life has taken, you will want to revisit this theme at different points in your story as a way to unify the narrative. The conclusion should serve to tie it all together. This may sound formulaic, but when in doubt, rest assured this is a tried and true model that allows you to connect the dots for your reader. Any great story or even speech – from Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream to the latest Hollywood blockbuster — have a cohesive flow and pace that keep the audience’s attention. There is always an intangible driving force that builds, which is an essential ingredient to a winning essay.
5. Choose your Words (and Story) Carefully
The new 900-word recommendation alleviates any anxiety about what HBS will be seeking in terms of length. Many clients often think this is a trick question, and in a way, it could be. When I worked at HBS I remember hearing, “It’s not an essay writing contest! And if I’m still flipping pages at 6 pages deep — perhaps you think a little too highly of yourself thinking we want to spend that much time on you!”
Whether the change is simply to dispel any confusion as the Direct from the Director HBS blog states, or (as I suspect), to speed up the review process (reading 10,000 applications is time consuming!), this means you need to be both increasingly vigilant and strategic in answering the “what more would you like us to know” question. It’s not a great idea to see how many random stories about you can fit into 900 words or fewer. Instead, embrace the “less is more” approach. You could zero in on a singular theme with some evidence to back it up, or tell a story that touches on elements the committee would never know about you (or safely assume they know) in a compelling narrative. Remember — this is not an “essay writing contest” — but rather a “search for authenticity.”
Given the volume of competing applications, keep it simple and succinct enough to ensure impact, and SHORT enough to ensure no eye rolling is happening while they turn page after page of what may be seen as an attempted autobiography. Reflect on what has been shared thus far in the process (don’t restate what they know already) and expand where there is a story. Open up! This will create intrigue and a desire to learn more about you… in an interview!
Ultimately, HBS is looking for people who are ambitious and extraordinary , with a habit of leadership, a history of engaging the community, and the appetite and aptitude for success that separates them from the simply smart and hard working. Beyond a demonstrated professional track record and impressive credentials, they also want to see a proclivity for consistently exceeding goals. More than that, they’re seeking mission-driven doers who are motivated by a deeper purpose and poised to make the institution proud. Your challenge with the essay — and opportunity –—is to fuse that with a captivating story of who you are as an individual. And if that feels daunting, keep in mind that no one else has lived your story but you, which makes you uniquely qualified to tell it.
For a deeper dive on what HBS is looking for and how to position your application for success, view my video strategy session with Fortuna Admissions industry experts and former HBS admissions gatekeepers, Matt Symonds, Taniel Chan, and Malvina Miller Complainville.
Updated Sept. 2023
Want more advice on applying to Harvard Business School?
View these essential articles on HBS by Karla and other members of the Fortuna Admissions team:
1. HBS + GSB: Comparing Our Deep Dive Analysis on Who Really Gets In
2. How to Ace the HBS Interview
3. Tips for Writing the HBS Post-Interview Reflection
4. Reapply to Harvard Business School: 5 Top Tips
5. Recommender Strategy for HBS & GSB
6. HBS video strategy sessions on our YouTube channel (8 videos)
You can also request a copy of our Insider Tips Report on HBS or the full deep dive reports on HBS and Stanford GSB.
Fortuna Admissions Expert Coach Karla Cohen is former Harvard Business School associate director of doctoral programs and an MBA interview board member. She was also a manager of the PhD program at INSEAD. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation .
- Posted on September 28, 2023
- By Karla Cohen
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