HBS Essay Tips (Class of 2017)

By Kyle Watkins (last updated: September 5, 2014)

Harvard Business School Essay Tips for the 2014-2015 Admissions Cycle

Harvard Business School made headlines last year when it said that writing an essay would be optional for applicants. Only 10 of the 9,543 candidates that applied actually took the liberty of skipping the essay, and only one of those 10 was accepted (which is actually in line with HBS’s overall 12% admit rate).

Candidates who are vying to be a member of HBS’s Class of 2017 will face the same question in this year’s application:

“You’re applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your resume, school transcripts, extra-curricular activities, awards, post-MBA career goals, test scores and what your recommenders have to say about you. What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?”

So, with just over two months to go until the Round One deadline for HBS, let’s consider some of the most common strategies that didn’t work for applicants last year and consider the best way for this year’s applicants to approach this unapologetically open-ended essay prompt.

The HBS Essay: What Didn’t Work for Last Year’s Applicants

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 aptitude, your resume to your accomplishment, and your recommenders to your character. That leaves your essay to speak toward your passion: will you have interesting stories and opinions to contribute to the HBS case method? Will you involve yourself in the broader HBS 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.

Answering the HBS prompt like a typical MBA essay questions. If the HBS admissions committee wanted to know why you wanted and MBA, or why you wanted to go to Harvard, or what your career vision was, then they would ask. They certainly have asked applicants those questions in years past. But realize that, in switching to its new, very open-ended prompt, HBS expect new and 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 extracurricalrs. It’s possible that those issues need to be addressed in your 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 this essay as the opportunity to demonstrate the latter, and leave addressing your GPA or extracurriculars for other parts of your application.

The HBS Essay: What This Year’s Applicants Should Consider

Learn from those applicants that came before you, and give special thought to how you can really convey who you are in answering this essay question. It is not your typical essay prompt, so it deserves an atypical answer.

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 study method as it does with an admissions committee, because 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 admission director at HBS, recently told the story of one student who did this very successfully in his interview:

“I’ll give you someone who is coming to the class who is really interesting this fall. 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 (and now HBS student) did in his interview. If you can do that, then you’ve mastered the HBS essay question for the Class of 2017.

How long should your HBS essay be? Good question! Here’s my answer.

As always, we’re happy to put our own experience in the HBS classroom to good use and help you find the story that’s right for your essay. Feel free to reach out to us through our free consultation service, or you can check out our other blog posts on Harvard Business School for more on how to ace the 2014 application.

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