Analyzing the Applications: the HBS Essay

By Kyle Watkins (last updated: October 15, 2019)

The HBS application for the Class of 2016 is live, officially marking the beginning of a new admissions season at Harvard. Here on the Founders’ Blog, it also marks the start of a new, recurring series, which will break down the applications of several top business schools.

Given the significant changes to HBS’s application this year, it seems as good a place as any to start the series by analyzing Harvard’s new essay question:

“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?”

When I applied to HBS in 2010, I was required to complete four essays, and while I bemoaned the task at the time, in hindsight it seems far simpler than trying to navigate the minefield that is this single, word limit-less prompt. Why? Because the new prompt requires extraordinary judgment — and, frankly, I always thought it was difficult to be an objective judge of my own application while I was in the midst of writing it.

Nonetheless, the HBS admissions committee has staked out a pretty clear position: the essays don’t add much value to the application. Dee Leopold has been espousing some version of this view for years now, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see even more extreme manifestations of it in the years to come. But for this year’s applicants, the key to writing a good essay will be demonstrating good judgment and keen self-awareness.

The purpose of your essay should be to advance one of two storylines the HBS adcom looks for in each applicant. First, the admissions committee wants to know whether you can hack it in the classroom. Do you have the analytical capabilities to keep up with the quantitative and understand the qualitative? Second, it wants to know whether you will add value to the school’s culture and case discussions. Do you bring a unique or particularly insightful perspective, or will you actually distract others from learning?

Fundamentally, those two questions are what the HBS application process is all about, and any essay you submit should seek to advance one storyline or the other. However, because the admissions committee will already have a pretty clear picture of your analytical abilities from your GMAT, GPA, and professional history, it will likely serve most applicants better to write about how they will add value. If your application doesn’t speak as loudly as you’d like toward your analytical strength, the best place to address it is not in the essay, but rather in the recommendations – a topic we’ll get into during our next post in this series. In fact, the biggest mistake applicants could make is to use this essay prompt as a place to apologize for a weakness. As we advocate in our 10-step guide to writing killer essays, it’s critical that you use essays to highlight your strengths and added value. For example, your essay could focus on:

  • Something unique you did before school — an extracurricular activity, social enterprise, a family business, TFA, government, etc. — and therefore how you bring a different perspective to the classroom.
  • Something unique you want to do after school, although the bar for what defines “unique” is set quite a bit higher here and will require specificity and support from the other parts of your application, such as what you’ve done in your career thus far.
  • Why you want to attend business school, if it’s not readily apparent. For example, this may be the case for applicants who’ve already been successful entrepreneurs or who are borderline mid-career managers. These types of applicants may need to prove they are as eager to learn from the HBS experience as their 2+2 peers; otherwise they risk being perceived as know-it-already applicants who could detract from classroom learning.

There are certainly many options beyond these broad categories, and many applicants should avail themselves of them. However, before you embark on your writing, invest heavily (and skeptically) in asking yourself whether the topic you’ve chosen advances a new line in the story of how you will add value to the HBS case discussion and to the community as a whole. At the very least, don’t write an essay that demonstrates you’ll detract value from the classroom by, for instance, building a laundry list of your accomplishments and appearing arrogant or unfocused.

A recommendation on your word count: aim for between 750 and 1,100 words (more on that here!). The adcom sent a pretty clear sign last year that shorter tends to be better (and they are absolutely right). A paraphrased version of a Blaise Pascal quote seems apropos: “I apologize for writing such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.” Focus on a single, important, persuasive essay topic. Avoid broad themes that are only meant to disguise a laundry list of accomplishments. Be thoughtful and targeted about what you include in your essay; anything else will demonstrate a lack of self-awareness at best and poor judgment at worst.

As you think more about writing your essays, don’t forget to check out our 10-step guide for additional advice, and of course feel free to contact us for a free consultation if you have any questions we didn’t address here. We’ll also be breaking down the rest of the application for HBS and other schools in the coming weeks so keep watching this space! In the meantime, check out our custom algorithm to calculate your odds of admission. Next, we’ll be breaking down the HBS recommender questions and explaining why the school expects so many more words from your recommenders than they do from you…

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