Analyzing the Applications: the HBS Recommendations (PART II)

By Kyle Watkins (last updated: December 17, 2013)

Yesterday we published part one of this post analyzing the HBS recommendation questions for Class of 2016 applicants. Today we pick up where we left off and break down the second (and more difficult) recommender question:

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 is such an excellent question, and one HBS used last year, too. I expect it produces a whole lot of terrible answers and perhaps only a handful of truly excellent ones. Let’s consider it from the perspective of each of the main players in the admissions process:

For the HBS admissions committee, this question tests your self-awareness and once again makes it abundantly apparent whether you picked recommenders who know you well. It’s a great way to screen for arrogance and, more importantly, for applicants that are applying to HBS only for the brand, rather than to learn and develop. Think of it, from HBS’s perspective, like the old cliche: Two baseball players are trying out for a team, and both run to first base in the exact same amount of time. One runs with perfect form; the other with terrible form. Which would the team rather draft? The player who runs with terrible form, of course, because that player can still improve her form and get faster. Well, HBS wants to draft that player, too. It wants the accomplished, pedigreed leader who still acknowledges that she can improve her form (so to speak). It doesn’t want the applicant who thinks she has nothing to learn from her supervisors, her peers, or from HBS.

For the recommender, this question has to be a bit daunting. First, it requires the recommender think of a specific instance she provided you feedback. That’s not easy. In fact, if it’s done right, it should be a bit mentally exhausting. Second, it can put recommenders in a bit of an uncomfortable position. Think how you might feel when you have to describe to the HBS admissions committee in an interview “a time when you could have done something better.” Now imagine how you would feel if you had to do it for someone else, and that her chance of admission was in part riding on your answer. The solution to these two problems is to provide really solid examples to your recommenders, and then let them focus on writing about how you responded to the feedback. If your recommenders choose not to use them, fine, but at least it’s a crutch to lean on that will make the brainstorming process less exhausting and stressful for them.

This brings us to looking at this question from the applicant’s perspective, a particularly important one to consider if you are providing anecdotes to your recommenders. It’s a lot harder to write a good answer to this question if it’s centered around an example when your recommender provided you positive feedback. It’s not impossible, but to be done effectively, you need to have responded to the positive feedback in a really profound way, and that’s rare. Instead, most good answers to this question will likely be centered around a time when your recommender provided you feedback on how you could have do something better.

Anytime candidates offer examples of imperfection to the admissions committee, it always seems to make them uncomfortable. A lot of people are wary of giving an honest answer, and so they seek some ridiculous middle ground like, “I’m too much of a perfectionist.” The good news is that this creates a huge opportunity to set yourself apart from other applicants.

A big emphasis of the first-year curriculum at HBS revolves around learning how to provide and accept good feedback. My classmates and I spent a whole session during my RC year just videotaping each other as we role played giving feedback to a colleague. In addition, probably around half of the case studies we read were about business decisions gone wrong. What does all this mean for your essays? It means that HBS doesn’t scoff at shortcomings or mistakes. Rather, it knows its students make errors during their careers, so it seeks to prepare them with the ability to respond to those errors when anticipating them isn’t possible. If you can prove you are capable of doing that in your recommendations — or at the very least prove that you’re open to the possibility that it’s a skill you still need to learn — you’ll put a smile on the face of every HBS admissions committee member who reads your recommendations.

Now, while we strongly suggest you provide your recommenders with some good anecdotes, we don’t mean to imply in any way that you should write the recommendations for them. As we advise in our 10-step guide to getting great recommendations, that’s a terrible idea and a quick way to ensure a rejection letter come decision day.

If nothing else, hopefully this post emphasizes the importance of picking the right recommenders, people that know you well and are willing to invest a lot of effort in what can only be a time-intensive and potentially exhausting recommendation process. While many applicants focus so much on preparing for the GMAT and sculpting their essays, it’s just as important to focus on getting the recommendations right. And, as Vincent found during his application process, it can often take longer than you expect.

There are a lot of other common questions around recommendations that this blog doesn’t get to, so be sure to check out our 10-step guide or email us for a free consultation. One piece of advice worth reiterating from our 10-step guide is that you should not stress about finding alumni recommenders. For one thing, the qualities described above are far more important and should trump anything else. For another, HBS has such a massive network of alumni that, quite honestly, having one of them write you a recommendation does very little to set you apart. Make sure you follow the instructions and guidance that HBS provides, and of course reach out to us for a free consultation if you have specific questions that need answering.

Next in our Analyzing the Applications series, we’ll be leaving the HBS application aside for the time being and heading to another top-tier business school…stay tuned to this space to find out where!

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