With the recent release of the 2014 HBS application, it is clear that shortening the number of essays is a trend that is here to stay for now. With only one essay on the HBS application this year, it is becoming more important than ever to not only communicate effectively and concisely, but also to leverage the balance of the application (and of course the interview) to stand out from the crowd.
One result of the decreasing essay trend is an expansion of in-application short answer questions. Just a few years ago, there were few or none of these questions, but schools have since moved several opportunities to share your story out of the essay section and into the application itself. So just how do you go about preparing to answer these short questions? The preparation is remarkably similar to how you approached the essays in the past.
Sounds simple, but you must always be thinking of how you look compared to someone else with the exact same background, cultural experience and involvement because trust us, they are out there. Everyone thinks of themselves as unique, but when you are placed into a pile with other similar folks, you suddenly are not so unique anymore! The challenge comes when you are limited to just a few sentences (or even characters in some cases) to get your point across. There’s no room for dramatic storytelling or elaborate embellishment, but you still need to explain why something mattered to you or how it has shaped you.
You will need to be able to selectively draw from your basket of experience to answer your short questions in a way that presents the right amount of balanced evidence. The key word is balance. Business schools like to admit candidates with the “total package,” that is, they possess a broad offering of skills and experience. It’s not enough to just be the best darn leader your company has ever seen. If you can’t work well in teams, schools will pass on you. Are you mature with great strengths in teamwork, but lack the creative spark of innovation? Schools may pass.
Sometimes, this exercise will expose an area where you need to go out and bolster your experience further. That’s why it’s good to do this early in the application process. Ultimately, the information you offer in the short answer questions is just as vital as the info in your essays. Don’t be fooled into thinking these are throwaway questions. The ability to concisely and completely answer a question with a very limited word restriction is an exercise in restraint and economy that demonstrates a very valuable skill in itself to the admissions committees. Don’t blow your chance to impress them!
Scott Bryant has over 25 years of professional post undergraduate experience in the entertainment industry as well as on Wall Street with Goldman Sachs. He served on the admissions committee at the Fuqua School of Business where he received his MBA and now works part time in retirement for a top tier business school. He has been consulting with Vertias Prep clients for the past six admissions seasons.