Harvard Business School Application Essays and Deadlines for 2013-2014

Last week Harvard Business School released the details of its application for the 2013-2014 admissions season. While there was some moderately interesting news around Harvard’s admissions deadlines, much of the chatter has been about Harvard’s drastically revised essays. Make no mistake — this is a very different application than what HBS has used in the past, but keep in mind that Harvard still wants to see the same qualities (across your entire application) that it has been looking for in applicants for years. Harvard still wants to find bright budding leaders who are ready to undergo a transformational experience. The admissions committee is just going about finding those applicants a little differently this year.

Without further ado, here are Harvard’s admissions deadlines and essays for the Class of 2016, followed by our comments in italics:

HBS Admissions Deadlines
Round 1: September 16, 2013
Round 2: January 6, 2014
Round 3: April 7, 2014

Harvard Business School continues to move its Round 1 deadline earlier and earlier — Harvard’s Round 1 deadline is now a full month earlier than it was just five years ago. Assuming you start early enough, this should have little impact on your application planning. In fact, it actually may benefit you since you will be done with your HBS application weeks before most other top business schools’ Round 1 applications come. Also, if you apply in Round 1, you will receive your decision from HBS by December 11, giving you plenty of time if you need to set some safety-school applications in motion for Round 2 in January. Harvard’s Round 2 and Round 3 deadlines have not changed significantly since last year.

HBS Admissions Essays
Yes, we wrote “essays,” as in plural, since you will submit a “post-interview reflection” after your HBS admissions interview, should you get that far in the process. Much has already been made of the fact that Harvard Business School has cut its written application down to one essay, but don’t lose sight of the post-interview essay (“Don’t call it an essay!” we can hear the HBS admissions committee screaming), which we also cover below. Now, for Harvard’s new essay:

  • 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? (No word limit)

    There you have it. Harvard has taken its trend of whittling down essays one step further, and has made this its only essay, and made it optional. Let’s start there: If you really feel as though you have nothing more to add beyond what your transcripts, GMAT score, resume, and recommendations already say about you, then yes, it’s conceivable that you could skip this essay. After all, this question is worded very similarly to how many MBA programs phrase their optional essays, and we always advise applicants to only use those ones if necessary. And, Harvard’s Dee Leopold went out of her way to emphasize that this essay is optional and that she expects some people will apply without any essay at all. We take her at her word when she says this essay is truly optional.

    Having said that, think of the signal you send by not submitting anything: This is a huge opportunity to embark on a transformational experience early in your career. You really don’t have anything else to say? Harvard is one of the few business schools that don’t need to be convinced that you really want to attend, but not having anything to say is consistent with being a casual applicant, one who is applying for the heck of it, just to see if you get in. Do we believe that HBS will admit some applicants who don’t submit this essay this year? Yes, absolutely. Why? Because as recently as this past year we have seen some applicants get into HBS with amazing credentials yet terrible essays. Clearly, the essays didn’t help them get in. If those same applicants didn’t submit anything, we’d bet that they’d also get into HBS in that scenario. But, those really were amazing applicants. Assuming you’re not one of them (and there’s probably about a 95% chance that you won’t fall into this category), you should plan on using this essay.

    Okay, fine, but what to write about? Notice that they didn’t ask, “What ONE THING would you like us to know” in this prompt. And, remember that there’s no word limit. So, it may be tempting to cover a handful of themes here in the hopes of hitting on something that catches an admission’s officer’s eye. Avoid this temptation! HBS has been whittling down its essays over the past few years for a reason: Many applicants’ essays have had a high word-to-value ratio, and Harvard Business School has been trying to correct this by reducing the number of essays and the expected word counts. (When we say “value” here, we mean information that helps admissions officers get to know applicants better.) Keep this trend in mind as you decide what to write about here… Hitting on more than one theme here is fine, but resist the temptation to go beyond 1,000 words. (In fact, we expect most great essays will be closer to 500 words than to 1,000.)

    Okay, now really, what to write about? We always every applicant that they need to do two things to get into HBS or any other top MBA program: Stand out vs. other applicants (especially those who are most similar to the applicant) and show fit with the school. If you come from a very common background — think management consultant, or IT consultant from Asia — then you need to stand out more, and this essay is your chance to do it. If your background makes you unusual vs. the typical HBS class profile — perhaps you have more than the typical amount of work experience or have zero quantitative abilities to point to — then you need to use this essay to demonstrate that you will fit in and thrive at Harvard.

    Also, If you have a real sore spot in your application, such as a low undergraduate GPA, then you should expect to devote some words to that here. Don’t dwell on it, and don’t sound like Mr. Excuses, but do address it and move on.

    Finally, remember that every other HBS applicant faces the same one-essay constraint as you. Piece of cake!

  • Post-Interview Reflection: You just had your HBS interview. Tell us about it. Did we get to know you?

    Interestingly, while Harvard’s new single essay is optional, this post-interview reflection is required. Now in its second year, this interview followup note gives you a chance to include anything you wish you had been able to mention in the interview, and to reframe anything that you discussed but have since thought about a bit more. You will submit this piece within 24 hours of your interview.

    Especially since this letter has no word limit, the temptation will be for you to cram in half a dozen additional things that you wish you had covered in the interview. However, less is always more — keep the note limited to no more than two or three core ideas that you want to highlight. Ideally you covered all of the important things in the interview already, but of not, then this is a chance to hit on those here. Keep in mind, though, that sharing these ideas in the interview is always going to be more effective than cramming them into this note. And, be realistic about how much this letter will help you. Chances are that it won’t turn a dud of an interview into a terrific one in hindsight.Do NOT go into the interview with this note already drafted; let it truly be a reaction to the discussion, which was hopefully an interesting and provocative one. If your interviewer reads this note and it sounds like a replay of an entirely different discussion than what he or she remembers, that will only serve to hurt you come decision time.

Finally, note that Harvard has reduced its required number of recommendations from three to two. This is mostly a good thing for applicants, since many often have a hard time finding a third recommender who is a good writer, is responsive, and can add much beyond what the first two recommenders will already say. As always, choose recommenders who know you well enough to provide very specific answers to the questions that HBS asks. It’s those specifics that separate a good HBS recommendation from a great one. Given that you will only have one essay on paper before HBS decides whether to interview you, these letters of recommendation will be more important than ever.

Every year we work with dozens of Harvard Business School applicants. For more advice on getting into HBS, download our Essential Guide to Harvard Business School, one of our 14 guides to the world’s top business schools. If you’re ready to start building your own application for HBS and other top business schools, be sure to get a free profile evaluation from a Veritas Prep MBA admissions expert. And, as always, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Scott Shrum