Harvard Business School Admissions Essays & Deadlines for 2014-2015

And just like that, the new MBA admissions season is starting to happen. Harvard Business School has announced its application essay prompt and Round 1 deadline for 2014-2015. Last year we made much of the Great Essay Slimdown, in which many business schools cut their number of required essays or reduced word counts. Harvard went down to just one essay last year (and made it optional!) meaning that there wasn’t much more slimming down the school could do, short of eliminating the essay altogether.

Not only has HBS kept one essay this year, but it has also kept the exact same essay prompt. When a school carries over an essay from one year to the next, that means admissions officers like what they’re seeing in the essays they receive. Based on what we’ve learned from our clients over the past year (many of whom were admitted!), we feel very good about the advice we’ve been giving on this essay, so our advice mostly remians the same.

Harvard Business School Application Deadlines
Round 1: September 9, 2014
Round 2: January 6, 2015
Round 3: April 6, 2015

Is that Round 1 deadline seems awfully early to you, it’s because it is. It is one week earlier than last year, which was already the earliest the school had ever made its Round 1 deadline. To give you an idea of how much this deadline has crept up over the years, back in 2008 HBS’s Round 1 deadline came on October 15! Also, note that HBS moved its Round 2 deadline back by one day, from January 5 to January 6, to make things slightly easier for everyone coming back from the holidays.

Now, here’s that optional essay, followed by our comments in italics:

Harvard Business School Application Essays

  • 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)

    HBS still calls this an “optional” essay, although the admissions office hasn’t given any concrete indication of what percentage of applicants (especially successful applicants) chose to skip this essay altogether. We bet that the number of brave souls who skipped this essay is very low. However, it is indeed 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.

    On the flip side, be careful about 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. Don’t paint yourself as one of those applicants.

    Assuming you do tackle this essay, what should you write about? Notice that they didn’t ask, “What ONE THING would you like us to know?” in the prompt. You should, however, resist the temptation to cover half a dozen things here. 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 that the best essays will be closer to 500 words than to 1,000.)

    We always tell 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.

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

    Note that the HBS admissions team has said little about whether the post-interview reflection will change or be replaced this year, but our assumption is that it will stay. Here we analyze last year’s post-interview prompt.

    While the above essay is optional, this post-interview reflection is required. It 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.

    Finally, 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.

Every year we help dozens of applicants apply to Harvard Business School. If you’re just starting your HBS research, download our Essential Guide to Harvard Business School, one of our 14 guides to the world’s top business schools (it’s free!). Getting ready to apply? You can 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