How Long Should Your Harvard Application Essay Be?

Harvard Business SchoolHarvard Business School has really gone out of its way to present itself in opposition to the stodgy, elitist image it tends to hold in the MBA world. Through the use of its blog and a more simplified application and essay format, HBS has taken a much more casual approach to letting candidates tell their story during this year’s application season.

This approach has primarily manifested itself through the school’s choice to only offer one essay prompt in their application. As opposed to other MBA programs that require applicants to write two, three, and sometimes even four essays, Harvard’s sole essay requirement puts a lot of pressure on applicants to make the most of the limited word count they are given in this one chance to impress the Admissions Committee.

But wait, what word count? The last few years, Harvard has also done away with adding a word count to their essays, putting the decision of length for the school’s only essay in the hands of the applicant. I know this is HBS, and like most applicants you will probably want to share as much of your story in this essay as possible to convince the school of your merits, but this essay is more about how you can effectively communicate a response to an open-ended question in a concise and compelling fashion than it is about cramming every detail of your professional and personal life into one essay.

The best way to do this is to answer the question asked and only the question asked. Harvard is looking to get a response to the question they have asked for a reason – if they wanted additional information from you, they would have asked or will ask in other stages of the application process (through the application form, interview, etc.). As such, you’ll want to keep your response to this essay short.

Avoid responses that stray above 1,000 words and settle into the 500-750 word range, instead. An essay that is 1,000 or more words is almost a whopping 15-minutes when read aloud! Keep in mind the school’s guidance: “don’t overthink, overcraft, and overwrite.” This is literally the approach you should take here. HBS receives almost 9,000 applications every year – that is a lot of reading, so the further you stray over 1,000 words, the more of a disadvantage you put yourself at.

If you are struggling keeping your essay concise, make sure you are avoiding answering traditional MBA essay topics that are not actually being asked in the prompt. Often applicants get nervous if they do not have the opportunity to formally communicate common business school information like “Why HBS?” or “Why MBA?”. Avoid this temptation and respond to the prompt in a concise, authentic, and compelling fashion to give yourself the best chance of success in crafting your Harvard application essay.

For more tips on applying to Harvard Business School, check out our Essential Guide to Top Business Schools.

Applying to Harvard or other business schools? Call us at 1-800-925-7737 and speak with an MBA admissions expert today, or take our free MBA Admissions Profile Evaluation for personalized advice for your unique application situation! As always, be sure to find us on FacebookYouTubeGoogle+ and Twitter.

Dozie A. is a Veritas Prep Head Consultant for the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. His specialties include consulting, marketing, and low GPA/GMAT applicants. You can read more articles by him here.