In recent years we have 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 two years ago, so there wasn’t much more slimming down the school could do, short of eliminating the essay altogether.
For years, former Dean of Admissions Dee Leopold emphasized that applying to business school is not an “essay-writing contest”; it’s simply a way for admissions officers to discover and evaluate the candidates who will contribute most as members of the school’s student body and ultimately as alums. With essays continuing to slim down over the years, the school is intentionally signaling that what you’ve accomplished and how you stand out from your peers (as shown in your resume, transcripts, online application, and recommendations) are more important than merely your essay-writing skills or storytelling abilities. However, the essay remains a vital part of the application, as it enables you to direct the admissions officer’s attention to areas of your candidacy that really shine.
Essay: As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program? (no word limit)
A familiar essay prompt. Take a look at this HBS essay prompt from 2014-2015:
“You’re applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your résumé, 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)”
Notice anything similar? While the school chose not to list out the other application elements this year, the prompts are essentially the same. Regardless, it’s important to take some guidance from the way HBS once chose to phrase the essay question. Keep in mind that they do have your résumé, they do have your test scores, and they do have your transcripts. In other words, Harvard’s admissions committee isn’t looking for an essay answer that merely rehashes everything already noted on your application. If one or two of your accomplishments listed elsewhere organically find their way into your answer, that’s fine, but avoid the temptation to merely remind them of what they already know.
Your overall goal. We always tell every applicant that they need to do two things to get into HBS or any other top MBA program: 1) Stand out from other applicants (especially those with similar profiles), and 2) show how you fit with the school. If you come from a very common background (think management consultant, investment banker, or IT consultant from Asia), then you need to stand out even more, and this essay is your chance to do it. If your background already makes you unusual compared to 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. Resist the urge to go for a gimmick, but don’t be afraid to let your hair down a bit. What brought you to this point in your life? What will you uniquely contribute to your MBA class? What do you want to do after HBS? What do you like to do outside of school and work? What gets you up in the morning?
Choose a theme. One approach we would recommend is to think of a key theme or differentiator that defines you. Recognizing that this kind of self-reflection can be a challenge for many applicants, Veritas Prep entered into a yearlong collaboration with the publishers of the Myers-Briggs personality type assessments to develop our Personalized MBA Game Plan™ assessment tool, available free to all GMAT Prep and Admissions Consulting customers. Using your Myers-Briggs personality type, this assessment helps you analyze your own strengths and weaknesses to determine the unique ways that you may stand out from the crowd. Whether or not you utilize this resource, be very mindful of the key takeaway that you want the admissions board member to remember about you.
Essay length. Notice that they didn’t ask, “What one thing would you like us to know about yourself?” in the prompt. You should, however, resist the temptation to tell your entire life story here. Overall, we bet that applicants will err on the side of being too formal (and too wordy!) with this essay. After each paragraph, ask yourself: “Does this speak to what makes me unique?” If not, and you feel like the paragraph diverges from your core headline, then discard it and stick to what makes you different from the other applicants. Each time you stray into the territory of rehashing accomplishments, pause and ask if this is truly new information for the admissions committee. If it’s not, then put your delete key to work. Resist the temptation to go beyond 1,000 words. (In fact, we expect that the best essays will be about 500 to 800 words.)
“Show, don’t tell.” A key strategy for MBA essay writing is “show, don’t tell.” Don’t just tell the admissions board, “I’m a results-oriented leader who communicates a clear vision and then executes it.” Anyone can make this unsubstantiated claim in an essay. Instead, use a story from your life that shows how you learned those skills, perhaps by trial and error. Be sure to use some examples that are not necessarily found in other parts of your application. If you decide to expound upon an event or accomplishment found elsewhere, don’t simply rehash the same achievements found in your resume bullet points. Instead, help the admissions board see the experience from your own perspective: what was daunting and how you overcame it, what you learned from the experience, which motivations led you to make critical decisions, with whom you consulted, who and what were critical to your success, and so forth.
Taking risks. The biggest weakness we find in MBA essays is that applicants are actually too conservative—both in writing style and in content—resulting in dry, boring treatises that sound more like book reports than honest personal reflections. Don’t be afraid to take risks such as talking about an abject failure and what you learned from it, as long as you decide it’s the best way to help the admissions board see the world through your eyes. The goal is to help the admissions board see how you’ve become the person you are today and help them understand the underlying motivations that have driven some key decisions to-date.
Personable writing style. This may be Harvard, but that doesn’t mean your tone has to be overly formal or rigid. What’s most important here is that your answer (and your tone) is personal to you. Your writing style does not need to be as formal as a college English paper, but you should maintain an appropriate level of professionalism. Note the tone of the HBS admissions website and the application itself; it’s quite warm, straightforward, and personable. If they can write this way on a boring application form, then you should feel free to mirror that tone.