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Mba Grad School Essays

A soldier who served on the front lines in Afghanistan. A process engineer challenged by a long series of early failures. And a female consultant whose passion became healthcare.

Three MBA applicants to Harvard Business School last year. Three students in the newest crop of MBA students at Harvard this fall. All of them answered the question now being asked of 2017-2018 applicants to Harvard: 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?

The school provides minimal guidance for applicants trying to make an impression. “There is no word limit for this question,” advises HBS admissions. “We think you know what guidance we’re going to give here. Don’t over think, overcraft and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don’t know your world can understand.”

Each of the three applicants above wrote a clear and compelling essay in their applications, essays that Poets&Quants is reprinting with permission from the MBA Essay Guide Summer 2017 Edition recently published by The Harbus, the MBA student newspaper at Harvard Business School. The guide contains 39 essays written by successful candidates who are now starting the MBA program at HBS. Proceeds from the sale of the guidebook go to benefit the non-profit foundation that supports The Harbus.

With application deadlines rapidly approaching at Harvard Business School and many other prestige MBA programs, these successful essays will, no doubt, give current candidates a bit of guidance. More importantly, the essays that follow are most likely to provide comfort, that there is no formula or singular way to craft a successful answer.

THREE SUCCESSFUL ESSAYS. THREE VERY DIFFERENT APPROACHES.

The latest edition of the MBA Essay Guide from The Harbus costs $61.49

In his 1,130-word essay, the U.S. Army applicant ties together his experiences of leading soldiers on the front line in Afghanistan together with staff postings in Army operations and logistics to paint a portrait of a dedicated and people-oriented leader.

Inspired by a selfless act from her nine-year-old mentee, this management consultant decided to challenge herself to make an impact in healthcare. In a 937-word essay, she uses a particularly difficult turnaround situation which she was put in charge of as exemplifying her strongest skills: building relationships and uniting people around a common goal.

In a 1,358-essay, a process engineer opens up to a long series of failures in his early life. By showing both vulnerability and honesty, he is able to transform this list of fruitless endeavors into a credible “badge of honor,” evidence of his resilience, determination and strength of character. It quickly becomes apparent that what appeared to be failures in the first half, actually proved to be successes or openings for new opportunities, given enough time and perseverance.

ONE APPLICANT DID 25 DRAFTS BEFORE COMING UP WITH ONE SHE LIKED ENOUGH TO SUBMIT

Behind every MBA application is a person and a story, and in this trio of representative essays the approaches taken by each candidate is as different as the essays they submitted to the admissions committee at HBS.

The engineer went through took eight drafts over two months. “I thought about what personal traits I wanted to share with the ADCOM and identified stories from my past that identified those traits,” he explains. “After two or three drafts, I’d figured out the right narrative and kept refining it, taking as much as a week to finalize each draft. My best advice is to be honest, start early, and have someone who knows what the ADCOMS are looking for to read through a couple of your drafts and give you pointers.”

The consultant estimates that she went through 25 drafts to get to her final version. “I think the most important thing with the essay is to iterate,” she advises. “Because the question is so open-ended, it is important to reflect as much as possible and give yourself the time (in my case two months) to go on the journey necessary to realize what you care most about communicating and how to do so in the most effective way. I also cannot overstate the importance of finding someone who will give you honest feedback.

(See on the following pages the complete and full MBA essays submitted to Harvard Business School)

Since MBA programs are some of the most competitive educational institutions in the world, applying is no walk in the park.

MBA programs ask you to write essays so that they can gain an understanding of who you are in ways that cannot be gleaned from your transcripts, test scores, resume, or letters of recommendation. Your essays are your emissaries and represent you directly whereas other aspects of the application package, while important, only represent you indirectly. Because the MBA application process is highly competitive, the quality of applicants is going to be substantially higher than you may remember from your college applications. This is why it's especially important that your essays are as strong as they can be.

Understand who reads your essays

Your personal statements serve a vital purpose within the context of your overall applications. Specifically, they're your chance to speak directly to the admissions officers who typically work collaboratively as part of an admissions committee. The committee will likely be comprised of professors within the program, administrators, and it is becoming increasingly common for schools to include current students on the committee.

The goal of this committee is to craft a well-balanced, diverse, and accomplished incoming class. MBA programs take particular pride in the statistics and accomplishments of their incoming class, and this is why they are interested in your essays. Things like business experience and accomplishments are weighed heavily, and it can be difficult to highlight these things anywhere besides an essay. For these reasons, your essays are of particular importance to the admissions committee.
Make your essays focused and specific

When deciding on the content of your essays, think in terms of experiences that placed you at a crossroads. Choose anecdotes from your personal and professional background where you can demonstrate self-reflection and the ability to change your mindset and methods according to the lessons you have learned. You need to show that you have strong critical thinking skills and unique aspects of your background so that you can contribute to classroom discussions in a way that no other applicant can.

At the same time, you also need to demonstrate to the admissions committee that you understand where your growth areas are and why you need an MBA education to progress in your career. One of the most common mistakes that we see in MBA application essays is writing all of the essays as if the applicant has no real weaknesses. Applicants tend to do this not out of arrogance but out of the desire to show that they are a strong applicant. However, MBA programs want to select applicants who will take advantage of everything the program has to offer, so make specific connections between the program and your goals.

Make your essays work together

Most MBA programs ask for more than one essay, and prompts tend to be very specific in the kind of experience or situation that should be included in the essay. Therefore, as you brainstorm your essays, look at the overall picture. What are you trying to convey to the admissions officers about your background and potential? Although each essay should be unique with minimal overlap, they should also work together like chapters in a book. What is the overarching theme? Do your essays provide a comprehensive picture to the admissions officers?

By asking for more than one essay, MBA admissions committees are letting you know that they want to gain a three-dimensional understanding of who you are. Because of this, let them see you managing diverse situations and succeeding even in the face of obstacles. Throughout the essays, reflect the characteristics that will give the admissions officers confidence in your ability to succeed in their program and lead in the business world.

Remember the interview

Finally, keep the interview in mind as you create your essays. During the interview, you will likely be asked to elaborate on what you wrote about and reflect on those experiences at an even deeper level than you did in the essay. Also, keep your notes about potential anecdotes that you brainstormed but ultimately decided not to include in your essays. You'll be able to readily draw upon those experiences during the interview to add more breadth to your background and better show your readiness for MBA studies.

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