Harvard Application Essays 2014
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Last year, Harvard Business School (HBS) took a new approach to its application essay questions, moving from multiple queries to one very open-ended prompt with no clear word limit. This year, HBS Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Dee Leopold seems to have surprised even herself, judging from a recent blog post, by announcing that the school will be keeping its questions… err, question… exactly the same.
With the benefit of a year of HBS acceptances under our belt using this specific question, we can at least offer some confident guidance on word limits, an issue that really perplexed last year’s candidates. Last season, we had many successful applicants to HBS, some of whom used as few as 750 words while others used as many as 1,250. In general, we encouraged our clients to stick with 1,000 or fewer, but certain candidates who had plenty to say used more, expressed themselves well and ultimately succeeded. Although Leopold notes that the essay is actually optional, we report—and this will likely come as no shock to applicants—that we had no clients audacious enough to completely forgo submitting an essay. Every single one of our successful candidates did so, as expected.
Here is our analysis of the sole HBS essay question and the accompanying post-interview assessment…
Essay 1: You’re applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your resume, school transcripts, extracurricular 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?
Few things strike more fear into an MBA candidate’s heart than vague essay directions. Because of HBS’s lack of guidance with respect to word limits and its extremely open-ended question, knowing whether you are truly responding with information that the admissions committee wants and needs may be difficult. The committee further complicates things by specifically noting the information it will already have—transcripts, extracurricular activities, awards, etc. This may make you wonder if mentioning such information is a complete no-no and would weaken your chances for admission.
First, we would like to allay your fears to some degree and help you reframe your view of this question. Think of it as an opportunity to round out your candidacy in the admissions committee’s eyes the way you want, not within the parameters of a narrowly focused topic someone else has chosen. This is your chance to tell the school what you really feel it should know about you—what you believe makes you a worthy candidate, deserving of a spot in HBS’s next incoming class.
So now let us take a step back and consider what the non-essay portions of your application—your resume, for example—actually convey, so you can start to determine which parts of your profile need presenting or could benefit from more detail. Your resume is a map of your professional, educational and extracurricular life to date, and although it may provide a narrow window into your personal life, by and large, it does not offer profound insight into your values, emotions, challenges, important relationships and other key elements of your character and journey. An appropriate analogy might be that the admissions committee will learn about you in black and white from the other parts of your application, and this essay is what will transform your story into bright colors.
Definitely heed the school’s directions—thoroughly weigh what the other elements of your application provide and identify the information that is missing that you believe is key to your candidacy. Then ask yourself whether these missing elements constitute information that is simply important to you or that will effectively enhance the admissions committee’s knowledge of you—not as a professional but as a human being. If you are grouping together a few accomplishments and searching for a theme to link them, you are on the wrong track. However, if you are thinking carefully about key moments, experiences and people in your life that are central to who you are and what you offer—and that the admissions committee could not possibly surmise from your “black and white” application—then you are likely on your way to writing a compelling essay.
Will what you are planning to write tell the admissions committee about your values—about who you are, rather than what you have accomplished or tried to accomplish? Be sure to clearly convey why you have made certain choices in your life and, most importantly, how you have conducted yourself and made those choices. For example, sharing the story of how you started over as an immigrant in your essay is profoundly more compelling than merely stating your citizenship via a drop-down menu in the application’s short-answer section. Detailing how you resigned from a nonprofit board to expose rampant chicanery on that board will convey much more than including a list of extracurriculars at the end of your resume. We do not expect that you will have these exact stories, but be sure to pinpoint situations and characteristics that bring “color” to your file. Remember that your goal is to reveal your personality and stand out as an individual, not by claiming specific life accomplishments, but by demonstrating perspective and values and by showing you have lived an interesting life that your classmates will appreciate and that will allow you to bring depth to class discussions.
As we noted, the school stipulates no word limit for this essay. We offered some guidance above, but this is not to say that there is a right word count. More people are tempted to push the “limits” on the upper end of the spectrum, but you should show some restraint and recognize that you cannot share “everything.” Writing excessively—and unnecessarily—will only reveal that you lack self-awareness and the ability to censor yourself. Keep in mind that HBS operates on the case method, in which you will be expected to identify the most important facets of a situation and be able to discuss them clearly and succinctly in a class setting. This essay could be, on some level, the admissions committee’s way of evaluating your ability to do just that—only with yourself as the subject. You do not want to send the message that you are the self-important individual who will speak inordinately in class, but instead that you are the thoughtful one who understands what is important and can pinpoint and reveal truly interesting and relevant information.
Mini-Essay: Briefly tell us more about your career aspirations. (500 characters)
HBS, like most schools, wants to know that you have a sense of mission in pursuing your MBA. Sure, the admissions committee understands that the mission you have in mind right now may change, but an applicant who is directed and flexible is much preferred over one who has no direction at all.
In approximately five to eight sentences, can you reveal that direction? Yes! If HBS expected you to lay out your career plans in detail, it would have given you more than 500 characters with which to respond, so the idea is clearly to convey the basics of your plans. Still, the school wants to know that you have given some real thought to how your past experiences will help you actualize your short- and long-term goals. A statement such as “I want to leap into the sports world, hopefully with a new league team, where I would have opportunity to grow” is pretty vague. However, by writing just a little bit more, you could provide appropriate context to frame and support your aspirations: “At Marvel, I was constantly immersed in licensing negotiations for our characters. I intend to leverage this knowledge in the sports world—which depends greatly on TV licensing deals—joining the league office of a high potential organization, such as Major League Soccer or the American Ultimate Disc League, where I will help define digital strategy.”
Some applicants may feel compelled to answer a question that the school does not actually ask: “Why HBS?” You can rest assured that HBS is secure in its capabilities, so to get admitted, you do not need to tell the school how awesome it is. If you have a particularly compelling reason for targeting HBS—the school offers something specific to your needs—then mentioning this may be worthwhile, but you do not have to. Similarly, you definitely do not need to comment on the case method or leadership—doing so will only reveal that you are familiar with a buzzword or two, and that will not help convince the admissions committee of anything.
For more information on how to demonstrate that your past experiences have provided you with transferable skills that will logically lead to future success and help you achieve your goals, please download our free mbaMission Personal Statement Guide.
Have the Last Word: The Post-Interview Reflection (conditional on being interviewed)
From the admissions committee: “Following the interview, candidates are required to submit a written reflection using our online application system. This must be submitted within 24 hours following the completion of the interview. Detailed instructions will be provided to those applicants who are invited to the interview process.”
For the third consecutive year, HBS is stipulating a final written task for candidates who are granted an interview. Within 24 hours of interviewing, you must submit some final words of reflection, addressing the question “How well did we get to know you?” As with the application essay, this post-interview reflection is open-ended; you can structure it however you wish and write about whatever you want to tell the committee. HBS urges interviewed applicants not to approach this reflection as a formal essay but instead “as an email you might write to a colleague or supervisor after a meeting.”
Some candidates may find this additional submission intimidating, but we encourage you to view it as an opportunity to reveal new aspects of your profile to the admissions committee. Because your HBS interviewer will have read your entire application before your meeting, you will likely discuss information from your resume, essays, recommendations, etc., during your interview. This post-interview reflection, then, could provide an opening for you to discuss new and different elements of your profile, thereby adding depth to your candidacy. For example, if you could not find a way to include the story of a key life experience of yours into your essays, but your interviewer touches on a similar story or something connected with this experience in your meeting, you would now have license to share that anecdote.
During your conversation, focus exclusively on your interviewer’s questions and your responses—in other words, do not try to identify possible topics for your post-interview reflection while you are still in your meeting—but as soon as it is over, jot down all the topics covered and stories you discussed. If you interview on campus, note also any observations about your time there. For example, sitting in on a class might have reminded you of a compelling past experience, or participating in the case method may have provided insight into an approach you could use in some way in the future. Maybe the people you met or a building you saw made a meaningful impression on you. Whatever these elements are, tie them to aspects of your background and profile while adding some new thoughts and information about yourself. This last part is key—simply describing your visit will not teach the admissions committee anything about you, and a flat statement like “I loved the case method” will not make you stand out. Similarly, offering a summary of everything the admissions committee already knows about you will not advance your candidacy and would constitute a lost opportunity to keep the committee learning about who you are.
HBS offers some additional advice on the post-interview reflection that we strongly urge you to take seriously and follow:
- We will be much more generous in our reaction to typos and grammatical errors than we will be with pre-packaged responses. Emails that give any indication that they were produced BEFORE you had the interview will raise a flag for us.
- We do not expect you to solicit or receive any outside assistance with this exercise.
As for how long this essay should be, HBS again does not offer a word limit. We have seen successful submissions ranging from 400 words to more than 1,000. We recommend aiming for approximately 500, but adjust as appropriate to thoroughly tell the admissions committee what you feel is important, while striving to be succinct.
For a thorough exploration of HBS’s academic program/merits, defining characteristics, crucial statistics, social life, academic environment and more, please check out the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to Harvard Business School.
While it's only one part of the application — and a mediocre essay might suffice if you're an otherwise ideal candidate — a superb essay can be the game-changer that pushes you into "yes" territory.
These essays give prospective students an opportunity to show administrators their true motives and personality, thus humanizing the dry facts that come with tests scores and a CV.
To get to know their prospective students, Harvard Business School asked applicants to answer the following question last year:
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)
The Harbus, HBS's student newspaper, recently published a collection of successful answers in "The Essay Book." One of the best examples of a strong essay, "The Giver," is included below:
To understand what makes this such a strong HBS admissions essay, we spoke with Nabil Mohamed, editor-in-chief of The Harbus.
What else would I like you to know?
I am who I am today mostly because of my brother [name]. [name] was born when I was fouryears old, and he had an extremely rare birth defect called Robert's Syndrome. At the time, hewas one of a handful in the world to have it. He was born without arms, couldn't walk or talk,and had many other severe physical and mental defects. It was a complete shock to myparents. He was only expected to live for a day or two, but after a few weeks in the hospital hewas healthy enough to come home with us. I was too young to really understand what wasgoing on; I was just excited to have a brother.
[name] was a full-time job for us. For his entire life he was incapable of doing anything forhimself. My parents and I didn't have much, but we did have an amazing family and group offriends to support us. We couldn't have taken care of [name] without all of them, and seeingthis level of sacrifice from so many people had a huge impact on me. No one ever complained.No one ever hesitated. We just did what we had to, and I saw first-hand at a young age howimportant it is to work together and help those around you. And our family (extendedincluded), became so much closer because of how we came together for [name], and thatcloseness still holds today.
[name] ended up living for about four years, and I'm so grateful for the lessons I learned fromhim. My generosity, kindness, team work, and independence, come directly from him being inmy life. And learning to deal with that level of stress and responsibility made me a much, muchstronger person than I would have been without.
So my family and I have carried [name]'s memory with us since he passed in the form of givingto others. About ten years ago, we started a charity called [institution], whose purpose is tosupply beds and bedding to children in our area who are without. The thought was that [name]spent most of his life in bed, and if we hadn't had a decent one for him his life would have beenso uncomfortable. As of this year, we have supplied almost [number] kids with mattresses,blankets, and stuffed animals, and each year we are able to help more and more children.
This mentality of service has been a big part of my life since we started [institution], and as Igot older I wanted to start branching out to new service opportunities. And let me tell you,[city] has been a great place to start. This city has made a serious impression on me. Anyonewho's from here either loves it or hates it, but either way, [city] is the kind of place that definesa person. [city] is the underdog, full of unrealized potential. Living in a place like this hasopened my eyes to the heartache of missed opportunities (not even mentioning our sportsteams…), and it's because of this that I've become so involved in the community. I've been ableto work with so many very smart, driven people, and together we've done a lot to make apositive impact. My work with the [institution] has allowed me to help raise over [number] for small, local NFPs, and my work with the [institution] has complemented that with a morehands-on, service based focus. And being a Big Brother through [institution] has allowed me tomake a lasting, consistent impact in a more focused way.
All of these, together with working for a commercial bank, have given me a very satisfying lifebalance. I'm able to do so many things, and able to make a tangible impact in each of them. Butsometimes I do so much that I don't take the time to stop and look around - to process what'shappening. This was missing in my life. I know that the path I'd been taking was the right onefor me, I'd just never truly felt ready to move on to the next phase.
This changed this past summer when I did my first [event]. If you're not familiar with this, it's a[number] mile swim followed by a [number] mile bike and then a [number] mile run. Still seems nuts to me. I'd never done a triathlon of any kind before I signed up for this, but was sooverwhelmed by watching my friend compete in the same one the year before. I'll never forgetthe moment: I was watching a quadriplegic go up the final - and largest - hill in his wheelchair,sweating, grunting, and crying. And finishing. I'm pretty sure everyone watching that wascrying; it was one of the most moving things I'd ever seen. So I signed up.
Training for this requires a serious amount of time, most of which you're alone with yourthoughts (no music allowed during the race, so you train without). Eight hours biking, fiverunning, and two swimming, each week for seven months, is so mentally taxing, and your mindgoes to some new places. I started reflecting a lot, and really began to understand the choicesI've made and the impact they've had. I thought a lot about where I was in life, why I was there,and what I would have done differently along the way. I thought about what I wanted for myfuture, not just career-wise, but in order to be happy. And it's not so much that my viewschanged from this experience, but I feel like I've gained a new level of clarity. I'm much moreconfident in my life goals, and can pursue them with pride and conviction.
I'm now ready to move on to the next phase of my life, and am very excited to do so.
"It's just an incredibly powerful account of how someone's entire life trajectory was changed by the birth of their sibling, and how the entire community came together in a way he had never seen before," he says. "It changed [the author's] priorities. It's almost a gene-altering experience. Even if he was born a driven guy who just wanted to take care of himself, something like that is powerful enough to even change that and completely alter his priorities to dedicate his life toward helping other people. That's what I thought was powerful about the essay. It changed his nature as a person, his priorities, and his belief in the reason why he exists."
Though not all essays need to delve into such a deeply personal event as this one, it provides a shining example of what every powerful essay should aim to do: show who you are beyond your resume.
As Mohamed points out, instead of saying, "I am my achievements" or, "I am my situation," this essays says, "I am a loving brother." It adds personality to the author's application, showing who he is on a deeper level than merely where he has worked or what his undergrad GPA was.
"At the end of the day, anybody can study hard, get a couple of recommendations, do well at a company, and then submit their application," Mohamed says. "But they want to get a sense of what your priorities are, what you want to do in life, what brought you here, why you want to do this now."
The essay offers HBS applicants an opportunity to unveil their true personalities. And with no word limit, it is up to each applicant to take their own route in doing so. In fact, Mohamed points out that every essay The Harbus published was starkly different, telling each individual's story in a clear, understandable way.
Administrators already know where you went to school, what clubs you were in, and where your career has taken you so far, but they don't know how these experiences have shaped who you are today and influenced your goals and priorities. That's where the essay comes in.