What is cryptic about HBS admission essays?

Harvard Business School asks its MBA applicants to write open-ended essays about themselves.

The HBS no-word-limit essay tasks its applicants to provide the following information:

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?  

Harvard applicants start their essay preparations a few weeks or months ahead of the application deadline. Applicants have been struggling to get the hang of what goes into the perfect essay.

The task lies in writing an essay that speaks in favor of the applicant’s candidature without sounding pompous.

Are there templates for the perfect HBS essay?

HBS has neither declared any templates nor prescribed guidelines on presenting the essay.

This article narrows down a few dos and don’ts based on the essays of a few successful applicants.

What goes into an MBA Harvard essay? 

Unlike other B-School SOPs, the HBS essay does not seek answers to questions like “Why MBA?” or “Why Harvard?”

From a careful review of successful applicants’ essays, one can deduce that the piece should be:

  • Open and candid.
  • Speak of real-life experiences
  • Respect the reader’s time.
  • Display the applicant’s aptitude, accomplishment, character, and passion. (Narrating incidents that demonstrate the candidate’s traits can carry much weight.)
  • Mention how the applicant can contribute to HBS case discussions or how involved he/she might be in the Harvard community.
  • Exhibit the candidate’s quirks.

What should the essay writer avoid?

  • Displaying literary creativity
  • Boasting about anything that may put the reader off
  • Fabricating achievements and concealing failures
  • Listing exaggerated professional achievements.
  • Playing safe

The prompt mentions: ‘what more.’So, the applicant must skip details that the rest of the application lists. Avoid mentioning:

  • GMAT/GRE/GPA scores
  • Accomplishments and character traits the resume and the recommenders mention

What steps can go right?

Karla Cohen, a former associate director of doctoral programs at Harvard and a coach, offered a few tips on attempting the HBS essay. She warns against any display of grandiose and pomp. Instead, she says, the essay must be one the reader would enjoy reading.

HBS expects such responses in its essays that the admissions committee could not have asked. The school would like to know more about the applicant through the paper. They look for individual traits that separate the applicant from the rest. Creativity is good, but originality is the key. The article must not justify low GPA /GMAT/GRE scores or explain why the applicant does not have much to show in extracurricular activities. HBS looks for strengths in exciting areas.

The HBS essay is not a standard essay prompt, so it deserves a non-standard response.

With about 930 successful candidates per batch, Harvard Business School has an acceptance rate of 11%. Most candidates have enviable profiles, and applicants compete with many equally qualified candidates on several fronts. The essay must differentiate the individual and show the admissions committee why they should select him/her over other competent applicants.

HBS seeks candidates who can contribute something unique in a case discussion. A topic relevant to how the applicant could pitch in case discussions is an ideal one for the essay.

One approach to the essay could involve looking for answers from the school’s program. An applicant must review the areas HBS covers in the first year of its Management program:

  • Finance
  • Accounting
  • Leadership
  • Marketing
  • Operations
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Strategy
  • Ethics
  • Economics
  • Government

The applicant must select the area in which he/she could add value. Elaborating on the topic with authenticity could turn out to be the winner.

An applicant’s job is to present himself/herself as one who can make a difference to the school’s program. He/she may achieve this feat by providing proof of his/her candidature in the essay or the interview.

The applicant can lead the admission committee to ask questions that prove his/her merit by displaying it to the panel through the essay. By covering points that intrigue the admission panel is one way of responding to the essay prompt.

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