What More Would You Like Harvard Business School to Know?
Most top business schools expect you to answer one or more specific essay questions. In contrast, Harvard Business School for the 2017-2018 admissions season places the onus on the applicant to ask and answer their own question in what just might be the most difficult MBA application essay prompt of them all:
“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?”
MBA candidates have long been driving themselves mad pondering Stanford’s existential philosophy question: “What matters most to you and why?” Or, having tackled that little ditty, confronting part 2 of the “philosophy exam” and the equally daunting question about Stanford’s existence: “Why Stanford?”
Even so, MBA hopefuls around the world are telling MBA Prep School that Stanford’s essay questions, while enormously challenging, are no match for Harvard Business School’s essay prompt. After answering what matters most to you, you’ll have to solve the riddle of what more you would like HBS to know.
At MBA Prep School, we recommend that our clients attack the HBS essay in three stages: first strategically, second analytically, and third creatively. Taking the HBS essay on in that order not only provides every HBS applicant with a starting point for this head scratcher, it also prevents applicants from spending days and weeks creating wrapping paper only to realize there is nothing in the box they intend to send to the HBS admissions world headquarters in Dillon House.
Step One: Develop Your Communication Strategy
Even those who have never taken a business course intuitively understand that having a clear strategy leads to better execution. This is certainly the case when it comes to MBA applications and MBA essays as well. Before you begin filling out your applications, you need to have a clear idea of the essential messages you want those MBA applications to communicate about you.
MBA Prep School offers some useful resources and exercises to guide MBA applicants to develop an overall communications strategy, also known as an “application strategy.” Your application strategy answers fundamental questions about what you can contribute to an MBA community, whether it be Harvard’s or the other business schools around the globe. Succinctly put, you are going to have a heck of a time answering Harvard’s question about “what more would you like [HBS] to know?” if you haven’t answered the strategic question of what you want HBS to know about you in toto.
Step Two: Analyze What is Missing
We don’t start working with applicants on their HBS essay until they have completed their resume and put some thought into what their references are likely to include in their recommendation letters. The reason for that sequence is that until those tasks are complete, it is nearly impossible for an applicant to identify what details might be missing from their application or, at least, might require further illumination.
The second step in the HBS essay writing process is to complete a gap analysis. Review your communication strategy and determine which elements will be clearly covered by your resume, reference letters, and application forms. The strengths, stories, and big picture messages that you pinpointed as essential things for the admissions officers to know but might be missing from or under-emphasized by those other components of your application will form the building blocks for your HBS essay. With these gaps identified, you now have a pretty good sense of “what more” you want your Harvard Business School essay to convey.
Step Three: Create Essay Concepts
If you have been successful with your communication strategy and gap analysis, then you have honed in on possible stories, messages, and differentiating points that will enrich your HBS application. With an idea of what you want to say in your HBS essay, your next step is to figure out how you will say it. This is where your creativity comes into play. The first thing you want to create is your very own Harvard Business School essay question.
One applicant might decide to ask and answer a question about what they can contribute to next year’s class, another might write about a defining life experience, whereas a third might decide that the HBS admissions committee needs to know about how they plan to make a major difference in the world.
At this point in the essay writing process, the true power of the HBS essay finally reveals itself. Instead of expecting every applicant to pack what they have to give in a standard box, Harvard Business School lets you decide what you want to give and how you want to give it. The essay prompt might not seem like such a gift at the outset but, if you strategize, analyze, and create (in the recommended order), you have an opportunity to present your absolute best application to the HBS admissions officers. If the recipients at Dillon House like how your essay package is wrapped and love what they find inside, then you will be invited for an interview. There you will be asked in person what more you have to give. Like the HBS degree itself, the HBS essay question truly is the gift that keeps on giving.
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)