HBS Admissions Essays for the Class of 2015

Jun, 26, 2012

Categories: Admissions Consulting | Essay Analysis | Essays | HBS | MBA | MBA留学 | Key Posts

This is the forth in series of eight posts. My analysis of the HBS Application for the Class of 2015 (and 2+2 Class of 2017) consists of:



My comprehensive service clients have been admitted to the regular HBS MBA for the Classes of 2014, 2013, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, and 2005 and one 2+2 client admitted to the Class of 2014. My clients’ results and testimonials can be found here. In addition to providing comprehensive application counselling on HBS, I regularly help additional candidates with HBS interview preparation. I have worked with a large number of applicants from Canada, Europe, India, Japan, other parts of Asia, and the United States on HBS application. I think that this range of experience has helped me understand the many possible ways of making an effective application to HBS. In the posts in this series, I provide insights based on that experience.

In my previous post I discussed who should apply to HBS.  In this post, I will first discuss the essays initially by considering the three primary stated criteria and one overall consideration that HBS uses in selecting candidates because this will form the basis of a successful admissions strategy. I will then discuss the specific essay questions as well as the brief MBA question that HBS asks in the application form. I then provide some suggestions about how to look at the HBS application as whole. Finally, I provide some writing advice. Be warned, this post is long.  I suggest skimming it first to figure out what you need from it. Since HBS is providing such a short set of essays this year, I figured I should respond in the opposite manner.

Part 1: Four Ways HBS Evaluates Applicants
My objective when working with each of my clients is to help them identify the best content in their essays, resume, interview and other application components to show fit for each school they apply to. My approach is to understand the audience that is being communicated to because the only objective of your application is to communicate effectively to your audience, the admissions committee.
The following table summarizes what HBS is looking for (Diversity, Habit of Leadership, Analytical Aptitude and Appetite, and Engaged Community Citizenship) and the possible places where you can demonstrate these in your initial application (Interview and post-interview not considered below):

What HBS is looking for and how you can demonstrate this in your application

Application Components: Diversity Habit of Leadership Analytical Aptitude and Appetite Engaged Community Citizenship
Application Form (including “Why MBA?” question) Possible Possible Possible Possible
Resume Possible Possible Possible Possible
Essay 1 Possible Possible Possible Possible
Essay 2 Possible Possible Possible Possible
Recommendation 1 Possible Possible Possible Possible
Recommendation 2 Possible Possible Possible Possible
Recommendation 3 Possible Possible Possible Possible
GMAT/GRE Not Applicable Not Applicable Possible Not Applicable
iBT TOEFL/IELTS (if applicable) Not Applicable Not Applicable Possible Not Applicable
GPA Not Applicable Not Applicable Possible Not Applicable

These four core ways that HBS evaluates applicants need to be communicated in your application, but given the very limited essay set this year, it is unlikely that you will focus on all four criteria in your essays.  Below, I will discuss which criteria your essays should focus on. HBS makes their own core selection criteria clear: 
Please read “Who Are We Looking For?”

Instead of looking for an “ideal” candidate, HBS invites applicants who bring a variety of skills, accomplishments, and aspirations to form a very special community. To create a dynamic environment that mirrors the breadth and depth of our world economy, we seek diversity. Our promise to our faculty and to every student here is to create a class of 900 students who come from as many different backgrounds and perspectives as possible.
This overall intention to create a highly diverse class significantly impacts HBS admissions’ decisions. The critical thing is that you demonstrate why you are unique and how you will add to the diversity of the class.  In your essays you need to show what makes you stand out.   Especially in the third round and for applicants who are waitlisted, the diversity consideration will greatly impact their overall admissions result.  In the first and second round there is more room for selecting candidates, but by third round and waitlist, it is all a question of rounding out the class to maximize the diversity of the backgrounds and perspectives represented. Especially if you think your academic, personal, professional, and/or extracurricular experiences are not inherently unique, it is very important that your essays demonstrate what makes you stand out. 

Some ways of demonstrating diversity that my clients have used successfully include the following:
-Being the first person or kind of person to do something
-Being the youngest person to do do something
-Making an original contribution to something
-Having an unusual family, academic, personal, or professional background
-Unusual skills or talents
-Extensive international experience
-Receiving prestigious awards or scholarships
-Typically, even post-MBA goals might be used for this purpose, but given the brief space in the application for discussing goals, it will be challenging to do so in this year’s application
Keep in mind that diversity is a matter of interpretation and presentation and it is each applicant’s responsibility to best demonstrate how they will add value to their classmates. One of my jobs as a consultant is always help my clients identify ways that make them distinct even if they think they are not special. I operate on the assumption that everyone is unique.

Habit of Leadership
As I have discussed in my second and third posts in this series, the mission of HBS is to educate leaders.  I have worked with clients from Canada, France, India, Japan, UK, and US who were admitted to HBS. They had a diversity of educational, extracurricular, and professional backgrounds, but were united by one thing: In one or more aspects of their lives, they demonstrated this habit of leadership. HBS takes a very broad view of what they are looking for:
We recognize – and welcome – leadership that may be expressed in many forms, from college extracurricular activities to academic or business achievements, from personal accomplishments to community commitments. We appreciate leadership on any scale as well, from organizing a classroom to directing a combat squad, from running an independent business to spearheading initiatives at work. In essence, we are looking for evidence of your potential.
Even if a set of business school essay questions does not necessarily explicitly ask for you to show your potential for leadership, it should still be accounted for. Leadership is no easy thing. Nor is it obvious. The worst possible thing is to conceive of leadership as simple formal responsibility or a title because this conveys nothing about the person in that position. While some applicants will have held formal leadership positions, many will not. Formal leadership positions are great to write about if they involve the applicant actually having significant impact, making a difficult decision, being a visionary, showing creativity, or otherwise going beyond their formal responsibility, but the same is true for those showing leadership without having a formal title.
If you are having difficulty really understanding leadership, I have a few suggestions:
1. One great place to read about leadership, and business in general, is Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

If you are having difficulty really understanding leadership, I have a few suggestions:
1. One great place to read about leadership, and business in general, is Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.
3. If you have not done so, I suggest reading relevant essays in 65 Successful Harvard Business School Application Essays: With Analysis by the Staff of the Harbus, The Harvard Business School NewspaperReading these essays should help you to understand the great diversity of topics that are possible and not only in terms of leadership.

Engaged Community Citizenship
While “Engaged Community Citizenship” might take the form of leadership, it is quite distinct:
So much of our MBA experience – including the case method, section life, and student-organized events – requires the active collaboration of the entire HBS community. That’s why we look for students who exhibit the highest ethical standards and respect for others, and can make positive contributions to the MBA Program. The right candidates must be eager to share their experiences, support their colleagues, and teach as well as learn from their peers.
HBS and other MBA programs are looking for students who will make a contribution. This really makes sense because of the collaborative nature of MBA education. While professors play an important role in the classroom, students learn from each other on a continuous basis both inside and outside of class. An MBA education is very much one based on relationship building. One of the chief functions of an MBA admissions committee is to select people who will be good classmates. The director and the rest of the committee have done their job properly if they have selected students who can work well together, learn from each other, and if these students become alum who value the relationships they initially formed at business school. Given that two of the major takeaways from an HBS education are the relationships that a student forms during the program and access to the alumni network, HBS is looking for candidates who will fully engage with others.
The essay questions that HBS asks do not require one to directly discuss contributions. Actually in most HBS essay sets in the past, community engagement is not directly requested. I would argue, in fact, that even if a school does not ask an applicant to tell them what he or she can contribute, the applicant should make that clear in the essays by showing clearly the ways one has added value to others, teams, organizations, projects, etc. Interviews are usually a further opportunity to discuss how one will make a contribution.   It is important to show engagement with others in your essays, in your interview, in your post-interview essay, in your application, and in your resume.  You should also make it a point to get your recommenders to discuss how you add value to the team, to whatever “community” (A workplace is a community) they worked with you in.
Engagement in a community may take many different forms.Over the years, I have found the following types of activities to be very effective for MBA applications:
-Volunteer or social activities at work, whether it is actually organizing them or participating in them.
-Volunteer or social activities at school, whether it is actually organizing them or participating in them.
-Volunteer or social activities outside of work or school, whether it is actually organizing them or participating in them.

-A volunteer activity related to your post-MBA goals

-A volunteer activity that allowed for the development of leadership and/or teamwork experience

-A volunteer activity that put you in contact with people who are quite different from you in terms of nationality, income level, and/or educational background
-An international volunteer or social activity
-Active involvement in an alumni organization
-Active participation in a sports team
-Active political involvement (Not just voting or knowledge of politics, but actual activities)
-Participation in an orchestra, band or other musical group
-Participation in drama or dance
-Organizing trips or other activities for a group of friends
-Serving as the leader, organizer, or active member of a team-based educational activity such as a seminar, project, or overseas trip
The above are just some possibilities.
Some people will no doubt worry that they lack extracurricular activities to demonstrate such community citizenship, but in my experience there is always some way to demonstrate this. Part of my job is to help my clients identify such activities and communicate about them effectively.

Analytical Aptitude and Appetite
Harvard Business School is a demanding, fast-paced, and highly-verbal environment. We look for individuals who enjoy lively discussion and debate. Our case and field-based methods of learning depend upon the active participation of prepared students who can assess, analyze, and act upon complex information within often-ambiguous contexts. The MBA Admissions Board will review your prior academic performance, the results of the GMAT or GRE, and, if applicable, TOEFL iBT and/or IELTS, and the nature of your work experience. There is no particular previous course of study required to apply; you must, however, demonstrate the ability to master analytical and quantitative concepts.
As I discussed in the previous post in this series, HBS is a highly competitive and challenging academic environment. It is not for anyone.  “Analytical Aptitude And Appetite,” what can more generally be thought of as academic potential, will be very easy for some candidates to demonstrate without ever writing an essay on the topic. You must demonstrate your analytical intelligence somewhere in your application. Yes, a solid GPA and GMAT are enough for that purpose, but if you think your academic record and GMAT are weak, I do suggest demonstrating your high analytical aptitude and appetite in your essays. Also, whether you address your analytical abilities in your essays, for most applicants, it would also be very useful to have one or more recommenders discussing this.
Some effective ways to demonstrate analytical intelligence include the following:
-Solving a complex problem at work, school, or elsewhere
-Discussing the successful completion of complex analytical tasks
-Breaking down a complex problem that you solved and communicating it a very brief and clear way
– Demonstrating great personal insight into ones weaknesses, failures, and/or mistakes
-Showing the ability to learn from weaknesses, failures, and/or mistakes
-Showing the ability to learn and master something highly complex
-Demonstrating a high level of creativity

Some effective ways to demonstrate analytical intelligence include the following:
-Solving a complex problem at work, school, or elsewhere
-Discussing the successful completion of complex analytical tasks
-Breaking down a complex problem that you solved and communicating it a very brief and clear way
– Demonstrating great personal insight into ones weaknesses, failures, and/or mistakes
-Showing the ability to learn from weaknesses, failures, and/or mistakes
-Showing the ability to learn and master something highly complex
-Demonstrating a high level of creativity

Part 2: The Two Required Essays


  • T Tous les jours à tous points de vue je vais de mieux en mieux



(“Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better”)
Émile Coué de la Châtaigneraie
When I read these essay questions- 
Tell us about something you did well. 
Tell us about something you wish you had done better. 

-they made me recall the above mantra-like statement that Coué used as part of his method of optimistic autosuggestion. As an optimist, at least I try to be one, I have loved this quote since learning it when I was in high school. I think these questions are written with the same underlying optimism as Coué’s mantra because they based on the idea of continuous improvement. HBS is a place for promising people to become better.  This year, HBS is asking applicants to very open-ended questions that reflect this spirit.  Actually, I think anyone (including your grandmother and a relatively intelligent five-year old) could answer these questions.  In past years, HBS has asked questions that simply were more specific and that could prove difficult to answer. In past years, applicants had to provide many stories/examples/anecdotes in their essay set. For example, last year, applicants had to write about 3 accomplishments and 3 setbacks and that was only in the first two out of four essays!  If you are applying this year, you are lucky because you only need to write about two situations. Just make sure they are your best stories!  And remember that you are writing stories that need to be easily understood by your readers.  

Tell us about something you did well. (400 words)

This is your best accomplishment essay. It should be that accomplishment that best demonstrates your leadership, community engagement, and/or analytical strengths. It might also demonstrate what makes you unique and will add to the diversity of the class. It needs to be a story that help admissions really understand you beyond what they have read in your resume and application form.  It needs to be story that shows you at your best.  Keep the following in mind:

reveal your potential to succeed at HBS and afterwards.
reveal your key strengths and talents 
reveal your potential for contributing to your classmates (diversity)
has had accomplishments, so an admissions reader can compare what you have done with that of other applicants. One of the things that I do with my clients is help them understand how their accomplishments measure up when compared to other applicants. It is important to keep in mind that w
you consider to be an accomplishment is a real test of your self-awareness and

I have provided a framework for outlining and analyzing your possible answers to this essay topic in the grid below. First, select two or more stories for consideration. I think you should try to think widely and then narrow down your list to 2-4 stories so that you can then compare what each story says about you and the potential impact each story is likely to have on an HBS reader.

Something I did well: Brainstorming and Strategy Grid


Possible Stories How does the story focus on your leadership, community citizenship, analytical ability, and/or other unique qualities/skills/talents (diversity)? What specifically did you do in the story? How does the story show you at your best? Is this something HBS could learn about you elsewhere in the application? If so, to what extent? Are you prepared to defend this story in an interview?
Story 1:
Story 2:
Story 3:
Story 4:


(To use the above table for yourself, simply copy and paste it. I checked it on both Google Docs and MS Word and it works.)

1: “Possible Stories.” 
The first
thing you need to do is think of the possible things you did well (accomplishments) that could be used here. Think of these as stories. You will eventually need to select one of them to write about.  

 How does the story focus on your leadership, community citizenship, analytical ability, and/or other unique qualities/skills/talents(diversity)?” Your story needs to connect well to one or more of HBS’s core criteria. Some will call these selling points,
but more specifically they consist of skills, values, or unique experiences. The point is that the story must, at its
core, reveal something key to understanding who you are and contribute to making the case for your admission to HBS.

What specifically did you do in the story?  Think about the actions you took and briefly describe them.  If story actually does not involve you doing very much, it probably is not a good story. Compare the stories to see how much you actually did in the situation. 

4: “
How does this story show you at your best?” Try to explain to yourself why you think this is your best story. Especially if you can’t complete this step on your own with great confidence, I certainly suggest you get some advice.  This is kind of thing I frequently help clients figure out. 

5: “Is this something Adcom could learn about you elsewhere? If so, to what extent?”
If a story is redundant, it is probably not worth mentioning. If you were an accountant,
having a story that merely demonstrated you were good at accounting because you studied really hard and passed the CPA exam would not be worth writing about. Instead it would be important to show
something more specific that reveals something that is not obvious by a mere
examination of the basic facts of your application. It should be story goes significantly beyond what someone could know from reviewing your background information in the resume and application form.

Row 6: “Are you prepared to defend this story in an interview?” It is worth keeping in mind that anything you submit to HBS will become a potential basis for an interview question. Your story needs to be one that is believable and that you could easily discuss if an HBS interviewer asks you about it.  

Deciding which story to use
After you have completed the above chart, compare how your stories measure up. Go with story that seems to really show you at your best and bring out aspects of how you are that relate well to what HBS is looking for. Eliminate from consideration those stories were your actions are not so special even if the outcome is really significant. Eliminate those stories that can be easily accounted for elsewhere n your application. Eliminate those stories that you would not feel comfortable being asked about in an interview. If you are having difficulties at this stage, you need to get advice. 

Tell us about something you wish you had done better. (400 words)

In prior years, HBS has asked applicants to write about their failures, mistakes, and setbacks. Except for the Class of 2014 application where applicants had to write on three setbacks, applicants have usually had to just write on one topic. The same is true this year.  What is nice is that the question itself is very open-ended.  What is difficult about the question is that it is open-ended. To help you overcome the difficulty, I think it is worth considering some of the two basic types of situations that you might write about it:
1. A successful situation where you could have done better. I think it is important to understand that you might very well discuss a situation where you basically succeeded, but where there was significant room for improvement. It is important to remember that you need not write about a total failure type situation. In this type of essay, you would want to identify what you did right and what you could have done better, explain why you could have done it better, and then you might also provide an example of subsequent time when you did it better.
2. An unsuccessful situation. You may have failed completely or only partially, but the situation is clearly not one where you performance was effective. This is the classic failure, mistake, or setback essay. In this type of essay, you would want to explain what you could better and why. 

Whatever kind of situation you write about, it is critical that you learned something meaningful. While not stated, you may very well find that one way of showing what you learned is to discuss how you applied your lesson to a new situation. HBS is looking for applicants who are aware of their own limitations and willing to confront them directly. Bad topics for this question typically involve someone writing about a situation that is either so old or lacking in a substantial lesson learned or otherwise not very relavent.

Selecting a topic
In general, I suggest focusing on a topic where what you need to get better at is something you have improved on already and/or want to get better at through your HBS education.  There is no reason to discuss a situation which highlights neither your strengths and/or reasons for wanting to attend HBS.  For example, you might be able to do something better based on gaining 10 years of experience or on simply becoming more mature, but how does that kind of story really help you improve your chances for admission to HBS?  You want a story that will help you make the strongest possible case for your own admission.
The following list of questions will help you evaluate whether you have a good or bad topic:
Do your actions in the situation reveal your leadership potential, analytical ability, community citizenship, or what makes you unique?  If the story doesn’t reveal any of these things, what selling points does the story reveal about you? Even in a situation where you did not do very well, you still want to demonstrate why HBS should admit you.
Does the story focus on a situation that is important?  Some people, typically the overly defensive, focus on less important situations because they worry that revealing what they did badly would be fatal to them. Defensive topics include writing about things that happened when one was a child, minor situations at work or elsewhere, and low stakes situations. Even when discussing your own limitations do so through providing an example that really highlights your ability to work in challenging situations as an adult.
Could you have really done better?  Sometimes people pick situations were a failure took place but where they actually were not in a position to do better.  It is important that you pick a situation that was within in your control, one where you really could have done better. 
How could you have done it better? If you can’t provide a specific answer to this question, it is not a good situation to write about. You should be able to explain what you did ineffectively and how you could have done it better. Provide an answer that is detailed and clear enough to help your reader understand exactly how you have improved.
Are you prepared to defend this story in an interview? It is worth keeping in mind that anything you submit to HBS will become a potential basis for an interview question. Interviewers often have a tendency to ask about weaknesses and failures, so be certain that the topic you select for this essay is one that you can elaborate on further in an interview.
After going through this selection, you may still find that you have list of 2-3 possible topics.  Selecting the right one will depend on what you are writing about in the other essay as well as other components of the application.  You surely want a topic that is not redundant. If you were a financial analyst, having a story that merely demonstrated how you improved your ability to do modeling would not really provide the reader with such great insight into you.  It should be story goes significantly beyond what someone could know from reviewing your background information in the resume and application form. One great thing about this essay topic is that it will help you come up with alternative topics that can be used in your interviews, for other schools essays, and possibly as suggestions that you can provide to your recommenders.


Part 3: Degree Objectives
This year HBS is not requiring a regular essay from those applying for the MBA program.  Actually, if you only look on their website, it appears that there is no space at all for explaining why you want an MBA unless you are applying for a joint degree.  Actually there is a brief space in the online application (on the Employment section page) for explaining why you want an MBA. I have copied the entire section and placed it here because it will make easier to understand.
Employment Section
Intended Post-MBA:
How does pursuing an MBA support your choices above?
Characters left in your response 500

So after selecting Industry and Function from the pulldown lists (That they work as a straight cut and paste from the online application into Blogger amazes me!), you have a glorious 500 characters (about 100-125 words) to answer “How does pursuing an MBA support your choices above?”  Clearly your answer need to be focused on explaining the industry and function you hope to pursue after your MBA.   Given the limited space, I suggest being as specific as possible about what you need from HBS based on the industry and function you intend to pursue.  When faced with writing something so limited in length, I suggest you do the following:
1. Explain what you intend to do after your MBA connecting it sufficiently to the pulldown selections you made. Try to limit this to around 50% or less of your total character count in order to have space explain why you want MBA.
2. Explain the most important thing you hope to get out of your education at HBS that will help succeed after your MBA. Don’t focus on discussing the program details because there is not space for that. Tell them what you need from HBS, don’t tell them about HBS.
3. Explain the second most important thing you need from HBS.
4. If space permits, go for a third thing and so on.
My suggestion is not make a huge list of courses or items in general, but to provide a succinct and powerful explanation that really shows your ability to focus on what is most important for you to reach your post-MBA industry and function. Assume that if you are invited to an interview you may very well be asked to elaborate on what you have written here, so you need to need to be able to communicate much more about your goals than you will written.

Most applicants will spend significantly more time thinking about this answer rather than writing it.  If you are working on longer Why MBA essays for other schools, you probably already have done all the hard thinking. If you are still trying to figure out what you want to do with your life, you can use the following grid.


YOUR… Present Career Post-MBA GAP BETWEEN
What skills and other aspects of the MBA will help you achieve your post-MBA objectives?
ORGANIZATIONAL ROLE Industry:Function:Responsibilities:


(To use the above table for yourself, simply copy and paste it. I checked it on both Google Docs and MS Word and it works.)

How to use this matrix:


Step 1. Begin by
analyzing your “Present Career.” What  roles
and responsibilities have you had in clubs, part-time jobs, internships,
volunteer activities, etc.? What was/is your functional role(s)? What was/are
your responsibilities?
Next, analyze your
present strengths and weaknesses for succeeding in your present career. In
particular, some of your greatest strengths may have been demonstrated outside
of work, so make sure you are accounting for them.
Strengths: What are
you good at? Where do you add value? What are you praised for? What are you
proud of?
Weakness: What are you
bad at? What are you criticized for? What do you try to avoid due to your own
limitations? What do you fear?
Next, analyze your
situation in right now. What opportunities exist for your growth and success?
What threats could limit your career growth?
Step 2. Now, do the
same thing in Step 1 for your “Post-MBA” future
after you have earned your graduate degree. If you cannot complete this step you need to do more research
and need to think more about it. I frequently help clients with this sort of thing through a process of brainstorming.
Step 3. If you
could complete step 2, than you should see the “Gap” between
your present and your future. What skills, knowledge, and other resources do
you need to close the gap between your present and future responsibilities,
strengths, and opportunities?
Step 4. After
completing Step 3, you now need to determine how an MBA will add value to you.
It is possible that an increased salary as a result of job change will be
sufficient “ROI” for the degree to justify itself,
but you should show how a degree will allow you to reach your career goals. How
will the degree enhance your skills and opportunities and help you overcome
your weaknesses and external threats? If you can complete Step 4, then you
should be ready to explain what your goals are, why you want a degree, and
the  relationship between your past and future career, as well as your
strengths and weaknesses.
The above table will also help
you answer such common interview questions as: Where do you want to
work after you finish your degree? Why do you want an MBA?
What are you strengths? What are your weaknesses? What are your goals?
If you are having difficulty formulating post-MBA goals, I suggest doing the following: 

Don’t know anyone in your
intended field? Network! 
One great way to start that is
through LinkedIn. Another is
by making use of your undergraduate alumni network and/or career center.
LEARN WHAT IS HOT. Learn what is
hot now and try to figure out what will be hot by the time you graduate. Now,
of course, this is just a plan and chances are that what is hot in your
industry or field now, may very well be cold in the future. The point
is to come across to the Harvard Business School as someone who is not only
well informed, but has CUTTING-EDGE knowledge
. Some great general sources
for learning what is hot:
HBS Sources: One of
the best places to learn about what HBS perceives as cutting-edge is through
HBS. You should most certainly visit Harvard
Working Knowledge
Harvard Business
, and Harvard
Business School Publishing
LinkedIn Answers: I would
suggest that everyone join
 and make use of LinkedIn Answers. LinkedIn
Answers is a great way to tap into cutting edge expertise (including my
admissions advice!). Follow LinkedIn’s rules and you will often be able to
obtain excellent information.
Hoovers: For
information about specific companies, Hoovers is just
a great way to learn about key facts including competitors (a very useful way
of knowing who else you might want to work for and to learn about an industry).
While primarily focused on the US, Hoovers does have listings for companies
Vault: For
scope of coverage, this site is a must. Vault includes
both career and admissions information. It includes both company specific and
industry-wide information.
Other sources: Read
magazines, websites, and books that relate to your intended field.
Joint Program Applicants for the Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Dental Medicine, Harvard Law School, and Harvard Kennedy School 
If you are applying for a joint degree, you do get a full essay to explain why you want both degrees: How do you expect the joint degree experience to benefit you on both a professional and a personal level? (400 words). My suggestion is that consider the 500 character piece as the place to provide some very specific details about why an HBS MBA will help you achieve your post-MBA plan, but you need not discuss the plan there. You are fortunate to have 400 words to make a highly personal case about what you want to get out of the joint degree program. My matrix above should be able to help you think about that at the professional level. In terms of the personal aspect, I think this really something you should think about in terms of your learning and motivation and not in terms of career objectives.

Part 4: Selecting Content by Taking a Global View of Your Application

Now that we have discussed the essay questions and also considered the core criteria, it is time for you begin selecting content. The table below can be used for determining what part of your application will cover each of the four core criteria.

Application Components: Diversity Habit of Leadership Analytical Aptitude and Appetite Engaged Community Citizenship
Application Form (including “Why MBA?” question)


Essay 1

Essay 2

Recommendation 1

Recommendation 2

Recommendation 3


iBT TOEFL/IELTS (if applicable)


(To use the above table for yourself, simply copy and paste it. I checked it on both Google Docs and MS Word and it works.)

Part 5: Writing
So far I have discussed topic selection.  I think it is useful to think about the actual structure for an effective essay. When it comes to telling stories, which is what the two essays for HBS require you to do, I think it is most important to think about your audience.  You are not writing these essays for yourself, you are writing them to convince your audience. How to convince them?

The following grid connects the parts of an essay (the first column) to three core aspects of writing an effective essay. The table should help you see the relationship between the components of a story and what I would consider to be three major questions to ask about any story. 


Essay Outline What was your role? What does it mean? Why will this essay sell them on you?
Effective answers to when, where, who, what, and how should all relate directly to your role in the situation. You are the hero or heroine of your story. Your reader should have a clear understanding of the situation. They are not reading a mystery story, a poem, or some other form of writing where withholding information will be valued. The situation needs to be one that the reader will believe, consider to be important, and hopefully be impressed by.
Action Steps:
What actions did you take?Action Step 1:
Action Step 2:
Action Step 3:
Stories break down into steps. For each step, make sure you are clear about what you did. Each action step should be meaningful and demonstrate your potential. This is the core of the story and it is important the rationale for your actions be stated as clearly as possible. Effective essays involve both description and interpretation. If you are actions are clear and their value is clear in terms of your leadership, analytical, engaged community citizenship, or unique background, you will be on a firm basis for selling your story to admissions.
Result Results should be stated as clearly as possible. Your relationship to the results should be clear. Explain the significance of results clearly. Make your results meaningful so that they will be impressive.


The grid above is based on the following assumptions, which I consider to be basic for writing effective essays:

Your reader must understand you.  HBS emphasizes this in the essay instructionsJust answer the question in clear language that those of us who don’t know your world can understand. Write a clear story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Provide a clear interpretation of what you have done. Write in simple language, even about complex things. Assume your reader has a basic business background, but don’t assume any expertise. Cause-effect relationships should not be merely implied where possible. Showing your actual action steps is critical. A full explanation might be impossible because of word count, but if you tell things in sequence, it usually provides that explanation.

You reader must believe you.  If your reader is not convinced by your story, you are dead.  I am all in favor of telling the best version of a story that you can, provided it is also believable. Bad self-marketing is frequently based on lies that can be seen through. I have met many admissions officers and while not all of them were brilliant, all the good ones had finely tuned “bullshit detectors.” If your essays have a seemingly tenuous relationship with reality, you are likely to be setting yourself up for a ding.

Your reader must be engaged.  If a reader does not become interested in what they reading, there is a problem.  The problem may be that the essay is simply generic or it might be the way a story is being told is boring or it maybe a lack of passion in the writing.  Whatever the case, it needs fixing.  One of my roles as a consultant is to coach my clients on writing essays that will be engaging.

You must sell your reader on your high potential for admission. Great essays don’t just need to be believable and interesting, they have to be convincing. You are trying to get admissions to take a specific action after they read your file: admit you or invite you for an interview. Thus, essays must convince them to take action, they have to see why you should be admitted.  I help my understand how to do this and give very specific advice on how to do so.

Your reader should be interpreting your essay the way you intend.  In writing there is always room for misinterpretation.  If you have not effectively interpreted yourself, there is always the possibility that your reader will draw opposite conclusions from what you intended.  I help my clients make sure that they understand and correct for all such negative interpretations.

And finally…
My final point is that HBS is looking for people who want to be leaders, not mere managers. They are looking for people who will use their “one precious and wild life” to achieve great things, not those who will be satisfied at being mediocrities.  If you can’t show the potential for that now, when will you? 

In the next post in this series, I discuss the recommendations.

-Adam Markus

I am a graduate admissions consultant who works with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form. Please don’t email me any essays, other admissions consultant’s intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.

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