HBS Class of 2018 MBA Admissions Application


Jun, 07, 2015


Categories: Admissions Consulting | application | Resumes | Essays | HBS | Resume

In this post I  analyze the Harvard Business School MBA Application for the Class of 2018. In addition to discussing overall HBS application strategy and  the required essay, I will discuss key parts of the application form, resume, and transcript. I also provide some advice at the end of this post for HBS reapplicants.  I have already written a previous analysis of the essay question for this year, which I have further modified here after reviewing the online application.  For my posts on recommendation, please see my Key Posts on recommendations. For my post on HBS interviews, please see here.

 

My comprehensive service clients have been admitted to HBS for the Classes of  2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, and 2005. My clients’ results and testimonials can be found here. In addition to providing comprehensive application consulting on HBS, I regularly help additional candidates with HBS interview preparation.  Since I started my own counseling service in 2007, I have worked with 27 successful applicants from Canada, Europe, India, the Middle East, 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.  For the Class of 2017, I worked with an exceptional group of clients and 10 of them will be going to HBS this fall.  All I can tell you is that HBS takes a truly diverse range of people. Some had high GPAs and great GMAT scores, others had GPAs and scores well below the 80% range for HBS, but what they all had in common were strong personal professional backgrounds that came out in their essays.

 

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.
We can summarize what  HBS is looking for in terms of three stated values-Habit of Leadership, Analytical Aptitude and Appetite, and Engaged Community Citizenship– plus Diversity. These four core ways that HBS evaluates applicants need to be communicated in your application and one or more of them should be used in your essay.

 

 

Habit of Leadership
The mission of HBS is to educate leaders.  All my clients admitted to HBS 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:

Leadership 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, 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.

 

HBS does not explicitly ask you to show your potential for leadership in your essay,  but it may very well be something you decide to write about, ask one or both of your recommenders to write about, and certainly show in your resume and application form.   Leadership is no easy thing. Nor is it always obvious. If you leadership is fully obvious from resume, than perhaps your essay not discuss it, but 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, one great place to read about leadership, and business in general, is Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

 

Some clients I have worked with have never really considered themselves as leaders. I think it is critical that if you are applying to HBS that you have idea about what kind of leader you are.  While there are number of ways to describe leadership, I particularly like this formulation of leadership types that INSEAD Professor Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries has used in one of his Harvard Business Review blog posts (Disclosure I am a student in an INSEAD  program that he co-directs):

 

I have previously suggested that applicants who are having difficulty really understanding leadership find out what kind of leader they are by taking this quiz based on Lewin’s classic framework.  While leadership  is more complicated than Lewin’s framework, the quiz is a great way to get you started thinking about yourself, a key part of answering any leadership essay question effectively. However I think the 8 archetypes above provide a much better guide for those who both have extensive leadership experience and those who think they lack it.  Think of these 8 archetypes as aspirational images of certain kinds of leader. You may fit into more than one category. You may find you don’t feel like you are really good at any of the above in comparison to the descriptions above, but that is OK because you are trying to identify your potential even if it seems based on relatively little “objective evidence.” If leadership is not obvious from your resume or likely to be a topic your recommenders will focus on, you should certainly consider how you show your leadership potential. I have never worked with anyone who could not demonstrate potential in at least one of the categories above.

Some types of leadership experiences that make for effective content in essays, recommendations and interviews:

-A time you convinced someone or some group.

-A time you led others.

-A time you demonstrated courage.

-A time you made a difficult decision.

-A time you were innovative.

-A time you formulated and executed a strategy or tactics.

-A time you turned around a situation, overcame an obstacle.

-A time reformed something.

-A time you changed something.

-A time you effectively negotiated with someone.

-A time created something.

-A time you managed or organized something.

-A time you mentored or coached someone.

-A time you represented an organization in public.
-A time you managed up, down, or across an organization.
Some of these are simply derived from the archetypes above, but  all reflect what I have seen in my clients essays over the years.

 

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 alumni 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.  It is important to show engagement with others in your HBS essay, 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. If you have demonstrated extensive community citizenship in your resume, you may very well not need to write about in the HBS essay, but you might still find that explaining your motivation for such activities is something you want to convey to HBS.  For those with limited objective resume content in this area, if there is an effective way to get some positive aspect of your community citizenship into the essay, do so.

 

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.
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 essay. Also, whether you address your analytical abilities in your essay, 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
Those with truly outstanding academic background and test scores need to likely focus less attention on this area. If you think you have weaknesses in this area, consider how to use the essay and Additional Information section to mitigate them. The above list provides some effective ways to do that.

 

Diversity
A truly diverse student body — in background, nationality, interests and ambitions — is the foundation of the HBS experience. Indeed, these differences are critical to the HBS learning model, which thrives on the many perspectives and life experiences our students from all over the world bring to their classes. From academic assignments to casual conversations, the unique qualities of individual lives enrich the education of the entire community.
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 essay you need to show what makes you stand out. Especially if you think your academic, personal, professional, and/or extracurricular experiences are not inherently unique, it is very important that your essay demonstrates 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
-Even post-MBA goals might be used for this purpose if your goals help to make you stand out.
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.

 

THE ESSAY

“There is one essay question for the Class of 2018:

It’s the first day of class at HBS. You are in Aldrich Hall meeting your “section.” This is the group of 90 classmates who will become your close companions in the first-year MBA classroom. Our signature case method participant-based learning model ensures that you will get to know each other very well. The bonds you collectively create throughout this shared experience will be lasting.

Introduce yourself.

Note: Should you enroll at HBS, there will be an opportunity for you to share this with your classmates.

We suggest you view this video before beginning to write.

Use your judgment as to how much to tell us. We don’t have a “right answer” or “correct length” in mind. We review all the elements of your written application to decide who moves forward to the interview stage.

Upload your Word or PDF document below.  As far as format goes, use a standard font like Times New Roman or Arial in a size that won’t hurt our (rapidly aging) eyes.  No need to repeat the question above unless you want to. ” 

 

The question is discussed in more detail on Direct from the Director:

“Yes, it’s “new”…but most of you are embarking on this business school application journey for the first time too!     

Why do we like it?

• It’s just about as straightforward and practical as we can make it.   It gives you a chance to tell your story however you choose. Imagine simply saying it out loud. This is what we mean when we’ve been encouraging you to use your own “voice” when approaching this part of the application.  We have no pre-conceived ideas of what “good” looks like. We look forward to lots of variance.

• It’s useful. You will actually be introducing yourself to classmates at HBS. 

Why did we drop the “optional” option?

• We were trying to signal that the essay wasn’t The Most Important Element of the application so we thought saying “optional” might accomplish that. But, this season, every applicant submitted a response. We get it. You want to tell us things.

Tell us again what the essay is for?

• For you: an opportunity to pause and reflect. Business school is a big experience –  it’s exciting, it’s an unknown,it’s a beginning, it’s an investment in your future. Stopping to reflect and gather your thoughts in writing is a useful exercise. That’s not just our opinion –  it’s what we hear from students all the time.

• For us: a chance to get to know you beyond the elements of the application that feel fixed and stationary. Can also be a starting point for interview conversations.”

 

HBS is far from the first school to ask applicants to introduce themselves to classmates. In this case, the length seems unlimited (See below, I don’t recommend a very long essay)  and the classmates in question are the other 89 students in your section.

 

You need to think about what you would actually say to your future classmates. Since you will  need to introduce yourself, think of one core requirement of this essay being how to make an effective introduction to people you are going to be working with for an entire year. First impressions matter a lot. You need to put significant time into thinking about the impression you will make.

 

While you need to think what you would actually say to your future classmates, make sure the admissions officers reading your essay understand why it is relevant. Given the criteria- Habit of Leadership, Analytical Aptitude and Appetite, and Engaged Community Citizenship– plus Diversity- I have mentioned above, I think it is important that your essay highlights how you demonstrate one or more of those criteria.  If you skimmed over that section above, go take a look at it now.

 

Assume that the length is not unlimited even though it appears to be up to you.  How long of an introduction would you make? My suggestion is that whatever length of a text you write, read it out loud and ask yourself, how long you would actually speak. HBS suggests that you “Imagine simply saying it out loud.”  Suggestion: one to three minutes is good, five minutes is probably a max out. Length will depend on contents.  No one size fits all, but if you have something that takes 10 minutes, it had better be as engaging as great TED talk.

 

Treat this like a transcription of what you would say.  In other words, this is spoken rather than written text. I know that when I start reviewing my client’s HBS essays for 2016 entry, I will be reading them out loud, timing how long it takes me to read it,  and considering the way they sound. I will be advising my clients to do that.

 

Make it easy to understand.  You are introducing yourself to strangers who you want to become your friends and colleagues. They will have very diverse backgrounds. Your job is to make this essay easy to understand. Think big picture, clear stories, and no extreme complications.

 

Make it believable. This should go without saying, but some applicants have a tendency to overstate their accomplishments.  This is not the place for it.  Be honest and show your authentic self.

 

Make it interesting. Your objective is to get your classmates to like you and become interested in you. You need to help HBS see why you deserve a shot to be in one of the 90 student sections.  You need to show your selling points and make it clear what differentiates you. Simultaneously, you can’t focus just on accomplishments, instead you want to reveal something positive and personal that will be perceived as attractive and memorable.

 

While I don’t necessarily suggest writing what you can contribute to your section in this essay, I do think that should be implied. In other words, someone reading this essay should have a clear sense of how you will be a positive addition to the section through the diversity (See the section above on diversity)  of your experience, values, and or skills. 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 essay(s) by showing  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.

 

Also, keep in mind that the essay is not the whole application.   Your resume, application form, and recommendations all have an important role in the application process. Don’t unnecessarily duplicate information found elsewhere in your application.  This is the place to come to life as an applicant, so that you are perceived as someone who can add value to your section and to HBS as a whole.

 

If you are trying to understand the diverse range of essays that gets someone admitted to HBS, I do recommend  The Unofficial Harvard Business School Essay Book.  In fact,  one of my clients admitted to the Class of 2016 contributed his or her essay to it, which made me really happy.  I can’t tell you which one. I do highly recommend reading this book because it will give you a really good idea about the range of possible answers and dispel any myths about needing to submit something that is professionally written. I would also recommend the old book that contained HBS admits essays. That collection is still a good read for understanding how to put together an MBA essay though the specific questions are no longer being asked by HBS. Combined, both books are really great guides for someone looking to see sample successful MBA essays. Beyond those essay books, a piece of absolutely required reading for HBS admissions is Poets & Quants’ John Byrne’s interview with Dee Leopold, Managing Director of MBA Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard Business School. If you are looking for one article to give you overall insight into how HBS makes admissions decisions, John Byrne has done an exceptional job of asking Dee Leopold the right questions.

 

RESUME
“Instructions: Please provide a current resume or CV.  Ideally, this would be about 1-2 pages in length.”   

The resume has always been an important part of any HBS application.  You can find a resume template I have linked to on my blog here.  That resume template can also simply serve as a checklist for what to include.  While many schools prefer a one-page resume, HBS really does not care.  Depending on a client’s background, I will recommend 1 or 2 pages.  I think it best to think of a resume as a record of accomplishment. If you have sufficient accomplishments, 2 pages is fine.  Some applicants try to a use an MBA student’s recruitment resume format as the basis for their own resume, but I generally don’t consider this a good idea as such resumes serve a very different purpose.  An MBA resume should really designed to focus on you overall, that is your academic, professional, and personal accomplishments and key facts. A recruiting resume is meant for a different kind of audience, recruiters, and typically focuses on a much more narrow range of information.

 

When I first start working comprehensively with any client, whether they are applying to HBS or not, I always start with the resume for a couple of reasons:

1.  It is a great way for any applicant to summarize the most important information about them and  their accomplishments. It sometimes helps applicants actually remind themselves of what they have done.

2.  For me, it is a way I learn about a client so that I can better understand their background.

One key thing to remember about what you include on your resume:  Anything that is there, just like any component of the application, may become the basis for a HBS interview question. Therefore if you don’t want to talk about it and don’t need to write about it, leave it off the resume.

 

EMPLOYMENT

 There is also an Employment Section of the application that provides space for you to discuss two positions in detail including providing  brief descriptions of your professional accomplishments and challenges.  To some extent this information will overlap with the resume. This is nothing to worry about. That said the challenge question (“Most Significant Challenge” 250 characters) in particular is very possibly something you would not be covering in your resume. Stanford has a similar detailed employment section in their application, which they seriously.  I assume  HBS does as well, so  just as with the resume, make sure your answers in the application are as effective as possible. Don’t treat it like some form you do at the last minute.

 

 

 

ACADEMIC TRANSCRIPTS

First, keep in mind that admissions officers read transcripts and are trained to know what they are reading. They don’t just look at GPA  (If your school calculates it).  If there is something really bad on your transcript (a fail, a withdrawal, etc) or odd, you really do want to explain it in the 500 character (not word) Additional Section. If is just a C and you have no specific excuse, don’t bother trying to explain it.  If your academic performance varied greatly from year to year (or semester to semester), was there a reason for it?  Is it one that you want to provide? I don’t recommend discussing how you became depressed after your boy/girl friend broke up with you, but, if, for example, you were taking a major leadership position in a student organization, running a start-up, working a lot to pay for school,  doing major research, experienced a major illness or misfortune,  or playing a varsity sport, you do have a topic worth discussing. Finally, If your transcript,  GMAT/GRE, or resume don’t indicate that you have solid quantitative skills, you should explain why you do if you can. The proper place to provide that explanation is in the additional section or the essay.

 

EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES

“Instructions: List up to three extracurricular activities in order of importance to you (i.e., list the most important first).  Please tell us about the things you did (or do) while you were (or are) attending your college or university.  Include other activities, like community service, here as well.  Please limit this to three activities, but don’t worry if you don’t have a list of three.  We use this section mostly to get a sense of how you spent your time in college as well as the sort of leadership roles and activities that attract you. “

 

Given HBS’ instructions on this, I do highly recommend including your best extracurricular activities with perhaps 2 out of 3 being focused on college/university activities, unless you have some particularly impressive post college/university activities, where I might see including only 1 activity from college/university. If you have done nothing impressive extracurricular-wise after graduating and have 3 good activities from university, feel free to just use use this section for those activities. If you did nothing but study during college or university and really have no activities, hopefully you have three post-college things to include.  If you have any activities that are directly relevant to your professional goals or to your personal story and you really want to emphasize them, use this space accordingly. While I would surely emphasize the most impressive activities in terms of leadership or engagement, if you need to focus on personal interests that were not group focused (running for example) because you simply don’t anything better, put it here.  Activities that show you are well-rounded, civically engaged, artistic, athletic are all possibilities here.

 

Keep in mind that extracurricular activities can (and usually should)  also be fully accounted for on the resume and given the fact that you can submit a two-page resume, there is no reason that can’t account for an activity.  Also, if you are not using the space for anything else, the 500 character additional information section could be used for elaborating on anything you consider really important, but could not include in this section or in the resume.

 

AWARDS AND RECOGNITION
“Instructions: Were you on the Dean’s List? Did your apple pie win a blue ribbon at the state fair? Tell us about it here. List any distinctions, honors, and awards (academic, military, extracurricular, professional, community) in order of importance to you (i.e., list the most important first). You may list up to three awards.”

 

For some applicants this section is really easy to fill out because they have won a number of awards, distinctions, or honors and just need to prioritize them. Other candidates will freak out about this section because they never won anything that they think fits.  While, it is sometimes really the case that I will have perfectly great applicant who has nothing to report in this section, most applicants are actually likely to have something.  HBS is not asking you a narrow question here, so think broadly.  It is possible that this section will overlap with the resume, employment, essay, or extracurricular section of the application.

 

 

INTENDED POST-MBA CAREER GOALS

Please enter your Intended Post-MBA goals below.

500 characters remaining
You don’t have to perfect post-MBA plan, but you need to have a plan. You most likely will spend more time thinking about what you are going to write here than writing it. I think it is fine to include the longer term here if it helps to explain the rationale for your short-term objectives. Keep in mind that your wider vision is a perfectly acceptable topic to discuss in the essay (if you think it will really help your section mates understand who you are)  and not here. Also, since this question does not ask about HBS, you should  not necessarily include any why HBS content here. If you are having difficulty with your career goals, see my analysis of Stanford Essay B for a method for thinking about goals.  I frequently work with my clients on their goals.

 

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION
“Instructions: Please only add additional information here if you need to clarify any information provided in the other sections of your application. This is not meant to be used as an additional essay.Please limit your additional information to the space in this section. We’ll know you’ll be tempted, but please don’t send us any additional materials (e.g., additional recommendations, work portfolios). To be fair to all applicants, extra materials won’t be considered.” (500 characters, not words)
Use this space to explain anything that can be effectively explained in the space provided. This is a great place to explain choice of recommenders, a problem in your past, or to add in information about something you really think HBS needs to know. It is completely fine to leave this space blank if you have nothing you need to add.

 

HBS Reapplicants: I do recommend using the Additional Information space to explain what has changed since your prior application.  I know 500 characters is not much, but given the nature of the HBS essay, I don’t consider it a great place for discussing reapplication because that is not necessarily a topic you would use to introduce yourself to your section.  Use the 500 characters here to highlight positive changes that you especially want HBS to take into consideration when evaluating you.
If you are a reapplying to HBS, I do recommend addressing that issue either in the essay or, if you only need a brief amount of  words, in the Additional Information section. If you are reapplicant, please see here.  It is usually the case that ones tries to show growth since the last application. Whatever form(s) this growth takes, you might need a brief amount of word count or significant word count.  Common topics:1. Changes in career goals since the previous application. Feel free to alter your goals, just explain why.2. Why you are a better candidate now. This could be everything from a career change to increased GMAT scores to improved English ability to taking courses to overcome an academic weakness to a valuable extracurricular activity.

 

For more about reapplication, please see the Reapplication section of my Key Posts page.

 

Best of luck to everyone applying to HBS.


-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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