Guide to MBA Essays and Interviews in the US • MBA
Telling Your Story – Writing the Harvard Business School (HBS) Essay
POSTED ON 06/13/2022 BY The Red Pen
Harvard Business School (HBS) states that while it looks for applicants with diverse life experiences, successful applicants have demonstrated a habit of leadership, analytical aptitude and engaged community citizenship. Students who form a part of the HBS community thrive in a dynamic, demanding environment that is highly verbal – filled with debate and discussion. The school’s learning methods depend heavily on active participation by students who process and analyse information quickly from extremely diverse sources and ambiguous situations.
As you prepare your HBS application, ask yourself if each element of your application, the resume, answers subjective questions on the form and your essays, provide the admissions committee with a clear picture of how your value system and life experiences, whether personal or professional, speak to the school’s ethos.
Harvard Business School (HBS) Essay Analysis
For a long time, applicants have had a love-hate relationship with open-ended essay prompts. While some are extremely grateful for the blank canvas and freedom to express without explicit constraints, others find the lack of boundaries ambiguous, resulting in anxiety-driven writer’s block. HBS’s essay topic, “As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA programme?” with no stated word limit, definitely fits this love-hate category.
Here are some suggestions on how to approach the HBS essay prompt, leveraging the wise words of Chad Losee, Managing Director, HBS MBA Admissions and Financial Aid.
1) Start With the Written Application:
To do justice to the essay prompt, you must complete the application first. As Losee points out, the key question is, what more? Without completing the rest of the application, it’s difficult to answer the essay prompt effectively. Once you identify which parts of your story you’ve already shared with the Admissions Committee through the application form, resume, transcript and test scores, you will see which aspects of your personality have not yet been revealed.
- Ask yourself, which of the three HBS ‘look-fors’ are well represented in my application and which one needs more attention? Analysing the content you have provided across documents will provide you with a deeper understanding of what else the admissions committee needs to know about you.
- Regurgitate your resume into the essay. They have your work history, roles, responsibilities and accomplishments already.
- Make the essay a laundry list of extracurricular activities you participated in or leadership roles you have held. These do not tell the reader what drives you or reflect your value system.
2) Look Inwards:
Start the process of introspection once you begin working towards the application. While you may have a knack for completing your application and several drafts of other essays over a weekend, the timeline for HBS will not be the same. Losee’s key advice to applicants is, “Give yourself the time and space to reflect.” This is an individual process.
What should you reflect on? Losee highlights three things in his video: “The decisions you have made, your motivations, or any formative experiences.”
One thing that will prove helpful is a reflection tool. While the x-axis is the timeline of your life, you’ll notice that the y-axis is left undefined. Here are some ideas for how you can define it:
- Decisions: Map out major life decisions with the ones that yielded the results you wanted on the (+) half of the map and those that you would do differently on the (–) half of the map. Be sure to include all types of decisions – personal, familial, academic and professional.
- Impact: Reflect on events that have significantly impacted you. Those events with a positive impact will be on the (+) side and vice versa.
- Motivation: Occurrences that have fueled your drive to achieve or do more should be written on the (+) side, while those that have decreased your motivation should be on the (–) side.
After sketching out these events, dig deeper into them with the following “Why” questions. Remember that for some events, you may have to ask yourself “Why” multiple times to arrive at a final answer that satisfies you.
- Why have I identified these decisions and events?
- Why have they been so positive or negative?
- What does that say about me?
- Why would someone need to know this about me?
HBS is renowned for its case study curriculum. Your application and your essay are a case study about YOU. You are the protagonist and like the protagonist in most stories, you are human and you are not perfect. Not everything about you is glowing and positive. Be authentically you. As Losee puts it best, “Don’t shine away from your personality.”
- Use the mapping exercise above to decide which key events will become your stories. Narrow down the list to the most impactful and ‘uniquely you’ moments.
- Ideally, find a unifying thread through your stories.
- Start with a strong opening line. Draw your reader in. Make them want to read more. (Hint: “Hello, my name is ___” is not compelling, but “Every community I enter today, I still count fire hydrants – my marker of distance when I walked the valley while homeless” is)
- Follow a template: There is no perfect story. Start by laying out your story chronologically, then think of the most critical information needed to understand it. Edit your content over successive versions to go beyond a linear timeline and place key experience/s and associated reflections at its heart – whether at the beginning, middle or end.
- Write a novel: HBS reviews over 9,000 applications a year. An engaging narrative doesn’t necessarily mean an extensive exposition. While there are exceptions to the rule, anything more than this will generally lose you your reader.
- Write a “Why HBS” essay: While it is fine to mention specific elements from HBS that may influence your future plans, don’t plan your essay around this theme as you will move away from the prompt – namely, telling the admissions committee more about you.
4) Review Your Work:
After you have written your essay, ask yourself, could this essay also describe someone else? If so, it probably isn’t personal enough.” This will not be a one-and-done exercise. Expect a few revisions before you arrive at a version that truly reflects the values unique to your life. After you review your work, show it to a trusted confidant and ask them to check if it reflects your voice and personality. If not, ask them which part of you they feel still needs to be reflected.