Harvard Business School Essay Topic Analysis 2014-2015
As we announced recently, Harvard Business School has released its essay question for the 2014-2015 application season. Unchanged from last year, this prompt asks applicants to write only one essay, with no word limit given. HBS Admissions Director Dee Leopold has suggested that some applicants may not even find the essay necessary to include in their files, thereby making this essay technically an optional one. The school has still maintained its post-interview reflection, which will require those who reach the interview stage to submit a reflection essay within 24 hours following their interviews with the admissions committee.
With such a broad mandate, applicants will need to be careful when deciding whether to undertake the essay and determining its topic and length. Let’s take a closer look at the essay question:
1. You’re applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your resume, school transcripts, extra-curricular activities, awards, post-MBA career goals, test scores and what your recommenders have to say about you. What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy? (No word limit)
The school has provided further advice of which applicants should take note, writing, “There is no word limit for this question. We think you know what guidance we’re going to give here. Don’t overthink, overcraft and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don’t know your world can understand.”
Before the 2013-2014 season, HBS traditionally asked applicants to describe at least one of their accomplishments, yet this year’s essay broadens the range of responses considerably and leaves applicants with a completely open field. Leopold specifically notes that “Maybe there will be admits this year who say we don’t need to know anything else beyond the credentials they have already submitted – for them, the application may be ‘essay-less.’” The first step is for you to assess whether you feel you fit that description, and if you believe you are represented well enough by your other application materials, including your recommendations, test scores and undergraduate records, you may not feel the essay is a necessary component of your self-presentation.
While this may well be the case for some applicants, it will still be advisable for many candidates to take advantage of this prompt. Although the essay is just one component of any application, it is the only opportunity applicants have to speak directly to the adcom in their initial materials and therefore a valuable tool for personalizing your file. If you have an element in your profile that might represent a “red flag,” such as a failed course or a long gap in your work history, it will be especially important for you decide how to make this one essay work in your favor in terms of explaining your situation in a positive light.
Considering that this prompt is the only essay that the adcom will read, it is crucial that you select an approach that allows you to highlight some of the key strengths of your candidacy. Although it may be tempting to draft a lengthy essay on traditional subjects such as your career goals, greatest successes, and interest in the school, the fact that HBS has been consistently trimming down its essay set in recent years likely indicates that a 1,000-word essay would be unwelcome. Reflecting on whether your need for an MBA or specific career goals are adequately covered in your other materials is a great starting point for narrowing your focus, selecting your topic and crafting a succinct essay. You should take care to steer clear of simply “recycling” essays from HBS’s peer schools, such as Stanford or Wharton, as the adcom will probably spot such an essay based on the highly unfocused nature of the HBS prompt and will not respond positively.
When evaluating an applicant’s credentials, HBS has traditionally been very focused on leadership qualities as well as the impact that the applicant has had on a project, group, or company. Thus, as you brainstorm potential topics for this essay, it might be useful to think about any quantifiable positive change you’ve created that is not adequately described in your other materials. You might explain the magnitude of a professional or personal accomplishment noted on your résumé, for instance. You could also choose a particularly meaningful activity or project and share why it is important to you, especially given your personal or professional goals. Keep in mind, however, the only real directive from the committee: sharing “what else” you want the reader to know about your file. For this reason, applicants could do well to spend extra time fine-tuning their résumés and working with their recommenders in order to ensure that the essay topic does not overlap with anecdotes or qualities already covered in their other materials.
If you’re unsure of whether you’re on the right track with your chosen topic, try speaking with a Clear Admit counselor.
In line with the policy instituted in the 2012-2013 season, applicants who are invited to interview will be asked to write a reflection about their interview experience. This essay must be submitted within 24 hours of completing the interview. Additional instructions regarding the reflection will be sent to applicants who receive interview invitations.
To help draft this reflection, applicants would be wise to jot down some notes immediately after interviewing so that they can later refer to a clear record of what was discussed as well as what, if anything, they would have liked discuss but did not get a chance to cover. When it comes time to write the essay, applicants should approach their response as if they are crafting a closing argument—or, in the words of HBS, “[having] the last word”—to their application.
You’ll want to take inventory of the message you’ve conveyed throughout your application materials (essay, résumé, data forms, etc.) and your interview, and then write your reflection with an eye towards emphasizing the key attributes of your candidacy. Lastly, the 24-hour turnaround means that this reflection will require a focused effort from applicants as well as some careful advance planning.
Posted in: Essay Topic Analysis
Schools: Harvard Business School
Harvard Business School Essay Analysis: 2016–2017
How can you write essays that grab the attention of MBA admissions committees? With this thorough analysis, our friends at mbaMission help you conceptualize your essay ideas and understand how to execute, so that your experiences truly stand out. You do not need to be actively working on a $5 billion deal or have won an Olympic gold medal to go to HBS. You just need to have done the everyday things remarkably well, and you must make sure that your essays reflect your actions.
After just one year, Harvard Business School (HBS) has done away with its “introduce yourself” essay prompt, which gave applicants a lot of leeway to share their story on their terms, and has returned to an even broader prompt—one that at first may seem as though it has no parameters at all. This year’s question is almost exactly the same as the one the school used in 2013–2014, when it asked, “What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?” This year, the question is “What more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?” (italics ours). We presume that after seeing the essays candidates submitted in response to its “introduce yourself” prompt, the HBS admissions committee simply determined that the previous essay question generated “better” essays that proved more valuable in their decision-making process. Regardless of the reason behind the change, you will need to find the best way to approach this year’s prompt, which we will now analyze in more detail…
“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?” (no word limit)
Take special note of the word “more” in this straightforward question. With it, the admissions committee is subtly acknowledging that it already has a lot of information about you that it can and will use to get to know you better, including your resume, extracurricular activities, recommendations, short-answer question responses, academic transcripts, and GMAT/GRE score. You should therefore think first about what these portions of your application convey about who you are as an individual and candidate, so you can determine which parts of your profile still need presenting or could benefit from more detail. Now, some applicants may fret that this means they absolutely cannot touch on anything mentioned elsewhere in their application, for fear that the admissions committee will grow furious and disqualify them. However, HBS is not asking only for fresh information—it is asking for more, and specifically, whatever “more” you believe the committee needs to evaluate you thoroughly and fairly. So, even though a bullet on your resume may inform the school of a certain fact, if a profoundly important story lurks behind that fact that you feel effectively expresses a key part of your personality or skill set, you should not feel hesitant to share that story. That said, we are not advocating for you to explore your resume in depth, just trying to convey that “more” here does not mean strictly “thus far unmentioned.”
Before we discuss a few approaches you might take in framing this essay, we must note that your goal in writing it issincerity. The admissions committee is not staffed by robots, seeking to detect a certain “type” of applicant. These are human beings who are trying to get to know you and really want to end up liking you! With this essay, you essentially want to forge a meaningful connection with a complete stranger, and if you try to present yourself as something or someone you are not, you will fail.
You, like many other applicants, may worry that your sincere stories will sound clichéd. For example, if you want to write about making a difference, you may wince simply thinking those words: “making a difference.” But the power of your story does not lie in the theme you choose (if you choose to write thematically, that is), but in the manner in which you reveal your actions. If you have truly made a significant difference in the lives of others and can own that angle by offering powerful anecdotes and demonstrating a deep emotional connection to others and profound purpose in your acts, you can write on this topic. Although more than a few candidates will undoubtedly submit clichéd pieces on making a difference, if you can capture your admissions reader’s attention fully and make a strong enough impression, the cliché aspect will disappear, and he or she will be impressed by your actions and character.
So, what approach might you take to this essay? The prompt is so open-ended that we cannot possibly capture all possible options, but here are a few:
- Thematic approach: You could write about a characteristic or attribute that has woven its way throughout your life or that you have woven into your life. Do some self-exploration and see if you can identify a thread that is common to your greatest achievements, thereby illustrating its importance in bringing you to where you are today. Simply stating that theme is not enough—you need to really guide your reader through the illustrative events in your life to show how and why this theme manifests. In the end, your values are what need to come to the fore in this essay, rather than just a series of discrete episodes. (Note that highlighting your values is necessary with any approach you take to your HBS essay.)
- Inflection points: Maybe the key events and aspects of your life cannot be neatly captured or categorized within a neat and tidy theme. People are complex, meaning that many are not able to identify a singular “force” that unifies their life experience. If this is you, do not worry—instead, consider discussing a few inflection points that were instrumental in shaping the individual you are today. This does not mean writing a very linear biography or regurgitating your resume in detail. The admissions committee does not need or want such a summary and is instead interested in your ability to reflect on the catalysts in and challenges to your world view and the manifestations thereof. Likewise, you do not need to offer a family history or an overarching explanation of your existence. Simply start with the first significant incident that shaped who you are as an adult, and again, ensure that your essay ultimately reveals your values.
- Singular anecdote: Although this is rare, you may have had a single standout experience that could serve as a microcosm of who you are and what you stand for. If this experience or moment truly defines you and strikes at the essence of your being, you can discuss it and it alone. You do not need to worry that offering just one anecdote will make your essay seem “skimpy” or present you as one-dimensional, as long as the story has inherent strength and power. You will need to delve into the narrative and let the story tell itself; if you are choosing to write a singular anecdote, the story should be sufficiently compelling on its own, without a lot of explanation.
You may have read through these three options and thought, “What about a fourth option, in which I discuss my goals and why HBS? Certainly they want to know about that!” The HBS admissions committee is a straight-shooting group—if the school wanted candidates to write about their goals and why HBS, or wanted them not to, the prompt would come right out and say so. The reality is that most people should not use this essay to discuss their career ambitions and interest in HBS, because doing so will not reveal that much “more” about them. For example, if you are a consultant who plans to return to consulting after graduation, we cannot imagine a scenario in which addressing your goals and why an HBS MBA is critical would constitute an effective use of this essay. However, if you are a medic at a bush hospital in Uganda and are applying to HBS with the goal of commercializing low-cost technologies to fight infectious diseases, this may well be a fitting topic for your essay, as you seek to connect the dots between your unusual (in a positive sense) career path and your aspirations. In short, for most candidates, we would suggest eschewing a “Why MBA? Why HBS?” approach, but in a few rare cases, it may be appropriate and compelling.
Finally, let us talk about word limits! HBS has not stipulated any particular parameters, but keep in mind that with each word, you are making a claim on someone else’s time—so you better make sure that what you have written is worth that additional time and effort. We expect that most of our clients will use between 750 and 1,000 words, with some using as few as 600 and a small minority using as many as 1,250. We have difficulty imagining a scenario in which an applicant would truly need more than 1,250, but we certainly know of candidates who were accepted with essays that exceeded that high target. In short, take the space you need to tell your story properly and showcase your personality and experience, and then work to reduce your essay to its lowest possible word count, without sacrificing any impact or effectiveness.
Have the Last Word: The Post-Interview Reflection (conditional on being interviewed)
From the admissions committee: “Following the interview, candidates are required to submit a written reflection using our online application system. This must be submitted within 24 hours following the completion of the interview. Detailed instructions will be provided to those applicants who are invited to the interview process.”
For the fourth consecutive year, HBS ask candidates who are granted an interview to complete one more written task. Within 24 hours of interviewing, you must submit some final words of reflection, addressing the question “How well did we get to know you?” As with the application essay, this post-interview reflection is open-ended; you can structure it however you wish and write about whatever you want to tell the committee. HBS urges interviewed applicants not to approach this reflection as a formal essay but instead “as an email you might write to a colleague or supervisor after a meeting.”
Some candidates may find this additional submission intimidating, but we encourage you to view it as an opportunity to reveal new aspects of your profile to the admissions committee. Because your HBS interviewer will have read your entire application before your meeting, you will likely discuss information from your resume, essays, recommendations, etc., during your interview. This post-interview reflection, then, could provide an opening for you to integrate new and different elements of your profile, thereby adding depth to your candidacy. For example, if you could not find a way to include the story of a key life experience of yours into your essays, but your interviewer touches on a similar story or something connected with this experience in your meeting, you would now have license to share that anecdote.
As soon as your interview is over, jot down all the topics covered and stories you discussed. If you interview on campus, note also any observations about your time there. For example, sitting in on a class might have reminded you of a compelling past experience, or participating in the case method may have provided insight into an approach you could use in some way in the future. Maybe the people you met or a building you saw made a meaningful impression on you. Whatever these elements are, tie them to aspects of your background and profile while adding some new thoughts and information about yourself. This last part is key—simply describing your visit will not teach the admissions committee anything about you, and a flat statement like “I loved the case method” will not make you stand out. Similarly, offering a summary of everything the admissions committee already knows about you will not advance your candidacy and would constitute a lost opportunity to keep the committee learning about who you are.
HBS offers some additional advice on the post-interview reflection that we strongly urge you to take seriously and follow:
- We will be much more generous in our reaction to typos and grammatical errors than we will be with pre-packaged responses. Emails that give any indication that they were produced BEFORE you had the interview will raise a flag for us.
- We do not expect you to solicit or receive any outside assistance with this exercise.
As for how long this essay should be, HBS again does not offer a word limit. We have seen successful submissions ranging from 400 words to more than 1,000. We recommend aiming for approximately 500, but adjust as appropriate to thoroughly tell the admissions committee what you feel is important, while striving to be succinct.
For a thorough exploration of HBS’s academic program/merits, defining characteristics, crucial statistics, social life, academic environment and more, please check out the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to Harvard Business School.
(Note: As a complement to our essay analysis, be sure to read Jeremy Shinewald’sPoets & Quants article, “Before You Write That HBS Essay,” in which he offers his top five dos and don’ts for this essay question.)
The Next Step—Mastering Your HBS Interview:Many MBA candidates find admissions interviews stressful and intimidating, but mastering this important element of the application process is definitely possible—the key is informed preparation. And, on your way to this high level of preparation, we offer our free Interview Primers to spur you along! Download your free copy of the Harvard Business School Interview Primer today—and be sure to check out our one-of-a-kind service: HBS Mock Interview and Post-Interview Reflection Support.
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