I Intro & HBS Deadlines
HBS has a reputation for producing a disproportionate number of fortune 500 CEOs compared to other business schools. While the popular perception is that business schools like HBS develop leaders, the reality is that they build their MBA class by culling candidates with great leadership experience and potential.
That’s important because it means that the onus is on the applicant to exude MBA-level polish through their written application and especially in interview.
There are lots of different leadership styles but HBS gives preference to candidates who fall into the ‘visionary leader’ category. Visionary Leaders tend to excel at articulating top-level strategy. Their strong suit is rallying others and convincing them of where the organization needs to to. Successful applicants to the HBS MBA Class of 2019 will be strong orators and great strategic thinkers.
We teach people the courage to act under uncertainty. We’re asking people how to learn to take a stand.
– HBS Video: Inside the HBS Case Method
MBA candidates with the Visionary leadership style could be described as: inspiring, and able to move people toward a common goal. Visionary leaders tell their teams where they’re going, but not how they’re going to get there – they leave it up to team members to find their way to the common goal. Empathy is the most important aspect of Visionary leadership. But the empathy referred to here isn’t empathy in the ‘poor you’ sense of the term. It isn’t about being able to relate to people so well that you understand what they are thinking and feeling so that you can shepherd them in a certain direction. It’s ’empathy’ set to a Machiavellian beat.
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II How have HBS’s MBA essays changed this year?
Looking to start writing your 2017-18 MBA essays before Harvard’s official essay release date in the summer 2017? Based on fxMBAConsulting’s analysis there is a 90% PROBABILITY that Stanford’s MBA essays remain the unchanged from year to year.
It’s interesting to look at essay prompts from past years because it gives you a sense of what the Adcom values and what they might be interested in hearing about from candidates. If you look through the Harvard Business School MBA essay prompts below, you’ll be thanking your lucky stars that you didn’t apply to the HBS Class of 2013. That application required four essays totaling 1800 words! Compare that to one essay (with on average 700 words) for the class of 2019.
During the 2014-15 application year, HBS moved away from a tradition of multiple MBA essay questions to just one, very open-ended prompt with no word limit. Historically HBS has asked applicants to introduce themselves – beginning with the optional essay #4 from the Class of 2013. The 2016-17 essay continues in that vein with an open-ended prompt asking candidates what more they would like the adcom to know about them. That’s similar to the 2015-16 essay question prompting candidates to introduce themselves to their HBS classmates. The difference being that last year candidates addressed fellow classmates and this year they address the admissions committee. I see that as a positive turn of events because last year there was an element of ‘peer pressure’ that left some candidates wondering which topics should or should not be broached in front of their peers at HBS.
Class of 2013: 1. What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such? (600 words); 2. What have you learned from a mistake? (400 words) Respond to 2 of the following 4 questions: 1. What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience? (400 words); 2. What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you? (400 words); 3. Tell us about a time in your professional experience when you were frustrated or disappointed. (400 words); 4. When you join the HBS Class of 2013, how will you introduce yourself to your new classmates? (400 words)
Class of 2014: 1. Tell us about three of your accomplishments. (600 words); 2. Tell us three setbacks you have faced. (600 words); 3. Why do you want an MBA? (400 words); 4. Answer a question you wish we’d asked. (400 words)
Class of 2015: 1. Tell us about something you did well. (400 words) 2. Tell us about something you wish you had done better. (400 words) + Post-interview Reflection
Class of 2016 & 2017: 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) + Post-interview Reflection
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 them. We suggest you view this video before beginning to write. (optional essay with no word limit) + Post-interview Reflection
Class of 2019: 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?
Common themes that emerge over the years include:
- Mistakes, being frustrated or disappointed in a professional context (this is akin to something you wish you had done better)
- Setbacks faced (and overcome)
- Accomplishments & successes
- Career Vision & Why an MBA?
- Introduce yourself
III 2016 – 2017 HBS MBA Essay Analysis
Essay 1) 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?
HBS on word limit: 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.
fxMBAConsulting on word limit: Generally speaking, good essays range from 500-900 words. I say that because it’s exceedingly rare that the ideas conveyed in say, 1200 words, can’t be reduced to at the most 900 words with proper editing. I mentioned in the intro that strong candidates at HBS are excellent orators and therefore capable of succinct communication. Demonstrate this to the adcom by carefully planning and executing your essay.
Before you dive into the essay questions, you may want to take a look at my article that discusses HBS’s Core Values here.
What the HBS essay isn’t
- It isn’t an opportunity to enumerate every one of your academic and professional achievements to date. That’s not storytelling, that’s throwing spaghetti at a wall and hoping that some of it sticks (in your reader’s mind). Besides, HBS already allocates a place for achievements – it’s the resume and you’re asked to upload yours.
- It isn’t an opportunity to dedicate 700 words to your post-MBA goals and why you really need a MBA from HBS. While that’s an important part of your overall story, HBS has a specific section of the online application for you to do just that (see the form below). You’ll notice that they allocate you 500 characters (with spaces) or about 80 words in the ‘Intended Post-MBA Goals’ section to tell them all about your goals. That’s because that’s all they need and want to know. I know that’s sort of crushing but, in a sense, HBS is more interested in who you are now than in the future you.
Please enter your Intended Post-MBA goals below.
I’m not saying that highlighting a particular achievement or airing your goals has no place in the essay. What I am saying is that the essay should be a story about you, not a list of things you’ve done. So if some of achievements or goals do figure in your essay’s final draft they should be there to support the broader story. If your essay were a house, those elements would be the paint and siding – not the structure’s wood frame.
The facts vs’ Not the facts
HBS asks ‘What more would you like us to know…?‘. More being the operative term, given that your candidacy and your academic, community and professional accomplishments are already summed up in what I call ‘the facts’: your resume, recommendations, online application and short answers. The facts are the immutable part of your story. If you are an investment banker you can’t very well present yourself as not an investment banker – right? Right. That’s ok because the facts aren’t the key to a great HBS essay.
The facts live outside of us but great essays are born inside of us – within, what I call, ‘not the facts’ which are subjective personal experiences. At the beginning of their MBA journey, candidates don’t yet realize this. That’s why, in free consultations they’ll often say something like, ‘Leah, I’m an investment banker – how can you help me differentiate myself?‘ ‘I’m an Indian guy in IT and it’s a very competitive applicant pool – what can I do to stand out?‘. Notice how these concerns center on the external characteristics they have in common with other applicants? But when an essay centers on external characteristics or achievements, a candidate doesn’t differentiate himself, instead he actually makes himself easily comparable to others. Why would you put yourself in that position? Here’s an example:
An investment banker uses ‘the facts’ to write his essay. He talks about what an exceptional employee he’s been – he received accolades from several clients and was promoted six months ahead of schedule. He joined the corporate employee committee and spearheaded a campaign for free snacks…etc. The problem with ‘the facts’ is that it leaves him trying to stand out as an investment banker rather than as a person. Another investment banker will easily ‘one up’ him by writing her essay about being promoted a whole year ahead of schedule and spearheading a campaign for free lunch (not just snacks).
My job is to get that investment banker to tell a unique story that is already inside of him. That will differentiate him because they’ll be absolutely nobody who could tell his exact story, in exactly the same way and therefore there is nobody for the adcom to compare him with ‘apple to apples’.
I’ve had clients write amazing essays. Here are just a few of the many approaches used in the past by MBA applicants who are willing to put the time and effort into crafting an essay based on ‘not the facts‘:
- Client used old journal entries as a backdrop for a reflection on inequality and intercultural differences
- Client leveraged a unifying theme from their childhood right on through to their present day job (such as entrepreneurship that ran in the family or a life-long interest in mechanical engineering) to weave a unique story of who they are and what they hope to do in and for the world
- Client reflected on the values and lessons learned from pivotal people and mentors throughout her life to create an expose on the why behind the choices they’ve made and hope to make
Maybe you’re wondering, how will I know if my essay focuses on ‘not the facts’? A ‘not the facts’ essay will cover new information or it will cover old information but from a new perspective. If you’re still unsure, ask yourself this question: ‘Would my reader have been able to reasonably guess at the topic of my essay after reading through the rest of my written application? If the answer is no, then you’re on the right track.
- definition: ‘The facts’ includes your resume, recommendations, online application and short answers
- definition: ‘Not the facts’ could include (but is not limited to) a characteristic or attribute that has woven its way throughout your life, inflection points in your life or career, an anecdote, philosophy or core values.
- A characteristic or attribute that has woven its way throughout your life | Before you show your reader not only how that characteristic or attribute has impacted your personal and professional lives you’ll want to give ample discussion to where that characteristic or attribute originated from. To illustrate that you can think about The Giving Pledge that Bill Gates created. The Giving Pledge is a commitment to give the majority of your net worth to philanthropy, either during your lifetime or upon your death. The Pledge is a moral commitment, not a legal contract. What is much more intriguing than all of the good that Bill Gates has created through his pledge (via the Gates Foundation) is what gave him the idea to create the Giving Pledge in the first place. I’m sure there’s an amazing backstory there!
- Inflection points | You may want to think about some important or pivotal moments in your life and consider how they have shaped the person you are today. Identify factors/people/events/traits most shaped your personal and professional course and/or worldview. Now think about any downstream implications in other areas of your life? Don’t worry if the inflection points you identify aren’t chronologically or logically connected to one another – what’s interesting about inflection points is that they reveal your underlying values.
- Singular anecdote, Philosophy, Core Values | Anecdotes can be leveraged as a way of revealing your core values or reflecting on a topic that is relevant to your personal or professional journey. My favorite essays usually have an anecdote (no matter the length). Anecdotes are powerful because they create an immediate, human connection with the reader.
A ‘not the facts’ essay always conveys something relatable about who a candidate was, is or would like to be. Relatable essays allow you to connect with your reader on a personal level. They transform a candidate from a two-dimensional object into a three-dimensional human being – one that another human being on the adcom will remember, and even like! Because people feel more comfortable helping those who they know and like, this gives clients a distinct advantage. When someone gets done reading your essay (or listening to your speech) you don’t want them to think you’re a Master of the Universe, you want them to think ‘Mark/Melissa seems like a really neat person. I should grab a coffee with him/her and talk about my start-up idea/career goals/their experience at Bain etc.‘
We’re looking for a story. A story only you can tell.
My advice is to tell a genuine story about yourself that, in passing, relates some of your accomplishments, but primarily gives the listener insight into who you are on a deeper level: your worldview, how you handle adversity, your values etc. Any story can be a compelling one if executed correctly and the HBS Adcom will judge you on the execution of this essay/speech just as your classmates will judge you on your ability to articulate ideas out loud in class. As a future business leader (en germe, for now) your employees will look to these same skills when deciding whether to follow you or not.
Essay 2) The HBS MBA Post-Interview Reflection (conditional on being interviewed)
Within 24 hours of the interview, candidates are required to submit a written reflection through our online application system. Detailed instructions will be provided to those applicants who are invited to the interview process.
a) The Post-Interview Reflection is not intended to be another formal essay. Think of it instead as an email you might write to a colleague or supervisor after a meeting.
b) We will be much more generous in our reaction to typos and grammatical errors than we will be with pre-packaged responses. Reflections that give any indication that they were produced before you had the interview will raise a flag for us.
c) We do not expect you to solicit or receive any outside assistance with this exercise.
d) Your Post-Interview Reflection is due within 24 hours of the conclusion of your interview. Let the interview soak in a little bit…we hate to see people missing activities because they’ve blocked out the time right after their interview to write their reflections.
e) There is no word limit for the Post-Interview Reflection. There is a file size limit for the document you will upload, but it is quite generous.
– HBS Adcom on the post-interview reflection