The Harvard Business School essay questions have long been the circuit training equivalent of business school essay writing assignments. This year, HBS has served up an exercise regime that will workout all of your MBA muscle groups and is sure to leave every applicant sore and winded.
Lean and mean are the best adjectives to describe this year’s essay set: lean because HBS continues to impose strict word limits on your essay answers; mean because unlike in years past the optional questions are gone; everyone must run the same obstacle course this year.
So how does one tell an impressive life story when granted the word-diet equivalent of celery and seltzer water?
There are no shortcuts to building a body of work that will impress the HBS admissions judges. Succeeding in these essays requires a clear plan about what you want to say followed by many hours in the writing gym burning away the word fat until a finely chiseled essay collection worthy of Harvard Business School emerges.
Here are our tips on the Harvard Business School essays for 2011 to prepare you for the challenging writing exercise that lies ahead.
Tell us about three of your accomplishments. (600 words)
The grandmother of all HBS essay questions—the accomplishments essay—has been nipped and tucked for the summer release of the HBS application—just in time for beach weather!
A quick look back at her “before” picture is instructive. In years past, HBS asked, “What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such?” Our first tip is that just because the admissions board has tucked the “most substantial” superlatives and nipped the follow-on question does not lower the bar in any way or permit you to ignore the larger meaning of the accomplishments you choose to write about.
Admissions consultants have long prescribed that applicants need to choose one professional, one personal, and one community service accomplishment. This is still good advice to the extent that it reminds essay writers to look beyond their professional achievements when brainstorming possible accomplishments.
Our corollary to this tried-and-true advice is to choose the accomplishments that hold the deepest significance for you and let the personal, professional, community service trio serve as a secondary consideration.
Ask yourself: What have I accomplished that truly matters? What things have I done that made a positive difference for others? When have I achieved something that filled me with pride?
Consider writing about the times you lived up to your values, fulfilled a life-long dream, or surpassed the expectations that you and others had of your capabilities.
Most of all put aside notions of impressing the admissions officers or one-upping the competition. Write instead about three times in your life when the best part of you shined through. You may have done something quite ordinary; you just happened to do it extraordinarily well.
Tell us three setbacks you have faced. (600 words)
With one essay question the ad comm giveth and with the next it taketh away. After allowing you to regale them with the pinnacle moments in your life, you are then asked to share the low points – the setbacks – and not just one but three of them!
Now in my sixth year as an admission consultant, I have watched many type-A candidates drive themselves nutty trying to find the magic formula for writing about a mistake or failure without exposing a weakness or leaving the slightest blemish on their essay masterpiece of awesomeness. Let me save you a great deal of time; there is no formula – so don’t search for one.
This essay question is largely a test of maturity. Have you lived enough to recognize that life rarely goes according to plan? I certainly hope so because HBS believes that great leaders have been tested by life and have earned wisdom from the setbacks they have faced. My heart goes out to the high-achievers whose lives have been one endless honeymoon of perfect grades, perfect performance, and perfect attendance. What in the world are they going to write about?
When you are brainstorming the, count ‘em, three setbacks for this essay, think about the times you have stumbled or even fallen flat on your face. The situations don’t have to have been your fault, but beware of pointing fingers or laying blame elsewhere.
Notice that the question ends with the verb “faced.” Therefore, the admissions committee wants to know how you confronted the setback. As an HBS graduate, I know that an HBS professors’ favorite question is “What would you do?” In your essay, tell the admissions board what you did – i.e., how you faced this setback.
Finally, briefly explain what you learned from each setback, how you have grown from the experience, and what you learned about yourself and the world around you when things did not go as well as you hoped they would.
Why do you want an MBA? (400 words)
This is a new question for the HBS application, but it has a long lineage in the world of MBA essay questions in general. It has replaced the classic “Career Vision” question HBS has asked for many years now.
The tough part about answering this question is that the superficial answer is the same for just about everyone: “I want an MBA because it will provide skills, experiences, and relationships that I need for my future career path.”
When tackling this essay, we think it is a good time to remind yourself that the mission of HBS is to “educate leaders who make a difference in the world.” In our opinion, your answer to this question should explain to the admissions committee how you want to make a difference in the world and how an MBA from HBS, not just any school, will offer specific growth opportunities that you need to fulfill your vision for the future.
With this mindset, your answer will become more personal because it will describe a unique vision of what you want to achieve in the future while at the same time proving that you are a self-aware person who knows where you need to grow if you are to reach your full potential and fulfill your purpose. With only 400 words you will not be able to supply all of the reasons you want an MBA so choose the ones that are the most personally revealing and compelling.
Answer a question you wish we’d asked. (400 words)
This open-ended question can be used to make a point you wanted to make or to tell a story you wanted to tell but haven’t had a chance to elsewhere.
Our advice is to be strategic and thoughtful. Resist the temptation to plug in the essay answer from another school and think specifically about the qualities you possess that HBS will value but that you have not had a chance to highlight in your other essays.
Tactically speaking, delay picking your question and answer until you have a solid second draft of the other essays written and your topic choices for those are more or less set. That way you can use this question to add important building blocks to your application that will emphasize an aspect of your candidacy that will complete the admissions committee’s picture of you.
For example, if you feel that the other application essays have done a good job of presenting your professional persona then perhaps you will use this essay to share some of the aspect of your personality, beliefs, or life experiences that make you a unique person. This is your chance to bring new elements of who you are into focus.
A business school application is like a mosaic, and successful candidates choose the right building blocks for their application to create a vivid picture of their strengths, life experiences, and career aspirations. Before brainstorming the question and answer you will write about, take a step back from the mosaic that you have built with the rest of your application and essays and add the tiles that will complete your masterpiece of awesomeness.