Applying to the Harvard Business School has never been easier. Rather, it’s never been more straightforward – for you and close to 10,000 other applicants who are likely to apply this year for one of 940 or so places in the Class of 2016.
After reducing the essay count to two essays of 400 words each last year (previously it was four essays for a total of 2,000 words), Harvard has gone a step further this year, and now suggests only one essay, with no word limit. I say suggest, because as the school’s Director of MBA Admissions Dee Leopold explains in her popular blog, “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 admissions team explains that they can already see your resume, school transcripts, extra-curricular activities, awards, post-MBA career goals, test scores and what your recommenders have to say about you. So the essay question is, “What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy.”
A thirteen-word question that has caused pulses to race and sighs to be heard around the world.
In a smart move that will surely help candidates from non-traditional backgrounds, or those who feel that getting a letter from a current workplace might jeopardize their current position, the school has also reduced the recommendation requirements from three down to two, in the “hope that this may remove at least one hurdle for prospective candidates who come from organizations where there is not a tried-and-true path for talented folks to leave for business school.”
Hence being more straightforward. Of course, there is still the issue of your stellar GPA, a highly competitive GMAT or GRE score, meaningful volunteer work, semi-professional sporting achievement, the start-up you take care of on weekends, and of course the habit of leadership that your recommenders can speak to.
Whenever Harvard makes a change to its MBA admissions process, the news spreads like wildfire through the business school community. To be fair though, this “open” question type is not exactly new. Chicago Booth has included an original question format in recent years that involves a four-slide presentation or an essay of no more than 600 words, to broaden the school’s perspective about who the candidate is. The school asks “Understanding what we currently know about you from the application, what else would you like us to know?” Many have also drawn parallels with the 750-word Stanford GSB essay, “What matters most to you, and why?”
But while such open-ended essay questions may be an initial source of anxiety for candidates who like to have more ‘signposts’ about what a school wants to know, the new Harvard essay really is great news. You have just been given the power to decide what you want to say (or not to say). Compare this to last year, when applicants were asked to tell the school about something you did well, and something you wish you had done better. My colleagues at Fortuna Admissions, many of them former Directors of MBA Admissions who themselves decided on their schools’ essay questions, see Harvard’s new blank page as being filled with opportunity.
“The new HBS essay encourages real self-reflection, and provides far more potential to convey the person that you are, the career vision you have, or an experience that has shaped your values and decision to apply to the school”, says Judith Silverman Hodara. “What remains constant for the overall admissions process, regardless of the requested delivery, is that the most important ingredient is the applicant’s foundational story. Having read thousands of essays over my almost decade long career in Wharton MBA Admissions, the applicants who had the best chance of securing an interview were those who had an underlying and cohesive mission.”
The former UC Berkeley Haas Executive Director of Admission, Pete Johnson, says that if he were an applicant he would welcome the change. “As always, successful applicants should be focused on the quality of what they provide in their applications, not the quantity. Applicants who have a specific story to tell, a situation that requires mitigation, or a unique value that they offer to the program will have fewer essays to tell that story, so they should make full use of it.”
But Johnson warns against skipping this essay. “There’s a value in the business world to being succinct, and candidates should be, but if an applicant doesn’t submit anything, I would take that as (1) lack of effort, or (2) an inability to demonstrate interests beyond test scores and grades.”
Our Fortuna team offers five insider tips on how to best tackle the new HBS essay:
1. Respect the unstated word limit. There’s clearly no word count offered, but 500 to 800 words makes the most sense given the steps the Harvard admissions team has taken in recent years to reduce the amount of reading they have to do.
2. Write about something that reflects your “worthiness” as a candidate. You need to have done something noteworthy, ideally in a leadership capacity, to be considered a serious contender for HBS so this is your opportunity to describe this achievement, without sounding conceited.
3. Don’t repeat what your resume already states. They have already read it, and have specifically asked what else they should know.
4. Use this essay as an opportunity to reveal greater dimension to your candidacy. Think about what you have done in the past in terms of what it says about you, and how it shapes your values and attitude to life.
5. Discuss a central theme (or two) but don’t try to cover too much in this one essay and either digress or go over-board. The instinct for many will be to cram in too much material and over-reach.
So where do you get started? Judith Silverman Hodara thinks that the best way to start thinking about your personal story is to brainstorm all of the factors that have driven the direction you have taken in your personal life and professional career. She says you can trace the story back as far as you like, but you should ask yourself the following questions:
– What have been your passions, the things you have loved doing the most? This could be in high school, in college, or since you started working.
– What or who has influenced the decisions you have taken, such as what to study, and which career to pursue?
– What experiences have been turning points in your life, and what do they say about you?
This advice comes at a time when many applicants fear that the trend towards fewer or shorter essays is limiting their chances to communicate what makes them distinct. MIT Sloan, Wharton, NYU Stern, UCLA Anderson and the London Business School have also reduced the number of essays required for this year’s MBA application, while the Columbia Business School and Michigan Ross have trimmed the required word count. Certain school questions now look more like a tweet than an essay. But whatever the question, the format or the word count, you still need to prepare a thoughtful storyline, and be prepared to share it during the admissions interview.
Still staring at a blank page? Caroline Diarte Edwards, the Former Director of MBA Admissions at INSEAD suggests another approach to get the ideas flowing. “Start by filling out the school’s application form,” she says, “and then think about what comes across clearly. Perhaps this might be your outstanding academic credentials, or recognition for a professional accomplishment. But then ask yourself what part of the picture is missing. Maybe your long held passion for teaching young kids has been a way to engage with less privileged parts of the community, or a tech project in your spare time speaks to your entrepreneurial flair. Then pick a maximum of 2 or 3 topics to cover in the essay. If you have some major issue that needs explaining, such as a weak GPA because of medical issues, then also take the opportunity to briefly explain yourself. But don’t dwell for too long on the negatives – you should try to finish on a positive note!”
Whether you feel confident or nervous about tackling the essays, remember the value of getting the perspective of others, whether that is a trusted colleague, friend, mentor or consultant. These are people who can help you work out your story, and how to best present yourself. Diarte Edwards says she often saw applicants whose raw material she knew to be great, but who had done a poor job in the presentation and communication, and ended up being rejected. “Sometimes candidates fail because they just don’t put their best foot forward. So during the application process, find a mentor who can give you objective advice and help you work out how to best present yourself to business school.”
With feedback in mind, and to see if you are on the right track, you can try a simple exercise that distills your MBA narrative down to its essence. Send me a tweet to @fortunaadmit with what you would like Harvard or any other school to know about yourself. No more than 140 characters of course, but it gets you thinking about what really matters most to you. I’ll take examples of the best and the worst, and share thoughts and analysis in another post.