HBS Essay: 5 Key Tips on What Harvard Wants

July 07, 2020 | by Karla Cohen

Harvard Business School opened its application earlier this month affirming that its singular essay question remains intact: “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?”

For many applicants, this question feels maddeningly open ended – paralyzing even – given the lack of word limit. Where do I begin? What do I share? As a Fortuna Admissions coach and former Associate Director at HBS leading PhD admissions and supporting the MBA Interview Board, I spend a lot of time putting this essay into context for anxious candidates. Everyone wants to know, what is HBS looking for?

Beyond credentials, HBS is looking for character. The Admissions Committee seeks principled, passionate individuals who have the potential to fulfill the HBS mission to education leaders who make a difference in the world. While this aspect is readily understood, the process of how to do this effectively is far more complex.

Before I dive into your strategy, let me put a fine point on this: it’s all about your essay. Indeed, the essay is often the make or break factor for HBS. Character doesn’t show up on a resume, in your test scores, or through grades or your transcripts. Your opportunity to show them what you are made of, what drives you, is in the essay. The competition is fierce, so this is the place where you can convince them you have what it takes to be part of this incredible community.

Remember that the majority of applicants (9,228 apps last cycle, to be precise) will come with strong credentials. Those credentials get you to the threshold, but they won’t get the interview, because Harvard has seen it all. Once you’ve reached a certain level of exceptionalism in terms of being brilliant, driven and dedicated, it’s all about your story. Think of it like drafting a “movie trailer” for your life – your essay should be engaging, interesting, with a level of drama and a pace that keeps the story moving. A great essay will entice the reader to say wow, I cannot wait to meet this person and learn more.

Here are five key tips for writing a powerful HBS essay:

1. Do NOT display a highlights reel of professional achievements.

The biggest temptation – and the biggest snooze – is a “resume to prose” essay, which will put your wearied admissions reader to sleep. And frankly, staying awake was the biggest challenge I faced when reading applications, from my time at INSEAD to HBS and even admissions work at Stanford. Too many applicants wrote essays that were boring, lifeless and dull. What reallymade my eyes glaze over were narratives from candidates who sailed through life, having never failed or struggled, who always excelled at everything and then segued to the details of some deal or consulting project. This can’t be overstated: Your essay must not read simply as a story of successes and accomplishments. It’s a common pitfall, and it robs your story the potential for making an emotional connection. Above all, write an essay you yourself would want to read.

So, when HBS asks you, “what else do you want us to know?” the focus is on the “what ELSE.”  You have already detailed your job experiences in the short answer section of the application along with your resume. Do not restate these same facts again, and again. Remember, they know what consultants and bankers do in the office, so unless you are introducing something new or connecting your work to a broader theme, avoid trying to “show off” by writing at length about work achievements.

2. Be open, imperfect and REAL. 

I find it disheartening that my strongest piece of advice, which is to tell the truth and be yourself, is also so difficult at times. Most people are afraid to be real, and they spend hours polishing and perfecting an “image” or “brand” that is an illusion. When you take the risk to be yourself, to be vulnerable, it inspires a human connection. It gives you credibility. What’s more interesting to read – the story of someone who sailed through life and had everything work out perfectly, every single time? Or the story of someone who struggled, faced extraordinary challenges, and demonstrated the tenacity and resilience to not only survive but to thrive?

That’s why the more personal and open you can be in terms of why you do what you do, the more memorable and appealing you’ll be. Because so few people are. Few people are rigorously honest, and fewer are vulnerable in the process of storytelling. Some of the best essays I have ever read open with the story of a failure and how that shaped them. From my perspective, if you are never making mistakes, you aren’t working hard enough. Besides, there is something so powerful about the truth when you read it – it hits you and tunes up your curiosity. And that’s what you want to inspire – enough enthusiasm and curiosity for the admissions committee to want to meet you and learn more. Always remember – this is a search for authenticity.

3. Show vs. tell.

In the process of storytelling, the details are everything. Avoid the temptation to qualify your experience or tell the readers what they are supposed to think. Show them instead. For example, what is more powerful – someone saying, “I had a horrible flight,” or, “We pulled onto the runway, and I could see from my window the dark clouds above; the captain announced once cleared for takeoff, we were in for a bumpy ride. I could feel my pulse quickening.” While you want to avoid detailing a terrible flight experience for the HBS adcom, this concept is critical for effective storytelling. Show them what you have been through and the challenges you have faced through vivid recollection. A consultant can help you sift through your experience to help you identify what to focus on. Generally, experiences that shaped your values and attitude toward life are a great place to start. You might talk about a challenge, for example, or a time you fell and picked yourself back up. Underscore how it shaped you as a human being and what you learned from the experience and remember to SHOW them the impact vs. simply telling them.

4. Connect the dots.

Your essay should have what I refer to as the “thread of continuity” that will serve as a unifying theme. Perhaps, you can introduce an experience that was momentous or marked an important milestone in your opening paragraph. As you weave together stories that show the committee who you are and the twists and turns your life has taken, you will want to revisit this theme at different points in your story as a way to unify the narrative. The conclusion should serve to tie it all together. This may sound formulaic, but when in doubt, rest assured this is a tried and true model that allows you to connect the dots for your reader. Any great story or even speech – from Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dreamto the latest Hollywood blockbuster – have a cohesive flow and pace that keep the audience’s attention. There is always an intangible driving force that builds, which is an essential ingredient to a winning essay.

5. Respect the reader’s time.

While there’s no given word count, try to keep your essay within 2,000 words, or three-to-four pages. This may surprise you if you’ve been advised stay within 800 – 1,000 words, but the truth is content is everything and some stories need more space. And if it’s too short, admissions may assume you are being inauthentic or following misguided advice. And while there’s no hard-and-fast rule, I don’t recommend going over 2,000 words. Most of my clients land somewhere between 800 to 1,500 – being pithy and succinct also shows discipline and humility. That said, one of the most powerful essays I have ever worked on with a client was one word under 2,000, and the feedback he received in the interview was that his essay was one of the best the committee had ever read, and his interviewer thanked him for his openness and honesty.

Ultimately, HBS is looking for people who are ambitious and extraordinary, with a habit of leadership, a history of engaging the community, and the appetite and aptitude for success that separates them from the simply smart and hard working. Beyond a demonstrated professional track record and impressive credentials, they also want to see a proclivity for consistently exceeding goals. More than that, they’re seeking mission-driven doers who are motivated by a deeper purpose and poised to make the institution proud. Your challenge with the essay – and opportunity – is to fuse that with a captivating story of who you are as an individual. And if that feels daunting, keep in mind that no one else has lived your story but you, which makes you uniquely qualified to tell it.

Want more free advice?

If you haven’t yet seen it, check out our blog comparing deep dive analyses of the HBS & GSB Classes of 2020, or request your copy of the full deep dive reports.

You can also view our MBA Admissions Essay Masterclass featuring HBS, Stanford GSB & Wharton, below.

Find all sessions in our series of MBA Admissions Essay Masterclasses on Fortuna’s YouTube channel, featuring 14 of our former MBA Admissions gatekeepers on 14 of the world’s top business schools.

For more tips on applying to Harvard Business School, view my short video strategy session, or read my related article on Acing the HBS Interview.


Karla Cohen Fortuna MBA Coach

Fortuna Admissions Expert Coach Karla Cohen is former Harvard Business School associate director of doctoral programs and an MBA interview board member. She was also a manager of the PhD program at INSEAD.

Other of Karla’s related features include,  5 Tops Tips: Reapply to Harvard Business School and the video strategy session, Harvard Business School Advice: A Strategy for Working with Your Recommenders.

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