With HBS deadlines released for the class of 2022, you might be starting to think about how to tackle the application (R1 set for Sept. 4, 2019).
While the application won’t open up until sometime in June, HBS affirmed that its singular essay question is the same: What more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?
As a former Associate Director at HBS (and prior to that, in admissions for INSEAD) I can attest that your essay is the make or break factor for HBS. It sets your overall application apart and warrants you the interview amongst the many applications with impressive credentials (there were 9,866 applicants last year). You can’t expect to compete on credentials alone at any top tier business school, let alone Harvard, because HBS has seen it all.
When I was reading applications, I have to admit that staying alert was the biggest challenge. Too many applications were uninteresting and lifeless. What really put me to sleep were the applicants who used their HBS essay to reveal how they’d always excelled at everything, before segueing to specifics about some consulting project or deal (yawn).
Although credentials are extremely essential, they really just get you to the threshold. Short answers in the online application shouldn’t be overlooked either and should add levity. But once you’ve reached a certain level of exceptionalism in terms of being bright and ambitious, it’s about your story. Remember that no one else has lived your story but you, so you’re the one best positioned to tell it. Think of it like drafting a “movie trailer” for your life – your essay should be interesting, dynamic, authentic and captivating.
To capture the HBS admissions team’s attention with your essay, here are my five top tips:
- Get profound, get personal. In terms of what you’ve done in your life and why, the more personal you are, the more interesting and memorable you’ll be. Very few people are truly honest and vulnerable when it comes to their story. But there is something so powerful about the truth when you read it – it hits you. Taking the risk to be vulnerable inspires human connection, and it’s so much more engaging to read. The candidates that wrote about overcoming challenges and personal hardships compared to those who had never fallen was always more impressive. In my view, you are not working hard enough if you are never making mistakes.
- DON’T use the essay as a way to list all professional achievements. The biggest snooze is a “resume to prose” essay, which will put your wearied admissions reader to sleep. It’s a common mistake to have your essay read as a story of successes and accomplishments. It deprives your story the potential for making an emotional connection. Principally, write an essay you yourself would want to read.
- Respect the unspecified word limit. There’s clearly no fixed word count but try to keep it within 2,000 words or three-to-four pages. We had heard that candidates were advised to stay within 800 – 1,000 words, but the truth is content is everything and some stories need more space.
- Reveal more breadth to your candidacy. Consider what you have done in the past in terms of what it reveals about you, and how it shapes your values and attitude toward life. When someone was being true to themselves, I paid attention. For example, you might talk about a time you fell and picked yourself back up. Highlight what you learned from the experience and how it shaped you. When you allow people to connect to your experience, it’s so much more compelling.
- Articulate with creativity. Weaving in a creative theme or thread that is deep and big can act as a way to pull your story together. Open with that theme, then bring it to life with experiences and then end on that theme – come full circle. This may sound prescribed, but rest assured this is a tried and true model. Any great story or speech (think Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream to the latest movie blockbuster), have captivating stories with a cohesive flow that hold an audience’s attention.
HBS is seeking mission-driven individuals who are motivated by a deeper purpose and poised to make the institution proud. They are looking for people who are extraordinary and ambitious, with a track record of success, a habit of leadership, and an affinity for consistently hitting their goals. If you can combine that with a compelling story of who you are as a person, you tip the odds in your favor.
Fortuna Admissions coach Karla Cohen was previously Associate Director of Harvard Business School as well as Manager of the PhD Program for INSEAD.