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HBS Essay: What is Harvard Looking For?

Harvard Business School

Baker Library ©Susan Young for Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School relies on a singular question: “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?”

With this wide-open prompt, Harvard offers a wide-open opportunity to tell them who you are and what drives you — and they offer a generous limit of 900 words to tell your story. This is considerably longer than most schools’ essays, but other schools offer you more defined topics. Having just under two pages to work with gives you the space to tell a detailed story, but the defined limit has a focusing effect. It takes discipline to share meaningful, authentic details in a succinct and memorable way, without repeating facts from other application components.

This leaves you with the prompt itself to contend with. 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? (You can request a copy of the latest HBS application guide on Harvard’s website.)

Beyond credentials, HBS is looking for character. The Admissions Committee seeks principled, passionate individuals who have the potential to fulfill the HBS mission to educate 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 (roughly 10,000 of them) will come with impressive 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.”

5 Tips To Writing a Powerful Harvard MBA 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. (Truthfully, 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 really made 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.

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.

Above all, write an essay you yourself would want to read.

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. An admissions 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 Dream to 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. Choose your Words (and Story) Carefully

The new 900-word recommendation alleviates any anxiety about what HBS will be seeking in terms of length. Many clients often think this is a trick question, and in a way, it could be. When I worked at HBS I remember hearing, “It’s not an essay writing contest! And if I’m still flipping pages at 6 pages deep — perhaps you think a little too highly of yourself thinking we want to spend that much time on you!”

Whether the change is simply to dispel any confusion as the Direct from the Director HBS blog states, or (as I suspect), to speed up the review process (reading 10,000 applications is time consuming!), this means you need to be both increasingly vigilant and strategic in answering the “what more would you like us to know” question. It’s not a great idea to see how many random stories about you can fit into 900 words or fewer. Instead, embrace the “less is more” approach. You could zero in on a singular theme with some evidence to back it up, or tell a story that touches on elements the committee would never know about you (or safely assume they know) in a compelling narrative. Remember — this is not an “essay writing contest” — but rather a “search for authenticity.”

Given the volume of competing applications, keep it simple and succinct enough to ensure impact, and SHORT enough to ensure no eye rolling is happening while they turn page after page of what may be seen as an attempted autobiography. Reflect on what has been shared thus far in the process (don’t restate what they know already) and expand where there is a story. Open up! This will create intrigue and a desire to learn more about you… in an interview!

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.

For a deeper dive on what HBS is looking for and how to position your application for success, view my video strategy session with Fortuna Admissions industry experts and former HBS admissions gatekeepers, Matt Symonds, Taniel Chan, and Malvina Miller Complainville.

Updated Sept. 2023

Want more advice on applying to Harvard Business School?

HBS essays

View these essential articles on HBS by Karla and other members of the Fortuna Admissions team:

1. HBS + GSB: Comparing Our Deep Dive Analysis on Who Really Gets In

2. How to Ace the HBS Interview

3. Tips for Writing the HBS Post-Interview Reflection

4. Reapply to Harvard Business School: 5 Top Tips

5. Recommender Strategy for HBS & GSB

6. HBS video strategy sessions on our YouTube channel (8 videos)

You can also request a copy of our Insider Tips Report on HBS or the full deep dive reports on HBS and Stanford GSB.

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. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.

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