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HBS Essays: What is Harvard Looking For?

Harvard Business School

Baker Library ©Susan Young for Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School has released new essay questions for the 2024-25 season, the biggest change by HBS admissions in a decade. The school has ditched its longstanding wide-open prompt with a generous limit of 900 words in favor of a series of three much shorter essays.

As a Fortuna Admissions coach and former Associate Director at HBS, I’m thrilled with the new HBS essays. Over the years I have spent a lot of time putting the open-ended essay into context for anxious candidates, most of whom struggled to know where to begin. While some candidates wrote brilliant, meaningful and authentic essays told in a succinct and memorable way, others delivered the “kitchen sink” and some even tried to fit an autobiography in 900 words. Essentially, the old HBS essay gave candidates enough rope to hang themselves with, and unfortunately some did. So, I was thrilled to see a new set of HBS essay questions with clearer signposts indicating the specific elements that HBS is seeking to learn in the process of evaluating its applicants (roughly 10,000 a year). As my colleague Judith Hodara commented, “some applicants will be very relieved to not face the old 900 word beast of an essay, and appreciate the opportunity to break their story into discrete, focused parts.” 

The school has also outlined new criteria for evaluating candidates. 

The New HBS Essays & Fortuna’s HBS Essay Tips

HBS Essay #1 – Business-Minded Essay: Please reflect on how your experiences have influenced your career choices and aspirations and the impact you will have on the businesses, organizations, and communities you plan to serve. (up to 300 words)

Here the school is looking for the logical thread that connects key experiences that have triggered your professional passions with your career vision. What are the factors and experiences that have shaped the professional you have become today? And how do they link to your future goals? However, keep the focus on the past or present and don’t dedicate too much precious word count to the future. As my colleague Rachel Erickson Hee says, “asking about what kind of leader you want to become is a potential trap here; some candidates will waste word count articulating that in detail instead of giving past examples that the AdCom can extrapolate from.” Given the word count constraints, you also can’t cover too much ground here, so focus on one main story or point. There’s a lot at stake here, so being judicious about your choice of example to highlight is critical. 

HBS Essay #2 – Leadership-Focused Essay: What experiences have shaped who you are, how you invest in others, and what kind of leader you want to become? (up to 250 words)

Here the school is looking for evidence of demonstrated influence and impact. This is also based on the understanding (relating to HBS professor Frances Frei’s work) that the best leaders know how to inspire others. Here you want to lay out how you have inspired or mobilized change, and what was the result? It may be intangible (e.g., increased morale or shifting the strategy of a team). This does not mean it has to be (though it can be) related to work  – some candidate’s best examples will relate to their extracurriculars or community engagement. And again, you need to link this to how you want to inspire people in future. As with the first Harvard MBA essay question, word count will be a challenge, as there are three parts to the essay prompt! The advice above for the ‘business-minded essay’ applies again: provide a very focused answer, and keep your future self description very concise. 

HBS Essay #3 – Growth-Oriented Essay: Curiosity can be seen in many ways. Please share an example of how you have demonstrated curiosity and how that has influenced your growth. (up to 250 words)

This essay is where you can be vulnerable. How have you taken a risk, stepped out of your comfort zone, and been changed by that experience? Where did this idea come from? What inspired this creative endeavor? Remember that curiosity is a critical quality to being a great MBA student. HBS is an extraordinarily interactive learning experience so the school needs students who are excited to engage in discussion and debate both inside and outside the classroom. Moreover, the case method is based on inquiry and debate. You need to show that you are open to new ideas, perspectives and experiences, and will embrace that opportunity (and have valuable insights to bring to the classroom). As my colleague and HBS MBA grad DeJeune Antoine states, “If an applicant can clearly convey curiosity, I can see that person as a value add to the classroom discussion and HBS case study method, highlighting perspectives, people, and issues that others may have overlooked.

 

Critical Context & What HBS is Looking For

Before you dive into drafting your HBS essays, it’s critical to keep some context in mind.

Beyond credentials, HBS is looking for character. The HBS MBA Admissions Board seeks principled, passionate individuals who have the potential to become leaders who make a tremendous impact in the world. While this aspect is readily understood, the process of how to communicate this effectively (especially without coming across as arrogant — that’s a killer in the Harvard processs) is far more complex.

It’s all about your essays. Indeed, the essay portion of the application 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 essays. 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 you to 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 Harvard MBA essays should be engaging and interesting. A great essay will entice the reader to say, “Wow, I cannot wait to meet this person and learn more.”

The mission of HBS is to “educate leaders who make a difference in the world” and collectively your essays should show the HBS Admissions Board that you are capable of this — because past performance is the best indicator of future potential! I had that principle drilled into my brain at HBS, and that’s at the core of the Harvard MBA essay questions.

 

5 Tips For Writing Powerful Harvard MBA Essays

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

The biggest temptation — and the biggest snooze — is a “resume-to-prose” essay, where you pick some achievements already described in your resume and regurgitate that in your essays. During my time reading essays at HBS, Stanford and INSEAD, I saw far too many essays that were boring, lifeless and dull. What really made my eyes glaze over were narratives from candidates who have 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 Harvard MBA essays must not read simply as a story of successes and accomplishments. It’s a common pitfall, and it robs your story of the potential for making an emotional connection.

It’s important to reflect on what you have shared thus far in the application (don’t restate what they know already from your resume, recommendations, and application form) and expand where there is a story. So you should tackle the HBS essay questions only when you have a good draft of the other elements of your written application; at this point you can more easily identify what additional details will add color and context to your candidacy. 

Above all, write essays you yourself would want to read.

  1. 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? 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 relate to a 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 HBS Admissions Board to want to meet you and learn more. 

Always remember: this is a search for authenticity. So open up! This will create intrigue and a desire to learn more about you… in an interview.

  1. 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 admissions team, this concept is critical for effective storytelling. Show them what you have been through and the challenges you have faced through a few choice and vivid details. A Fortuna admissions consultant can help you sift through your experience to help you identify what to focus on. Experiences that shaped your values and attitude toward life are a great place to start. 

  1. Choose your Words (and Story) Carefully

The new Harvard MBA essay questions come with very limited word counts. The school is asking you to get to the point immediately, and avoid what editors refer to as ‘throat-clearing’. Given the vast number of applications they have to deal with, the HBS file readers do not want to waste time ploughing through extraneous details – as they often had to do in the past, with the open-ended HBS essay question. Rather than the file reader having to parse your application to identify relevant details, they want the candidate to do that for them.  This means you need to be both vigilant and strategic in picking the examples you focus on. Embrace the “less is more” approach. You need to zero in on a singular theme with some evidence to back it up. Remember — this is not an “essay writing contest” — but rather a “search for authenticity.”

The key with these short Harvard MBA essay questions is to really state a claim and support it with evidence. The short length requires you to be very focused and honest, as well as pithy and succinct. At face value, a short essay might look easier than a longer one. But don’t be fooled. As Mark Twain said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” 

  1. Connect the dots.

Each of the new HBS essay questions requires you to reflect on what I refer to as the “thread of continuity” that serves as a unifying theme. Given that, the school takes the view that past performance is the best predictor of future impact, they are looking for you to get specific about how your past experiences (in your work, in your leadership opportunities, and in your personal growth) have shaped the person you have become today. In the first two HBS essays, you need to link this explicitly to your future vision. 

 

Final HBS Essay Tip

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 your HBS essays — and opportunity — is to fuse that with some captivating illustrations 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.

Watch our recent Masterclass on how to get into Harvard Business School.

 


Want more advice on applying to Harvard Business School?

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)


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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