Harvard Business School MBA Essay Analysis: 2012 – 2013

Per usual, HBS has kicked off the admissions season with their essays.  This year, HBS has made a significant departure from the past with significantly shorter essays (800 words total (not including the post-interview reflection) vs. 2000 words last year), elimination of two “standard” essays and the addition of a reflection essay after the interview (due 24 hrs. after the interview).  When thinking about the HBS essays, reflect on how you have exhibited leadership and made an impact through your career and community pursuits.  The HBS essays provide you with an opportunity to showcase what you have done well and what could you have done better; the execution is the challenging part.  Let’s dig in!

Essay 1 (400 words): Tell us about something you did well.

Clearly, this essay is meant to gain meaningful insight into one of your most substantial accomplishments.  You should also think about this essay question in the context of why this accomplishment is important to you.  This additional information will provide the admissions committee with insight into your value compass to understand what is important to you.

Admit Advantage: This essay gives the admissions committee the ability to see the magnitude of your accomplishments and what you consider to be an accomplishment.  In that regard, the choice of the accomplishment is extremely important since you don’t have the ability to choose three accomplishments like last year.  If you’re going to go after a non-professional accomplishment, you should’ve had a significant impact.  Make sure to identify the challenges and barriers in the way of you accomplishing your goal.

Admit Advantage: Think about your MBA brand before you write this essay.  Map out the key leadership traits that you want to get across to the admissions committee and try to identify the one key accomplishment that embodies as many of these key leadership traits as possible.

Essay 2 (400 words): Tell us about something you wish you had done better.

Unless you are just starting your career or extremely arrogant (slightly joking), you have likely had something that you could’ve done better.  If you are married, I’m sure your spouse can tell you something they would want you to do better.  Setbacks are a part of life – the important part is how you respond and learn from your mistakes. The admissions committee is trying to understand how you’ve handled a past setback to extrapolate how you are likely to react to challenges as a future business leader.

Admit Advantage: Before you write this essay, think about an event that where may have performed poorly, but you’ve learned from the experience and have changed your behavior as a result.  Leadership is not about mistake-free performance, it’s about constant iterating and learning from mistakes to continuously improve (Kaizen). Leaders are able to masterfully maneuver setbacks and find ways to persevere, so make sure you have a good story here!

Admit Advantage: Make sure to articulate what you learned from your experience, and don’t provide unnecessary background information that doesn’t support your story.  Clearly, background is needed for the MBA admissions committee member to understand the essay, but the focus should be on what you could’ve done better, how you persevered, what you learned, and how you may have changed your behavior as a result of what you learned.

Admit Advantage: Don’t be afraid to admit a real failure that you have made, but be sure to address the lessons learned.  If you have several years of business experience (especially in a customer-facing role) and don’t have any real setback, this can be a red flag as to the depth of your business exposure.  The HBS admissions committee is expecting a substantive example, so give them what they want, within reason, of course.


Essay 3 (no word limit): Post Interview Reflection

This is a new essay question this year.  This is the question that all interviewees will be asked: “You’ve just had your HBS interview. Tell us about it. How well did we get to know you?” There will be no word limit.  You will have 24 hrs. after your interview to complete the essay; detailed instructions will be given at the interview.

From the HBS site…

We think the instruction memo will look something like this: “This is not an essay. Think of this as an email you might write after a meeting. We will be much more generous in our reaction to typos and grammatical errors than we will be with pre-packaged responses. Emails that give any indication that they were produced BEFORE you had the interview will raise a flag for us. We do not expect you to solicit or receive any outside assistance with this exercise.”

Here’s what we’re thinking:

This is NOT another essay. We want your response to be much more like an email. Why? In the Real World, it is unlikely that you will be given months and months to craft essays of any sort. It just doesn’t happen. In the Real World, it is almost a sure thing that you will be asked to write emails summarizing meetings and giving your opinion in a short time frame. Since HBS tries to be as “close to practice” as possible, this shift from essays to more real time writing feels appropriate.

I know this is hard to hear but this should NOT be a cause for anxiety. We want your genuine reaction to the interview experience. As is always the case in the Real World, this means there is no right answer to the question. There is no formula, no template. But, we can tell you what the WRONG approach is: to get lots of coaching and prepare the response in September for an interview in November. To have lots of people edit and tweak it. To avoid answering the question but instead jam in six more accomplishments or copy and paste an essay from another school. Please understand that we really do plan to be very generous and kind about typos and grammar. We’re not looking for a polished response.

Admit Advantage: Here’s the good news, Admit Advantage will provide 24 hour support on the HBS reflection essay for any package client!  Our goal, as with all of our clients, is to help you think through the question in the context of your brand, interests, and goals, to provide the best possible essay.  In the end, as HBS has stated, this essay should be from the heart, but it will help to have Admit Advantage by your side, especially given the tight time frame.

Admit Advantage: Clearly this is a departure from the norm and is likely to spark a different type of thinking for MBA applications in the future.   They are looking to capture your true reflections from the interview and they want to level the playing field by requesting that you provide the essay in 24 hrs.  Our guidance is to make sure to spend as much time researching HBS in advance so you can provide real insights and reflect upon your interview with as much information as possible.

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