Harvard Business School (HBS) recently released its essay question for the – application season, and the prompt is so open-ended that it is bound to puzzle some applicants:
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? (no word limit)
This broad question may leave you asking yourself, “Where do I even start?” So we wanted to offer a few tips for framing your thoughts and getting to work on your first draft.
Express Your Values: Before you start writing, consider for a moment what information the admissions committee already has about you via the other parts of your application. This includes your resume, GPA, GMAT score, recommendations, and some personal history provided in your responses to the short-answer questions. This information is either “black and white” or consists of someone else’s impression of you. This essay is your opportunity to add your own personal “color” and voice to your application. Your goal is not to show off your writing abilities, however, but to share your experiences so that they demonstrate who you are as a person, revealing what inspires and motivates you. In other words, this essay relies on your experience as a vehicle to communicate your values. If you simply lump a variety of anecdotes together and try to foist a theme upon your admissions reader, you will miss the mark. But if you are truly thoughtful about who you are as a person and can speak to a sincere thread that runs through your experiences (or can be powerfully exemplified by a single experience) and that motivates or excites you, you should be on the right track.
Stay Away from “Type”: The enemy of sincerity is “type.” If you believe the admissions committee wants something particular from you or for you to be a specific kind of individual and you strive to portray yourself that way in your essay, you will very likely fail this exercise. If, for example, you write explicitly about “leadership” or offer a number of unsubtle hints that you would master the case method, the admissions committee will recognize the pandering and will be neither fooled nor impressed. The HBS environment is diverse—the admissions committee is not interested in selecting plus individuals who will all bring the same qualities to campus and make identical contributions. So relinquish your belief that HBS is looking for certain themes or profiles in this essay, because it is not. The admissions committee wants to learn about you as an individual—whoever you may be—so return to point one and think about your values.
Recognize This Is Not a Career Goals Essay: For the vast (and we do mean vast!) majority of applicants, this essay is not the place to discuss career goals. If you work in private equity and plan to return to private equity after graduating, this would not be a worthwhile topic for your essay, largely because it would not provide any novel information to better illuminate who you are as an individual. However, if your goals are part of a journey that clearly relates to or expresses your values or if they elucidate an otherwise unclear connection between your past and your business school aspirations, then you might be an exception. For example, a medic at a bush hospital in Uganda who dreams of commercializing low-cost technologies to fight infectious diseases would likely be well served discussing his journey to HBS via this essay. Doing so would clarify this candidate’s path and reveal something critical—something “more”—that the committee could use in evaluating the applicant’s candidacy.
Avoid Writing Your Biography: Although we see absolutely nothing wrong with taking a biographical approach to this essay, this essay cannot be a biography! This means you can discuss your family history and how it has influenced you and shaped your values, but you simply do not have enough space to discuss your entire personal history, and more importantly, it is not relevant. If some interesting and clearly significant inflection points in your life have shaped who you are today, these could make good essay fodder, but you must focus on conveying the why and how of their profound impact on you and filter out everything else in between. The admissions committee wants to learn “more” about you—not everything.
Do Not Rehash Your Resume: Just because HBS is a business school, you do not need to offer a detailed discussion of your professional experience to date. In fact, many successful applicants will not discuss their past career at all. That said, the topic is not entirely off-limits. If you feel that detailing some aspect of your professional life is the ideal way to offer more about you and your values, then you can explore this approach more deeply. On the other hand, we would not recommend simply describing a work accomplishment with no connection to a central theme or purpose. Your resume or recommendations should do the trick as far as informing the admissions committee about a core professional achievement, but if a particular element of or achievement in your professional life truly strikes at the heart of who you are as a person, this could be a fitting topic for your essay. Just make sure that at its core, the story you share serves as a manifestation of who you are, rather than what you have done.
Consider Word Count: HBS offers no word count guidance for this essay, so we will. In the past few years, ever since the school first eliminated its word count limitation, we have advised many successful applicants who submitted essays in the to 1,word range. Although we acknowledge that some candidates who exceeded that top limit were accepted into the HBS program, we feel confident that this is a comfortable and appropriate range, whereby you should be able to fully share your thoughts without demanding an inordinate amount of the admissions reader’s time. Be aware that if you submit 2, words, you are asking a very busy person to dedicate more time to your essay than to others, so you need to be confident that in the end, he or she would feel that this was time well spent. Again, we recommend –1, words as your target. Focus first on writing an essay that showcases your personality and experiences, and if it ultimately exceeds that range, do what is necessary to reduce your verbiage without sacrificing effectiveness.
Make Sure You Are Offering More: In its prompt, HBS very specifically asks for more information about you, so by the time you are finessing your final draft, you will hopefully be able to conclusively determine whether you are truly providing the admissions committee with additional useful information. Applicants tend to write, revise, and revise again until they ultimately lose the forest for the trees. Before you press “submit,” step away from your essay for a while so you can return to it later with fresh eyes and evaluate it more objectively. You could also share it with someone who knows you well and ask that person whether it truly illuminates your personality and experience. More is critical, but more of the same is a recipe for disaster!
Author Jeremy Shinewald is the founder and president of mbaMission, a leading MBA admissions consulting firm.
The Yale School of Management (SOM) is staying the course this year with its single application essay, joining Harvard Business School in using the same essay query as last season. The school has made no modifications to its one prompt, whose word limit does not offer a lot of room to make an impression on the admissions committee. Having commented last year in a Yale SOM blog post that the “seemingly simple and straightforward question” was composed with assistance from one of the school’s organizational behavior professors, Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions Bruce DelMonico added in a more recent post that the admissions committee “is interested not just in the commitment itself but also in how you [applicants] approach the commitment and the behaviors that support it.” Clearly, the Yale SOM has invested some truly purposeful effort into constructing a query that will reveal something specific from and about the individuals targeting its MBA program. In our analysis, we explore how you can maximize your opportunity to shine with this forthright prompt…
Describe the biggest commitment you have ever made. ( words maximum)
You may initially think that this prompt is rather narrow in scope, allowing you space to share the story of just a single professional or community project and nothing more. Although you can certainly discuss your dedication to a particular project or cause, you are definitely not restricted to this approach. Consider this: you can also be committed to an idea (e.g., personal liberty) or a value (e.g., creating opportunity for others), and approaching your essay from this angle instead could enable you to share much more of and about yourself with the SOM admissions committee. For example, you might relate a few anecdotes that on the surface seem unrelated—drawing from different parts of your life—but that all support and illustrate how you are guided by a particular value. Or, to return to the example of personal liberty as a theme, you could show how you take control of your academic and professional paths, adhering steadfastly to your values and vision. Whatever you choose to feature as the focus of your commitment, your actions and decisions, manifest via a variety of experiences, must allow you to own it as a genuine part of who you are as an individual. Identifying a theme that you think no one else will ever use is not your goal here; presenting authentic anecdotes that powerfully support your selected theme is what is important.
However, if you prefer to focus on a single anecdote, the commitment you claim must be truly inordinate. Being particularly proud of an accomplishment is not enough to make it an effective topic for this essay. You need to demonstrate your constancy and dedication in the face of challenges or resistance, revealing that your connection to the experience was hard won. Strive to show that you have been resolute in following a sometimes difficult path and have doggedly stayed on course, citing clear examples to illustrate your steadfastness. Nothing commonplace will work here—you must make your reader truly understand your journey and leave him or her more impressed by your effort than the outcome.
For a thorough exploration of the Yale SOM academic program/merits, defining characteristics, crucial statistics, social life, academic environment, and other key features, check out the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to the Yale School of Management.
The Next Step—Mastering Your Yale SOM Interview: Many MBA candidates find admissions interviews stressful and intimidating, but mastering this important element of the application process is definitely possible—the key is informed preparation. To help you on your way to this high level of preparation, we offer our free Interview Primers. Download your free copy of the Yale SOM Interview Primer today.