Crafting a well-written essay for your MBA application is a daunting exercise for most applicants. After all, if you’re applying to a highly selective business school, the admissions staff is typically looking for a reason to ding you. An essay that reveals any weakness in your candidacy could quickly put you in the reject pile.
So what does a successful essay to a top business school look like? For the past two years, The Harbus, the MBA student newspaper at Harvard Business School, has collected and published essays from successful applicants now enrolled as students at the school. What those collections clearly show is that an essay doesn’t have to be a masterpiece to get you an invite to attend Harvard. “They just need to serviceably present your story and not be annoying of odd or offensive or confusing,” says Sandy Kreisberg, founder of HBSGuru.com, the MBA admissions consultant.
The new 51-page essay guide costs $49.99, the proceeds of which go to support the non-profit Harbus Foundation. It contains 16 essays written by students admitted to Harvard’s Class of 2017. For just $20 more, The Harbus will toss in last year’s essay guide which includes an additional 23 essays. You can buy them here. Unlike much of the drivel written about how to write an MBA essay, the advice and the essays come from incoming HBS students who are willing to share the questions they were asked and the essays they wrote.
NO PAINT-BY-NUMBER APPROACH FOLLOWED BY SUCCESSFUL MBA APPLICANTS TO HARVARD
The new essay guide includes 16 successful essays written by this year’s incoming HBS students
Of course, one issue with these essays is that they address a different question asked by the school’s admissions staff. In the past two years, HBS used this prompt: “You’re applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your resume, school transcripts, extra-curricular activities, awards, post-MBA career goals, test scores and what your recommenders have to say about you. What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?”
All the essays published in both books address that question rather than the 2015-2016 prompt to introduce yourself to your classmates. The big difference between the two questions is the audience. Last year, applicants addressed the admissions committee. This year, they need to address their own peers. The actual content may or may not be all that different which makes these essays valuable and worthwhile.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO WRITE LIKE MALCOLM GLADWELL TO GET ACCEPTED INTO HBS
What you can’t do, of course, is crib from an existing essay. That is the quickest route to rejection. As Kreisberg points out, reading and even studying the essays of those who have made the cut “can loosen you up, show you some useable gimmicks, and prove that you do not need some extensive career road map and belabored rap on why HBS.”
The four samples that follow from the past two years, reprinted here with the permission of The Harbus, may well surprise you. In most cases, content trumps style. Admissions staffers aren’t expecting master storytellers. After all, the Harvard Business School (or any other business school for that matter), does not enroll the likes of a Malcolm Gladwell or a Stephen King.
That doesn’t mean they didn’t take real effort. One MBA student says she labored over 15 drafts that consumed something like 50 hours of time to do her 703-word essay. “It was like six hours on the first eight drafts, then probably just one hour of tweaking on each of the next seven drafts,” she confides. Another says her HBS application 895-word essay was “a work in progress for two months. Wrote it, edited it, let it sit, edited it again, etc. I would say (I wrote) five drafts and (took) 20 hours.“
The greatest benefit of reading these samples? They’ll take a lot of pressure off of you because, although we picked some of the best examples to guide you through the process of doing your own essays, they are quite imperfect.
DON’T MISS: WINNING ESSAYS OF HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL STUDENTS or BEFORE YOU WRITE THAT HBS ESSAY….DO’S & DON’TS
A soldier who served on the front lines in Afghanistan. A process engineer challenged by a long series of early failures. And a female consultant whose passion became healthcare.
Three MBA applicants to Harvard Business School last year. Three students in the newest crop of MBA students at Harvard this fall. All of them answered the question now being asked of 2017-2018 applicants to Harvard: 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?
The school provides minimal guidance for applicants trying to make an impression. “There is no word limit for this question,” advises HBS admissions. “We think you know what guidance we’re going to give here. Don’t over think, overcraft and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don’t know your world can understand.”
Each of the three applicants above wrote a clear and compelling essay in their applications, essays that Poets&Quants is reprinting with permission from the MBA Essay Guide Summer 2017 Edition recently published by The Harbus, the MBA student newspaper at Harvard Business School. The guide contains 39 essays written by successful candidates who are now starting the MBA program at HBS. Proceeds from the sale of the guidebook go to benefit the non-profit foundation that supports The Harbus.
With application deadlines rapidly approaching at Harvard Business School and many other prestige MBA programs, these successful essays will, no doubt, give current candidates a bit of guidance. More importantly, the essays that follow are most likely to provide comfort, that there is no formula or singular way to craft a successful answer.
THREE SUCCESSFUL ESSAYS. THREE VERY DIFFERENT APPROACHES.
The latest edition of the MBA Essay Guide from The Harbus costs $61.49
In his 1,130-word essay, the U.S. Army applicant ties together his experiences of leading soldiers on the front line in Afghanistan together with staff postings in Army operations and logistics to paint a portrait of a dedicated and people-oriented leader.
Inspired by a selfless act from her nine-year-old mentee, this management consultant decided to challenge herself to make an impact in healthcare. In a 937-word essay, she uses a particularly difficult turnaround situation which she was put in charge of as exemplifying her strongest skills: building relationships and uniting people around a common goal.
In a 1,358-essay, a process engineer opens up to a long series of failures in his early life. By showing both vulnerability and honesty, he is able to transform this list of fruitless endeavors into a credible “badge of honor,” evidence of his resilience, determination and strength of character. It quickly becomes apparent that what appeared to be failures in the first half, actually proved to be successes or openings for new opportunities, given enough time and perseverance.
ONE APPLICANT DID 25 DRAFTS BEFORE COMING UP WITH ONE SHE LIKED ENOUGH TO SUBMIT
Behind every MBA application is a person and a story, and in this trio of representative essays the approaches taken by each candidate is as different as the essays they submitted to the admissions committee at HBS.
The engineer went through took eight drafts over two months. “I thought about what personal traits I wanted to share with the ADCOM and identified stories from my past that identified those traits,” he explains. “After two or three drafts, I’d figured out the right narrative and kept refining it, taking as much as a week to finalize each draft. My best advice is to be honest, start early, and have someone who knows what the ADCOMS are looking for to read through a couple of your drafts and give you pointers.”
The consultant estimates that she went through 25 drafts to get to her final version. “I think the most important thing with the essay is to iterate,” she advises. “Because the question is so open-ended, it is important to reflect as much as possible and give yourself the time (in my case two months) to go on the journey necessary to realize what you care most about communicating and how to do so in the most effective way. I also cannot overstate the importance of finding someone who will give you honest feedback.
(See on the following pages the complete and full MBA essays submitted to Harvard Business School)