For applicants working towards Harvard Business School’s MBA, here are some tips on how to approach the famous HBS essay question (which remains unchanged from last year) and the required post-interview reflection.
Be sure to also keep track of the deadlines as HBS tends to have a strict policy of not accepting applications after those key dates have passed.
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?
Additional Information: There is no word limit for this question. We think you know what guidance we’re going to give here. Don’t overthink, overcraft and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don’t know your world can understand.
Strategizing for entry to Harvard Business School requires paying special attention to the essay: with limitless space to explain your story, room for making mistakes is equally possible. Be aware that this essay not only impacts one’s chances of entry, but may also influence an applicant’s chances of being considered for Harvard fellowships.
The obvious first hurdle of the HBS essay is length. What does Harvard mean by “no limit?” For most candidates, that translates concretely into 400-1500 words, with the extreme ends being rare among submissions. Most important is to recognize that HBS is looking for concision. That doesn’t mean, however, that the admissions committee won’t appreciate a colorful essay. And remember, for them there is a difference between padding a story and making it come alive.
The next obstacle to face is selecting a theme (or themes) to write about in the essay. To do so, take time to develop a clear understanding of what HBS is looking for. What advantages and disadvantages does your profile present? It could be valuable to find ways to highlight your strengths, or to describe moments that balance out obvious weaknesses.
Another common approach involves pinpointing a passion and using it as the base of your essay writing. Often, HBS’ top applicants demonstrate a drive, whether in their professional or personal lives, that helps further a deep-seated goal. However, if you do choose this strategy, be sure that you have the necessary examples and rationale to demonstrate sincere commitment to your goal.
In terms of its candidates, Harvard is often searching for accomplished leaders. When writing on the topic of leadership though, proceed cautiously and remember to stay humble. HBS asks “what more” you’re willing to add in the essay prompt, so simply using examples that appear on a CV or in recommendation letters could make your range of experiences seem poor and, worse yet, cause the essay to read as dull.
While there are many ways to approach Harvard’s essay, make sure yours includes an engaging and honest portrayal of who you are. If possible, have someone read over your draft. If you don’t have anyone you trust to help you, set your writing aside for several days before rereading it yourself. Ask yourself, “Can I clearly imagine the person who wrote this? Can I empathize with what they felt? Can I truly envision an individual, or do I just see a collection of footnotes?” If the response is negative, best to head back to the drawing board. However, don’t feel discouraged if you do have to restart—many successful Harvard Business School applicants worked through dozens of drafts before zeroing in on the best angle for their essay.
THE POST-INTERVIEW REFLECTION
Post-Interview Reflection: You’ve just had your HBS interview. Tell us about it. How well did we get to know you?
From the admissions committee: “Following the interview, candidates are required to submit a written reflection using our online application system. This must be submitted within 24 hours following the completion of the interview. Detailed instructions will be provided to those applicants who are invited to the interview process.” (No limit, recommend 400-600 words)
• 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.
For most applicants, the HBS interview is fearsome enough without the addition of an essay that needs to be written just 24 hours after the meeting. While it is an understandably stressful assignment, it is also a rare opportunity in the MBA admissions world where applicants can make up for any important information that they may have failed to share during the discussion. It is a great chance to demonstrate added value post-interview.
What’s the best way to prepare for this task? In advance, of course. However, that doesn’t mean writing the text ahead of time — as HBS warns — since that can lead to an essay seeming unnatural or irrelevant. Instead, as you’re preparing for the interview, make notes of all the topics that you’d like to discuss during the interview. If you end up missing the opportunity to mention or explain one of them during the talk, it might benefit you to include that in your post-interview reflection.
On the day of your HBS interview, keep track of what occurred before, during and after, especially if your interview takes place on campus. Anything and everything can ultimately be relevant, so don’t hesitate to take many notes. After your meeting, this can help you connect your interview-day experiences with your profile to highlight your benefit to HBS and its student body.
Finally, keep in mind that they are asking for a reflection. There is no expectation to write a perfectly polished essay or to recycle writing from the rest of your application.
For help preparing the most attractive Harvard Business School essay, be sure to reach out to our HBS experts.