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Be sure to read my Key Posts on the admissions process. Topics include essay analysis, resumes, recommendations, rankings, and more.

July 21, 2016

INSEAD MBA Essay Questions for September 2017 Admission

Here I discuss INSEAD’s essays for September 2017 Entry (Class of July 2018).  The application has been updated and now there is a video component.  As the details of what the video component is are not fully available at this time, I will update this post soon (July 21, 2016). 

Since 2001, when I began doing MBA admissions counseling, I have had an opportunity to work with a large number of clients admitted to INSEAD. Since establishing my own consulting practice in 2007, I’ve worked with 40 clients admitted to INSEAD. Annual breakdowns and testimonials from clients admitted to INSEAD can be found here.


As a matter of disclosure, I attended INSEAD’s Executive Masters in Consulting for Change (EMCCC 16J Wave 18), at the Singapore campus, which I have previously discussed on this blog. I will be graduating in October 2016. Therefore, unlike other Business Schools that I write about, I am part of the INSEAD community. I attend alumni events, have taken modules with some of the same faculty who teach in the MBA program, and have spent a significant amount of time on-campus. My program was held on the Singapore campus, but I have also been on the Fontainebleau campus as well in April of this year, when some of my classmates and I travelled went there to meet with our thesis advisor.


While INSEAD does not ask a “Why INSEAD?” question, as with other schools, I strongly recommend becoming informed about INSEAD. Attending admission events, meeting alumni,and making full use of INSEAD’s online resources are critical for making the strongest possible case for why your goals require an INSEAD education. You should most certainly look at INSEAD KNOWLEDGE and listen to some INSEAD Knowledgecasts. Finally, keep in mind that INSEAD is a fun school, so express your personality in terms of why you want to attend it. I would also suggest joining  https://www.facebook.com/insead  and

https://www.facebook.com/INSEAD.Degree.Programmes for the latest INSEAD news.  Additionally, some Alumni chapters have events where prospective applicants can attend. For example, here in Japan (See https://www.facebook.com/groups/inseadjapan/), the bimonthly drinks event held in Tokyo is open to prospective students.  Reaching out to alumni and current students is always one of the best ways to learn about a school.  Of course, if you can visit INSEAD, I recommend doing so.



While somewhat hidden in comparison to the way other schools mention in the application and instructions, INSEAD requires the upload of a Curriculum Vitae (resume) for the MBA program. This practice only started a year ago, so there is still a bit of confusion about it, especially because of the Job Description content (see below).  The supporting documents page includes a place for uploading a Curriculum Vitae, which is a required document.  The instructions for the CV are here and state: “Your curriculum vitae can either be on a free format or follow the format of the INSEAD official CV e-book - click here to view the template.” If you are applying to INSEAD and it is your top choice I recommend usin g their CV. It is not my favorite format but it is the one they suggest using. It does include some content that would not be part of a US MBA application program resume, in particular, the photo. So if you apply to other schools, do use a format more appropriate to that school. You can find my suggested general resume template here.


Now to the essays.




The application requires four short answers (and one optional) of unspecified length to some very important questions. I have asked before about the length and for whatever reason they don’t provide instructions or a guideline. Since the previous length was 300 words or less, that is what I have told my clients so far. Since they have been admitted writing answers of that length, that is what I will continue to tell clients until INSEAD states otherwise.



One of these questions is about your post-MBA goals, so this goes beyond job description and is the only goals essay in the application.



 As the questions are concerned with the applicant’s professional experience, I think the following from my interview with Deborah Riger, who was the INSEAD MBA Programme’s Assistant Director of Marketing at the time of the interview should be kept in mind:

“ADAM: Regarding professional experience, what to do you look for in younger (very early twenties) and older (late twenties or thirties) applicants?

DEBORAH: For all applicants we want to see a track record of professional accomplishments that sets them apart from their peers. For those with only 1-2 years of professional experience, they must demonstrate something distinctive in their profile, perhaps they have started their own company. I would suggest, it is in the benefit of all younger applicants to work for a minimum of two years before applying to business school as they will get more out of the programme if they have experiences to reflect back on. For older applicants, we are looking for a strong professional track record and clear goals toward career change or advancement. If an older applicant has been in the same role for five years that might not demonstrate potential for growth, overall ambition or success relative to his/her peers.”


Based on my experience with INSEAD applicants, the above statement from Deborah is completely accurate. INSEAD is relatively forgiving of those with limited (1-2 years) of professional experience as long as there is something distinctive about their background, but for most applicants, INSEAD is expecting to see a clear pattern of career growth. While INSEAD can actually be quite flexible about the level of international experience that an applicant has, when it comes to those with 3-10+ years of experience, career growth really matters. Deborah’s comment about applicants in the same position for five years is also really telling as it points to the fact that INSEAD is looking for applicants who are not complacent. Keep in mind that an INSEAD admission committee consists of faculty and alumni and the later, in particular, are likely to have clear expectations of what good career growth looks like.


I think it is also important to keep in mind that a business background is not a necessity for admission to INSEAD, but that good professional experience is. See here.  Based on my experience working with clients coming from a variety of professions, I can say that having a non-business, but solid professional career, can be a real advantage for being a distinct applicant.


In addition to the now mandatory CV,  you should consider that these essays will really provide INSEAD with their primary interpretation of your career.



Briefly summarise your current (or most recent) job, including the nature of work, major responsibilities, and where relevant, employees under your supervision, size of budget, clients/products and results achieved. (short answer) *


You want to focus on both major responsibilities and major results. Since results (accomplishments) are likely to be specifically connected to responsibilities, I would prioritize them in your description. I think for many applicants, the easiest way to organize this essay will be in terms of discussing their 2-4 most important results and/or responsibilities.  For those who are unemployed, you should write about your last position held. Here is one possible organizational scheme.

1. Brief introduction indicating the nature of the position and employer.
2. Most important responsibility that led to a result.
3-5. Subsequent responsibilities-results.


Since they will also have your CV, interpret your job, don’t just summarize it. Explain why the work you do is significant.



 What would be your next step in terms of position if you were to remain in the same company? (short answer) *


I would call this the “opportunity cost” question, in other words, by going to INSEAD, you will be sacrificing the opportunity to take the next step at your current employer. If you are unemployed, the way to handle this question is to discuss the kind of position you would obtain if you were not seeking an MBA. For everyone else, I think you should be realistic, but also present the best possible version of your next position, which will show that you are seeking an MBA to move beyond what would follow without it. I think INSEAD asks this question not  only to determine whether you have a clear sense of your career trajectory, but also to confirm that you have thought deeply about what you are sacrificing by pursuing an MBA.



Please give a full description of your career since graduating from university. Describe your career path with the rationale behind your choices. (short answer)


This  should be a growth story.  If it is not a story that shows how your career has positively evolved, it is unlikely to be very effective.  You might be unemployed at the moment, but what has been the trajectory so far?  Did you take a big risk along the way?  Point that out.  We each have our career ups and downs, especially anyone who has taken risks.  Don’t shy away from discussing the risks, but the overall focus of this essay should be positive.  In my experience, INSEAD rewards those who take risks and does not look kindly on those that stay in the same position for five years or more. Change or become boring!  If you have been working in the same position for five years or more, you will need to really show how you have demonstrated growth in terms of results or responsibilities, which would have been primarily discussed in the job description above.
In terms of organizing this answer, think about the key turning points in your career.  Help INSEAD understand how you have evolved professionally.  Assume that you are being judged critically and consider how to both effectively and honestly present your career.



Discuss your short and long term career aspirations with or without an MBA from INSEAD.

Given the intensive nature of the INSEAD experience, you need to go into the program with a clear idea of what you want to do after your MBA. Of course, these aspirations might change, but given the program length and the reality that you will need to begin recruiting/internship hunting soon after entry, you will need a clear plan for your future. The complication with this little question is that it asks for your goals with or without an MBA from INSEAD.  Whether your goals are achievable or would become very difficulty to achieve without an MBA from INSEAD is certainly something you can discuss.  The core content here, however, should focus on your career aspirations and not why you want an MBA.  If they wanted to know why you wanted an MBA or wanted to go to INSEAD, they would ask that.  They used to do so and are not anymore.


If you are having difficulty articulating such a plan, you can use my GAP, SWOT, AND ROI TABLE FOR FORMULATING GRADUATE DEGREE GOALS for this purpose (see below). I think GapSWOT, and ROI analysis are great ways for understanding what your goals are, why you want a degree, and how you will use it.

(To best view the following table, click on it. )






















How to use this table:



Step 1. Begin by analyzing your “Present Situation.” What job(s) have you held? What was/is your functional role(s)? What was/are your responsibilities?

Next, analyze your present strengths and weaknesses for succeeding in your present career. REMEMBER: WHEN YOU ARE THINKING ABOUT YOUR STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESS DON’T ONLY THINK ABOUT WORK, THINK ABOUT OTHER ASPECTS OF YOUR LIFE. In particular, some of your greatest strengths may have been demonstrated outside of work, so make sure you are accounting for them.
Strengths: What are you good at? Where do you add value? What are you praised for? What are you proud of?
Weakness: What are you bad at? What are you criticized for? What do you try to avoid due to your own limitations? What do you fear?

Next, analyze the environment you work in right now. What opportunities exist for your growth and success? What threats could limit your career growth?


Step 2. Now, do the same thing in Step 1 for your “Post-Degree” future after you have earned your graduate degree. IF YOU CANNOT COMPLETE STEP 2, YOU HAVE NOT SUFFICIENTLY PLANNED FOR YOUR FUTURE and therefore you need to do more research and need to think more about it.


Step 3. If you could complete step 2, than you should see the “Gap” between your present and your future. What skills, knowledge, and other resources do you need to close the gap between your present and future responsibilities, strengths, and opportunities?


Step 4. After completing Step 3, you now need to determine how an MBA will add value to you. It is possible that an increased salary as a result of job change will be sufficient “ROI” for the degree to justify itself, but you should show how a degree will allow you to reach your career goals. How will the degree enhance your skills and opportunities and help you overcome your weaknesses and external threats? If you can complete Step 4, then you should be ready to explain what your goals are, why you want a degree, and the relationship between your past and future career, as well as your strengths and weaknesses. If you know about INSEAD, you are ready to write about your goals, whether in Question 3-4 or elsewhere in the essay set.

The above table will also help you answer such common interview questions as: Where do you want to work after you finish your degree? Why do you want an MBA (or other degree)? What are you strengths? What are your weaknesses? What are your goals?

If you are currently not working or if you plan to leave your current employer more than 2 months before the programme starts, please explain your activities and occupations between leaving your job and the start of the programme. (optional)


I think it is critical to provide a honest answer to the question and one that hopefully shows that you are using your time well. Possible topics to discuss:

1. Learning activities (NOT APPLICATION PREP PLEASE! That would be really weak)
2. Language learning
3. Internships
4. Volunteer activities
5. Travel

6. Entrepreneurial activities


You need not be clever here, just clear and to the point. If your answer sounds like total bullshit, you risk trashing your application, so make sure what you have here is really plausible.


If you are unsure whether you will be leaving your employer two months before the program starts or don’t want to actually discuss any plans, don’t answer this question unless you think you will be unemployed by the time you would be interviewed for the school.





The Motivation Essays

The three required and one optional essays that are asked for have not changed. However, a question related to cross-cultural experiences was removed. As internationality is an important factor in INSEAD’s admissions criteria, that will need to come out elsewhere in the application. Your job descriptions, CV, recommendations, or the four essays below are all good places to showcase why you fit at “The Business School for the World. ”


Note regarding length: What approximate usually means is 10-15% over the word count.



1. Give a candid description of yourself (who are you as a person), stressing the personal characteristics you feel to be your strengths and weaknesses and the main factors which have influenced your personal development, giving examples when necessary. (approximately 500 words) 

With a question like this I think it is important to understand that you are actually being asked to think about your strengths and weaknesses in terms of your overall personality and development. What is important here is provide both an analysis about specific characteristics of yourself and to help admissions understand who you are. YOU NEED TO TELL A COMPELLING STORY ABOUT WHO YOU ARE AS A PERSON!  I put this in uppercase because I get far too many essays from my clients that end up focusing on professional content, that don’t focus on personality and personal background, or are otherwise not really effective portraits. Think of this essay as a highly focused portrait of yourself that will give admissions great insight into your life story and your characteristics (strengths and weaknesses). The most effective answers here consistently combine revealing parts of the applicant’s personality and background while discussing strengths and weaknesses. Obviously the strengths and weaknesses should be ones that relate to your character, not to a skill set. Given the word count, I suggest focusing on no more than about two strengths and two weaknesses. I would try to give fairly equal consideration to both weaknesses and strengths.


I find that many applicants resist writing about their own weaknesses, yet to do so reveals self-awareness and maturity. While I think it is necessary to practice good judgment when writing about weakness, I think it is also important that you provide something beyond the routine. One standard defensive strategy that many applicants seem drawn to is to write about knowledge or skill areas where they are weak, but this is not suitable for INSEAD’s question because they want you to stress personal characteristics.


Compared to weaknesses, strengths are easier for most people to write about. Given the limited space here, you might find it helpful to write about a strength here that is discussed in greater detail in another essay. In other words, you might discuss the origins of one your key strengths and trace its connection to your personal or professional accomplishments.


Some questions to ask yourself:
1. Does the strength demonstrate one’s potential for future academic and/or professional success? If so it is a probably a good topic. If not, why does INSEAD need to know about it?
2. Is a weakness fixable? If you are writing about a weakness that cannot be improved upon through your program at INSEAD, why do they need to know about it?
3. Is your strength or weakness being stated without any context or very context and not supported by other essays in your application? If so, you really need to provide enough support for the strength or weakness to make it meaningful.
Finally, if you are having difficulty thinking about your strengths and weaknesses in relation to your future academic and professional goals, please see my analysis of Essay 4 because in it I discuss how to think about strengths and weaknesses in relation to goals.



2. Describe the achievement of which you are most proud and explain why. In addition, describe a situation where you failed. How did these experiences impact your relationships with others? Comment on what you learned. (approximately 400 words) 

Expect to spend quite a bit of time editing this one down.  Get the right stories first before worrying too much about the tight word count. Even submitting something that is say 440-460 words can be challenging because you are being asked to cover two different stories.


Given that INSEAD is specifically asking you to discuss how a failure impacted your relationship with other people (Teams for example), writing about a leadership failure would surely be a good way to answer INSEAD”s question. That said, INSEAD”s question can apply to any type of failure.


To answer this question correctly, you need to do the following:


1Discuss an achievement. Explain how the achievement impacted your relationship with others. Explain what you learned from the achievement and/or the impact on the relations with others (Not really very clear which, so I will assume both.


2. Do the same thing for your failure.


Now, of course, you can try to combine your achievement and failure together so that they somehow have a common impact on others and/or learning obtained.  Some people will have such situations, but others will probably find it useful to treat each story separately.


An important part of this question is about your relationship to other people. This is a new aspect to the questions previously asked at INSEAD and clearly indicates their desire to gauge your understanding of the impact you have on others.  They are trying to measure your emotional intelligence, though not in in very much detail.  Make sure you address this part of the question.


Now lets look at achievements and failures in some more depth.



Some key things to keep in mind when answering this question:
-Achievements reveal your potential to succeed at  INSEAD and afterwords.
-Achievements reveal your potential for contributing to your classmates.
-Everyone has had achievements, so make your single most important achievement really stand out.
-What you consider to be an achievement is a real test of your self-awareness and judgment.
Think about which achievement to use
The first thing you need to do is brainstorm possible achievements to use here. Your achievement may relate to your professional experience, academics, volunteer activities, hobbies, community engagement, personal matters.  The possibilities are quite endless. Whatever it is, you should explain why it is so important.
Think about what skill(s), value(s), or unique experience is/are being showcased
Your achievement needs to reveal valuable thing(s) about you. Some will call these selling points, but more specifically they consist of skills, values, or unique experiences. One might use a specific achievement to emphasize one’s leadership skills,  one’s ethical values, and to explain a significant barrier that was overcome. If you breakdown the meaning of an achievement it might easily reveal multiple important things about you.
Think about what potential for success in the MBA program or afterwords is being demonstrated by your achievement
You may or may not be directly stating this in the essay, but you should think about what how your achievement  reveals in terms of your potential. INSEAD  will most certainly be considering how your achievement demonstrates your potential to succeed in their program and afterwords, so you should as well.
Think about how your achievement could become a contribution to others in the MBA program
Just as with potential, think about whether your achievement demonstrates your ability to add value to other students at INSEAD.
Think about why  INSEAD needs to know about this achievement
If your achievement has made it this far, chances are it is substantial. That said, I have three simple tests for determining whether achievement really belongs in this essay.
1. Does INSEAD really need to know about this achievement? After all, you might consider getting the love of your life to marry you to be one of your greatest achievement, but admissions care? If an achievement does not reveal (whether stated or implied) potential and/or contribution, chances are likely that it is not significant enough.
2. Is the story totally obvious from reviewing other parts of your application?
If the story is simply a very cause-effect based one such as “I studied hard to get a 4.0 in university ” that could ber very dull and rather obvious.  On the other hand if you overcome great challenges to get such an academic result, you could have a great story.  Obvious stories are dull.  Reveal something important about yourself that goes beyond the surface level and could not be easily assumed from reviewing other aspects of your application.
3. Is the achievement really your most important one?
It is critical that you explain clearly why it is important. Is the importance because of its significance to you or to an impact you had or to both?   Really make sure the importance is stated clearly.



Failure essays require that you learned something meaningful. And your learning should be important, otherwise why tell admissions about it? Therefore the key constraint of this question is that whatever the failure is, you have learned something important from it. While not stated, you may very well find that one way of showing what you learned is to discuss how you applied your lesson to a new situation.

I would, in fact, argue that the heart of any sort of “failure question,” whether it is an essay question or an interview is what you learned. Also depending on what your role was, how you reacted is also very important.

Since the failure here has to have an impact on others, it is important that you failed in some way that effected other people.

The basic components of an answer:
1. Clearly state what the objective was.
2. Clearly state your role.
3. Clearly state your failure.

4. Explain what you learned.

The word count is limited, but, if you can, show how you applied what you learned to a new situation because the application of abstract learning to a new situation is a key indicator of real learning.


3. Describe all types of extra-professional activities in which you have been or are still involved for a significant amount of time (clubs, sports, music, arts, politics, etc). How are you enriched by these activities? ( approximately 300 words) 

While you should feel free to include ALL TYPES OF ACTIVITIES, you should not try to write about ALL ACTIVITIES that you have been or are currently engaged in.  My suggestion is to focus on 2-4 topics because if you do much more than that, you will say very little.


The key to effectively answering this question is to make sure you are addressing the second part of the question: “How are you enriched by these activities?”  In other words, focus on those activities which have really impacted you.  You may want to mention specific accomplishments related to one or more activities, but whatever you do, make sure the activities are actually significant and communicate something important about you.

Also, make sure that  what you are mentioning here is giving INSEAD further reasons to invite you for an interview and admit you! Not all activities are of the same relevance. How do these activities fit into the rest of what you say about yourself? How do they showcase your intellectual abilities, leadership potential, internationality, and/or ability to contribute to the program?



4. (optional)  Is there anything else that was not covered in your application that you would like to share with the Admissions Committee? (approximately 300 words) 

While this question is optional, I have every client write about something here. Beyond any explanation for any negative issues, feel free to write about any extracurricular activities, professional experiences, personal experiences, and/or other matters that you can add here to provide another positive perspective about you. Most applicants will find at least a few key issues that they wish to elaborate on.


Don’t necessarily conceive of this as an essay that must focus on a unitary topic, but rather as place to discuss anything not effectively communicated about elsewhere in the application.  It is fine to just have distinct paragraphs on completely unrelated topics.


This is a completely open question. While you might very well need to tell the Admissions Committee something negative, such as an explanation for a low GPA, I would suggest using at least part of it to tell them something positive about you. Feel free to write on any topic that will add another dimension to Admissions’ perception of who you are. I would not treat it as optional unless you truly feel that the rest of your essays have fully expressed everything you want INSEAD to know about you. I don’t suggest writing about something that would be obvious from reviewing your application, instead tell INSEAD that one or two additional key points that will give them another reason to admit you.


I know some applicants will want to write about “Why INSEAD?” here, but they cut that question, for this application,  so be careful with that.  I will be advising my own clients to only discuss INSEAD here if they have something really interesting to write or if they are reapplicants (see next paragraph).


Since there is no  reapplication question, I would recommend that reapplicants use the optional essay for the purpose of providing clearly stated updates that show growth since the last application. Whatever form(s) this growth takes, please provide a summary of it here, even if you have addressed the topic elsewhere in the application. In addition, I think it is especially useful to show what steps you have taken to learn more about INSEAD. For more about reapplication, please see A guide to my resources for reapplicants.


For my post on INSEAD interviews, please see here.

-Adam Markus
I am a graduate admissions consultant who works with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form. Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.

July 17, 2016

MBA Admissions Events in Tokyo

As I am based in Japan, I keep track of MBA Admissions Events in Tokyo.  Sorry I can’t do it for the whole world!  The list can be found here and will be updated weekly.

-Adam Markus
I am a graduate admissions consultant who works with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form. Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.

June 16, 2016

Wharton adds a new question for Class of 2019 Application

Well, Wharton added a new question!  My full analysis will come soon but here are the qs taken from the Wharton Blog:

Essay 1:  What do you hope to gain professionally from the Wharton MBA? (500 words)

Essay 2: Teamwork is at the core of the Wharton MBA experience with each student contributing unique elements to our collaborative culture. How will you contribute to the Wharton community? (400 words)


Essay 1 is the same as last year.  Essay 2 replaces the optional essay on something positive.


My analysis for Essay 1 can be found here, which I will update when I do my post on this application.

Regarding Essay 2, the funny thing is that many of my clients admitted to Wharton more or less wrote on that topic using the optional essay.  It is an easy topic to write on and the nature of the question is such that any applicant would need to answer it for purposes of preparing for an interview.

More about all of this in about a week.



-Adam Markus
I am a graduate admissions consultant who works with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form. Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.

May 25, 2016

MBA Interviews: Gauging Client Attitudes and Experiences About Interviewing

Below is an edited version of a paper I wrote for INSEAD’s Executive Masters in Consulting and Coaching for Change. I believe that it will be of interest to those who are applying for MBA programs and for other MBA admissions coaches.  I explain why I think understanding a client’s prior experiences at interviewing is extremely useful for tailoring training to meet a particular client’s needs.  Hopefully, it will also be helpful for anyone who wants to understand a bit more about the interview coaching methods I use and to get an admissions coaches perspective on helping a client overcome some personal challenges. I want to again thank all the clients from 2015-2016 who participated in this study and agreed to me utilizing this information publically.  Except for client’s results, gender, and in some cases, nationality, all other potentially identifying elements have been removed.

Executive Master in Consulting and Coaching for Change
Adam Markus
Practicum 3
An Early Intervention in MBA Admissions Interview Coaching: Gauging Client Attitudes and Experiences About Interviewing at an Early Stage

 Originally Presented  in November 2015
Edited & Updated in May 2016

Intervention Background: My work as an MBA admissions consultant and coach consists of working with applicants on their applications and then preparing them for interviews at top tier schools. A critical part of the MBA application process is the interview. At top US MBA programs (like Harvard Business School, Wharton, Stanford), which provide a high degree of transparency on their admissions numbers (By contrast INSEAD and most other non-US programs don't make their admissions data public), the acceptance rate amongst those invited for an interview is approximately 50%. Getting an invite dramatically increases chances of admission. In the standard process for preparing applicants for MBA admission to programs in the US and worldwide, the interview is handled last. Most top tier US MBA programs (Duke, Kellogg, and Tuck are the exceptions) and all top tier international MBA programs do interviews by invitation only after the submission of the application. Most applicants don't often start preparing for interviews until after they have submitted an application and maybe not until after they receive an interview invitation. Once an invite is received, depending on the school, interviewees may have a few days to over a month  to prepare, but 1-2 weeks is the most common.  For those who are good at interviewing 1-2 weeks presents no significant challenge.  For those with English language issues, some will do extensive preparation even prior to invitations to try to overcome the language challenge. However, applicants will face a variety of challenges that cut across nationality, profession, educational background, and English ability, which include interview anxiety, negative self-talk, poor presentation skills, poor listening skills, low affect, and narcissism. For years, I have encountered these behaviors but, usually, when I do become aware of these issues there is not so much I can do in a short time.  Instead of wait ing for interview practice, which would typically begin in October, I contacted my clients in early July while they were preparing Round 1 applications (Due from September 9th for HBS through early October for other top US schools and INSEAD and LBS) and made the following offer:

"As you may know, I am a student in INSEAD's Executive Masters in Consulting and Coaching for Change, a program that focuses on clinical and organizational psychology, organizational behavior, coaching, and leadership development.  As part of my program, I required to prepare and execute a client intervention based on what I have learned in the program.  In addition, I am required to eventually write a thesis. My intervention and thesis will be focused on MBA interviews. I would like your participation in my research in exchange for some value added services to you at no additional cost:  I would like to ask your cooperation for participating in the client intervention.  The intervention consists of an Interview Experience Self-Assessment, which then becomes the basis for a free 30-minute counseling session focused on creating an individual MBA interview preparation plan."

I sent this email to 28 clients and 19 ultimately fully participated in the process. All participants were assigned codes based on when they responded and will be referred to throughout this paper as 1501-1519.  Rather than focus on all participants, I will use examples primarily related to 1516- a European male who applied to HBS, Wharton, and Stanford in Round 1- so that the reader can follow how the intervention worked with a single client.

The intervention consisted of the following:
  1. Interview Experience Self-Assessment (IESA) Survey, which clients completed and returned to me.
  2. Pre-Session Attitude Analysis, which provides feedback on the attitude survey in the IESA, was sent to participants before the 30-minute session.
  3. A 30-minute session with me to discuss the questionnaire and to come up with a plan for addressing any concerns they may have. These sessions took place in August to early September.
  4. Feedback on Interview Experience Self-Analysis, which summarized the 30-minute session and focuses on suggestions for an individual MBA interview preparation plan.

Note: I hope that three appendices that follow the paper are not necessary to read, but may prove helpful for understanding the intervention more specifically as the above-mentioned documents for 1516 can be found there.)

In addition, when applicable I had interview practice sessions with participants that took account of the intervention. In what follows, I will discuss each step of the intervention and evaluate its effectiveness.

IESA: The IESA consists of two parts. The first part is an attitudinal survey on characteristics that I would identify as relevant to interview skills. The sample size involved made it impossible to norm the data, so I treated it as an instrument for measuring self-perception and rather than focusing on differences in ratings between participants, I focused on looking at the variation in response by each participant to understand what they perceived as their relative strengths and weaknesses. Inevitably, I compared participants based on overall experience and attitudes but did not share these comparisons with the participants. For example, 1516 rated himself neutral in regards to "I enjoy public speaking," but had much more positive feelings in regards to other aspects of communication/interaction related to interviewing. The second part of IESA asks for a lifetime summary of the participant's interview experiences as well as what they like best and least about interviewing and their best and worst experiences as an interviewee and whether they have had any experience as an interviewer. The summary of his experience shows that 1516 has been very successful at interviewing, but had limited interview experience. He focuses very much on the interviewer in determining what is a good and bad interview. While that seems reasonable enough, his best and worst experiences and what he likes best and least, relate to what interviewers do and not to his own performance. Many other participants had very different answers, which focused on their own performance as well as their treatment by interviewers. From my viewpoint, this indicated that 1516's ability to perform well was too dependent on the interviewer and not focused sufficiently on his individual performance. I have seen this become a problem for clients, especially when faced with a neutral or aggressive interviewer and it is exactly the kind of thing my intervention was designed to identify. I view both parts of the IESA as useful because it is possible to compare how the participant answers each part. In the case of 1516, someone with neutral feelings about public speaking, the fact that he does not focus on how own performance in the second part of the IESA is rather consistent and something that would, in fact, become an issue when we began his actual interview practice, though I was not aware at the time of the intervention  of how much of an issue it would be.

            Pre-Session Attitude Analysis: Just as with other forms of coaching which utilize an attitudinal instrument, prior to having individual sessions with participants, I wanted to give them a document to serve as feedback and for framing the conversation. This document explains the categories used on the attitude assessment and scores them. I am not sure how useful this document was because of the fact that data could not be normed, so I treat the data with extreme skepticism.  At a minimum, it provided an explanation for the attitude survey, but I don't plan on using it again until such time as I have statistically useful data to work with (Should that ever be possible). In the sessions that I had with respondents and subsequently in their interview practice in October and November, it was the case that the 2nd part of the IESA, which the Pre-Session Attitude Analysis does not cover, provided to be much more valuable. I would surely ask some more attitudinal questions like the ones found in first part, but for my purposes of rolling this out to all my clients (started this in January 2016),  based on what I saw a narrative response/history would prove more useful.

            A 30-minute session and Feedback on Interview Experience Self-Analysis: The 30-minute session was an opportunity to confirm and clarify the respondents' answers to the IESA and to formulate suggestions, as needed, for interview preparation. These suggestions varied greatly depending on the applicant. In the case of 1516 (See Appendix 3), a core issue for 1516 was his need to really believe in what in he was saying and feeling comfortable with the interview environment. As with all the sessions I had with these participants, I tried to use myself as an instrument, for example, I considered how his experiences and behaviors make me feel. 1516 and I share a strong need to believe in what we are saying and have feelings of ambivalence if not outright nervousness about public speaking even though we both have done it. We also both prefer small familiar group settings. I could easily empathize with 1516. However, going beyond em pathy, I communicated to 1516 that he had to be prepared to deal with a great range of interviewers (Not just friendly ones, but the most common alternative, neutral interviewers) and to have a more performance rather than interviewer focused strategy to prepare for interviews.
            Interview Sessions that Refer Back to the Practice: This is the point at which I utilized the results of the intervention in paid client sessions for interview practice. In the case of 1516, he received an invite from HBS, so we should have had extensive time to prepare as he received his invitation on October 7 and did not interview until November 17. HBS sends out invites earlier than other schools and there is usually two-three times as much time between the invite and the actual interview compared to other schools. After doing some initial self-prep (Something I strongly advocate and provide materials for), 1516 and I had our first practice on October 25. He had previously canceled the week before. What occurred in that session was completely unexpected. Instead of becoming more comfortable with his responses through self-practice, he was extremely unprepared and began struggling for answers. He broke down in the first session, which simply involved going over his answers to typical questions in an open style (not a mock interview). My intervention did not predict this. It was though if an answer was not perfect, he fell completely apart. I had had not understood that 1516 was not only dependent on how the interviewer acted, he had immense anxiety about performance. As with many clients, I suggested he do mock sessions with one of my colleagues in order to get a different experience and a perspective. When someone has performance issues I typically send them to my colleague who is particularly good at the performance aspect of interviewing and who has extensive experience as a professional interviewer. She experienced the same thing with him on November 7th. Her comments confirmed my observations: "He seems like a nice guy and his experience is very interesting, but that was literally one of the worst interview sessions I’ve had in recent memory." We had 3 subsequent sessions. Normally, o ne of my standard practices for HBS involves being a very neutral interviewer because this seems to be the worst case interviewer experience for those who have HBS interviews (and from what my respondents told me, no one likes neutral interviewers), however I did not do this with 1516 as it simply would have enhanced his anxiety, since the IESA indicated the extent to which he was focused on the interviewer. Instead, we briefly discussed how to handle this. Prior to EMCCC, I might very well have been that neutral interviewer, but doubling down on someone's anxiety is just the kind of thing I wanted to avoid. Instead, I tried to create a safe space for him to practice a full range of questions in order for him to feel comfortable with his answers.  Fortunately, his interviewers (there was an observer) were friendly, which is the style I used for our mock sessions.  He reported that, "I left the interview with a very good feeling. I didn’t get stuck on any question and I just went with the flow." He was admitted.

What I learned from my intervention is that gaining a client interview history and understanding their attitudes was useful, but as the example of 1516 shows, I can't say it or my ability to read the client history was sufficient to predict the anxiety that 1516 had. Going beyond 1516 and to get a sense of the range of respondents, the issues I encountered, and how I have tried to address them, please see the following table:

As you can see, the intervention did not necessarily identify specific issues with everyone who took it and that is a good thing. I was not trying to find problems where I could not perceive them. The intervention was to serve as an early warning system for more serious issues. It did that to a large extent. For those who participated, I think it can be said that they fall into two groups, those that had no specific issues and those that did. What seemed to unite them was (1) a desire to help me and (2) the fact that I was asking them about an area of experience that they probably had not ever analyzed in this way and that is relevant to MBA applications as well as future employment. For those who had serious issues, the intervention made it possible for me to be aware of their issues at an early stage and make sure they were as well. In the cases of 1501, 1506, 1512, and 1513, they all engaged in extremely high levels of interview self-prep from a very early stage.  I do think understanding my client's interview experiences prior to having an interview session with me is immensely valuable because it helps me place the way they act in a greater context: Their role biography as interviewees (and sometimes interviewers). It becomes another part of the client's attitudes and experiences that I can draw on when coaching them

Finally, I have begun using the intervention in a greatly modified form since January 2016.  I provide a brief questionnaire related to prior interview experience, which I review for free and briefly respond to. It then helps me know what kind of interview preparation to use with a particular client. Based on what I saw with the intervention, having clients report on their prior experience at interviewing is sometimes enough to make the client aware of issues they have. I think it certainly increases my ability to positively intervene.

Appendix 1

IESA 1516

Section 1: A brief attitude survey
For each statement place a  "Y" in whichever box is most applicable.
Please indicate the extent to which you agree with the following statements

I enjoy public speaking.

I'm a good listener.

I am confident when I am an interviewee.
I tend to speak often in groups and classrooms.
People enjoy listening to me talk.
I'm a good storyteller.
I'm good at speaking spontaneously on a wide variety of subjects.
I often lead conversations with others.
Performing well in front of others comes naturally to me. 
I'm good at convincing other people.

Section 2: Brief Biographical Information

Country of Residence:

English Ability:  Place a "Y" in whichever box is most applicable.
Native English Speaker Very Advanced (Extensive Work/ Education Conducted in English) Advanced
(TOEFL 109 or higher)

Intermediate (TOEFL 100-108)

If English is not your native language, what is?

Gender (Male/Female):

Late 20s

Section 3:  Summary of your experience as an interviewee
Provide answers for each category. For any answers not applicable to you, mark "NA."
INTERVIEW CATEGORIES Number of interviews What is your estimated success rate?  What year was your most recent successful interview? What year was your most recent unsuccessful interview? Percentage of Interviews Conducted in English
Undergraduate and Graduate School Admissions Interview Experience


Internship Interview Experience (University age or older)


Job Interview Experience (Both Initial positions and internal company transfers)


Other Selective Interview Experience (Scholarships, special educational programs, clubs, organizations, etc.)


Section 4: For the following please write answers of any length.
What do you like best about being interviewed?
When I see that the interviewer:
-       Is passionate about the company and understands its real needs
-       Has a clear vision of what he or she wants from an employee
-       Makes sure that the interviewee knows what to expect (i.e. avoids surprises for the interviewee)
-       Makes the interview a conversation (does not stare into his/her notebook and constantly takes notes, instead actually tries to engage the interviewee)
-       Knows when to pause to give the interviewee time to think his/her answer through
-       Follow-ups and is clear about next steps

What do you like least about being interviewed?
When I see that the interviewer:
-       Is not passionate about the company
-       Is disinterested in actually having a conversation with the interviewee and does not make eye contact
-       Is just checking off points on a list
-       Is not actively interested in uncovering the potential of the candidate

What was your best interviewee experience like and when was it?
It was my first interview with the company I currently work for, which was actually a series of 6 interviews, each with a different set of 2 interviewers – this took place in 2011. All interviewers were passionate about the company, believed in the values, were actively interested in uncovering the true potential of each candidate, they engaged in conversation and had a clear understanding of the purpose of the job I was interviewing for; they were visibly interested in finding the right balance between raw qualifications, potential and fit with the company values and culture.

What was your worst interviewee experience like and when was it?
It was an interview in my home country, in late 2010, with a senior manager of a top global CPG company. The interviewer was completely disengaged, seemed uninterested in the position itself and did not seem too passionate about the company either. All questions were scripted (i.e. read from a list of pre-defined questions), there was no real conversation, apart from a monologue at the beginning of the interview when he unknowingly started reading the resume aloud and comparing his own academic achievements to mine (with no interaction with me).
Overall the interviewer managed to significantly decrease my interest in the company and consequently this led to a very bad interview experience.

Have you ever been an interviewer?  When?  How often?  What was it like to be an interviewer?

If you experienced any MBA interviews, please discuss how you think they went and what if anything you would do differently the next time you interview.

Now that you have answered the above questions is there anything else you think I should know about your interview experience?
Even though my track record might be good, I consider that I have limited interview experience overall and even more so when considering an academic interview.

The only interviews I have had in English were for the company I currently work for.

NOW PLEASE RETURN IT TO adammarkus@gmail.com

Pre-Session Attitude Analysis for IESA 1516

Dear Participant,
This document takes the six core indicators (Presentation, Listening, Confidence, Impactful, Spontaneous, Interesting) and uses them as a partial basis for analyzing your past interview experience in order to provide recommendations for enhancing future performance.
This document includes a score report and guide on the Brief Attitude Survey, which we will discuss during the 30-minute counseling session.
After the counseling you will get another report, which includes, a summary of our discussions regarding these indicators, your prior experience at interviewing, and suggestions for enhancing your performance.

A Note Regarding Interview Performance Indicators, Evaluation Design, and Value of this Study
The performance indicators I have utilized here are based on my experience doing interview preparation since 2001. There are certainly other ways of looking at the skills, attitudes, and experiences that effect interview performance.  That said, I think the factors I am focused on capture core aspects of the interview process. In the case of a fully develop self-evaluation that you may have encountered previously, such as 360°, statistically valid benchmarking against other participants may have been utilized, but given my sample size and the preliminary nature of this study, that is not possible.
For you as a participant, the value in this kind of study is that it  (1) provides feedback about your self-perceptions, (2) based on that feedback provides advice for improving interview performance in order to gain admission, and (3) hopefully an opportunity to enhance your subsequent performance on interviewing more generally.
For me as an interview coach, this study provides an opportunity (1) to systematize the way I provide advice, (2) attempt to intervene early in the application process in order to maximize positive impact on clients, and (3) further develop my coaching skills by applying a clinical and organizational psychological approach.


PRESENTATION Performance Indicator:  While most interviews don't require making presentations, those who feel comfortable and/or are skilled presenters are often effective at interviewing. In particular, good presenters know how to communicate information, often are good at memorizing stories and data, and can be effective communicators.  Thatsaid, since presentation often relies upon a script or slides, those who consider themselves to be effectiveat presentation, but are not spontaneous, maybe particularly rigid and scripted in the way they interview.
LISTENING Performance Indicator:  An interview is a conversation and hence listening skills are a key measure of performance. Good listeners hear the question being asked to them in all its nuances and are more sensitive to the person they are talking to. Those who rate themselves lower in this area need to consider why that is the case: What behaviors are you in engaging in that reduce your effectiveness as a listener? Note for non-native English speakers:  If English is not your native language and you are factoring this into your self-evaluation, we need to discuss the difference between being a good listener regardless of the language and your ability to listen in English.

CONFIDENCE Performance Indicator:  Confidence or its absence can make or break an interview. Lack of confidence, which often is reflected in the voice and body language of an interviewee, can be a serious obstacle to effective performance. Confident interviewees have the capacity to make a strong impression even sometimes when their answersare off target and/or their English skills are not perfect.  That said, those who are over-confident might underestimate the extent to which they need to prepare for interviews that are fast paced or non-standard. The overly confident may also come across as arrogant, especially in the context of a group or team-based interviews.

IMPACTFUL Performance Indicator: If you influence or persuade others, your words are impactful.  An impactful interviewee is someone who has the ability to make effective arguments that persuade the interviewer.  If you don't perceive yourself as impactful, why should anyone believe you or agree with you?  Those that rate themselves as highly impactful can come across as overbearing especially in the context of group or team interviews, especially if they rate themselves as very interesting to others and/or are extremely confident and/or are not good listeners.

SPONTANEOUS Performance Indicator:  Spontaneity is a key aspect of effective performance in an interview especially when the questions being asked are ones that cannot be easily prepared in advance for.  A spontaneous interviewee has the ability to answer any question even if their answer is not perfect. They don't freeze up, but can keep their end of the conversation up and don't create awkward pauses. On the other hand, if an interviewee is spontaneous and not thoughtful in their responses they may very well say something completely inappropriate. Those who lack spontaneity tend to pause, freeze up, and otherwise stumble when they are asked something they are not prepared for.

INTERESTING Performance Indicator:  An interesting interviewee is someone who engages and entertains the interviewer.  To be interesting is to not only have something worth saying but the ability to say it in a way that the listener can become excited by. An interesting interviewee is someone whose stories are likely to make a strong impression on the interviewer. The opposite of an interesting interviewee is a boring one. Those that rate themselves as very interesting can come across as overbearing especially in the context of group or team interviews, especially if they also rate themselves as very impactful to others and/or are extremely confident and/or are not good listeners.
SEE NEXT PAGE FOR ATTITUDE REPORT.  In our session together we will discuss the meaning of these scores.

Attitude Statements
I enjoy public speaking.
I'm a good listener.
I am confident when I am an interviewee.
I tend to speak often in groups and classrooms.
People enjoy listening to me talk.
I'm a good storyteller.
I'm good at speaking spontaneously on a wide variety of subjects.
I often lead conversations with others.
Performing well in front of others comes naturally to me. 
I'm good at convincing other people.
Indicator TTL Point Total %

Feedback on Interview Experience Self-Analysis for IESA 1516
Dear Participant,
This document includes a summary of our discussions regarding your experience in interviews and suggestions for future development.
Suggestions for future development:
You do well speaking in situations where you feel comfortable with the atmosphere. You use listening skills to gauge what is going on before speaking if possible. This works well in small groups when there is time to figure out the atmosphere, but in interview situations you will have to be able to perform without that level of comfort.  This means knowing what you want to say regardless of the atmosphere of those who are present.  If the interviewer does not create an atmosphere you like you still need to have a strategy to perform.  Fortunately, your confidence should not be impacted because interviews will not happen suddenly and are always in small groups.  You should also be able to approach interviews with high impact because I assume you believe and understand your own story.  It is critical that everything you put into the application is something you believe, especially for schools like HBS, where anything you mention in the application can become a basis for an interview question.

You need to be as interesting, spontaneous and driven about your own message as you are about any message you deliver at work. The point of preparation is to get you comfortable discussing yourself in as wide a range of topics as possible.

If you have a Wharton Team-Based Discussion interview, it is critical that you attend the cocktail party/social gathering for interviewees that occurs before the actual interview at most overseas locations. Don't do a TBD on campus because it will not give the same opportunity to meet your fellow interview teammates before the team based interview.

Finally, I know you are relatively untested in interviews solely conducted by English native speaking interviewers, but based on your English ability, I don't think this will be much of an issue for you. Mock interviews with me and/or my colleagues will give you a vital opportunity to gain some further experience in this area before having a real interview.

-Adam Markus
I am a graduate admissions consultant who works with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form. Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.

May 18, 2016

HBS Class of 2019 MBA Admissions Application

In this post, I will be analyzing the essay question and key components of the HBS Application for the Class of 2019.   At this time, the online application is not live yet but the essay was released on the HBS Director’s Blog on May 11, 2016. In addition to discussing overall HBS application strategy and the required essay, I will discuss key parts of the application form, resume, and transcript (SUBJECT TO REVISION AFTER THE ONLINE APPLICATION GOES LIVE IN EARLY JUNE). I also provide some advice at the end of this post for HBS reapplicants.  For my posts on recommendation, please see my Key Posts on recommendations. For my post on HBS interviews, please see here.

My comprehensive service clients have been admitted to HBS for the Classes of 2018,  2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, and 2005. My clients’ results and testimonials can be found here. In addition to providing comprehensive application consulting on HBS, I regularly help additional candidates with HBS interview preparation.  Since I started my own counseling service in 2007, I have worked with 34 successful applicants from Canada, Europe, India, the Middle East, Japan, South Korea, other parts of Asia, and the United States on HBS application. I think that this range of experience has helped me understand the many possible ways of making an effective application to HBS. l I can tell you is that HBS takes a truly diverse range of people. Some had high GPAs and great GMAT scores, others had GPAs and scores well below the 80% range for HBS, but what they all had in common were strong personal professional backgrounds that came out in their essays.

"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 and no right answers.”

Based on the above, you should be asking yourself: Given the question, what do HBS admissions need to know in order to offer me an interview and then admit me?  My answer would be to take a deep dive into HBS’ criteria for admission and consider how they can apply to you. You will need to take two deep dives. One into HBS and another into yourself.  HBS introduced this more open style of question for the Class of 2016. I had 6 clients admitted to that Class, 10 to the Class of 2017, and 7 to the Class of 2018, so the advice here is based on helping a very diverse range of clients gain admission to HBS.

If you are trying to understand the diverse range of essays that gets someone admitted to HBS, I do recommend  The Unofficial Harvard Business School Essay Book.  In fact, one of my clients admitted to the Class of 2016 contributed his or her essay to it, which made me really happy.  I can’t tell you which one. I do highly recommend reading this book because it will give you a really good idea about the range of possible answers and dispel any myths about needing to submit something that is professionally written. I would also recommend the old book that contained HBS admits essays. That collection is still a good read for understanding how to put together an MBA essay though the specific questions are no longer being asked by HBS. Combined, both books are really great guides for someone looking to see sample successful MBA essays. Beyond those essay books, a piece of absolutely required reading for HBS admissions is Poets & Quants' John Byrne's interview with Dee Leopold, Managing Director of MBA Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard Business School. If you are looking for one article to give you overall insight into how HBS makes admissions decisions, John Byrne has done an exceptional job of asking Dee Leopold the right questions.

Four Ways HBS Evaluates Applicants
My objective when working with each of my clients is to help them identify the best content in their essays, resume, interview and other application components to show fit for each school they apply to. My approach is to understand the audience that is being communicated to because the only objective of your application is to communicate effectively to your audience, the admissions committee. We can summarize what  HBS is looking for in terms of three stated values-Habit of Leadership, Analytical Aptitude and Appetite, and Engaged Community Citizenship- plus Diversity. These four core ways, which I discuss in detail below,  that HBS evaluates applicants need to be communicated in your application and one or more of them should be used in your essay. The following summarizes what HBS is looking for in terms of three stated values (Habit of Leadership, Analytical Aptitude and Appetite, and Engaged Community Citizenship) plus Diversity and the possible places where you can demonstrate these in your initial application (Interview and post-interview not considered below):

These four core ways that HBS evaluates applicants need to be communicated in your application and one or more of them should be used in your essay.
In addition to those four elements, other possible common topics for inclusion here would be:
-Your wider post-MBA career vision that you could not explain in the 500 character answer on the Employment page. Some applicants will not touch on this topic at all in their essays.
-Why you want an MBA in general? Again, some will address this, others will not. Since there is no place in the application to indicate this otherwise, it would reasonable to explain your rationale for doing an MBA, whether you state this in general and/or terms of HBS in particular is your choice, but my bias is certainly for being HBS specific.
-Why HBS?  I don’t think one has to necessarily write in detail about why you want to go to HBS, but providing your overall rationale for why you want to go HBS now is certainly reasonable.  If your career vision is something you are writing about and there are particular aspects of HBS that really relate to it, feel free to mention them.
For a discussion of career vision,  why an MBA? or how to explain why you want to attend a particular program, see my analysis of Stanford Essay B.

Now I will discuss those four ways in detail in order to elaborate how you might utilize them in your essay:

Habit of Leadership
The mission of HBS is to educate leaders.  All my clients admitted to HBS had a diversity of educational, extracurricular, and professional backgrounds, but were united by one thing: In one or more aspects of their lives, they demonstrated this habit of leadership. HBS takes a very broad view of what they are looking for:
Leadership may be expressed in many forms, from college extracurricular activities to academic or business achievements, from personal accomplishments to community commitments. We appreciate leadership on any scale, from organizing a classroom to directing a combat squad, from running an independent business to spearheading initiatives at work. In essence, we are looking for evidence of your potential.

HBS does not explicitly ask you to show your potential for leadership in your essay,  but it may very well be something you decide to write about, ask one or both of your recommenders to write about, and certainly show in your resume and application form.   Leadership is no easy thing. Nor is it always obvious. If you leadership is fully obvious from your resume and then perhaps your essay need not discuss it, but the worst possible thing is to conceive of leadership as simple formal responsibility or a title because this conveys nothing about the person in that position. While some applicants will have held formal leadership positions, many will not. Formal leadership positions are great to write about if they involve the applicant actually having a significant impact, making a difficult decision, being a visionary, showing creativity, or otherwise going beyond their formal responsibility, but the same is true for those showing leadership without h aving a formal title. If you are having difficulty really understanding leadership, one great place to read about leadership, and business in general, is Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

Some clients I have worked with have never really considered themselves as leaders. I think it is critical that if you are applying to HBS that you have  an idea about what kind of leader you are.  While there are number of ways to describe leadership, I particularly like this formulation of leadership types that INSEAD Professor Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries has used in one of his Harvard Business Review blog posts (Disclosure I am a student in an INSEAD  program that he co-directs):

I have previously suggested that applicants who are having difficulty really understanding leadership find out what kind of leader they are by taking this quiz based on Lewin’s classic framework.  While leadership  is more complicated than Lewin’s framework, the quiz is a great way to get you started thinking about yourself, a key part of answering any leadership essay question effectively. However, I think the 8 archetypes above provide a much better guide for those who both have extensive leadership experience and those who think they lack it.  Think of these 8 archetypes as aspirational images of certain kinds of leader. You may fit into more than one category. You may find you don’t feel like you are really good at any of the above in comparison to the descriptions above, but that is OK because you are trying to identify your potential even if it seems based on relatively little “objective evidence.” If leadership is not obvious from your resume or likely to be a topic your recommenders will focus on, you should certainly consider how you show your leadership potential. I have never worked with anyone who could not demonstrate potential in at least one of the categories above.
Some types of leadership experiences that make for effective content in essays, recommendations, and interviews:
-A time you convinced someone or some group.
-A time you led others.
-A time you demonstrated courage.
-A time you made a difficult decision.
-A time you were innovative.
-A time you formulated and executed a strategy or tactics.
-A time you turned around a situation, overcame an obstacle.
-A time reformed something.
-A time you changed something.
-A time you effectively negotiated with someone.
-A time created something.
-A time you managed or organized something.
-A time you mentored or coached someone.
-A time you represented an organization in public.
-A time you managed up, down, or across an organization.
Some of these are simply derived from the archetypes above, but  all reflect what I have seen in my clients’ essays over the years.

Engaged Community Citizenship
While "Engaged Community Citizenship" might take the form of leadership, it is quite distinct:
So much of our MBA experience – including the case method, section life, and student-organized events – requires the active collaboration of the entire HBS community. That’s why we look for students who exhibit the highest ethical standards and respect for others, and can make positive contributions to the MBA Program. The right candidates must be eager to share their experiences, support their colleagues, and teach as well as learn from their peers.
HBS and other MBA programs are looking for students who will make a contribution. This really makes sense because of the collaborative nature of MBA education. While professors play an important role in the classroom, students learn from each other on a continuous basis both inside and outside of class. An MBA education is very much one based on relationship building. One of the chief functions of an MBA admissions committee is to select people who will be good classmates. The director and the rest of the committee have done their job properly if they have selected students who can work well together, learn from each other, and if these students become alumni who value the relationships they initially formed at business school. Given that two of the major takeaways from an HBS education are the relationships that a student forms during the program and access to the alumni network, HBS is looking for candidates who will fully engage with others.  It is important to show engagement with others in your HBS essay, in your interview, in your post-interview essay, in your application, and/or in your resume.  You should also make it a point to get your recommenders to discuss how you add value to the team, to whatever "community" (A workplace is a community) they worked with you in.
Engagement in a community may take many different forms.  Over the years, I have found the following types of activities to be very effective for MBA applications:
-Volunteer or social activities at work, whether it is actually organizing them or participating in them.
-Volunteer or social activities at school, whether it is actually organizing them or participating in them.
-Volunteer or social activities outside of work or school, whether it is actually organizing them or participating in them.
-A volunteer activity related to your post-MBA goals
-A volunteer activity that allowed for the development of leadership and/or teamwork experience
-A volunteer activity that put you in contact with people who are quite different from you in terms of nationality, income level, and/or educational background
-An international volunteer or social activity
-Active involvement in an alumni organization
-Active participation in a sports team
-Active political involvement (Not just voting or knowledge of politics, but actual activities)
-Participation in an orchestra, band or other musical groups
-Participation in drama or dance or other types of group performance
-Organizing trips or other activities for a group of friends
-Serving as the leader, organizer, or active member of a team-based educational activity such as a seminar, project, or overseas trip
The above are just some possibilities.
Some people will no doubt worry that they lack extracurricular activities to demonstrate such community citizenship, but in my experience, there is always some way to demonstrate this. Part of my job is to help my clients identify such activities and communicate about them effectively. If you have demonstrated extensive community citizenship in your resume, you may very well not need to write about in the HBS essay, but you might still find that explaining your motivation for such activities is something you want to convey to HBS.  For those with limited objective resume content in this area, if there is an effective way to get some positive aspect of your community citizenship into the essay, do so.

Analytical Aptitude and Appetite
Harvard Business School is a demanding, fast-paced, and highly-verbal environment. We look for individuals who enjoy lively discussion and debate. Our case and field-based methods of learning depend upon the active participation of prepared students who can assess, analyze, and act upon complex information within often-ambiguous contexts. The MBA Admissions Board will review your prior academic performance, the results of the GMAT or GRE, and, if applicable, TOEFL iBT and/or IELTS, and the nature of your work experience. There is no particular previous course of study required to apply; you must, however, demonstrate the ability to master analytical and quantitative concepts.
HBS is a highly competitive and challenging academic environment. It is not for anyone.  "Analytical Aptitude And Appetite," what can more generally be thought of as academic potential, will be very easy for some candidates to demonstrate without ever writing an essay on the topic. You must demonstrate your analytical intelligence somewhere in your application. Yes, a solid GPA and GMAT are enough for that purpose, but if you think your academic record and GMAT are weak, I do suggest demonstrating your high analytical aptitude and appetite in your essay. Also, whether you address your analytical abilities in your essay, for most applicants, it would also be very useful to have one or more recommenders discussing this.
Some effective ways to demonstrate analytical intelligence include the following:
-Solving a complex problem at work, school, or elsewhere
-Discussing the successful completion of complex analytical tasks
-Breaking down a complex problem that you solved and communicating it a very brief and clear way
- Demonstrating great personal insight into one’s weaknesses, failures, and/or mistakes
-Showing the ability to learn from weaknesses, failures, and/or mistakes
-Showing the ability to learn and master something highly complex
-Demonstrating a high level of creativity
Those with truly outstanding academic background and test scores need to likely focus less attention on this area. If you think you have weaknesses in this area, consider how to use the essay and Additional Information section to mitigate them. The above list provides some effective ways to do that.

A truly diverse student body — in background, nationality, interests and ambitions — is the foundation of the HBS experience. Indeed, these differences are critical to the HBS learning model, which thrives on the many perspectives and life experiences our students from all over the world bring to their classes. From academic assignments to casual conversations, the unique qualities of individual lives enrich the education of the entire community.
This overall intention to create a highly diverse class significantly impacts HBS admissions’ decisions. The critical thing is that you demonstrate why you are unique and how you will add to the diversity of the class.  In your essay, you need to show what makes you stand out. Especially if you think your academic, personal, professional, and/or extracurricular experiences are not inherently unique, it is very important that your essay demonstrates what makes you stand out.
Some ways of demonstrating diversity that my clients have used successfully include the following:
-Being the first person or kind of person to do something
-Being the youngest person to do do something
-Making an original contribution to something
-Having an unusual family, academic, personal, or professional background
-Unusual skills or talents
-Extensive international experience
-Receiving prestigious awards or scholarships
-Even post-MBA goals might be used for this purpose if your goals help to make you stand out.
Keep in mind that diversity is a matter of interpretation and presentation and it is each applicant’s responsibility to best demonstrate how they will add value to their classmates. One of my jobs as a consultant is to always help my clients identify ways that make them distinct even if they think they are not special. I operate on the assumption that everyone is unique.

So far I have discussed on topic selection.  I think it is useful to think about what makes for a good essay and in particular, I think about stories. When it comes to telling stories, I think it is most important to think about your audience.  You are not writing these essays for yourself, you are writing them to convince your audience. How to convince them?

The following grid connects the parts of an essay (the first column) to three core aspects of writing an effective essay. The table should help you see the relationship between the components of a story and what I would consider to be three major questions to ask about any story.

Essay Outline What was your role? What does it mean? Why will this essay sell them on you?
Effective answers to when, where, who, what, and how should all relate directly to your role in the situation. You are the hero or heroine of your story. Your reader should have a clear understanding of the situation. They are not reading a mystery story, a poem, or some other form of writing where withholding information will be valued. The situation needs to be one that the reader will believe, consider to be important, and hopefully be impressed by.
Action Steps:
What actions did you take?Action Step 1:
Action Step 2:
Action Step 3:
Stories break down into steps. For each step, make sure you are clear about what you did. Each action step should be meaningful and demonstrate your potential. This is the core of the story and it is important the rationale for your actions be stated as clearly as possible. Effective essays involve both description and interpretation. If you are actions are clear and their value is clear in terms of your leadership, analytical, engaged community citizenship, or unique background, you will be on a firm basis for selling your story to admissions.
Result Results should be stated as clearly as possible. Your relationship to the results should be clear. Explain the significance of results clearly. Make your results meaningful so that they will be impressive.

The grid above is based on the following assumptions, which I consider to be basic for writing effective essays:

Your reader must understand you.   Provide a clear interpretation of what you have done. Write in simple language, even about complex things. Assume your reader has a basic business background, but don’t assume any expertise. Cause-effect relationships should not be merely implied where possible. Showing your actual action steps is critical. A full explanation might be impossible because of word count, but if you tell things in sequence, it usually provides that explanation.

You reader must believe you.  If your reader is not convinced by your story, you are dead.  I am all in favor of telling the best version of a story that you can, provided it is also believable. Bad self-marketing is frequently based on lies that can be seen through. I have met many admissions officers and while not all of them were brilliant, all the good ones had finely tuned “bullshit detectors.” If your essays have a seemingly tenuous relationship with reality, you are likely to be setting yourself up for a ding.

Your reader must be engaged.  If a reader does not become interested in what they reading, there is a problem.  The problem may be that the essay is simply generic or it might be the way a story is being told is boring or it maybe a lack of passion in the writing.  Whatever the case, it needs fixing.  One of my roles as a consultant is to coach my clients on writing essays that will be engaging.

You must sell your reader on your high potential for admission. Great essays don't just need to be believable and interesting, they have to be convincing. You are trying to get admissions to take a specific action after they read your file: admit you or invite you for an interview. Thus, essays must convince them to take action, they have to see why you should be admitted.  I help my understand how to do this and give very specific advice on how to do so.
Your reader should be interpreting your essay the way you intend.  In writing, there is always room for misinterpretation.  If you have not effectively interpreted yourself, there is always the possibility that your reader will draw opposite conclusions from what you intended.  I help my clients make sure that they understand and correct for all such negative interpretations.

And finally…
My final point is that HBS is looking for people who want to be leaders, not mere managers. They are looking for people who will use their “one precious and wild life” to achieve great things, not those who will be satisfied at being mediocrities.  If you can’t show the potential for that now, when will you?
HBS REAPPLICANTS: Reapplication as a topic in the Essay
If you are a reapplying to HBS, I do recommend addressing that issue either in the essay or, if you only need a brief amount of  words, in the Additional Information section (see below). If you are reapplicant, please see here.  It is usually the case that one tries to show growth since the last application. Whatever form(s) this growth takes, you might need a brief amount of word count or significant word count.  Common topics:
1. Changes in career goals since the previous application. Feel free to alter your goals, just explain why.
2. Why you are a better candidate now. This could be everything from a career change to increased GMAT scores to improved English ability to taking courses to overcome an academic weakness to a valuable extracurricular activity.
3. Why you have a better understanding of how you will use an MBA education from HBS.  This could be based on learning more about the school and talking with current students and alumni and then show how the program will really help you.
If you only use the Additional Information section (See below) to discuss reapplication  I know 500 characters (not words!) is not much, so use the 500 characters here to highlight positive changes that you especially want HBS to take into consideration when evaluating you. On the other hand, I think it is perfectly fine to address reapplication in the main essay, which is a change from last year (Class of 2018) when the question made the topic of reapplication hard to fit into the essay.
For more about reapplication, please see the Reapplication section of my Key Posts page.

“Instructions: Please provide a current resume or CV.  Ideally, this would be about 1-2 pages in length.”   
The resume has always been an important part of any HBS application.  You can find a resume template I have linked to on my blog here.  That resume template can also simply serve as a checklist for what to include.  While many schools prefer a one-page resume, HBS really does not care.  Depending on a client’s background, I will recommend 1 or 2 pages.  I think it best to think of a resume as a record of accomplishment. If you have sufficient accomplishments, 2 pages is fine.  Some applicants try to a use an MBA student’s recruitment resume format as the basis for their own resume, but I generally don’t consider this a good idea as such resumes serve a very different purpose.  An MBA resume should really designed to focus on you overall, that is your academic, professional, and personal accomplishments and key facts. A recruiting resume is mean t for a different kind of audience, recruiters, and typically focuses on a much more narrow range of information.

When I first start working comprehensively with any client, whether they are applying to HBS or not, I always start with the resume for a couple of reasons:
1.  It is a great way for any applicant to summarize the most important information about them and  their accomplishments. It sometimes helps applicants actually remind themselves of what they have done.
2.  For me, it is a way I learn about a client so that I can better understand their background.
One key thing to remember about what you include on your resume:  Anything that is there, just like any component of the application, may become the basis for a HBS interview question. Therefore if you don’t want to talk about it and don’t need to write about it, leave it off the resume.

 There is also an Employment Section of the application that provides space for you to discuss two positions in detail including providing  brief descriptions of your professional accomplishments and challenges.  To some extent this information will overlap with the resume. This is nothing to worry about. That said the challenge question (“Most Significant Challenge” 250 characters) in particular is very possibly something you would not be covering in your resume. Stanford has a similar detailed employment section in their application, which they seriously.  I assume  HBS does as well, so  just as with the resume, make sure your answers in the application are as effective as possible. Don’t treat it like some form you do at the last minute.

First, keep in mind that admissions officers read transcripts and are trained to know what they are reading. They don’t just look at GPA  (If your school calculates it).  If there is something really bad on your transcript (a fail, a withdrawal, etc) or odd, you really do want to explain it in the 500 character (not word) Additional Section. If is just a C and you have no specific excuse, don’t bother trying to explain it.  If your academic performance varied greatly from year to year (or semester to semester), was there a reason for it?  Is it one that you want to provide? I don’t recommend discussing how you became depressed after your boy/girlfriend broke up with you, but if, for example, you were taking a major leadership position in a student organization, running a start-up, working a lot to pay for school,  doing major research, experienced a major illness or misfortune,  or playing a varsity sport, you do have a topic worth discussing. Fi nally, If your transcript,  GMAT/GRE, or resume don’t indicate that you have solid quantitative skills, you should explain why you do if you can. The proper place to provide that explanation is in the additional section or the essay.

“Instructions: List up to three extracurricular activities in order of importance to you (i.e., list the most important first).  Please tell us about the things you did (or do) while you were (or are) attending your college or university.  Include other activities, like community service, here as well.  Please limit this to three activities, but don’t worry if you don’t have a list of three.  We use this section mostly to get a sense of how you spent your time in college as well as the sort of leadership roles and activities that attract you. “

Given HBS’ instructions on this, I do highly recommend including your best extracurricular activities with perhaps 2 out of 3 being focused on college/university activities, unless you have some particularly impressive post college/university activities, where I might see including only 1 activity from college/university. If you have done nothing impressive extracurricular-wise after graduating and have 3 good activities from university, feel free to just use use this section for those activities. If you did nothing but study during college or university and really have no activities, hopefully you have three post-college things to include.  If you have any activities that are directly relevant to your professional goals or to your personal story and you really want to emphasize them, use this space accordingly. While I would surely emphasize the most impressive activities in terms of leadership or engagement, if you need to focus on personal interests that wer e not group focused (running for example) because you simply don’t anything better, put it here.  Activities that show you are well-rounded, civically engaged, artistic, athletic are all possibilities here.

Keep in mind that extracurricular activities can (and usually should)  also be fully accounted for on the resume and given the fact that you can submit a two-page resume, there is no reason that can’t account for an activity.  Also, if you are not using the space for anything else, the 500 character additional information section could be used for elaborating on anything you consider really important, but could not include in this section or in the resume.

“Instructions: Were you on the Dean’s List? Did your apple pie win a blue ribbon at the state fair? Tell us about it here. List any distinctions, honors, and awards (academic, military, extracurricular, professional, community) in order of importance to you (i.e., list the most important first). You may list up to three awards.”

For some applicants this section is really easy to fill out because they have won a number of awards, distinctions, or honors and just need to prioritize them. Other candidates will freak out about this section because they never won anything that they think fits.  While, it is sometimes really the case that I will have perfectly great applicant who has nothing to report in this section, most applicants are actually likely to have something.  HBS is not asking you a narrow question here, so think broadly.  It is possible that this section will overlap with the resume, employment, essay, or extracurricular section of the application.

Please enter your Intended Post-MBA goals below.

Advertising/Marketing/Public Relations
Automotive/Transportation Equipment
Broadcasting/Cable Television/Multimedia
Commercial Banking
Community/Economic Development
Consumer Products
Diversified Financial Services/Insurance
Energy: Alternative Energy/Renewables/Cleantech
Energy: Oil/Gas
Government: non-U.S.
Government: U.S. (Federal/State/Local)
Health Providers/Services
High Technology Electronics/Equipment/Networking
Highly Diversified Manufacturing & Service
Hospitality: Lodging, Restaurants, Tourism, Theme Parks, Gaming
International Development/Relief
Internet Services
Investment Banking
Investment Management
Legal Services
Machinery and Heavy Equipment
Medical/Health Care Devices
Mining/Extractive Minerals/Metals
New Media/Social Networking Media
Other Non-profit
Paper and Forest Products
Private Equity
Real Estate
Sports & Sports Management
Transportation Services & Logistics
Venture Capital

Finance: Investment Management
Finance: Investor Relations
Finance: Lending
Finance: Mergers and Acquisitions
Finance: Research
Finance: Sales and Trading
Finance: Treasury/Analysis
Finance: Underwriting/Advising
Finance: Wealth Management
General Management
Human Resources
Information Services management
Investment Advising
Legal Services
Marketing: Brand/Product Management
Marketing: Communications
Marketing: General
Marketing: Research
Marketing: Sales
Medical Services
Product Development
Professional Advising-Religion
Project Management
Public Relations
Research and Development
Software Engineering
Strategic Planning

500 characters remaining
You don’t have to perfect post-MBA plan, but you need to have a plan. You most likely will spend more time thinking about what you are going to write here than writing it. I think it is fine to include the longer term here if it helps to explain the rationale for your short-term objectives. Keep in mind that your wider vision is a perfectly acceptable topic to discuss in the essay (if you think it will really help your section mates understand who you are)  and not here. Also, since this question does not ask about HBS, you should  not necessarily include any why HBS content here. If you are having difficulty with your career goals, see my analysis of Stanford Essay B for a method for thinking about goals.  I frequently work with my clients on their goals.

“Instructions: Please only add additional information here if you need to clarify any information provided in the other sections of your application. This is not meant to be used as an additional essay.Please limit your additional information to the space in this section. We’ll know you’ll be tempted, but please don’t send us any additional materials (e.g., additional recommendations, work portfolios). To be fair to all applicants, extra materials won’t be considered.” (500 characters, not words)
Use this space to explain anything that can be effectively explained in the space provided. This is a great place to explain your choice of recommenders, a problem in your past, or to add in information about something you really think HBS needs to know. It is completely fine to leave this space blank if you have nothing you need to add.  See above in this post for using the additional section if you are a reapplicant to HBS.

Best of luck to everyone applying to HBS.

-Adam Markus
I am a graduate admissions consultant who works with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form. Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.
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