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

September 28, 2007

HBS Essays: Choices! And easier too! (updated)

You can find my analysis for Fall 2009 Admission (Class of 2011) to HBS here.

This is the first in a series of posts on the Harvard Business School MBA Application Essays for the Class of 2010. Click for further analysis of Essay 2 and Essay 3a.
It is rather obvious that the questions an MBA program asks you reflect its admissions strategies. This is as true for the Harvard Business School as for any other school. For example when HBS introduced the following question in 2005, it was directly connected to an effort to recruit younger applicants:
3 c. What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience?
This question is obviously ideal for a graduating senior or someone with 1 or 2 years of work to answer. Given the emphasis that HBS puts on academic ability, it is no surprise that they ask this question. For those who have been out of school for a while or would prefer to emphasize other aspects of their background, this question was not perceived as an ideal one to have to answer. Now luckily it need not be answered because HBS has now introduced a choice of questions into its application. Of course, many schools have done this for a long time. For example, Kellogg has consistently given applicants one or more essays where they have had a choice of topics.

HBS, for the last several years has been considered a hard application by many, not principally because of the lack of choice of which questions to answer, but because of the difficulty of some the questions as well as the word count limits. In particular, the question I just mentioned and a question on ethical issues you expect to encounter in in your professional future were considered quite difficult. The ethical issues question has now been removed entirely. However looking over the present set of questions, I don't think any of them can be described as difficult.

All applicants will have to answer the two mandatory questions in this essay set. The fact that these two questions are mandatory indicates that HBS wanted to have a common point of comparison for all applicants based on these two topics. As you will see, HBS does not ask the "Why MBA?" question as one of these two. It may initially seem that the choice of these two is arbitrary, but it most certainly is not.

1. What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such? (600-word limit)
HBS has asked this question for a very long time. According to 65 Successful Harvard Business School Application Essays, "This is one of those essays that is probably a permanent fixture in the HBS application (p. 121)." I think the reason HBS has made this one of the mandatory questions is quite simple:
-Accomplishments reveal your potential to succeed at HBS and afterwards.
-Accomplishments reveal your potential for contributing to your classmates.
-Everyone has had accomplishments, so it is easy to compare applicants.
-What you consider to be an accomplishment are real tests of your self-awareness and judgment.

2. What have you learned from a mistake? (400-word limit)
This second mandatory question has been asked by HBS and many other schools. Note the use of the word "mistake" and not "failure." Mistake is much more broad category that includes failure. I think using the word mistake takes into account that some people simply have not experienced outright meaningful failure, but we all have erred whether intentionally or otherwise. The reason I think it is included is because learning from mistakes is a core part of what case study analysis is about. Please click here for more about Essay 2.

3. Please respond to three of the following (400-word limit each)

a. Discuss a defining experience in your leadership development. How did this experience highlight your strengths and weaknesses?
I know that some will say that since HBS is all about leadership, you should write Essay 3a. Now 3a is most certainly a classic MBA essay topic and one that in various forms has been a part of the HBS application for a very long time. I would say that 3a is not necessary to write if you have sufficiently demonstrated your leadership potential elsewhere, especially in 1. IN ANY EVENT, IF YOU APPLY TO HBS YOU SHOULD READ MY DETAILED ANALYSIS OF THIS QUESTION BECAUSE DEMONSTRATING LEADERSHIP POTENTIAL IS CRITICAL AT HBS. However, since you will likely have to write on this topic for other schools and will most certainly need to be ready to discuss it in an interview, I think it is great to write on if you have a strong topic. Keep in mind that a defining experience need not be an accomplishment, but given that you are already writing about a mistake in Essay 2, if you decide to write about any sort of failure here, you should make sure that it is quite distinct from what you write in Essay 2 and that your overall essay set focuses effectively on your potential.

b. How have you experienced culture shock?
This is a new question for HBS, but a very standard for European MBA programs like HEC, INSEAD, and London Business School. This question really tests ones potential to succeed in new or challenging environments: International experience and experience in unusual places would demonstrate this. Another would be your ability to handle a difficult social environment. If you are also applying to the University of Pennslyvania, it would certainly be efficient if you have a topic that will work for both the HBS question and Wharton's Tell us about a situation in which you were an outsider. What did you learn from the experience?

c. What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience?
I have already partially addressed this question above. I think that this question is great for any applicant who learned something valuable in their undergraduate academic program. You don't need a high GPA to answer this one and in fact those who don't have a high GPA, but actually did something meaningful as part of their program of study, should consider writing on this to help mitigate the impact of a weak GPA.
d. What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?
As with Essay 3a, I think some will say that you must write on this topic. While I think it is important that the MBA Admissions Board understand what motivates you, I don't believe that you necessarily have to answer this question to tell them that. While many applicants are likely to want to answer this question, if you want to set yourself apart from the pack, don't do it unless your answer is really very compelling. The reason they made it optional is because they don't want to read standard obligatory goals essays. That said, you still need to have very clear goals. Whether you write on this question or not, I strongly suggest taking a look at my three previous posts on goals: (1) (2) (3).

e. What global issue is most important to you and why?
Again, a new question for HBS. This one, like Essay 3c. is ideal for recent graduates. Anyone should be able to write on this topic, but obviously it is ideal for anyone with a serious record of commitment to a global issue. It is also an alternative space for discussing goals if your goals relate to a global issue.

f. What else would you like the MBA Admissions Board to understand about you?
The mother of all choice questions! Here you can write about anything that you think the Board really needs to know. While I will discuss this one in greater detail, I would say that you should avoid using this as a typical optional question like Chicago GSB's optional question. Instead use this question as another way to help HBS understand you and to become convinced that you belong there.

Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at adammarkus@gmail.com.
-Adam Markus
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