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You can find a better version of my blog at http://www.adammarkus.com/blog/.

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

June 16, 2008

Strategy: HBS MBA Questions for Fall 2009 Admission

This post is focused on overall strategy for HBS MBA Questions for Fall 2009 Admission. All the posts in this series are: Overall Strategy 1 2 3-1 3-2 3-3 3-4.


Two Required Questions:

1. What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such? (600-word limit)

2. What have you learned from a mistake? (400-word limit)

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

1. What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience?

2. Discuss how you have engaged with a community or organization.

3. What area of the world are you most curious about and why?

4. What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?

Here I will provide some overall strategic advice regarding applying to HBS. (While I have previously posted my immediate response to the HBS questions, now that I have provided a much more comprehensive analysis in seven blog posts, I don't think it is very useful to read, but I am leaving it up on the site. )

Please keep in mind that additional strategy and tactics are covered in the six other posts in this series. I suggest reading in the entire series of posts, even for the Question 3 options that you do not intend to write on.

This year's application is mostly a modification of last year's major alteration of the application. The two required questions are the same and so are two out of the four questions that applicants will get to choose from. The biggest change in structure is that applicants will be writing only four instead of five essays. Last year applicants were asked to select 3 out of 6 questions they had to choose from, this year it is 2 out of 4. HBS dropped four questions and added two. Adding two new questions per year had been a typical pattern at HBS for quite a long time and it is possible they are returning to it after last year's major revisions.

Why I don't think it is generally a good idea to write the HBS essays first:
Given the limited length of the set, 1800 words maximum, applicants must think very seriously about only including their best content. Curiously enough Stanford GSB (my posts on Stanford will be coming soon) also has limited essay word count to 1800. Unless you are only applying to HBS and Stanford, I would generally suggest you write the essays for another school first. There is a learning curve in essay writing and you want your essays for HBS to be very strong. Given that you do have significant choice in the HBS set, having a portfolio of essays from other schools to utilize can be quite helpful. I know my suggestion will be harder for those focused on first round, but I have no particular bias for 1st round application, only a bias for submitting as strong an application as possible. Giving yourself as much time as you can seems critical to me. Additionally, given the limited word count for the HBS essays, you are in many cases likely to have more space to write on some similar topics for another school. I think it is generally easier to go from a longer to shorter text and hence, doing HBS short word count essays after one or more school's 500 or more word count essays is likely to be more efficient.

The structure of the new application is such that one does not have to write a "Why MBA? What are you Goals? Why HBS?" essay. That said, as I discuss in my analysis of the 3-4, "the Career Vision Question," you really do want to fully account for the above questions in your own head, at least, because it is an important strategic consideration. Furthermore, you can assume that if you have an interview you will be asked about your educational and professional objectives (see my analysis of HBS interviews).

I think it is possible to actually use any of the questions, with the possible exception of 2("Mistake"), to explain why you are applying to HBS and what your career vision is. In my analysis of each question, I have indicated how I think the connection could be made. Clearly each applicant will have to figure out what works best for them.

I think this is an obvious point, but I will make it anyway: I suggest you take a look at my posts on school selection as they will help you to analyze why HBS is right or wrong for you. I think actually it is not right for everybody, so look at HBS closely to see if it right for you. In addition to what it is stated in this post, I suggest you review the entire series of posts even for questions you are not planning to write on because I have provided links to various things about HBS.


While Harvard Business School is most known for its use of the case method (80%), other top programs use it typically 30%-50% of the time with the remainder consisting of lecture, experiential learning, simulations, and other methods. By the way, if you want to know what HBS students read in addition to case studies, see http://www.computersexy.com/blog/2008/02/03/hbs/what-do-hbs-students-read/.

If you are thinking about applying to HBS, you should learn about the case method/view. One of the clearest explanations for the case method is, not surprisingly, the HBS website. Every MBA applicant could benefit from watching the case study video which will provide you with a clear 13 minute and 25 second image of what case study is about.

Want to read some case studies?

One great resource for cases studies is caseplace.org, where you can read cases written by and for top business schools. Many were published by Harvard Business School through Harvard Working Knowledge, Harvard Business Review, and Harvard Business School Publishing. Sources for other cases include Stanford Social Innovation Review, Knowledge @ Wharton, and MIT Sloan Management Review.

Sponsored by the Aspen Institute, "CasePlace.org is a practical and dynamic resource for up-to-date case studies, syllabi and innovative MBA teaching materials on business and sustainability— from corporate governance to sustainable development." Given the sources and purpose of the site, this is a wonderful opportunity to read cases on a diverse range of subjects. If caseplace.org is not enough for you then you can also purchase case studies directly from HBS and other schools.

Please keep in mind that the objective is to get enough background to make good decisions about your applications, so don't feel obligated to spend so much time reading cases. Just spend enough time to know what the case method is and how it will impact your application decisions and admissions strategy.

I think it is easy to say that the conservative choice for those with work experience would be 3-2, a leadership question, and 3-4, the career vision question. For some applicants this will be the right decision. The important thing is to select the topics that will best represent you. Focus first on what you really want to say about yourself and then decide which questions will be best to answer. Your objective is to construct the most effective presentation of yourself as possible in order to become part of the Class of 2011. One thing to avoid is an over-marketed set of essays. Instead focus on presenting yourself at your best. See my last post of 2007 on the limits of a marketing based strategy.

Please read my analysis of 3-2 in which I discuss leadership at HBS tin detail.

  • Read my other six posts in this series. Even if you are not planning to write on a specific question, you might very well find something that will help you with the questions you are writing on.
  • Learn as much as you can about HBS. If possible, go visit the campus. Visiting HBS, like visiting any business school, is one of the best ways to learn about it.
  • Attend admissions outreach events as these will give you an opportunity to hear from admissions directly and possibly interact with alumni.
  • If you find that you need expert consulting on HBS or other MBA applications, consider contacting me. For more about my services, see http://adammarkus.com/.
Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at adammarkus@gmail.com. Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to.

-Adam Markus
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