Discuss how you have engaged with a community or organization.
HBS has provided a leadership question that anyone can answer. "Community" and "organization" are such inclusive terms that one might be referring to a small local community, a virtual community, a specific ethnic/religious community, a corporation, a small company, a worldwide NGO, a school, etc. Engagement means involvement, contribution, making a difference. To do so is to show the potential for leadership that HBS is looking for. If you don't write on this question, your leadership potential must be accounted for elsewhere in the HBS application. The most likely alternatives include Option 3 and the Accomplishments question.
HBS is about leadership. The HBS mission statement makes that clear: The mission of Harvard Business School is to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. As such HBS places a very high premium on applicants' leadership potential:
A Habit of Leadership
We recognize—and welcome—leadership that 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 as well, 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 — a portfolio of experiences, initiatives, and accomplishments that reflect a habit of leadership.
Harvard thus has a very open-ended conception of leadership, but they are rigid in the necessity that applicants demonstrate it. I think this is true for other schools to a varying extent as well. For example, like HBS, "INSEAD is looking for applicants who can demonstrate their potential as leaders." Also see my comparison of leadership at HBS and Stanford GSB. Even if a set of business school essay questions does not necessarily explicitly ask for you to show your potential for leadership, your leadership had better be expressed.
Leadership is no easy thing. Nor is it obvious. 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 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 having a formal title.
If you are having difficulty really understanding leadership, I have a few suggestions.
First, one great place to read about leadership, and business in general, is Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.
Second, find out what kind of leader you are by taking this quiz based on Lewin's classic framework. I think leadership is more complicated than Lewin's framework, but this quiz is a great way to get you started thinking about yourself, a key part of answering any leadership essay question effectively.
Third, if you have not done so, I suggest reading relevant essays in 65 Successful Harvard Business School Application Essays: With Analysis by the Staff of the Harbus, The Harvard Business School Newspaper. Reading through the essays on leadership should help you to understand the great diversity of topics that are possible.
OK, now that we have grounded ourselves in understanding the importance of leadership and begun to develop some possible leadership stories, how should you proceed?
I have developed the following grid to help you outline your leadership story. The categories this grid employs may go beyond any particular school's essay requirements. Filling it out completely will help you write about your leadership in a way that will convince admissions of your leadership potential.
CLICK TO ENLARGE.
How to use the grid:
1. Decide on a specific story. HBS Option 2 is asking about "a community or organization,"so select only one. If you write on HBS Option 3, clearly the focus on the decision you made.
2. Identify the most significant things you did in the situation, these are you action steps.
3. For each action step identify:
- What skills or qualities you demonstrated to complete this step.
- The strengths you demonstrated to complete this step.
- The kind of leadership you demonstrated.
- What you still need to learn about leadership.
5. After completing the chart you will see that some aspects of your action steps may be repeated. If there is a total duplication and nothing new is shown, either you need to redefine the action step or you may decide not to focus on it very much.
6. Once you think you have two to four fully worked-out action steps, start writing your essay.
7. Next, start re-writing. Eliminate duplicate points made between action steps. Make choices about what parts of each action to step to highlight. Given that there are usually word limits, you will have to make some decisions about what to include.
Simply providing a description of your engagement, is not enough. Think about what it signifies about you. Think about what your engagement reveals about your leadership potential, your professional or personal goals, and/or your skill set.
Option 2 or Option 3? Write on both?
If the story you are telling is more focused on decision making and not so focused on engagement in an organization or community, Option 3 is clearly better. I suppose it is possible to write on both of these options, but if you did so, clearly very different stories with little or no overlap would be ideal. In addition, it would be important to include something about your future goals and reason for wanting an MBA somewhere in the essay set.
Writing about Goals in Option 2 or Option 3
If the story you tell in either option connects in well with your future goals, it is certainly possible to use Option 2 or Option 3 for that purpose. That said, I never saw a set of essays that used Option 2 for that purpose. That fact alone may make the choice of doing so effective for the right candidate telling the right story.
Finally, thinking and writing about leadership is an important part of preparing for interviews because you can be certain that you will have to talk about leadership. So you might find that the parts of the outline you jettison now will become valuable when you will want to have alternative stories for your HBS interview.
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