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July 16, 2009

HBS: Tell us about a time when you made a difficult decision.

This post is on the third of five of the "pick two" questions for the Harvard Business School MBA Application for Fall 2010 Admission. You must answer two questions out of five of these options. All the posts in this series: Overall Strategy, Accomplishments, Mistake, Option 1, Option 2, Option 3, Option 4, and Option 5My post on HBS interviews can be found here.

3. Tell us about a time when you made a difficult decision.
(400-word limit)

Before reading this post, you should read my post on Option 2 as my general discussion of leadership and how to answer leadership questions can be found there.

An HBS MBA educuation is very much focused on teaching students about how to make decisions:


Given the role of decision making within the way case study is taught at HBS (for more about case study, see the first post in this series), asking applicants to provide an example of their own ability to make a difficult decision is a great way to determine whether the applicant has the potential to benefit from an HBS education.

Conceptualizing and Organizing Your Essay
While it is possible to use the leadership essay gird that I utilized in Option 2, here is another way to think about Option 3:

1. State as clearly as possible what the decision was. Emphasize exactly why the decision was difficult. Just as with "false learning" in the Mistake essay, "false decisions" are to be avoided. Decisions are only real if there are at least good viable choices. For example, if one of two options is clearly unethical or illegal, this would be an example of a "false decision." In fact, bad ethical dilemma essays are often bad because there is no real dilemma because one of two options is not a real option. Keep in mind that a good essay topic here may or may not be based on ethical considerations. One of the nice things about this topic is that a difficult ethical decision is only one possible topic here. The decision might be of a more personal nature. It might relate to an investment. It might relate to hiring or firing someone. It might relate to a technical issue. Whatever the topic, a key consideration is that the decision be real.

2. Explain why the decision was difficult. It is not enough that decision be real, you need to make your reader believe it was difficult. If you can't clearly explain why the decision was difficult, the way your conceptualizing your topic will not work. I will make the assumption that teh decision was difficult because it was about something important. That the decision should important might seem obvious, but I would hate to learn of someone who writes about an unimportant, but difficult decision. Such an answer, while conforming to the literal question being asked, is clearly not what HBS is expecting. Bottom line: Make sure your reader understands both why the decision was difficult and why it was important.

3. Explain what decision you made and why. Obviously given the word count, there will be limited space for this explaination. Still it is absolutely critical that you justify the decision you made as this will give your reader a clear understanding of your thought process. Additionally if you don't fully interpret your decision, you are essentially leaving to your reader to do so, which means you are no longer even trying to control the message you are sending to your reader.

4. State the impact of the decision. It is critical that you actually explain what the outcome was. While someone might want to write on a failed decision, given that this essay set already includes a Mistake essay, I can't recommend doing that. I think it is rather important that the impact be positive.

5. Provide minimally sufficient context for understanding the situation. This is a rather obvious point, but it is important that you provide the minimum context necessary so that the reader can understand the situation. At the same time, given the word count issue here, you will really need to keep this to a minimum.

Finally, keep in mind that questions related to difficult decisions, ethical or otherwise, are very common in MBA interviews.

Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at adammarkus@gmail.com. Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to. If you are looking for a highly experienced admissions consultant who is passionate about helping his clients succeed, please feel free to contact me at adammarkus@gmail.com to arrange an initial consultation. To learn more about my services, see here. Initial consultations are conducted by Skype or telephone. For clients in Tokyo, a free face-to-face consultation is possible after an initial Skype or telephone consultation. I only work with a limited number of clients per year and believe that an initial consultation is the best way to determine whether there is a good fit. Whether you use my service or another, I suggest making certain that the fit feels right to you.
-Adam Markus
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