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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 14, 2010

HBS: What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such?

This post is on the first of two required questions for the Harvard Business School MBA Application for 2011 admission.
All the posts in this series: Overall Strategy, Accomplishments, Mistake, Option 1, Option 2, Option 3, and Option 4.  My post on HBS interviews can be found here. My post on HBS recommendation questions can be found here.

This analysis is greatly revised from my previous analysis of this question because it seems like this essay is the primary place to include leadership related content in this essay set. That said, I do not suggest that you necessarily focus all three of the accomplishments on leadership.  There are many possible ways of effectively utilizing these essay questions. Just make sure you account for leadership in one or more of HBS essays. 

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, it should still be accounted for.

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?

Given the composition of the application for fall 2001 admission, I think the accomplishment essay is the most likely places for you to show your leadership potential.  It is also possible to show this through the other essay questions, but less obviously so. 

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)." So far it has been the only question not to change. HBS has made this one of the mandatory questions because...
-Accomplishments reveal your potential to succeed at HBS and afterwards.
-Accomplishments reveal your key strengths.
-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.

The following grid is the kind I have used successfully with applicants preparing this question (and the similar two accomplishment version for INSEAD):


How to use this grid for outlining your answer to Question 1:

Row 1: "Stories."
The first thing you need to do is think of the accomplishments. These will eventually take the form of stories, so that is what I call them. A few things to keep in mind:

  • Your accomplishments may be personal, professional, or academic. If academic, make sure the accomplishment does not overlap with Option 1 if you choose to write on that question.
  • While it is very important that your accomplishments be distinct so as to reveal different things about you, there is no single formula for what their content must be. Especially given the highly variable nature of this essay set, it is possible that you have three professional accomplishments or one personal/one professional/one academic or two academic/one personal. It really will depend on your background. Some people think you need to have one academic, one professional, and one extracurricular here. My experience with both admits and those invited for interviews is that this is not the case.
  • The key consideration is that each accomplishment must be substantial and that you can explain why.
Row 2: "What skill, value, or unique experience is being showcased?" Your accomplishments need to reveal valuable things about you. Some will call these selling points, but more specifically they consist of skills, values, or unique experiences. One might use a specific accomplishment to emphasize one's leadership skills, another to show one's ethical values, and another to explain a significant barrier that was overcome. The point is that each accomplishment must , at its core, reveal something key to understanding who you are.

Row 3: "What potential for success in the MBA program or afterwards is demonstrated?" You may or may not be directly stating this in the essay, but you should think about what each accomplishment reveals in terms of your potential. HBS Adcom will most certainly be considering how your accomplishments demonstrate your potential to succeed at HBS and afterwards, so you should as well. One key way of thinking about the MBA application process is to see it as a test of potential. Potential itself can mean different things at different schools and so you must keep in mind differences between schools and, in particular, must pay close attention to what schools say really matters when they assess applicants. Harvard Business School Admissions states:
Genuine business talent cannot be narrowly defined. Instead of looking for an "ideal" candidate, HBS invites MBA applicants who exhibit a variety of skills, accomplishments, and temperaments. The true common characteristics of our students are demonstrated leadership potential and a capacity to thrive in a rigorous academic environment.
Therefore, please keep in mind that a core part of your own application strategy should be determining which parts of yourself to emphasize both overall and for a particular school. For example, at HBS, clearly "demonstrated leadership potential" and a strong academic background are necessary.   I have already discussed the importance of leadership, but academic potential is particularly important at HBS, especially because the forced grading curve makes it a uniquely challenging academic environment. For more about academic potential, see my comments on Option 1.

Beyond the potential to succeed at HBS, you may want to use one of your accomplishments to show why you will be able to reach your post-MBA goals. In fact, given the structure of the HBS set, you may end up writing about your goals in this essay if your goals relate directly to one or more of the accomplishments you write about.

Row 4: "Will this be a contribution to others in the MBA program? How?" Just as with potential, think about whether your accomplishments demonstrate your ability to add value to other students at HBS. Given space limitations, it is not likely that you will explain how one or more of your accomplishments will be a contribution, but rather this is a strategic consideration. The dynamic nature of case study at HBS is very much based on what each student contributes. Think about whether any of your accomplishments demonstrate how you will likely add value to other students' HBS experience. Not all substantial accomplishments will have this quality, but many will.

Row 5: "Why does Adcom need to know about this?" If your accomplishment has made it this far, chances are it is substantial. That said, I have two simple tests for determining whether an accomplishment really belongs in this essay. The first is whether Adcom really needs to know about this accomplishment. After all, you might consider getting the love of your life to marry you to be one of your most substantial accomplishments, but will Adcom care? If an accomplishment does not reveal (whether stated or implied) potential and/or contribution, chances are likely that it is not significant enough.

Row 6: "Is this something Adcom could learn about you elsewhere? (If "YES," find another accomplishment)" The second and final simple test I have for determining whether an accomplishment really belongs in this essay is based on the idea that something that is totally obvious about you to anyone looking at your resume and transcript is probably not worth mentioning. If you were a CPA, having an accomplishment that merely demonstrated you were good at accounting would not be worth writing about. Instead it would be important to show something more specific that reveals something that is not obvious by a mere examination of the basic facts of your application.

Finally, as I mentioned above, what you include here is a real test of your judgment, so don't just write about your obvious accomplishments. Think deeply and come up with a set of unique accomplishments that reveal distinct, interesting, and the most important things about you that will compel admissions to want to interview you.

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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