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.
1. What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience? (400-word limit)
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 this question in 2005, it was directly connected to an effort to recruit younger applicants.
This question is obviously ideal for an applicant to the 2+2 program, a graduating senior or someone with 1 or 2 years of work to answer.It is no surprise that they ask this question. Consider the emphasis that HBS puts on academic ability:
"Harvard Business School is a demanding, fast-paced, and highly-verbal environment. We look for individuals who will thrive on sophisticated ideas and lively discussion. Our case-based method of learning depends upon the active participation of prepared students who can assess, analyze, and act upon complex information within often-ambiguous contexts. The MBA Admissions Board will review your prior academic performance, the results of the GMAT, and, if applicable, TOEFL and/or IELTS, and the nature of your work experience. There is no particular previous course of study required to apply; you must, however, demonstrate the ability to master analytical and quantitative concepts."
More generally, 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 topic to help mitigate the impact of a weak GPA.
For those who have been out of school for a while or would prefer to emphasize other aspects of their background, this question need not be answered as long as some other aspect(s) of your application- GMAT score, GPA, transcript, your resume, or perhaps one of your substantial accomplishments- demonstrates your academic potential to succeed. You must demonstrate your academic potential somewhere in your application (Yes, a solid GPA and GMAT are enough for that purpose), so if you find that have not done so effectively elsewhere and have an important story to tell about your undergraduate experience, you should most certainly consider writing an essay on this question.
Additionally for those whose undergraduate academic experience connects to their career vision and/or reasons for obtaining an MBA, part of this essay may very well serve that explanatory purpose. If you do find that you can best relate your career vision and/or reasons for pursuing an MBA on this topic, I still suggest you closely review my analysis of Option 5.
ESSAY STRUCTURE AND CONTENT
The likely structure for your answer here may very well be similar to the Accomplishments Essay. That said, while it is possible to write on multiple aspects of your academic experience (two to four different topics), it is certainly possible that you might want to focus on only one topic here.
While this essay may seemingly focus on an academic topic, it is very possible that the theme actually relates to your leadership potential, career vision, personality, or some other topic that you have not effectively addressed elsewhere. As with any topic, you should ask yourself why Adcom needs to know about it?
The following two topics are not really so effective here:
1. A story focused on your graduate school experience. Unless the point is to simply show that your undergraduate work laid the foundation for your graduate studies, discussing graduate school is pretty much outside of the scope of what is acceptable here.
2. A story focused on your non-academic undergraduate activities. Clearly this is not part of what HBS is asking about.
Both topics might very well have their place in the Accomplishments Essay, but not here.
Finally, I should point out that I don't see any advantage to using this essay to explain a bad GPA. Instead focus not such an explanation, but on making a clear argument for why you are strong candidate. There is an additional information section on the application which is long enough to provide a brief explanation of anything problematic in your academic background.
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