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

April 26, 2011

HBS 2+2 Program Class of 2016 MBA Essays and Recommendations

This post is focused on the HBS 2+2 program.  For the regular MBA program essays, see here.  For the regular program, recommendations see here. For HBS interviews, see here

In this very long post, I will discuss the HBS 2+2 Program Class of 2016 MBA application essays and recommendations. I have only worked with two applicants on 2+2, one who was admitted for the Class of 2014 and another who did not make the cut for the Class of 2015. I have also had comprehensive services clients admitted to the regular HBS MBA for the Classes of 2013, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, and 2005.  

For undergraduates, 2+2 offers a level of career and academic support prior to class entry that is unique in the MBA and graduate school world as a whole. I suggest reviewing the HBS website in detail for information regarding this program.


  • 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
HBS is not right for everybody, so look at it closely to see if it right for you. HBS is very open about who they take.  Not everyone should apply or go to HBS.  For a happy story of HBS rejection, see here.

If you are thinking about applying to HBS, you should learn about the case method. 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. You should most certainly look at videos found at the HBS' YouTube channel.

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/.

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.

The Essay Questions 
The 2+2 Program has four set essay questions.   I will discuss each of them in detail. 
Tell us about three of your accomplishments. (600 words)

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:
Harvard thus has a very open-ended conception of leadership, but they are rigid in the necessity that applicants demonstrate it. 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 Class of 2016 admission, I think the accomplishment essay and setback essays are the most likely places for you to show your leadership potential. 

HBS has asked  some variation of 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:

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. 
  • 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. 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.
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 afterwords 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:
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.

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. 

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 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 they. 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 date 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.

Tell us three setbacks you have faced. (600 words)
 This a new variation on the mistake/failure/setback question that HBS has been asking for a very long time.  it now fully parallels the structure of the accomplishments essay.  This is the first time that HBS has asked for three setbacks.  I think most applicants will find this question to be incredibly challenging.  Applicants usually have enough difficulty writing about one mistake, failure, or setback, so doing three is likely to prove initially daunting, but I think it might not be as hard as it initially looks.

I think we should first consider what a setback is and then think about how you can use setbacks to illustrate your potential to succeed at HBS and in your career.  

I find it easiest to understand what a setback is if we compare it to what a failure is. What is the difference between between a failure and a setback? I think the easiest thing to do is look at standard definitions of both words:

All setbacks can in some sense be understood as failures in sense of the seventh definition of failure cited above, but actually the difference is one of nuance: a setback does not carry with it any sense of finality. A failure conveys that sense of finality.

To use the experiment example above, "a setback in an experiment means the experiment could still succeed, but if the experiment is a failure, there is no chance for success. The only option is a new experiment.
Setbacks are thus the big challenges in your life that you have overcome.  Such challenges might be academic, financial, interpersonal, intellectual, professional, athletic, political, etc. 

Setbacks are great way of highlighting your strengths.  A setback can show how you performed at your best in a difficult situation. A setback can show you have matured as a person. A setback can show how you have overcome difficult problems in your life including such things as financial obstacles, health issues, and adopting to a new environment.

Just as with the accomplishments essay, you should write about three distinct setbacks.  Each setback should highlight something unique about you that is important for HBS to know.

The basic components of each setback:
1. Clearly state what the setback was. Given the limited word count available for telling three stories in 600 words, you need to provide a clear, but brief explanation of the situation.
2. Clearly state your role. Since this is your setback, you need to make it very clear what your role was.  For personal setbacks, such as overcoming an academic difficulty, this is obvious.  On the other hand, if you are writing about being part of an organization that experiences a setback, you need to make sure that you are focused sufficiently on your own role within that organization.
3. Explain how you reacted to the situation. What actions did you take to overcome the situation?  It is critical that you highlight specific skills or personal qualities that made you effective in overcoming whatever setback you faced.
4. Interpret the story: Explain the impact on you. If you want to control how your HBS admissions readers will perceive you, you need to clearly analyze the impact of the setback on you.  Just providing a short story is not enough, make sure you are providing 1-2 sentences that actually analyze what each story means.

Finally, keep in mind that the difference between setbacks and accomplishments can sometimes be just a matter of interpretation.  I therefore suggest you fully brainstorm a set of 6-12 possible accomplishments and setbacks and then determine which ones to make use of.  Always use your best stories.

Why do you want an MBA? (400 words)

HBS does not necessarily expect that you have a fully worked out life plan at your age, but you should be able to explain what motivates you to want an MBA.  Writing that you want an HBS MBA because it will make you rich and give you prestige is not option, so I suggest you focus on how you will use an MBA to become a leader who will make a difference in the world so that you can show fit with the mission of HBS.  For more about fit, see hereFor more about writing goals that are both ambitious and visionary, see here.

At a strategic application level, all applicants should go through the process of analyzing why they want an MBA in detail. Chances are quite high that if your are interviewed by HBS, you will be asked about your goals. Hence, having essays that account for your goals even indirectly or in limited detail is an important part of having an overall application strategy. 
Even if you know why you want an MBA, I suggest going through a formal process of MBA goals formulation. You can use my GAP, SWOT, AND ROI TABLE FOR FORMULATING GRADUATE DEGREE GOALS for this purpose (see below). I think Gap, SWOT, and ROI analysis are great ways for understanding what your goals are, why you want a degree, and how you will use it. 

(To best view the following table, click on it. )

How to use this table:

Step 1. 
Begin by analyzing your "Present Situation." What  roles and responsibilities have you had in clubs, part-time jobs, internships, volunteer activities, etc.? What was/is your functional role(s)? What was/are your responsibilities?

Next, analyze your present strengths and weaknesses for succeeding in your present career. In particular, some of your greatest strengths may have been demonstrated outside of work, so make sure you are accounting for them.
Strengths: What are you good at? Where do you add value? What are you praised for? What are you proud of?
Weakness: What are you bad at? What are you criticized for? What do you try to avoid due to your own limitations? What do you fear?
, analyze your situation in right now. What opportunities exist for your growth and success? What threats could limit your career growth?

Step 2. 
Now, do the same thing in Step 1 for your "Post-Degree" future after you have earned your graduate degree. IF YOU CANNOT COMPLETE STEP 2, YOU HAVE NOT SUFFICIENTLY PLANNED FOR YOUR FUTURE and therefore you need to do more research and need to think more about it.

Step 3.
 If you could complete step 2, than you should see the "Gap" between your present and your future. What skills, knowledge, and other resources do you need to close the gap between your present and future responsibilities, strengths, and opportunities?

Step 4. After completing Step 3, you now need to determine how an MBA will add value to you. It is possible that an increased salary as a result of job change will be sufficient "ROI" for the degree to justify itself, but you should show how a degree will allow you to reach your career goals. How will the degree enhance your skills and opportunities and help you overcome your weaknesses and external threats? If you can complete Step 4, then you should be ready to explain what your goals are, why you want a degree, and the  relationship between your past and future career, as well as your strengths and weaknesses.

The above table will also help you answer such common interview questions as: Where do you want to work after you finish your degree? Why do you want an MBA (or other degree)? What are you strengths? What are your weaknesses? What are your goals?

Simply stating what your goals are and why HBS is the best place for you to accomplish them is not exactly what you need here. Instead, you need to articulate a vision related to why you an MBA. You need to focus on your motivations as well as your idealized career outcomes.

Making your career goals sound exciting requires thinking about whether these goals are compelling. Admissions committees ask applicants to write about their goals after graduate school, but can applicants actually know what will be on the cutting-edge by the time you graduate in 2016? While many applicants will be able to successfully apply with relatively standard goals ("I want to be a consultant because..."), putting together a truly outstanding career vision is one way of differentiating your application. But how?

Don't know anyone in your intended field? Network! One great way to start that is through LinkedIn. Another is by making use of your undergraduate alumni network and/or career center.

Learn what is hot now and try to figure out what will be hot by the time you graduate. Now, of course, this is just a plan and chances are that what is hot in your industry or field now, may very well be cold in the future. The point is to come across to the Harvard Business School as someone who is not only well informed, but has CUTTING-EDGE knowledge. Some great general sources for learning what is hot:

HBS Sources: One of the best places to learn about what HBS perceives as cutting-edge is through HBS. You should most certainly visit Harvard Working Knowledge, Harvard Business Review, and Harvard Business School Publishing.

LinkedIn Answers: I would suggest that everyone join LinkedIn and make use of LinkedIn Answers. LinkedIn Answers is a great way to tap into cutting edge expertise (including my admissions advice!). Follow LinkedIn's rules and you will often be able to obtain excellent information.

Hoovers: For information about specific companies, Hoovers is just a great way to learn about key facts including competitors (a very useful way of knowing who else you might want to work for and to learn about an industry). While primarily focused on the US, Hoovers does have listings for companies worldwide.

Vault: For scope of coverage, this site is a must. Vault includes both career and admissions information. It includes both company specific and industry-wide information.

Other sources: Read magazines, websites, and books that relate to your intended field.

The writing process: After going through a process of reflection and analysis, prepare a version of this essay that includes everything you want to say. Next begin the process of revision. Here are a few key things to consider when revising:

1. Think about the most important thing you need admissions to know about why you need an MBA. Begin your essay with that. Chances are good that on your initial draft the most important thing is somewhere in the middle or end of your essay.
2. Prioritize the rest of your content: What do they really need to know? You probably have lots of details that can be cut.
3. Make a formal argument: Your essay should be neither a set of disembodied points or a summary. Instead, it should be a formal statement about your career vision. It may very well partially take the form of a memo or it may be rather creative. The important point is that the reader should be able to understand it clearly and be convinced by it.

Next, once you have put together your answer, consider how the rest of your application supports what you say in it. Without over-marketing yourself, or even necessarily writing it directly in the essays, make sure that your past accomplishments and other aspects of your application show how your potential will contribute to your future career vision.

My final point is that HBS is looking for people who want to be leaders, not mere managers. They are looking for people who will use their "one precious and wild life" to achieve great things, not those who will be satisfied at being back office mediocrities.  If you can't articulate an exciting vision of your future now, when will you? 

What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience? (400 words)
Consider the emphasis that HBS puts on academic ability:

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 does  Adcom need to know about it? 

You should not focus on a story about your non-academic undergraduate activities. Clearly this is not part of what HBS is asking about. You can easily discuss extracurricular activities 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.

Questions for Recommenders 
For the 2+2 MBA program, you will need  two recommenders. I like the HBS recommendation form best because it is short and sweet. Other MBA programs torture recommenders with a series of typically 6-10 questions, while HBS takes a recommender-friendly approach.   For more about recommendations in general see my previous posts, "10 KEY POINTS FOR WRITING AN EFFECTIVE RECOMMENDATION: WHAT EVERY RECOMMENDER SHOULD KNOW" and "Further Comments on Selecting the Right Recommenders."   Another thing that I like about the HBS recommendation questions is that they are found on the HBS website and don't require registering as a fake recommender to obtain.  It is really annoying to have to go through the process of a registering as fake applicant and then registering fake recommenders in order to look at recommendation questions! I try to avoid doing that.  Some schools seem to think that no one has figured out how to get access to these things or that there is something wrong in having applicants have easy access.  Applicants need to see the questions because there is a very good chance that they will need to advise recommenders on the questions, especially if their recommenders are not familiar with this process.   Why make something that should be so easy to obtain so difficult?
Recommendations must be completed online. The form includes the following four essay response questions. I will analyze each question.
  • Please comment on the context of your interaction with the applicant. If applicable, briefly describe the applicant's role in your organization. (250 words)
 Adam's Quick and Dirty Interpretation: HOW WELL DO YOU KNOW THE APPLICANT AND WHAT DO THEY DO?

As I emphasized in my 10 Key Points Post, "#2: YOU BETTER KNOW THE APPLICANT OR CREATE THE APPEARANCE THAT YOU REALLY DO," it is critical that the recommender establish the legitimate basis upon which they are making this recommendation.  A clear description  which is explicit about the time knowing, organizational relationship to, and extent of observation of applicant is critical.  In addition, this answer should, even though it is not stated, begin the act of advocating for the applicant (My key point #10: BE AN EFFECTIVE ADVOCATE FOR THE APPLICANT).  In the process of describing the applicant's role in your organization, highlight the ways they have added value to the organization. 

  • How does the candidate's performance compare to other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? (250 words)

Directly compare the applicant to his or her peers in the process of explaining the applicant's role in your organization or similar organizations.  While you should not unrealistically overstate the applicant's role, I highly recommend that you clearly indicate what makes him or her special.  You will not be helping the applicant very much if they are not positively distinct in one or more ways.  Provide at least one very concrete example of what makes the applicant special in comparison to others.
  • Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant's response. (250 words)

I consider this to actually be the ideal question for determining whether a recommender actually knows an applicant well.  After all, casual acquaintances, your dad's friend, the President of your country,and other such personages that often take the form of bad VIP recommendations, cannot effectively answer this question. As this will be a situation where you are criticizing the candidate, Key Point #7: BE CRITICAL, BUT NUANCED applies. Clearly describe what the candidate did that resulted in you providing feedback.  Next describe how the applicant responded.  An effective and applicant friendly answer here will be one where the applicant learned from and was, ideally, able to implement your feedback.  Assume that HBS believes that great leaders learn from their mistakes and they are trying to gauge the extent to which the applicant has the potential to be such a leader.

  • Please make additional statements about the applicant's performance, potential, or personal qualities you believe would be helpful to the MBA Admissions Board. (250 words)

Other schools will often ask two questions or more to address this same issue as HBS does in this one question.  What I really like about this is that the recommender is not forced to fit the applicant into a specific category. Such attempts at fitting round pegs into square holes can certainly take much time for a recommender to address. HBS makes it easy for recommenders to focus on what they consider most important to say about an applicant.  This space should be used to focus on the absolutely critical selling points about the applicant that the recommender really wants HBS to know.  Core accomplishments, interpersonal and/or professional skills, and future potential are the ideal topics to write about here.  
Finally, I just wanted to mention that given that HBS has the largest alumni network of any MBA program, it is not necessarily the case that one should prioritize obtaining recommendations from HBS alumni.  If you are fortunate to have such a person who can effectively recommend you, that is great, but selecting an HBS alumni simply because they are an alumni is not necessarily smart because there will be so many of them. The most important thing is to have a recommendation that will really standout and fully convinces HBS about your past accomplishments, suitability to enter HBS in 2014, and future potential. 

-Adam Markus
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If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form, which is publicly available on google docs hereand then send your completed form to adammarkus@gmail.com.  You can also send me your resume if it is convenient for you.  Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to.  See here for why.
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