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

June 25, 2019

Stanford GSB MBA Essays and Application for the Class of 2022

In this post, I analyze the Stanford GSB MBA (also MBA and MSX) essays and additional information/resume/employment history/activities for Class of 2022 Admission. My analysis of Stanford GSB interviews can be found here. In addition to the Class of 2022 post, I also recommend reading and/or listening to my presentation, So you want to get into Stanford GSB?” which was made to a Japanese audience in March 2011. That presentation focuses on issues that are applicable to all applicants as well as some issues specific to Japanese applicants. While old at this point, the core content remains useful.

You can find results and/or testimonials from my clients admitted to  the Stanford Classes of 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010 here. My clients admitted to Stanford GSB have come from China, Europe, India, Japan, Mexico, Singapore, South Korea, and the United States and have had extremely diverse professional and educational backgrounds. The advice I provide below is based on that experience. Given that the questions are the same, this post has only been updated in small ways.

Stanford’s admissions director is Kirsten Moss. You can read about her here .  She has an HBS MBA and a PhD in Psychology (leadership psychology) from William James College and has experience in admissions at both HBS and Stanford GSB. She has also been a Touchy Feely Facilitator.  From my perspective, that makes for someone who can critically evaluate candidates beyond the surface level, which given nature of the Stanford essay set and the extreme competition for entry, make her ideal.

Applicants can apply to both the MBA and MSX at the the same time. For candidates that fit the MSX work requirements of 8 years minimum by July 2018, this is a good option.  My advice would be to explain in a couple of sentences in The Why Stanford essay why both options would be ones that you would consider. Regarding MSX, if you are interested in attending that program, I highly recommend getting in direct contact with the admissions office for that program. They are likely to provide you with much more personalized feedback on whether you are good applicant for the program.

Initially I provide some overall comments about the Stanford GSB MBA essay set for admission to the Class of 2021, an analysis of the centrality of demonstrating Stanford GSB’s three central admissions criteria- Intellectual Vitality,  Demonstrated Leadership Potential, and Personal Qualities and Contributions-, and some suggestions for how to proceed in order to put together a great application for Stanford GSB (including the short .  I will discuss the optional essay after discussing the two main essays. Here are the complete essays and instructions from the Stanford GSB website:

Essay Questions

We request that you write two personal essays.
In each essay, we want to hear your genuine voice. Think carefully about your values, passions, aims, and dreams. There is no "right answer" to these questions—the best answer is the one that is truest for you.

Essay A: What matters most to you, and why?

For this essay, we would like you to reflect deeply and write from the heart. Once you've identified what matters most to you, help us understand why. You might consider, for example, what makes this so important to you? What people, insights, or experiences have shaped your perspectives?

Essay B: Why Stanford?

Describe your aspirations and how your Stanford GSB experience will help you realize them. If you are applying to both the MBA and MSx programs, use Essay B to address your interest in both programs.


Both essays combined may not exceed 1,150 words. We recommend up to 750 words for Essay A and up to 400 words for Essay B. We often find effective essays written in far fewer words.


  • Double-spaced
  • Number all pages
  • Upload one document that includes both essays
Be sure to save a copy of your essays, and preview the uploaded document to ensure that the formatting is preserved.

Optional Short-Answer Question

The two required essays shed light on who you are and how you imagine Stanford will help you achieve your aspirations. We are also interested in learning about the things you have done that are most meaningful to you. In this section, we provide an optional opportunity to go beyond your resume to discuss some of your contributions more fully.
Please do not include your short-answer response in your essays upload; use the text boxes provided in the application.
Optional Short-Answer Question:
Think about times you've created a positive impact, whether in professional, extracurricular, academic, or other settings. What was your impact? What made it significant to you or to others? You are welcome to share up to three examples. (Up to 1500 characters, approximately 250 words, for each example)
Please review the website for the full instructions and advice Stanford provides and I think it is really important to actually read the whole thing. Especially note that you can decide how to divide your 11500 words amongst the two essays and the emphasis on providing your own essays.

The simple reality is that Stanford is for really smart people and specifically for people who want to think and explore: This is a school fueled and surrounded by innovation and collaboration. If you have ideas, there is no better place than Stanford GSB to explore them.

My clients who get interviews and most certainly those who are admitted are, without exception, objectively smart people. One primary way, but not the only way, to measure these criteria is by looking at the key numbers.  For the Class of 2019, the GSB site provides the following:
GMAT Average: 737
GRE Average: 165 (Verbal) and 164 (Quantitative)
TOEFL Average: 112
GPA Average: 3.74
These numbers reflect the fact that Stanford is the most difficult MBA program to get admitted to. When I am talking with a client or potential client, if I have somebody with a really strong academic background and I see a real sense of purpose and focus to their academic and professional career, I might advise them to apply to Stanford. And in the last few years, I have literally convinced three of my clients to apply to Stanford because basically I said, “Hey, you're perfect, you're what they are looking for.”  And that's a sense.  It's not objective.  And so, it's just based on my experience. I am not always right about this, but I am right about it enough of the time to think I know when I have an applicant who is right for Stanford.

Stanford should, like HBS, be associated with a leadership-focused education, which is reflected in its mission statement:
Our mission is to create ideas that deepen and advance our understanding of management and with those ideas to develop innovative, principled, and insightful leaders who change the world.Our mission is to create ideas that deepen and advance our understanding of management and with those ideas to develop innovative, principled, and insightful leaders who change the world.
However, there is no specific essay that is  focused on assessing leadership potential.  As a result, what you write in the two essays, resume, and application form really must account for leadership potential.  It is also important to advise your recommenders on the importance of discussing your leadership potential.

I think reading what Stanford says about  Personal Qualities and Contributions is the best place to start when thinking about this third criteria.  In essence, Stanford wants to know why should be a part of the 6%-7% of the applicant pool that they will be admitting.  What makes you stand out?  How will you contribute?  What is it about your experience and attitude that will not only make you a good fit for Stanford but will give you the potential to make an impact to the Stanford community?  This does not just come out in one particular place, but is something that will come out of your entire application as well as in an interview.

In my analysis of Essay 1, I will discuss the critical importance of providing honest answers to Stanford’s questions. I think that what has always made a winning set of essays for Stanford is the ability to commit to making an honest and insightful presentation of yourself. Based on my experience I can say the following are not effective:
1. Over-marketing: While I believe in the value of the marketing metaphor to some degree, I also believe you have to be able to understand that a crude, over-determined approach to doing so will not work here (For more about this, click here).   If you are not real, assume a good reader will figure out that you are not.
2. Not writing your own essays. If your essays are not written in your own voice and don’t reflect your English ability, don’t expect to make it past Stanford’s team. My own approach to helping my clients does not involve me writing their essays but instead I act as a coach, a close reader, and someone who can benchmark their work against those who have been admitted. I make the assumption that overly cooked essays that look like they were written by a professional journalist when you are not one or by a native English speaker when you are not one or similar inconsistencies are unlikely to succeed.

Stanford really does provide great advice about both the Stanford GSB essays and about how to handle your applications. Just start exploring their website!  Also, see my discussion of Stanford GSB in my analysis of Essay 2. Don’t make assumptions about what Stanford GSB is or based on what someone told you it is. Instead, make that determination yourself after sufficient research. If you are thinking about Stanford GSB and have not yet attended one of their Admissions Events, I suggest doing so if you can. Visiting when school is in session is ideal. Most importantly try to talk to current students or recent alumni.

Applicants often ask me this question. I think it is important that knowing why you want an MBA, Essay B, be clearly established first. Therefore, at least at the conceptual level, you should have a clear answer to Essay B initially. You might do the writing in either order, but as I will discuss below, what matters to you most, Essay A,  must be consistent with and complimentary to your rationale for pursuing an MBA. Stanford does not specifically ask you to write about your post-MBA goals in Essay B, but I would argue that it is impossible to explain why you need an MBA without explaining what you need an MBA for.  And a major part of what you need an MBA for is what you will do after you finish at Stanford.  Now it is possible that what matters most to you might actually relate directly to your goals, so the amount of detail about your goals need not be extensive in Essay B, but explaining why need you an MBA is at the core of this essay set.

Essay A: What matters most to you, and why?
This is the classic Stanford GSB essay question. If you want to enter into the MBA Class of 2021, you will need to find your answer to it.
In my experience, answers to this question that result in acceptance come from the HEART and the HEAD. The two combined will allow you to tell your story about what matters most. I suggest beginning with no fixed assumptions about what Stanford wants here. One of the easiest ways to write a bad version of Essay 1 is to have a theme that does not directly relate to your actual experience: Round pegs do not fit into square holes.
Heart: The admits I worked with found that what matters most to them by looking inside of themselves and finding something essential about who they are. No one is reducible to a core single concept, a single motivation, or any other sort of singularity, but certain things do make each of us tick. Beyond the most basic things of survival, what motivates you? What do you live for? What do you care about? How do you relate to other people? Are you driven by a particular idea or issue? Where do you find meaning?
Head: Once you think you have identified that essential thing that matters most to you, begin analyzing it. What is its source? WHY does it remain important to you? How? How does it relate to the career aspirations you discuss in Essay B? The heart will tell what it is, but the head must explain it. From my perspective, great answers to this question combine a very strong analytical foundation-A FULL ANSWER TO WHY AND HOW IS MANDATORY- and specific examples. Avoid the common mistake that Derrick Bolton mentions above of ignoring the “Why?” and the “How?” by focusing too much on the “What?”If you are having difficulty answering Essay A to your own satisfaction, I have few suggestions:
If you are feeling totally blocked and making no progress on this essay, write some other schools essays first. In the process of doing so, you may discover the answer. This has worked for a number of my clients while others prefer focusing on Stanford first.
Stanford admissions states that there is no one right answer. Some applicants become paralyzed because they want THE RIGHT MESSAGE. You need to fully account for who you are and what you have done, but should not try to overly sell yourself to Stanford because that is simply at odds with the way in which the school selects candidates. Therefore don’t focus on finding THE RIGHT MESSAGE, instead, be honest and give an answer that is real. If you are having some more fundamental difficulties with this question, one book I suggest taking a look at is Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. This classic is worth a look for anyone who is thinking about what their life is about. Frankl makes us think about meaning from the most extreme of perspectives, inside a concentration camp, and in the process helps us to understand that meaning itself is deeply tied to our own survival. If you need to engage in some self-reflection, Frankl's book is one place to start. I might also suggest reading Plato or doing some meditation, but in my experience those take more time and Frankl’s book has the advantage of being short, inexpensive, available at many libraries, and has been translated from the original German into at least twenty-two languages.

The answer may be real, but is it a good one? If you are not sure, look critically at Stanford GSB’s mission statement discussed above in this post.  Does what matters most to you fit within this mission to develop innovative, principled, and insightful leaders who change the world? Think about this statement in the widest possible way. Given the small class size and the highly collaborative nature of the program, admissions will only be doing its job right if they select students who fit into Stanford GSB’s mission. Stanford is looking for leaders, but leaders come in many forms and the values and ideals that inform them vary greatly. In my experience, Stanford highly values “Thought Leaders” as well as those who demonstrate more standard forms of leadership. If what matters most to you is something that admissions can clearly connect to informing your ideals as a leader and your professional goals then you are on the way to f orming an effective answer to what is Stanford’s most unique essay question.

Some Common Types of What Matters Essays
While I am not known for giving examples or sample answers, I would like to discuss three common types of answers.

Abstract and metaphorical: Abstract and metaphorical answers can produce very creative responses. An example (Note all examples I will use here are not from my clients) would be “What matters most to me are the doors in my life.”  Using the whole concept of entering and exiting, this essay concept might work very well, but could easily generate a series of disconnected stories that don’t leave the reader with a really clear answer.  I have had clients use such answers effectively, but more often than not, the more abstract the answer, the harder it is to make into something really convincing.  Remember that writing MBA essays is not primarily a literary exercise, so be careful with this approach.

Core value: A core value response might involve a very simple answer to the question, such as “What matters to me most is love.”  Applicants frequently stress out about giving simple answers to the question because they worry that the answer will be too common.  I think it is a mistake to worry that your core conceptual answer is too common because you should assume that Stanford admissions has seen almost every possible answer to this question already.  What is ultimately important is not the what, but the why and how you explain that why in the essay.  Simple can work exceptionally well if it is a way to connect key aspects of yourself effectively.  I have had a number of clients who were admitted with one to three-word answers to the question.

The Mission: A mission version of the answer works exceptionally well if your stated mission is really backed-up by your resume and other aspects of your application. An example would be “What matters most to me is protecting the Earth’s environment for future generations.”  I have seen many answers like this that were truly excellent and resulted in admission for candidates who could really prove they had the mission in the past and would be continuing  it in the future.  On the other hand, I have seen so many bad answers that lacked believability because the applicant’s biographical details did not align with the answer, and/or lacked a clearly stated mission with a scope that was clarified in Essay B.

While I have seen all three types result in admission, I have seen more Core Value and The Mission type answers work successfully.

Make a choice! All successful versions of this essay that I have read involve making a choice. That is to say, you must actually clearly indicate something that matters most. As someone who is frequently contacted by those who have failed to obtain admission to Stanford and want to know why, I often find that they don’t make this choice. Their “what matters most” lacks clarity and unity. Make a clear choice and really explore it. This will best reveal your self-awareness and your passion.
Finally, the map is not the territory: You are more than whatever you write in an essay.  This is essay is just a slice of who you are. It is not everything, so don’t expect you will  have that one theme that explains everything you care about. You have to make a choice of topics here, but this is ultimately not an existential choice, it is a marketing choice. You are deciding what core message(s) about yourself will ultimately best give you a chance of admission to Stanford.  The question itself is ultimately absurd for most people as what matters to them is one more than one thing. We have competing commitments: Often more than one thing matters most to us so we are constantly reprioritizing. We are complex and contradictory. Our beliefs and actions are not always in alignment.  We worry about our choices. We have inner struggles. All of this is true and yet ultimately in terms of this essay you have to provide a clear answer to the question. Getting a t what matters most is often determined by struggling with competing commitments and ultimately stating what is rhetorically most defendable and strategically most appealing.

Essay B: Why Stanford?
Your objective in the essay is to demonstrate why you would greatly benefit from a Stanford MBA education.  Stanford is proud of what they are and what they can offer. They can reject anyone and they do reject a higher percentage of applicants than other schools. One thing I think that separates great versions of Essay B (the ones that get applicants an interview) and mediocre versions (the ones that usually don’t get applicants an interview) is the extent to which the applicant is able to show that Stanford is not a mere afterthought or an option, but actually a necessity to accomplish one’s aspirations. Fully account for that in your essay. Learn as much as you can about Stanford and think deeply about who it will impact you.
If you are applying to both MBA and MSX, make sure that whatever you say about Stanford applies to both programs. Explain why you would be happy to attend both programs if offered admission. Don’t express a preference for one or the the other in the essay. Just use the additional word count to explain why both options would benefit you.
Stanford views itself as a change agent. Show in you essay how it will change you. In my experience,  a good answer to Essay B  will do the following;
1. Shows how the applicant intends to be an agent of change in whatever career he or she pursues after his or her MBA. Stanford is looking for innovative change agents, so make sure that you demonstrate that in this essay. Your answer should be consistent with Stanford’s mission to “Change lives, Change organizations, Change the world.”  This really does matter.  Stanford takes 400 people a year  and is typically admitting approximately 7% of those that apply. It is a precious opportunity to go there and hence giving a spot to someone whose goals are simply mundane and not focused on impacting the wider world is not what Stanford admissions is interested in doing.  Whatever your objectives, whether it is to be a partner at a consulting firm, a leading investment banker, a social entrepreneur, a global marketer, an executive in the energy industry, a politician, etc., you need to provide a sense that you have the capability to have wide i mpact in your chosen field.
2. Shows connectivity with Essay A.  Whether the connection is extremely direct or relatively abstract, the reader should feel a sense of synergy between these essays. For those who have a mission (see above) type answers in Essay A, Essay B is an opportunity to explain how an MBA will help you carry out that mission. For  those with other types of Essay A answers, the connectivity will be more indirect, but should still be intuitively obvious to the reader.
3.  Consistent with the applicant’s biography.  That is to say, applicants have facts in their past experience that must make their goals believable.  I work with reapplicants to Stanford and for those who are dinged without an interview, I frequently find their goal essay lack this consistency. For instance, someone who says they want to go into social entrepreneurship, but has no history of getting involved with non-profit organizations, lacks significant recent volunteer experience,  and/or has no significant entrepreneurial experience, simply lacks credibility
4.  Does not just make a series of dumb lists of classes or tell Stanford about itself, but explains what the applicant wants from Stanford.  Go review Stanford’s curriculum,  course catalog, and faculty and research. The resources available at Stanford GSB and Stanford University as a whole are vast, so figure out specifically what you want from the school as you will need to discuss that. While you should be explaining why you need an MBA, you need to make sure that your reasons align well with Stanford. You need not mention the names of particular courses as long as it would be clear to your reader that your learning needs align well with Stanford’s curriculum. For example, it is really a waste of word count to mention the names of parti cular finance courses if the main point you are simply trying to make is that you want to enhance your finance skills. Every admissions officer at Stanford is well aware of the programs major offerings.  If you have a particular interest in a more specialized course or studying with a particular professor, it might be worth mentioning it as long as it is an explanation of why you want to study the subject and not based on circular reasoning;
An example of circular (tautological) reasoning:  “I want to take Accelerated Corporate Finance: Applications, Techniques, and Models  because I am interested in learning advanced corporate financial techniques.”
This kind of circular reasoning is so common. Usually, it takes place within a paragraph consisting of many such sentences. They actually convey nothing about the applicant.  They are just abstract needs and will have limited impact on your reader.  The admissions reader wants to learn about you, not about their own program.
An example of an explanation for why:  “While I have been exposed to finance through my work at MegaBank of Joy, I presently lack the kind of comprehensive understanding of corporate finance that I will need to succeed as an investment banker.”  A complete explanation would include additional details about the kind of issues that the applicant is interested in learning about and/or specific ways the applicant intended to apply what he or she would learn at Stanford.  By focusing on very specific learning needs and explaining those needs in relationship to one’s goals and/or past experience, the admissions reader will be learning about you.
Unlike some other “Why MBA” questions, Stanford is not asking about the past.  You have Essay A, your resume, and the application form to discuss the past. This essay is about who you want to become. While Stanford does not require you to elaborate on your short and long term goals in this essay, without some consideration to your post-MBA future, it will not be very easy to write an effective answer to this question.  You need not have an elaborate plan here.  You hardly have the space for it.   Instead of focusing on your goals,  focus on your personal mission:
-How will you make a difference and how can Stanford  help you do that?
-What impact do you want to make on the world that an MBA will help facilitate?
-What do you need to learn at Stanford in order to transform yourself for your future?
You need to be ambitious. Simply stating what your goals are and why Stanford is the best place for you to accomplish them is not exactly what you need here. Instead, you need to articulate a rationale related to why you want an MBA  that is connected to Stanford’s mission to train global leaders. For more about being ambitious and visionary, see here. While the Stanford essay may not require goals, you will need them if you are interviewed by an alumnus.  Most Stanford interviews involve a discussion of goals.  So having a well thought out set of goals, even if they are not written about extensively in Essay B is something that you should have in place. While many applicants will be able to successfully apply with relatively standard goals (“I want to be a consultant because…”), communicating aspirations requires going beyond the typical.

When formulating goals, the necessary prerequisite for formulating aspirations, I suggest going through a formal process of goals analysis. If you are still trying to figure out what you want to do with your life, you can use the following grid.
The following image may not work for all browsers. If so, see here. Click to enlarge it.
How to use this matrix:

Step 1. Begin by analyzing your “Present Career.” 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?
Next, 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-MBA” future after you have earned your graduate degree. If you cannot complete this step you need to do more research and need to think more about it. I frequently help clients with this sort of thing through a process of brainstorming.
Step 3. If you could complete step 2, then 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? What are you strengths? What are your weaknesses? What are your goals?

The Essay B writing process
After going through a process of reflection and analysis, prepare versions of Essay B 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 what you want to do after your MBA and why Stanford MBA (or MBA/MSX)  is the best place for you to do that. 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? Chances are you 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. Effective forms of this statement vary. The important part is that the reader should be able to understand it clearly and be convinced by it.
Once you have put together Essay B, 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 that your other essays and other aspects of your application show how your potential will contribute to your future aspirations.

Optional Short-Answer Question:
Think about times you've created a positive impact, whether in professional, extracurricular, academic, or other settings. What was your impact? What made it significant to you or to others? You are welcome to share up to three examples. (Up to 1500 characters, approximately 250 words, for each example)
Calling this an optional essay is just a confusing message to send to applicants because (1) it is not like a typical optional essay related to critical information or problems that have not been accounted for, which is the common topic for optional essays (Stanford has it, it is called Additional Information and is discussed below) and (2) anyone can and should answer this question! If you cannot identify 1-3 specific ways you have had impact in ANY SETTING (professional, extracurricular, academic, or other setting = ANY)  that you have not covered elsewhere in detail in application (including the essay in the application, see below), there is a problem.  I don’t recommend writing about something you are covering in detail elsewhere in the required essays or application form but, of course, some overlap is likely (especially with respect to the application form content). Given that Stanford is looking for people who will have h igh impact throughout their careers, the essay is a great way to showcase your potential to be a high impact leader in the future.  it is also an opportunity to show how you will add value at GSB.  It is also a great chance to elaborate on a story that you could not include or fully discuss in your required essays.

Effective answers to this question will clearly state the activity engaged in, identify the impact, and explain why it was significant (made a difference) to your yourself or others.  Personally I would recommend focusing on 1-2 really strong examples so that you have sufficient word count.

I would suggest writing this essay after determining the content for your required essays as well as completing the application form, so you can see what has not been fully accounted for in your background that you really want Stanford to know.

There is nothing more depressing to me than to look at an MBA application that is hastily put together. Worse still if it is a school that is hard to get into. Worse yet if it is Stanford, where there is a very rigorous approach to application review. The application form, transcript, and resume all play a significant role in the evaluation of your suitability for admission.  Given  that Stanford GSB is evaluating your intellectual vitality, demonstrated leadership potential, personal qualities, and qualifications, you can be certain that beyond your essays, the rest of the application will be highly scrutinized to determine how you benchmark against these criteria. Some people look at application forms as mere forms. I look at them as opportunities  to provide admissions with as complete and impressive presentation as one can. The reason admissions made the application was because they need the information to make a decision about you, so don’t provide something that is don e at the last minute. Stanford expects that you will take the application seriously. The worst thing you can do is treat this section as a last minute thought.


Stanford really does prefer a one-page resume!

Please attach your one-page resume. Unless you have a very compelling reason, do not submit a resume that is longer than one page.
For a one-page resume template, see here.   This is the resume template that many of my clients admitted to Stanford and other top programs have used.

Along with the essays, the Resume and Employment History are the most critical documents that you control. Both should present you as effectively and honestly as possible. These two values are not in conflict: Be honest, be thorough, and do not be humble. You are being judged by your professional experience and this is where they get your complete record of it. Since Stanford generally prefers a one-page resume, my suggestion is to provide that if at all feasible. You can always provide any supplemental information in the Additional Information upload section of the application.

Please write a sentence or two about what you aspire to do after graduating from Stanford GSB. (Limit 255 characters.) 
The answer here should be consistent with whatever you are writing in Essay B.  It may simply overlap with content in Essay B or provide a bit of detail that you did not have the word count for. Obviously you cannot get much in 255 characters, so don’t worry if this is just a restatement of what is in Essay B.  As far as the answer goes, be as clear and specific as possible.
THE ESSAY IN THE APPLICATION: Give them a new perspective on you!
“More About You: Tell us about a time within the last two years when your background influenced your participation at work or school.”  (1200 characters)
Unclear why don’t call this an essay! All my admits (including 4 for the Class of 2021), certainly treated it like an essay.  However 1200 characters is about 300 words, which is essay length.  This is a behavioral question  (See my MIT interview post for a full discussion of behavioral questions).  I like this kind of question because it asks an applicant to apply something from their background to something they have done recently.  Stanford gives the following advice for this question: “We know that each person is more than a list of facts or pre-defined categories. We would like an example of how one factor in your background has had an impact on your life.” Please don’t tell a story that overlaps with the content presented els ewhere in your application and especially not with your essay content. The point of Stanford’s analysis of this question is just the opposite: Tell us about something else in your background and how it has impacted what you have done in some recent situation.  For those who have been out of school for more than two years make it work related. For those still in school or who graduated within the last two years, you can make it work related or school related, whichever suits you. Stanford has seemingly excluded extracurricular activities for the very reason that work and school are more high stakes since what you do at school or work is more likely to directly impact you. That thing your background could be a value, a lesson you learned, an activity or interest. The possibilities are endless. Whatever that background thing is, show how it impacted your participation in terms of the actions you took and/or the values you upheld.  Make sure you put time into this and don’ t write it as an afterthought.

At a Stanford presentation in Tokyo, the admissions officer emphasized that the admissions committee closely reads transcripts. While you don’t control the content at this point, you have the possibility of impacting how the transcript is interpreted. Scrutinize your own transcript. If your GPA is high, this is easy. You can relax. If on the other hand, your transcript reveals an unimpressive GPA, some very low grades, gaps in study, or anything else that concerns you, you had better figure out how to address in the Additional Information section.

Additional Information: Use it or don’t use it, but don’t abuse it.

Additional Information

If there is any information that is critical for us to know and is not captured elsewhere, include it in the "Additional Information" section of the application. Pertinent examples include:

  • Extenuating circumstances affecting academic or work performance
  • Academic experience (e.g., independent research) not noted elsewhere”
If you read the above, it should be clear enough that this is the place to explain anything negative or potentially negative in your background or to provide additional information that did not fit in the space provided elsewhere. DO NOT USE IT FOR ANY OTHER PURPOSE. Yes, you may have written a great essay for Tuck, Wharton, Harvard, Chicago, NYU, MIT, INSEAD, Columbia, or London Business School, but don’t include it here. I don’t think the categories above require interpretation as they are clear.

If you really have no explanation for something negative, don’t bother writing about it. For example, if your GPA is 2.9 and you have no good explanation for why it is 2.9, don’t bother writing something that looks like a lame excuse. This is more likely to hurt than help you. In the same vein, don’t waste the committee’s time telling them that your GMAT is a much better indicator than your GPA (the opposite is also true). They have heard it before and they will look at both scores and can draw their own conclusions without you stating the obvious. That said, if you have a good explanation for a bad GPA, you should most certainly write about it.

ALMOST EVERYONE HAS SOMETHING THEY WANT TO EXPLAIN. It might be small or it might be large, but if you don’t give your interpretation of something that may look odd in your application, why assume that someone reviewing it will interpret in a manner favorable to you?   Your objective is to always provide the admissions reader with an interpretation, especially of something you think is relatively obvious and potentially negative.

This section is important. Of course, some applicants will not have much here, while others will have a plethora of things to mention. In any case, provide the best answer you can. Use your judgment about what to include. The above instructions make it very clear that Stanford GSB is not looking for quantity. Give them quality and don’t mention anything that will show your lack of commitment: If you joined a lot of organizations for a really short time and did nothing, I don’t think that it will help you to mention it. Please keep in mind that there is no perfect applicant, just like there is no perfect human being. If you have had to work 100-plus hours a week since graduating from university and your idea of extracurricular activity is sleep, don’t assume that not having any great activities will hurt you. Admissions will evaluate your whole application. I have had the opportunity to work with great applicants who were admitted to Stanford GSB, and I can say none of them were perfect, but what they were able to do was present themselves as honestly and effectively as possible. Some had amazing extracurricular activities while others really did not have much worth mentioning.

Finally, I plea with you to give yourself enough time to do a first class job on the entire application. I can’t guarantee that doing a great job on the application form will get you into the Stanford Class of 2022, but if you make it part of your overall approach to applying, it will not hurt either.  Given the central importance of the resume to the interview process at Stanford, it is critical that you give that document the time and attention that it deserves. Getting into Stanford GSB is simply harder than getting into any other MBA program, but if it is where you want to go and if you think you fit there, commit to putting a significant amount of time into making a great application. Best of luck!

-Adam Markus
I am a graduate admissions consultant who works with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form. 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. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.

June 24, 2019

HBS Class of 2022 MBA Admissions Application

In this post, I will be analyzing the essay question and key components of the HBS Application for the Class of 2022.  In addition to discussing overall HBS application strategy and the required essay, I will discuss key parts of the application form, resume, and transcript. I also provide some advice for HBS reapplicants and  Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Dental Medicine, Harvard Law School, and Harvard Kennedy School Joint Degree Applicants and the new MS/MBA.  For my posts on recommendations, please see my Key Posts section on recommendations. For my post on HBS interviews, please see here.

My comprehensive service clients have been admitted to HBS for the Classes of 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018,  2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, and 2005. My clients’ results and testimonials can be found here. In addition to providing comprehensive application consulting on HBS, I regularly help additional candidates with HBS interview preparation.  Since I started my own counseling service in 2007, I have worked with 57 successful applicants from Canada, Europe, India, the Middle East, Japan, South Korea, other parts of Asia, and the United States on HBS application. I think that this range of experience has helped me understand the many possible ways of making an effective application to HBS. l I can tell you is that HBS takes a truly diverse range of people. Some had high GPAs and great GMAT scores, others had GPAs and scores well below the 80% range for HBS, but what they all had in common were strong personal professional backgrounds that came out in their essays.

As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program?
There is no word limit for this question. We think you know what guidance we’re going to give here. Don’t overthink, overcraft and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don’t know your world can understand.

Based on the above, you should be asking yourself: Given the question, what do HBS admissions need to know in order to offer me an interview and then admit me?  My answer would be to take a deep dive into HBS’ criteria for admission and consider how they can apply to you. You will need to take two deep dives. One into HBS and another into yourself.  HBS introduced this more open style of question for the Class of 2016.

Regarding length, most of my clients admitted to HBS have written between 800 and 1500 words with 1000-1200 being most common.   A couple of years ago, I did interview practice with someone who was admitted with an essay of almost 2000 words (I thought that essay could have used a trim, but hey the applicant was admitted, so who cares what I think!).  The key point about length is that it should be as long as you need it to be in order to convey what you think HBS needs to know to invite you for an interview and ultimately admit you.

If you are trying to understand the diverse range of essays that gets someone admitted to HBS, I do recommend  The Unofficial Harvard Business School Essay Book.  In fact, one of my clients admitted to the Class of 2016 contributed his or her essay to the first edition to it, which made me really happy.  I can’t tell you which one. I do highly recommend reading this book because it will give you a really good idea about the range of possible answers and dispel any myths about needing to submit something that is professionally written. I would also recommend the old book that contained HBS admits essays. That collection is still a good read for understanding how to put together an MBA essay though the specific questions are no longe r being asked by HBS. Such books are really great guides for someone looking to see sample successful MBA essays.

The discussion of the categories below  is all for the purpose of getting to the story or stories that will really showcase what makes you stand out as an applicant. Everyone has their own unique life story and the point is to get your reader interested in your story.  When I am working with an applicant, especially in the initial stages of writing I am actually focused on this question because I know that great applications are based on great self-marketing campaigns and the heart of such campaigns is applicant differentiation. Good differentiation will be based on good stories. Think about about the hard and interesting moments in life.   What has challenged you in your life?  How have you suffered and grown stronger? What has made you rethink your decisions or view or career?  Why do excel at what you do?  Who or what motivates you?  These are just some of the questions you need to consider.

Four Ways HBS Evaluates Applicants
My objective when working with each of my clients is to help them identify the best content in their essays, resume, interview and other application components to show fit for each school they apply to. My approach is to understand the audience that is being communicated to because the only objective of your application is to communicate effectively to your audience, the admissions committee. We can summarize what  HBS is looking for in terms of three stated values-Habit of Leadership, Analytical Aptitude and Appetite, and Engaged Community Citizenship– plus Diversity. These four core ways, which I discuss in detail below,  that HBS evaluates applicants need to be communicated in your application and one or more of them should be used in your essay. The following summarizes what HBS is looking for in terms of three stated values (Habit of Leadership, Analytical Aptitude and Appetite, and Engaged Community Citizenship) plus Diversity and t he possible places where you can demonstrate these in your initial application (Interview and post-interview not considered below):

These four core ways that HBS evaluates applicants need to be communicated in your application and one or more of them should be used in your essay.
In addition to those four elements, other possible common topics for inclusion here would be:
-Your wider post-MBA career vision that you could not explain in the 500 character answer on the Employment page. Some applicants will not touch on this topic in their essays, while others will discuss it at length.  One thing I thing I help clients figure out is to what extent they need to elaborate on their post-MBA objectives and longer term vision in this essay.  If you are strongly mission/values focused, most likely you will be discussing this in the essay.
-Why you want an MBA in general? Again, some will address this, others will not. Since there is no place in the application to indicate this otherwise, it would reasonable to explain your rationale for doing an MBA, whether you state this in general and/or terms of HBS in particular is your choice, but my bias is certainly for being HBS specific though typically brief.
-Why HBS?  I don’t think one has to necessarily write in detail about why you want to go to HBS, but providing your overall rationale for why you want to go HBS now is certainly reasonable.  If your career vision is something you are writing about and there are particular aspects of HBS that really relate to it, feel free to mention them.
For a discussion of career vision, why an MBA? or how to explain why you want to attend a particular program, see my analysis of Stanford Essay B.

Now I will discuss those four ways in detail in order to elaborate how you might utilize them in your essay:

Habit of Leadership
The mission of HBS is to educate leaders.  All my clients admitted to HBS had a diversity of educational, extracurricular, and professional backgrounds, but were united by one thing: In one or more aspects of their lives, they demonstrated this habit of leadership. HBS takes a very broad view of what they are looking for:

Leadership 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, 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.

HBS does not explicitly ask you to show your potential for leadership in your essay,  but it may very well be something you decide to write about, ask one or both of your recommenders to write about, and certainly show in your resume and application form.   Leadership is no easy thing. Nor is it always obvious. If you leadership is fully obvious from your resume and then perhaps your essay need not discuss it, but 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 a 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, one great place to read about leadership, and business in general, is Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

Some clients I have worked with have never really considered themselves as leaders. I think it is critical that if you are applying to HBS that you have  an idea about what kind of leader you are.  While there are number of ways to describe leadership, I particularly like this formulation of leadership types that INSEAD Professor Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries has used in one of his Harvard Business Review blog posts (Disclosure I am a graduate of the INSEAD Executive Masters program that he established):

I have previously suggested that applicants who are having difficulty really understanding leadership find out what kind of leader they are by taking this quiz based on Lewin’s classic framework.  While leadership  is more complicated than Lewin’s framework, the quiz is a great way to get you started thinking about yourself, a key part of answering any leadership essay question effectively. However, I think the 8 archetypes above provide a much better guide for those who both have extensive leadership experience and those who think they lack it.  Think of these 8 archetypes as aspirational images of certain kinds of leader. You may fit into more than one category. You may find you don’t feel like you are really good at any of the above in comparison to the descriptions above, but that is OK because you are trying to identify your potential even if it seems based on relatively little “objective evidence.” If leadership is not obvious from your resume or likely to be a topic your recommenders will focus on, you should certainly consider how you show your leadership potential. I have never worked with anyone who could not demonstrate potential in at least one of the categories above.
Some types of leadership experiences that make for effective content in essays, recommendations, and interviews:
-A time you convinced someone or some group.
-A time you led others.
-A time you demonstrated courage.
-A time you made a difficult decision.
-A time you were innovative.
-A time you formulated and executed a strategy or tactics.
-A time you turned around a situation, overcame an obstacle.
-A time reformed something.
-A time you changed something.
-A time you effectively negotiated with someone.
-A time created something.
-A time you managed or organized something.
-A time you mentored or coached someone.
-A time you represented an organization in public.
-A time you managed up, down, or across an organization.
Some of these are simply derived from the archetypes above, but  all reflect what I have seen in my clients’ essays over the years.

Engaged Community Citizenship

HBS and other MBA programs are looking for students who will make a contribution. This really makes sense because of the collaborative nature of MBA education. While professors play an important role in the classroom, students learn from each other on a continuous basis both inside and outside of class. An MBA education is very much one based on relationship building. One of the chief functions of an MBA admissions committee is to select people who will be good classmates. The director and the rest of the committee have done their job properly if they have selected students who can work well together, learn from each other, and if these students become alumni who value the relationships they initially formed at business school. Given that two of the major takeaways from an HBS education are the relationships that a student forms during the program and access to the alumni network, HBS is looking for candidates who will fully engage with others.  It is important to show engagem ent with others in your HBS essay, in your interview, in your post-interview essay, in your application, and/or in your resume.  You should also make it a point to get your recommenders to discuss how you add value to the team, to whatever "community" (A workplace is a community) they worked with you in.
Engagement in a community may take many different forms.  Over the years, I have found the following types of activities to be very effective for MBA applications:
-Volunteer or social activities at work, whether it is actually organizing them or participating in them.
-Volunteer or social activities at school, whether it is actually organizing them or participating in them.
-Volunteer or social activities outside of work or school, whether it is actually organizing them or participating in them.
-A volunteer activity related to your post-MBA goals
-A volunteer activity that allowed for the development of leadership and/or teamwork experience
-A volunteer activity that put you in contact with people who are quite different from you in terms of nationality, income level, and/or educational background
-An international volunteer or social activity
-Active involvement in an alumni organization
-Active participation in a sports team
-Active political involvement (Not just voting or knowledge of politics, but actual activities)
-Participation in an orchestra, band or other musical groups
-Participation in drama or dance or other types of group performance
-Organizing trips or other activities for a group of friends
-Serving as the leader, organizer, or active member of a team-based educational activity such as a seminar, project, or overseas trip
The above are just some possibilities.
Some people will no doubt worry that they lack extracurricular activities to demonstrate such community citizenship, but in my experience, there is always some way to demonstrate this. Part of my job is to help my clients identify such activities and communicate about them effectively. If you have demonstrated extensive community citizenship in your resume, you may very well not need to write about in the HBS essay, but you might still find that explaining your motivation for such activities is something you want to convey to HBS.  For those with limited objective resume content in this area, if there is an effective way to get some positive aspect of your community citizenship into the essay, do so.

HBS is a highly competitive and challenging academic environment. It is not for anyone.  "Analytical Aptitude And Appetite," what can more generally be thought of as academic potential, will be very easy for some candidates to demonstrate without ever writing an essay on the topic. You must demonstrate your analytical intelligence somewhere in your application. Yes, a solid GPA and GMAT are enough for that purpose, but if you think your academic record and GMAT are weak, I do suggest demonstrating your high analytical aptitude and appetite in your essay. Also, whether you address your analytical abilities in your essay, for most applicants, it would also be very useful to have one or more recommenders discussing this.
Some effective ways to demonstrate analytical intelligence include the following:
-Solving a complex problem at work, school, or elsewhere
-Discussing the successful completion of complex analytical tasks
-Breaking down a complex problem that you solved and communicating it a very brief and clear way
– Demonstrating great personal insight into one’s weaknesses, failures, and/or mistakes
-Showing the ability to learn from weaknesses, failures, and/or mistakes
-Showing the ability to learn and master something highly complex
-Demonstrating a high level of creativity
Those with truly outstanding academic background and test scores need to likely focus less attention on this area. If you think you have weaknesses in this area, consider how to use the essay and Additional Information section to mitigate them. The above list provides some effective ways to do that.

This overall intention to create a highly diverse class significantly impacts HBS admissions’ decisions. The critical thing is that you demonstrate why you are unique and how you will add to the diversity of the class.  In your essay, you need to show what makes you stand out. Especially if you think your academic, personal, professional, and/or extracurricular experiences are not inherently unique, it is very important that your essay demonstrates what makes you stand out.
Some ways of demonstrating diversity that my clients have used successfully include the following:
-Being the first person or kind of person to do something
-Being the youngest person to do do something
-Making an original contribution to something
-Having an unusual family, academic, personal, or professional background
-Unusual skills or talents
-Extensive international experience
-Receiving prestigious awards or scholarships
-Even post-MBA goals might be used for this purpose if your goals help to make you stand out.
Keep in mind that diversity is a matter of interpretation and presentation and it is each applicant’s responsibility to best demonstrate how they will add value to their classmates. One of my jobs as a consultant is to always help my clients identify ways that make them distinct even if they think they are not special. I operate on the assumption that everyone is unique.

So far I have discussed on topic selection.  I think it is useful to think about what makes for a good essay and in particular, I think about stories. When it comes to telling stories, I think it is most important to think about your audience.  You are not writing these essays for yourself, you are writing them to convince your audience. How to convince them?

The following grid connects the parts of an essay (the first column) to three core aspects of writing an effective essay. The table should help you see the relationship between the components of a story and what I would consider to be three major questions to ask about any story.

Essay Outline What was your role? What does it mean? Why will this essay sell them on you?
Effective answers to when, where, who, what, and how should all relate directly to your role in the situation. You are the hero or heroine of your story. Your reader should have a clear understanding of the situation. They are not reading a mystery story, a poem, or some other form of writing where withholding information will be valued. The situation needs to be one that the reader will believe, consider to be important, and hopefully be impressed by.
Action Steps:
What actions did you take?Action Step 1:
Action Step 2:
Action Step 3:
Stories break down into steps. For each step, make sure you are clear about what you did. Each action step should be meaningful and demonstrate your potential. This is the core of the story and it is important the rationale for your actions be stated as clearly as possible. Effective essays involve both description and interpretation. If you are actions are clear and their value is clear in terms of your leadership, analytical, engaged community citizenship, or unique background, you will be on a firm basis for selling your story to admissions.
Result Results should be stated as clearly as possible. Your relationship to the results should be clear. Explain the significance of results clearly. Make your results meaningful so that they will be impressive.

The grid above is based on the following assumptions, which I consider to be basic for writing effective essays:

Your reader must understand you.   Provide a clear interpretation of what you have done. Write in simple language, even about complex things. Assume your reader has a basic business background, but don’t assume any expertise. Cause-effect relationships should not be merely implied where possible. Showing your actual action steps is critical. A full explanation might be impossible because of word count, but if you tell things in sequence, it usually provides that explanation.

Your reader must believe you.  If your reader is not convinced by your story, you are dead.  I am all in favor of telling the best version of a story that you can, provided it is also believable. Bad self-marketing is frequently based on lies that can be seen through. I have met many admissions officers and while not all of them were brilliant, all the good ones had finely tuned “bullshit detectors.” If your essays have a seemingly tenuous relationship with reality, you are likely to be setting yourself up for a ding.

Your reader must be engaged.  If a reader does not become interested in what they reading, there is a problem.  The problem may be that the essay is simply generic or it might be the way a story is being told is boring or it maybe a lack of passion in the writing.  Whatever the case, it needs fixing.  One of my roles as a consultant is to coach my clients on writing essays that will be engaging.

You must sell your reader on your high potential for admission. Great essays don't just need to be believable and interesting, they have to be convincing. You are trying to get admissions to take a specific action after they read your file: admit you or invite you for an interview. Thus, essays must convince them to take action, they have to see why you should be admitted.  I help my understand how to do this and give very specific advice on how to do so.
Your reader should be interpreting your essay the way you intend.  In writing, there is always room for misinterpretation.  If you have not effectively interpreted yourself, there is always the possibility that your reader will draw opposite conclusions from what you intended.  I help my clients make sure that they understand and correct for all such negative interpretations.

And finally…
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 mediocrities.  If you can’t show the potential for that now, when will you?
HBS REAPPLICANTS: Reapplication as a topic in the Essay
If you are a reapplying to HBS, I do recommend addressing that issue either in the essay or, if you only need a brief amount of  words, in the Additional Information section (see below). If you are reapplicant, please see here.  It is usually the case that one tries to show growth since the last application. Whatever form(s) this growth takes, you might need a brief amount of word count or significant word count.  Common topics:
1. Changes in career goals since the previous application. Feel free to alter your goals, just explain why.
2. Why you are a better candidate now. This could be everything from a career change to increased GMAT scores to improved English ability to taking courses to overcome an academic weakness to a valuable extracurricular activity.
3. Why you have a better understanding of how you will use an MBA education from HBS.  This could be based on learning more about the school and talking with current students and alumni and then show how the program will really help you.
If you only use the Additional Information section (See below) to discuss reapplication  I know 500 characters (not words!) is not much, so use the 500 characters here to highlight positive changes that you especially want HBS to take into consideration when evaluating you. On the other hand, I think it is perfectly fine to address reapplication in the main essay, which is a change from last year (Class of 2018) when the question made the topic of reapplication hard to fit into the essay.
For more about reapplication, please see the Reapplication section of my Key Posts page.
Joint program applicants for the Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Dental Medicine, Harvard Law School, and Harvard Kennedy School must provide an additional essay: How do you expect the joint degree experience to benefit you on both a professional and a personal level? (400 words)
Essay Question: The MS/MBA program is focused on design, innovation, and entrepreneurship within a technical/engineering context. Describe your past experiences in these areas and your reasons for pursuing a program with this focus.
(Recommended: 500 words)
While I am providing advice on this topic, I should say from the outset that my experience is limited to Harvard Kennedy School as I don’t handle Medical School, Dental School, or JD admissions.  Beginning this year,  HBS and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) now offer a joint degree program so this will be the first year for this program.  I will begin first with the HKS question and then address the new SEAS version
HKS Joint Degree: How do you expect the joint degree experience to benefit you on both a professional and a personal level? (400 words)
My clients admitted to HKS have include both those admitted to the Joint HBS/HKS program and  Wharton/HKS Dual Degree program. I have also worked with applicants who were applying only to HKS and for MBA.  In 2016, I had the pleasure of attending a half-day workshop for my fellow consultants and myself that was hosted by HKS.  Frankly, HKS offers a level of advice and insight into their application process beyond that of any other graduate program that I am aware of. HKS’ Matt Clemons (Director, Admissions
Enrollment Services, Degree Programs) is a really open and genuinely nice guy who provides great advice to applicants, which can be found at http://hksadmissionblog.tumblr.com/ and is required reading for anyone applying to HKS.
The key challenge of writing this essay is to not duplicate what you write in the HBS essay.  You might refer to doing the Joint Degree in the main HBS essay, but really don’t do more than that. Use this essay to explain the synergy that will be gained from doing both degrees. The professional part seems obvious enough (What skills will you gain? What network will you gain? How will it help you with your career objectives?) but the personal part sometimes confounds my clients. I tell them to think about it terms of the perspectives they will gain and from the opportunity to be enriched by a much range of ideas but also by the fact that those who do the HKS Joint Degree are their own tribe and establish close relationships in a very different classroom atmosphere than is offered by HBS. I encourage my clients who apply for this degree to talk with alumni and current students from the program in order to gain these kind of personal insights.
It is important that you well align the content of your Joint Degree Essay, HBS essay, and HKS essays for your own sanity but do keep in mind that your admission to these programs is separate and each program has own its admissions.
At least for HKS, I don’t believe that applying for the Joint Degree has any significant impact on whether one is admitted to HBS, at least I have never seen anything indicating this.  Which is to say that I don’t think applying for the Joint Degree improves or decreases ones chance of admission.
SEAS Joint Degree: The MS/MBA program is focused on design, innovation, and entrepreneurship within a technical/engineering context. Describe your past experiences in these areas and your reasons for pursuing a program with this focus.
HBS is finally copying another (aka FIELD) part of MIT Sloan (in this case LGO) as well as Kellogg’s MMM, which are clearly the closest comparable  2 year programs to this new MS/MBA.   Of course, it has long been possible to do a joint MBA/MS  in Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, or Environment and Resources at Stanford GSB, but that takes 3 years.  Something that is different from the HKS process is that the entire process for the MS/MBA is handled through one R1 or R2 application to HBS. Candidates can be admitted to both programs or only to the MBA but not admitted to the MS alone. Keep in mind that your overall personal background should be in the main HBS MBA essay and not here. Make sure you effectively aligh the MBA essay, the SEAS essay, and the 500 character goals statement so that they support and don’t overly duplicate each other, though some overlap (see below) is inevitable. The SEAS essay consists of two parts:
  1. Discuss past experiences with design innovation, and/or entrepreneurship within a technical engineering content. If you don’t have any past professional, academic, or other experience in any of these areas, the program is not for you.  Assume that you should be spending at least half if not more of the essay providing an analysis of those experiences. Your resume and application form should back-up what you write about in the essay. My suggestion would be to highlight 2-4 specific ways your past experience demonstrates your fit for the program.
  2. Discuss reasons for pursing the program. The reasons would relate directly to your post-MBA objectives, so there should be some inherent overlap between this essay and what you write in the 500 character goals statement (see below regarding that). You should certainly justify why the program is right for you based on what you can read about on the program website.   I would also suggest reading a Q&A with the program’s co-chair. When explaining why you want to attend a program, do not just make a series of dumb lists of classes or tell the program about itself, but explains what you want form the program.   You need not mention the names of particular courses as long as it would be clear to your reader that your learning needs align well with curriculum .  If you have a particular interest in a more specialized course or studying with a particular professor, it might be worth mentioning it as long as it is an explanation of why you want to study the subject and not based on circular reasoning;
     An example of circular (tautological) reasoning:  “I want to take Integrated Design  because I am interested in learning about integrated design.”This kind of circular reasoning is so common. Usually, it takes place within a paragraph consisting of many such sentences. They actually convey nothing about the applicant.  They are just abstract needs and will have limited impact on your reader.  The admissions reader wants to learn about you, not about their own program.
     An example of an explanation for why:  “While I have been exposed to some user design issues,  I presently lack the kind of comprehensive understanding of design issues that are critical to my future goals….”  A complete explanation would include additional details about the kind of issues that the applicant is interested in learning about and/or specific ways the applicant intended to apply what he or she would learn at Harvard to those goals.  By focusing on very specific learning needs and explaining those needs in relationship to one’s goals and/or past experience, the admissions reader will be learning about you.

“Instructions: Please provide a current resume or CV.  Ideally, this would be about 1-2 pages in length and include dates and locations of your employment.”
The resume has always been an important part of any HBS application.  You can find a resume template I have linked to on my blog here.  That resume template can also simply serve as a checklist for what to include.  While many schools prefer a one-page resume, HBS really does not care.  Depending on a client’s background, I will recommend 1 or 2 pages.  I think it best to think of a resume as a record of accomplishment. If you have sufficient accomplishments, 2 pages is fine.  Some applicants try to a use an MBA student’s recruitment resume format as the basis for their own resume, but I generally don’t consider this a good idea as such resumes serve a very different purpose.  An MBA resume should really designed to focus on you overall, that is your academic, professional, and personal accomplishments and key facts. A recruiting resume is meant for a different kind of audience, recruiters, and typically focuses on a much more narrow range of information.

When I first start working comprehensively with any client, whether they are applying to HBS or not, I always start with the resume for a couple of reasons:
1.  It is a great way for any applicant to summarize the most important information about them and  their accomplishments. It sometimes helps applicants actually remind themselves of what they have done.
2.  For me, it is a way I learn about a client so that I can better understand their background.
One key thing to remember about what you include on your resume:  Anything that is there, just like any component of the application, may become the basis for a HBS interview question. Therefore if you don’t want to talk about it and don’t need to write about it, leave it off the resume.

 There is also an Employment Section of the application that provides space for you to discuss three positions in detail including providing  brief descriptions of your professional accomplishments and challenges.  To some extent this information will overlap with the resume. This is nothing to worry about. That said the challenge question (“Most Significant Challenge” 250 characters) in particular is very possibly something you would not be covering in your resume. Stanford has a similar detailed employment section in their application, which they seriously.  I assume  HBS does as well, so  just as with the resume, make sure your answers in the application are as effective as possible. Don’t treat it like some form you do at the last minute.

First, keep in mind that admissions officers read transcripts and are trained to know what they are reading. They don’t just look at GPA   (If your school calculates it).  If there is something really bad on your transcript (a fail, a withdrawal, etc) or odd, you really do want to explain it in the 500 character (not word) Additional Section. If is just a C and you have no specific excuse, don’t bother trying to explain it.  If your academic performance varied greatly from year to year (or semester to semester), was there a reason for it?  Is it one that you want to provide? I don’t recommend discussing how you became depressed after your boy/girlfriend broke up with you, but if, for example, you were taking a major leadership position in a student organization, running a start-up, working a lot to pay for school,  doing major research, experienced a major illness or misfortune,  or playing a varsity sport, you do have a topic worth discussing. Finally,� �If your transcript,  GMAT/GRE, or resume don’t indicate that you have solid quantitative skills, you should explain why you do if you can. The proper place to provide that explanation is in the additional section or the essay.

“Instructions: List up to three extracurricular activities in order of importance to you (i.e., list the most important first). Please tell us about the things you do or have done while not at work or in class. Include other activities, like community service, here as well. Please limit this to three activities, but don’t worry if you don’t have a list of three. 
We use this section mostly to get a sense of the leadership roles and activities that attract you. If there are additional activities you wish to tell us about, please include them on your resume/CV.”

Given HBS’ instructions on this, I do highly recommend including your best extracurricular activities that showcase your leadership (primary) and community engagement (secondary) and/or unique experiences/interests (tertiary). If you have done nothing impressive extracurricular-wise after graduating and have 3 good activities from university, feel free to just use use this section for those activities. If you did nothing but study during college or university and really have no activities, hopefully you have three post-college things to include.  If you have any activities that are directly relevant to your professional goals or to your personal story and you really want to emphasize them, use this space accordingly. While I would surely emphasize the most impressive activities in terms of leadership or community engagement, if you need to focus on personal interests that were not group focused (running for example) because you simply don’t anything better, put it here.  Activities that show you are well-rounded, civically engaged, artistic, athletic are all possibilities here.

Keep in mind that extracurricular activities can (and usually should)  also be fully accounted for on the resume and given the fact that you can submit a two-page resume, there is no reason that can’t account for an activity.  Also, if you are not using the space for anything else, the 500 character additional information section could be used for elaborating on anything you consider really important, but could not include in this section or in the resume.

Instructions: List any distinctions, honors, and awards (academic, military, extracurricular, professional, community) in order of importance to you (i.e., list the most important first). You may list up to three awards.”

For some applicants this section is really easy to fill out because they have won a number of awards, distinctions, or honors and just need to prioritize them. Other candidates will freak out about this section because they never won anything that they think fits.  While, it is sometimes really the case that I will have perfectly great applicant who has nothing to report in this section, most applicants are actually likely to have something.  HBS is not asking you a narrow question here, so think broadly.  It is possible that this section will overlap with the resume, employment, essay, or extracurricular section of the application.


500 characters remaining
You don’t have to perfect post-MBA plan, but you need to have a plan. You most likely will spend more time thinking about what you are going to write here than writing it. I think it is fine to include the longer term here if it helps to explain the rationale for your short-term objectives. Keep in mind that your wider vision is a perfectly acceptable topic to discuss in the essay (if you think it will really help your section mates understand who you are) and not in this space. Also, since this question does not ask about HBS, you should not necessarily include any why HBS content here. If you are having difficulty with your career goals, see my analysis of Stanford Essay B for a method for thinking about goals.  I frequently work with my clients on their goals.

“Please share additional information here if you need to clarify any information provided in the other sections of your application. This is not meant to be used as an additional essay. Please limit your additional information to the space in this section.
We know you’ll be tempted, but please don’t send us any additional materials (e.g., additional recommendations, work portfolios). To be fair to all applicants, extra materials won’t be considered.”
Use this space of 500 CHARACTERS (NOT WORDS!)  to explain anything that can be effectively explained in the space provided. 500 characters is about 100-125 words. This is a great place to explain your choice of recommenders, a problem in your past, or to add in information about something you really think HBS needs to know. It is completely fine to leave this space blank if you have nothing you need to add.  See above in this post for using the additional section if you are a reapplicant to HBS.

Best of luck to everyone applying to HBS.

-Adam Markus
I am a graduate admissions consultant who works with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form. 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. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.
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