A soldier who served on the front lines in Afghanistan. A process engineer challenged by a long series of early failures. And a female consultant whose passion became healthcare.
Three MBA applicants to Harvard Business School last year. Three students in the newest crop of MBA students at Harvard this fall. All of them answered the question now being asked of 2017-2018 applicants to Harvard: 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?
The school provides minimal guidance for applicants trying to make an impression. “There is no word limit for this question,” advises HBS admissions. “We think you know what guidance we’re going to give here. Don’t over think, overcraft and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don’t know your world can understand.”
Each of the three applicants above wrote a clear and compelling essay in their applications, essays that Poets&Quants is reprinting with permission from the MBA Essay Guide Summer 2017 Edition recently published by The Harbus, the MBA student newspaper at Harvard Business School. The guide contains 39 essays written by successful candidates who are now starting the MBA program at HBS. Proceeds from the sale of the guidebook go to benefit the non-profit foundation that supports The Harbus.
With application deadlines rapidly approaching at Harvard Business School and many other prestige MBA programs, these successful essays will, no doubt, give current candidates a bit of guidance. More importantly, the essays that follow are most likely to provide comfort, that there is no formula or singular way to craft a successful answer.
THREE SUCCESSFUL ESSAYS. THREE VERY DIFFERENT APPROACHES.
The latest edition of the MBA Essay Guide from The Harbus costs $61.49
In his 1,130-word essay, the U.S. Army applicant ties together his experiences of leading soldiers on the front line in Afghanistan together with staff postings in Army operations and logistics to paint a portrait of a dedicated and people-oriented leader.
Inspired by a selfless act from her nine-year-old mentee, this management consultant decided to challenge herself to make an impact in healthcare. In a 937-word essay, she uses a particularly difficult turnaround situation which she was put in charge of as exemplifying her strongest skills: building relationships and uniting people around a common goal.
In a 1,358-essay, a process engineer opens up to a long series of failures in his early life. By showing both vulnerability and honesty, he is able to transform this list of fruitless endeavors into a credible “badge of honor,” evidence of his resilience, determination and strength of character. It quickly becomes apparent that what appeared to be failures in the first half, actually proved to be successes or openings for new opportunities, given enough time and perseverance.
ONE APPLICANT DID 25 DRAFTS BEFORE COMING UP WITH ONE SHE LIKED ENOUGH TO SUBMIT
Behind every MBA application is a person and a story, and in this trio of representative essays the approaches taken by each candidate is as different as the essays they submitted to the admissions committee at HBS.
The engineer went through took eight drafts over two months. “I thought about what personal traits I wanted to share with the ADCOM and identified stories from my past that identified those traits,” he explains. “After two or three drafts, I’d figured out the right narrative and kept refining it, taking as much as a week to finalize each draft. My best advice is to be honest, start early, and have someone who knows what the ADCOMS are looking for to read through a couple of your drafts and give you pointers.”
The consultant estimates that she went through 25 drafts to get to her final version. “I think the most important thing with the essay is to iterate,” she advises. “Because the question is so open-ended, it is important to reflect as much as possible and give yourself the time (in my case two months) to go on the journey necessary to realize what you care most about communicating and how to do so in the most effective way. I also cannot overstate the importance of finding someone who will give you honest feedback.
(See on the following pages the complete and full MBA essays submitted to Harvard Business School)
HBS students at graduation
On March 22, Max Wibaux made a quiet exit from his office in Kansas City just before noon EST. He drove the five minutes to his apartment, rushed to his computer and then sat briefly paralzyed in front of the screen, desperately wanting to know if Harvard Business School would admit him and not so desperately wanting to know if it didn’t.
Wibaux, marketing manager for Russell Stover chocolates, had invested a lot of time and energy in the decision. By his own estimate, the 30-year-old native of France spent nearly 50 hours over two to three months on as many as 30 drafts of his HBS essay. He also wrote essays for Stanford GSB, Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, and INSEAD.
“I had gone home at lunch time because I knew the posting would go up at noon on the dot,” he recalls. “So I went home, turned on my computer and stared at it for a number of minutes until I watched the clock roll past 12. I was so hesitant to push the button to see what my status was. I finally clicked on it and then jumped up and down.”
THE HARDEST PART OF HIS HBS ADMIT? KEEPING QUIET THAT AFTERNOON IN THE OFFICE
The latest edition of the MBA Essay Guide from The Harbus costs $61.49
He spent the next hour at home, relaying the good news of his HBS acceptance to family and friends. The hardest part of the experience was returning to his office that afternoon, with the widest grin he ever wore on his face, and not sharing the news with anyone other than his boss and his second recommender, the only two people at his employer who knew he had applied to Harvard’s MBA program.
Wibaux will start the MBA program on Aug. 28, but since his acceptance into HBS, he has been involved in a rather unique exercise: Reviewing the essays of recently successful applicants to HBS for inclusion in the just published summer 2017 edition of the MBA Essay Guide from The Harbus, the MBA student newspaper at Harvard.
At first, Wibaux merely volunteered to share his own essay. But when the newspaper’s leadership team found out that Wibaux boasts nearly 10 years of Brand Management experience working for GlaxoSmithKline, L’Oreal, Reckitt Benckiser, and Lindt & Sprüngli, he was drafted as the new product manager for The Harbus.
29 ESSAYS FROM 29 NEWLY ADMITTED STUDENTS TO HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL
His conclusion from reading nearly 50 essays, 29 of which are included in the new guidebook? “It would have taken a lot of the nervousness out of the process to see the wide range of essays out there,” says Wibaux. I was going off the premise that I just wanted to do my own thing. The reason why I went through so many iterations is I didn’t know what I was up against. I think I could have cut by drafts in two.”
The 29 submissions in the new guidebook, available for downloading at just over $60, are just a small fraction of all the 941 essays written by successful candidates who will become students at HBS by months’ end, of course. But they are representative of a wildly diverse student body from all walks of life, all industries, functions and geographies, and all ways of thinking. They come from HBS-bound applicants in Pakistan, India, the Ivory coast, Zimbabwe, and Egypt, among other places. They were written by people who worked in oil and gas, healthcare, nuclear engineering, transportation and community service, not merely consultants and financiers. The stories vary greatly as well, from a student who delivers a first-hand account of how it feels to run a triathlon to another who candidly describes a serious bout of depression that led to suicidal thoughts.
Ultimately, the real benefit of the guide is not that it will teach future applicants how to expertly craft the perfect HBS essay that will gain them an admit. Instead, like Wibaux himself learned, you may not have to be nearly as fussy as you think when answering the HBS prompt “what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program?”
‘YOU CAN HAVE A KILLER ESSAY BUT GET REJECTED IF YOUR APPLICATION IS WEAK’
Incoming HBS student Max Wibaux
That’s because this inside peek at winning essays will allow you to read well-crafted writing worthy of The New Yorker as well as fairly unremarkable essays that could have been written for a college freshmen intro class. What you can’t know is how important these essays were in Harvard’s admission decisions.
“It has been said over and over again that the essay is just one component,” concedes Wibaux. “So yes you can have a killer essay but if the application is weak, it won’t make a difference. Or conversely you can have a bad essay but still get in. Even so, it’s the only chance for you to get your story across in a way that is not formatted by the admissions committee. It is one of the few pieces in there that is truly in your own voice. It is purely you.”
Some of the successful applicants who forked over their essays to The Harbus make even Wibaux look like a piker for his 25 to 30 drafts. Almost all the essays in the book are the result of days, if not weeks, of work and multiple iterations. One 2+2 candidate from Canada, who had worked as a consultant, claims to have powered through 75 versions of the essay over a period of 50 to 60 solid hours of effort. The French Canadian even consulted a a psychologist to help him write his 963 words with with deep introspection.
A SUCCESSFUL INDIAN APPLICANT OFFERS SOME KEY TAKEAWAYS
Not surprisingly, many were highly methodical in their approach. A successful round one applicant from India who applied to Harvard, Stanford, Wharton and Chicago Booth say she started thinking about his esays in June. “I laid out my entire life on a linear storyline and starting hunting for defining moments that I could talk about,” he explains. On Stanford’s iconic “what matters most to you and why” prompt, he invested three to four weeks and did eight to ten iternations. On his HBS essay, he spent four to six weeks, with as many as a dozen drafts.
Starting Harvard’s MBA program later this month, he shares key takeaways:
- Spend adequate time brainstorming for defining moments and discuss them with someone who knows you really well
- Adopt a simple writing style, with short sentences and cause-effect relations clearly laid out. Run a grammar/text bloat test towards the end.
- Don’t read into the feedback you get from your reviewers too much. Often times feedback will be contradictory. Go with what you think is best.
- Wrap up the essays at least two weeks before submission and lay primary emphasis on other elements of your application – CV, referrals, short responses.
- Take time to discuss your application with your recommenders and prime them with interesting instances they can talk about while writing you referrals.