Harvard Business School Essays for 2012-2013

Last week Harvard Business School released its admissions essays and deadlines for the 2012-2013 application season. What’s new? This year’s HBS application includes fewer essays… Just two required ones this year, although you will now have to do a fast-turnaround essay AFTER your admissions interview!

Here are Harvard’s essays for the Class of 2015, followed by our comments in italics:

HBS Application Essays

  1. Tell us about something you did well. (400 words)

    It looks like MBA admissions essays are going on a diet this year. Two years ago, this question asked, “What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such?” and last year it asked, “Tell us about three of your accomplishments.” Now, HBS is basically saying (in our own words), “Cut the bull. What’s the one thing you want us to remember about your brief career to date?” Notice how we said that: “your BRIEF CAREER”… Remember that you’re still young, and the HBS admissions committee knows this. You may not have already led a department of dozens or structured multi-million dollar deals… That’s perfectly fine. Also, we put the emphasis on CAREER since this example will ideally come from your work experience. This is not mandatory, but, all things being equal, we would urge you to go with your professional example. In previous years, you had the ability to pick three stories that highlighted different aspects of your profile: leadership, teamwork, maturity, analytical abilities, etc. Now, you need to be choosier. Of course, one story can (and even should) convey more than one of these attributes, but avoid the temptation to cram too much into this story. Focus on something you truly did well, explain why it was a challenge, show what you did, and then don’t be afraid to brag a bit about your results.
  2. Tell us about something you wish you had done better. (400 words)

    Another example of HBS slimming down its essays. Last year this essay prompt was, “Tell us three setbacks you have faced.” There is an interesting change here… While last year’s question was often referred to as a “failure question,” one could (and many did) interpret “setback” to mean something that an applicant had to overcome, but wasn’t necessarily his fault. As an example, a setback could be a college athlete who suffered a horrible knee injury, and had to work his way back to being able to play sports again. But, now HBS asks more explicitly about “something you wish you had done better”… In other words, we’re really talking about failures this year. In either case, your mission is to show introspection (What did you learn?) and a motivation for self-improvement (How did you use what you learned to better yourself and avoid that mistake again?). A great work-related story can be powerful here, but remember to look for experiences in all aspects of your life. Your richest story may very well come from outside your job.
  3. Joint degree applicants: How do you expect the joint degree experience to benefit you on both a professional and a personal level? (400 words)

    This question carries over unchanged from last year, and so our advice remains the same. Applicants to joint degree programs often have a hard time articulating why exactly they need multiple degrees. Harvard wants to see that you “get” what the joint degree (no matter what combination it is) will do for you, particularly when it comes to how it will help you reach your career goals. Interesting that HBS also includes the “and a personal level” part… We normally see applicants fall short on the “professional level” side of the story, since they can’t explain why a joint degree is necessary for their career goals. On the personal side, our advice is avoid going overboard with high-minded language. You really do need to nail the professional side of the story, first and foremost. Think of that as the “bones” of this essay, and your personal values and goals as the “flesh.”

Interestingly, while it’s not an essay that you will submit with the above ones, there is actually one more written piece you will submit after you interview with HBS, if you make it that far. Harvard calls it the “Post-Interview Reflection,” and it gives you a chance to include anything you wish you had been able to mention in the interview, and to reframe anything that you discussed but have since thought about a bit more. You will submit this piece within 24 hours of your interview. While many of these changes are framed as Harvard’s way of making the application process less stressful for applicants overall, this deadline is pretty tight! (And note that this essay is not optional… it’s required.)

This is understandable, since HBS needs to keep moving on your application, but we partly wonder if this is also an attempt on Harvard’s part to try to minimize the amount of coaching an applicant can receive before submitting this essay. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds in the coming admissions season!

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