Harvard Business School (HBS) recently released its essay question for the 2016–2017 application season, and the prompt is so open-ended that it is bound to puzzle some applicants:
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? (no word limit)
This broad question may leave you asking yourself, “Where do I even start?” So we wanted to offer a few tips for framing your thoughts and getting to work on your first draft.
Express Your Values: Before you start writing, consider for a moment what information the admissions committee already has about you via the other parts of your application. This includes your resume, GPA, GMAT score, recommendations, and some personal history provided in your responses to the short-answer questions. This information is either “black and white” or consists of someone else’s impression of you. This essay is your opportunity to add your own personal “color” and voice to your application. Your goal is not to show off your writing abilities, however, but to share your experiences so that they demonstrate who you are as a person, revealing what inspires and motivates you. In other words, this essay relies on your experience as a vehicle to communicate your values. If you simply lump a variety of anecdotes together and try to foist a theme upon your admissions reader, you will miss the mark. But if you are truly thoughtful about who you are as a person and can speak to a sincere thread that runs through your experiences (or can be powerfully exemplified by a single experience) and that motivates or excites you, you should be on the right track.
Stay Away from “Type”: The enemy of sincerity is “type.” If you believe the admissions committee wants something particular from you or for you to be a specific kind of individual and you strive to portray yourself that way in your essay, you will very likely fail this exercise. If, for example, you write explicitly about “leadership” or offer a number of unsubtle hints that you would master the case method, the admissions committee will recognize the pandering and will be neither fooled nor impressed. The HBS environment is diverse—the admissions committee is not interested in selecting 900-plus individuals who will all bring the same qualities to campus and make identical contributions. So relinquish your belief that HBS is looking for certain themes or profiles in this essay, because it is not. The admissions committee wants to learn about you as an individual—whoever you may be—so return to point one and think about your values.
Recognize This Is Not a Career Goals Essay: For the vast (and we do mean vast!) majority of applicants, this essay is not the place to discuss career goals. If you work in private equity and plan to return to private equity after graduating, this would not be a worthwhile topic for your essay, largely because it would not provide any novel information to better illuminate who you are as an individual. However, if your goals are part of a journey that clearly relates to or expresses your values or if they elucidate an otherwise unclear connection between your past and your business school aspirations, then you might be an exception. For example, a medic at a bush hospital in Uganda who dreams of commercializing low-cost technologies to fight infectious diseases would likely be well served discussing his journey to HBS via this essay. Doing so would clarify this candidate’s path and reveal something critical—something “more”—that the committee could use in evaluating the applicant’s candidacy.
Avoid Writing Your Biography: Although we see absolutely nothing wrong with taking a biographical approach to this essay, this essay cannot be a biography! This means you can discuss your family history and how it has influenced you and shaped your values, but you simply do not have enough space to discuss your entire personal history, and more importantly, it is not relevant. If some interesting and clearly significant inflection points in your life have shaped who you are today, these could make good essay fodder, but you must focus on conveying the why and how of their profound impact on you and filter out everything else in between. The admissions committee wants to learn “more” about you—not everything.
Do Not Rehash Your Resume: Just because HBS is a business school, you do not need to offer a detailed discussion of your professional experience to date. In fact, many successful applicants will not discuss their past career at all. That said, the topic is not entirely off-limits. If you feel that detailing some aspect of your professional life is the ideal way to offer more about you and your values, then you can explore this approach more deeply. On the other hand, we would not recommend simply describing a work accomplishment with no connection to a central theme or purpose. Your resume or recommendations should do the trick as far as informing the admissions committee about a core professional achievement, but if a particular element of or achievement in your professional life truly strikes at the heart of who you are as a person, this could be a fitting topic for your essay. Just make sure that at its core, the story you share serves as a manifestation of who you are, rather than what you have done.
Consider Word Count: HBS offers no word count guidance for this essay, so we will. In the past few years, ever since the school first eliminated its word count limitation, we have advised many successful applicants who submitted essays in the 750- to 1,250-word range. Although we acknowledge that some candidates who exceeded that top limit were accepted into the HBS program, we feel confident that this is a comfortable and appropriate range, whereby you should be able to fully share your thoughts without demanding an inordinate amount of the admissions reader’s time. Be aware that if you submit 2,500 words, you are asking a very busy person to dedicate more time to your essay than to others, so you need to be confident that in the end, he or she would feel that this was time well spent. Again, we recommend 750–1,250 words as your target. Focus first on writing an essay that showcases your personality and experiences, and if it ultimately exceeds that range, do what is necessary to reduce your verbiage without sacrificing effectiveness.
Make Sure You Are Offering More: In its prompt, HBS very specifically asks for more information about you, so by the time you are finessing your final draft, you will hopefully be able to conclusively determine whether you are truly providing the admissions committee with additional useful information. Applicants tend to write, revise, and revise again until they ultimately lose the forest for the trees. Before you press “submit,” step away from your essay for a while so you can return to it later with fresh eyes and evaluate it more objectively. You could also share it with someone who knows you well and ask that person whether it truly illuminates your personality and experience. More is critical, but more of the same is a recipe for disaster!
Author Jeremy Shinewald is the founder and president of mbaMission, a leading MBA admissions consulting firm.
One element of MBA application essays that can be challenging—no matter how skilled the applicants are as writers—is staying within word limits. Sometimes, cutting just a few words is all that is needed to avoid exceeding the maximum. However, after looking at a draft multiple times, identifying the opportunities to do this can be difficult. Here are a few common phrases that can be shortened without negatively affecting a sentence’s meaning and that in many cases may even improve the text:
- be able to
Replacing variations of “be able to” with simply “can” in the present tense or “will” in future tense constructions can easily save you two or three words.
Because of my strong organizational skills, I am able to accomplish more work in less time. (16 words)
*Because of my strong organizational skills, I can accomplish more work in less time. (14 words)
With this latest round of funding, my venture will be able to expand into new districts. (16 words)
*With this latest round of funding, my venture will expand into new districts. (13 words)
- decided to
If something you mention occurred because of a decision you or someone else made, you can bypass discussing the decision part of the process and focus exclusively on describing the resulting action. Avoid using “decided to” and make your action verb the primary verb of your statement.
Once I saw the numbers, I decided to call a meeting. (11 words)
*Once I saw the numbers, I called a meeting. (9 words)
My supervisor decided to promote me first. (7 words)
*My supervisor promoted me first. (5 words)
- despite the fact that
This wordy phrase can and should be replaced with simply “even though.”
I was passed over for the promotion despite the fact that I had committed more hours to the project. (19 words)
*I was passed over for the promotion even though I had committed more hours to the project. (17 words)
- in order to/in order for
Very simply, “in order” adds nothing to the clarity or meaning of the phrase that follows it. Use just “to” or “for,” as appropriate.
We had to wake up three hours early in order to get to the site on time. (17 words)
*We had to wake up three hours early to get to the site on time. (15 words)
I knew that in order for my team to stay on budget, we needed to find a new distributor. (19 words)
*I knew that for my team to stay on budget, we needed to find a new distributor. (17 words)
- prior to/in advance of
When discussing something that occurs ahead of something else, simply use “before.” “Prior to” and “in advance of” confer no special or additional meaning and can sound affected, in addition to being wordy.
The club officers contacted all the contracted sponsors in advance of the conference. (13 words)
*The club officers contacted all the contracted sponsors before the conference. (11 words)
These simple changes can tighten your writing and save you a few words—sometimes, that is all you need!