Crafting a well-written essay for your MBA application is a daunting exercise for most applicants. After all, if you’re applying to a highly selective business school, the admissions staff is typically looking for a reason to ding you. An essay that reveals any weakness in your candidacy could quickly put you in the reject pile.
So what does a successful essay to a top business school look like? For the past two years, The Harbus, the MBA student newspaper at Harvard Business School, has collected and published essays from successful applicants now enrolled as students at the school. What those collections clearly show is that an essay doesn’t have to be a masterpiece to get you an invite to attend Harvard. “They just need to serviceably present your story and not be annoying of odd or offensive or confusing,” says Sandy Kreisberg, founder of HBSGuru.com, the MBA admissions consultant.
The new 51-page essay guide costs $49.99, the proceeds of which go to support the non-profit Harbus Foundation. It contains 16 essays written by students admitted to Harvard’s Class of 2017. For just $20 more, The Harbus will toss in last year’s essay guide which includes an additional 23 essays. You can buy them here. Unlike much of the drivel written about how to write an MBA essay, the advice and the essays come from incoming HBS students who are willing to share the questions they were asked and the essays they wrote.
NO PAINT-BY-NUMBER APPROACH FOLLOWED BY SUCCESSFUL MBA APPLICANTS TO HARVARD
The new essay guide includes 16 successful essays written by this year’s incoming HBS students
Of course, one issue with these essays is that they address a different question asked by the school’s admissions staff. In the past two years, HBS used this prompt: “You’re applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your resume, school transcripts, extra-curricular activities, awards, post-MBA career goals, test scores and what your recommenders have to say about you. What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?”
All the essays published in both books address that question rather than the 2015-2016 prompt to introduce yourself to your classmates. The big difference between the two questions is the audience. Last year, applicants addressed the admissions committee. This year, they need to address their own peers. The actual content may or may not be all that different which makes these essays valuable and worthwhile.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO WRITE LIKE MALCOLM GLADWELL TO GET ACCEPTED INTO HBS
What you can’t do, of course, is crib from an existing essay. That is the quickest route to rejection. As Kreisberg points out, reading and even studying the essays of those who have made the cut “can loosen you up, show you some useable gimmicks, and prove that you do not need some extensive career road map and belabored rap on why HBS.”
The four samples that follow from the past two years, reprinted here with the permission of The Harbus, may well surprise you. In most cases, content trumps style. Admissions staffers aren’t expecting master storytellers. After all, the Harvard Business School (or any other business school for that matter), does not enroll the likes of a Malcolm Gladwell or a Stephen King.
That doesn’t mean they didn’t take real effort. One MBA student says she labored over 15 drafts that consumed something like 50 hours of time to do her 703-word essay. “It was like six hours on the first eight drafts, then probably just one hour of tweaking on each of the next seven drafts,” she confides. Another says her HBS application 895-word essay was “a work in progress for two months. Wrote it, edited it, let it sit, edited it again, etc. I would say (I wrote) five drafts and (took) 20 hours.“
The greatest benefit of reading these samples? They’ll take a lot of pressure off of you because, although we picked some of the best examples to guide you through the process of doing your own essays, they are quite imperfect.
DON’T MISS: WINNING ESSAYS OF HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL STUDENTS or BEFORE YOU WRITE THAT HBS ESSAY….DO’S & DON’TS
Essays are an incredibly important part of the application process, says Stacy Blackman, an MBA admissions consultant. Seemingly straightforward questions require a great deal of introspection. Make sure you budget time to draft and redraft, try new approaches and carefully edit so that each line packs the maximum punch
1 As soon as you know that you are going to apply to business school, you can start to prepare in a low-stress way. Keep a notebook and jot down anything interesting that comes to mind. An inspiring lecture, a disappointing performance review, an enlightening conversation with a friend, a travel experience, running a marathon, a stimulating book—all of these can be terrific material for your essays. Don't agonise over whether it will make a great topic, just jot it down. You will find that you quickly have a plethora of material to choose from.
2 As you begin to approach essay-writing time, consider putting together a “brag sheet”. Write down all of the things about you that would not necessarily appear on a résumé: languages you speak, all extracurricular involvements, family traditions and more. This can also be mined for essay content.
3 Once you have the essay questions in hand, there may still be a few stumpers. Even with lots of content, when you are faced with answering a question such as “What matters most to you?” it is difficult to decide. Here is an exercise that stops you from over-thinking: set your alarm clock for 3am. When you wake up, ask yourself the question. The first thing that comes to mind might surprise you. Do this for a couple of nights and you may come up with a few options or find that you are building a consensus around a certain topic.
4 Before you actually write the essays, take the final step of mapping out the general topics you will cover in each essay. As you map a topic to a question, check it off on a master list of stories you want to cover. This way, you can make sure that a given school is receiving all of your key stories, and that you are spreading out different stories across an application and not being repetitive.
5 Everyone works in different ways: some work best first thing in the morning, others are night owls. Some need to outline concepts on paper, others go straight to computer. So develop a plan that supports your individual style. Many find that the first application can take around 40 hours of work—brainstorming, drafting, editing, refining. As you approach this process, make sure you have the time. Tackle one application at a go. Do not take work leave or attempt it in a single week. Essays require time to gel. Therefore make sure that you have plenty of time to do it right. You may require six weeks, or you may even want 12.
6 Many applicants are inhibited by perfectionism. They can sit at the computer for hours, unable to generate that “perfect” essay, rewriting so furiously that they don't get past the first few sentences. It is often easier to edit than to write. So just type. A page full of so-so text is less intimidating than that blank page.
7 It is essential that you research your target schools and understand how to appeal to each of them. Each will have a slightly different ethos and look for something different in their students. But…
8 …you can also save yourself a bit of work. There are certain qualities that all business schools want to see in a successful applicant:
- team skills
- communication skills
Just saying “I am a strong leader” is not enough. Every claim you make must have supporting stories that help the reader believe you. You do not need to check off every quality on the list. Select a few that apply to you and reinforce those in an honest and compelling way.
9 Nobody is perfect. The schools know this and you need to show them that you are realistic and self-aware. Revealing your humanity—in the form of quirks, weaknesses and flaws—can often help the admissions committee to like you. A story about how you learned from a failure, improved upon a weakness or struggled with challenges can be compelling. The other side of this is the ability to demonstrate that you can really benefit from the MBA degree. If you know everything already, an admissions committee may wonder why you want to return to school.
10 Get some help. Even the most meticulous writers benefit from a second or third set of eyes. Ask someone to review your essays, look for typos and tell you if you are hitting all of the points in the right way. Is your attempt at humour coming off correctly? Do you seem too humble, too cocky, too serious, not serious enough? After you have been buried with your essays for weeks, a fresh perspective can often help you see the application as an admissions-committee member does: for the first time. Enlist someone who knows about the application process and make sure they are not just reassuring you that all is well, but are actually giving you some quality feedback.
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