If you are applying to HBS (the application opened today) you are likely reading a lot about how to write the fabled HBS essay. (“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?”)
Since starting North Star six years ago, I have worked with many clients who have been interviewed by and admitted to HBS. I have also met lots of people who are reapplying, often after following bad advice. Here is fundamental guidance about how to write an outstanding HBS essay:
- Read the Directions. I hear a lot about how “impossible” it is to figure out what HBS wants in a candidate, and in an essay. Actually, this is completely untrue – the HBS admissions committee is crystal clear about what they value – and they are super explicit about the essay. They don’t want you to sanitize your life, they do want you to tell them something meaningful that THEY CAN’T ALREADY extrapolate from the rest of your application.
- Think before you write. Not to say that this is easy – what the heck are you supposed to tell them? Your choice of topic is really critical, and part of what HBS is testing is your judgment. If you want to get into business school you need to have a self-aware understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, not just as an applicant but also as a person. What is it that you, personally bring? If you don’t know the answer to this question a good admissions consultant can help you figure it out.
- Stick to 1000 words or less. Seriously, anything over that is just too long. Applicants dilute the power of their message if the essay is over 1000 words – and part of what HBS is testing is your ability to communicate persuasively. Also, again, your judgment.
- Don’t submit a goal essay. If they wanted a goal essay or a classic “Why HBS” essay the committee would ask you to write one. This is a completely different exercise, and although you MIGHT touch upon those topics, depending upon your core narrative, you need to write something different for HBS.
- Be authentic. Again, I know that people hate this advice. It’s like telling someone to smile. Nevertheless, resist the temptation to write something homogenous. Or something salesy. It won’t work – the best HBS essays are real and truly meaningful to the writer. In fact, although this is by no means the only way to go, I have read great ones (written by clients who have been admitted) that talk about failure or unflattering events.
- Know when you are done. Especially when writing deeply personal narratives like the HBS essay, it’s tempting to edit and polish forever. It’s critical to know when to stop with this essay – crowdsourcing suggestions, agonizing over every word and overthinking it will dilute your message and ruin the essay. Again, the committee is clear about this – they don’t want overly constructed, artificial essays.
Although many of the North Star clients who have gotten into Harvard Business School have classically strong profiles, I have also worked with clients from non-traditional backgrounds who were admitted. A significant percentage even had lower GPA’s and test scores, came from lesser-known colleges and firms, or had unusual professional or personal qualifications. What they all had in common was the courage to write something powerful that helped HBS learn more about their character. My best advice: Go for it, start early, choose your topic wisely and give it your best shot.