HBS Deadlines & Essay Analysis

DEADLINES [table id=5/]


Overview: Smart, engaged leaders. These are the qualities that HBS looks for, according to its admissions criteria, and their essay questions are well-structured to separate those that have them from those that don't. (If you haven't read the criteria, I strongly suggest you do to get a deeper understanding of the questions.) Along with MIT and Stanford, HBS's demanding essay requirements will drain your store of accomplishments faster than any other MBA program. This year, HBS kept the same format as last year and the year before of two mandatory and two choice essays. However, they've changed the choice topics and given you more of them. For many applicants, HBS is the pinnacle of their MBA aspirations. For that reason, and because of the unique challenge of coordinating so many topics, I recommend saving HBS until you've completed at least one or two other schools.

By the way, they moved up their first-round deadline by two weeks to October 1, 2009. They pushed back the second-round deadline two weeks to January 19, 2010.

My comments are below in italics. col-center-n

"Essays for the Class of 2012

As an opportunity to present your distinctive qualities, your essays are an important part of your MBA application. You will be asked to submit your personal statements online with the balance of your application materials. Essays should be single-spaced. Please limit your response to the length indicated.

All applicants must submit answers to four essay questions. The first two questions are required of all applicants. The remaining two essays should be in response to your choice of the next five sub-questions.

Joint program applicants for the Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Dental Medicine, Harvard Law School, and Harvard Kennedy School must provide an additional essay."


  • What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such? (600-word limit) On the subject of leadership, HBS says: "We recognize — and welcome — leadership that may be expressed in many forms, from college extracurricular activities to academic or business achievements, from personal accomplishments to community commitments. We appreciate leadership on any scale as well, from organizing a classroom to directing a combat squad, from running an independent business to spearheading initiatives at work. In essence, we are looking for evidence of your potential - a portfolio of experiences, initiatives, and accomplishments that reflect a habit of leadership."  

    Clearly, this essay can be a cornerstone of your leadership portfolio. And chosen correctly, the topics can serve as much more than a "greatest hits" list. Basic considerations include: - balance between personal and professional - for more experienced applicants, I recommend emphasizing professional, perhaps 2:1 - timing - more recent accomplishments will have more impact - variety - your choices should reflect a range of accomplishments and skills, most notably leadership

    A more subtle consideration is how much your accomplishments support your career vision (choice #5 below), if you choose to answer that question, i.e., your accomplishments can show the progress you've already made towards your goals. In that case, you should consider ordering them chronologically. Your reasons for choosing these accomplishments will vary from person to person, but having clear reasons is key to show what you value, how you think, and how those things differ from other applicants with similar accomplishments. Editing hint: for powerful storytelling in such a short space, concentrate on action, action, action, with just enough context to understand the situation, results, and, of course, the importance of the accomplishment to you.

    Please see: The MBA Leadership Essay

  • What have you learned from a mistake? (400-word limit) Please see: The MBA Failure Essay 


  • Please respond to two of the following (400-word limit each):
  1. What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience. Of course the direct approach of discussing your thesis or classes is fine if you have something substantial to say about them and they demonstrate your intellectual capacity. At the same time, the topic can be much broader than that. Possible topics include work (which can be an especially powerful topic if you paid for school yourself), overseas study or travel, internships, athletic or artistic accomplishments, community involvement/leadership through clubs, campus organizations, volunteering, student government, etc. In its Admissions Criteria, HBS says it highly values "Engaged Community Citizenship," so this is a great essay to show it. If your undergraduate GPA is below average, such topics can also help explain why.
  2. Discuss how you have engaged with a community or organization. As with the Undergraduate Academic Experience (choice #1), you have the chance here to show the "Engaged Community Citizenship" that HBS values so highly. There is no shortage of talented business people. However, it is much more rare to find business acumen combined with or bounded by a social commitment. While this question was included last year as well, it is especially important this year since the economic crisis is leading to soul-searching among MBA applicants and MBA programs about ethical and meaningful approaches to business. See my posts here and here. Have you served or worked with a group of people or an organization over an extended period of time (once or twice isn't good enough) either through your work or outside/volunteer activities? What was the purpose of the group? Why and how did you become involved? What did you contribute and learn? What did the experience mean to you? Were there any measurable outcomes? Were you part of the community to begin with (e.g., a religious group) or were you an "outsider" (e.g., volunteer teaching for at-risk youth)? If you were an outsider, then your experience with diversity can add an extra dimension to your essay.For some applicants, this type of social engagement could be an important factor in their career vision. If so, make sure that is clear to the adcom. And if you had a leadership role within the community or organization, make sure that is clear as well.  

  3. Tell us about a time when you made a difficult decision. This choice is new for this year, although it touches on ethics, a theme that was part of the HBS essay set until a few years ago. Your difficult decision does not necessarily have to be a "typical" ethical choice between clear right or wrong options though, such as bribery or "cooking the books." You might have faced a situation where all options had sub-optimal outcomes, such as having to choose who to lay off in a restructuring. I imagine another type of story that would resonate, especially in the wake of the recent systemic failures in the financial system, would be one where you chose not to particpate in a lucrative (financial or otherwise) activity even though everyone else was. Because of the nature of the question, applicants often tell stories where they refrained from doing something negative. However, taking ethical initiative can make for a wonderfully distinctive topic. For example, a few years ago, one of my clients wrote about how she reformed her company's unfair hiring practices. In any case, your decision needs to show strong values and the will to maintain them in the face of tough pressure, choosing for the long-term rather than expediency. 

    Please see: The MBA Ethics Essay


  4. Write a cover letter to your application introducing yourself to the Admissions Board. With this new option, HBS is offering one of MIT's most well-known requirements. Give yourself a clear structure and purpose when approaching such a broad topic. One possibility is to use this essay as a "teaser" or preview of all the great stuff you are going to tell them in your other essays; use it to pull together the consistent themes of your application, especially those dealing with their admission criteria: leadership, intellectual ability, and community engagement. Give a balanced picture of yourself. You might consider including your goals and potential contributions as well, if those are not clear from your other essays.  


  5. What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you? The main difference between this question and a typical MBA goals essay is the edict to include the personal meaning of your career vision. This has been part of the HBS career vision question for many years, but again, I think it takes on added importance this year since, to turn a famous line from the movie Wallstreet on its head, "greed is no longer good." Want to be a consultant? Drive the re-birth of the finance industry? Start a non-profit? So do thousands of other applicants. So how are your reasons different from theirs? Don't be afraid to get personal here. In fact, the more personal the better. And here's the kicker: if your reasons are that strong, then there should hopefully be evidence of your commitment somewhere else in your application. 

    Please see: The MBA Goals Essay