Thoughts on HBS 2013-2014

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?

There is no word limit for this question.  We think you know what guidance we’re going to give here. Don’t overthink, overcraft and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don’t know your world can understand.


As a starting point, I’m telling all of my clients to treat the HBS “essay” as a straightforward optional essay and/or a re-applicant essay as the case may be.

Two years ago, the HBS application left my clients gasping and grasping to generate three accomplishments and especially three failures, in addition to two other essays. Last year, they dropped their requirements to essentially one accomplishment and one failure, and what amounted to a 500-character goals statement in the application itself, which is part of this year’s application as well. Clearly they no longer feel the need for extended narratives to explain the how’s and why’s of your successes and failures. Personally, I think they got bored or overwhelmed reading so many applications, and someone finally asked, “Do we really need these essays at all?” We have their answer in this year’s application.

So I’m advising my clients to avoid submitting any typical essays, such as leadership accomplishments, failure experiences, or personal stories simply because they have them. Instead, we’re analyzing the mandatory materials for any possible gaps or contradictions, and addressing those in the essay. Of course if one of their typical essays can remove a gap or contradiction, then we’ll be sending it.

This approach requires good discipline and judgment, self-awareness, thoughtfulness, and confidence, which are qualities that HBS, and any school really, wants to see. If your need for an MBA is not immediately clear from your other materials, then that is a good potential topic, but I stridently recommend against using this essay to explain your passion for HBS or why you absolutely must attend Harvard or all of the alumni that you know. Excluding the latter, you are demonstrating those things simply by applying, and sending that information unsolicited will reek of either desperation or sycophancy.

Remember also that HBS permits resumes up to two pages, not just one like most other schools, so you have a chance to do more “micro-storytelling” there. They will also provide space in the application where you can briefly describe “Extracurricular Activities” and “Awards & Recognition”. Involve your recommenders in your strategy as well so that all of these pieces taken together will cover as much of your best work as possible. But the general rule for this year’s HBS application is that if it is covered elsewhere, you don’t need to repeat it in the essay.