I consider the essays to be the most significant part of the application because they are the only component that one really has full control over. You can't change your work experience or GPA, and once you are done with the GMAT, the essays are the only thing that you can really continue to influence. It's important that the essays are developed as part of your overall strategy, and I recommend writing all the essays for HBS together (instead of going from one school application to the next and back) in order to paint a coherent picture.
One of the most important pieces of advice I tried to follow was using the essays to mitigate my perceived weaknesses, vice playing up my presumed strengths. What do I mean by this? Based on your general profile (consultant, engineer, military, etc), a reader probably has a pre-conceived notion about your strengths and weaknesses. For example...
- Consultant: Strength - organization and presentation, Weakness - lack of leadership or vision
- Engineer: Strength - technical and analytical, Weakness - lack of people skills
- Military: Strength - leadership and ethics, Weakness - working in ambiguously defined environments, working without a clear chain of command
- Non-traditionalist (artist, social sector, etc.): Strength - Unique experiences and fresh perspectives, Weakness - Lack of business and math ability
- Investment Banker: Strength - Business and computational skills, Weakness - lack of leadership ability, lack of interest outside of work.
- International: Strength - Strong global viewpoint, language skills, Weakness - Poor (English) presentation skills, challenges adapting to Western business
- Younger applicant: Strength - Academic rigor, vitality, Weakness - Lack of experience, immature
- Older applicant: Strength - Experience, maturity, Weakness - Lack of career focus, reluctance to change or to adapt.
You may or may not agree with these stereotypes, but that is not what's important here. The important thing is to realize that essay readers are human beings like the rest of us, and what they don't need to is to be convinced that a consultant has strong organizational skills, that a military applicant has strong leadership skills, or that an i-banker has strong business skills. Your resume should speak to those issues. What they do need to know is that the engineer has people skills, that the non-traditionalist has aptitude to succeed in a quantitative environment, and that a consultant has strong leadership potential. These are all just examples and indeed stereotypes. Perhaps nobody can be thrown into such a specific bucket, but this is an important concept to understand when framing your overall application strategy. Use stories that counter concerns about your weaknesses, not only those that reinforce your presumed strengths.
With that in mind, here are some thoughts on the essay subjects:
- What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such? (600-word limit)
This is the HBS cornerstone essay; it's always there and the three accomplishment question is fairly well associated with HBS. Many applicants use a formula of (1) professional accomlishment, (1) personal accomplishment, and (1) academic accomplishments. However, there is no reason why you cannot choose to focus on your own area of emphasis. Keep in mind that the more important part of the question is the second part, the WHY, not the WHAT. Many peopple have great accomplishments, but just the fact you closed a deal worth XYZ dollars or won a gold medal in the olympics is not what they want to hear (again, that's what the resume is for). They want to know what makes you tick, and what's important to you. This essay should not only be used to impress someone with your accomplishments, but to convey your self-awareness, thought process, and maturity. Therefore the emphasis here should be on why the accomlpishment is important to you, and ideally, what lessons you learned from it about yourself and the world around you. This is quite a challenge with an average of 200 words per accomplishment! Remember that this essay should set the tone for your entire application. It should clearly express what kind of person you are, what you've done, and what's important to you.
- What have you learned from a mistake? (400-word limit)
These 400 word essays are really challenging. Limited space aside, here are some thoughts about the classic mistake essay:
Make sure it's really a mistake.... something you actually messed up on. No false negatives here. The mistake itself should be short and to the point. Don't dwell on it. You don't have much room in this essay. The focus of the essay should be on what you learned from the mistake, and ideally how you applied that lesson in the future. Furthermore, this essay should add another dimension to your personality. What insight can the reader take away about who you are? For example, a great essay in my opinion might show that you have reached a level of emotional maturity after learning from a mistake, or how you have come to formulate your view of the world, of challenges, or of family, etc. Think big picture.
Please respond to two of the following (400-word limit each):
You get to choose two essays from a list of five optional essays, which is a great opportunity for any applicant to showcase his or her message. Here are some thoughts on why you would or wouldn't choose a certain essay topic:
1. What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience?
This is a great essasy for the young applicant with little work experience. You can use your undergraduate experience to highlight leadership, inspiration, travel, or inter-personal skills, etc. Conversely, this might also be a good essay for an older applicant who has been out of school for a while and wants to emphasize the value he places on academics (i.e. to counter an inconsistent record). If you already have a 4.0 GPA from Harvard undergrad, this essay would probably not be your most effective choice, as you may be overselling your strengths.
2. Discuss how you have engaged with a community or organization.
On the surface this is a great essay for the non-traditionalist, however, I believe this is a trap. Referring to my strength/weakness comments at the top, the non-traditionalist is already thought to have strong community engagement or interaction (i.e. social worker, non-profit, etc.). You may not want to use one of your four valuable essays to expound upon the expected (you can however, use an accomplishment paragraph on the first essay for it). Conversely, this would be a great essay for the i-banker or consultant, who is not expected to have much community engagement.
3. Tell us about a time when you made a difficult decision.
This is a good essay for everybody. The important thing is that it's not the decision that was made which is important, but the thought process you used to get there. It's important you show your approach to decision making, and to incorporate your understanding of not only immediate consequences, but also 2nd and 3rd order effects. It should reveal what you value the most. Many people might use this essay to present how they dealt with an ethical dilemma. However, a word of caution here. I would argue that "do I lie to help my company or do I deny my boss' request" is not an ethical dilemma. It's not an ethical dilemma because you know the ethical answer... don't lie! So where's the dilemma? The real decision there is personal gain versus ethical action, so don't expect anyone to be impressed with an essay about how you chose ethical responsibility. A real ethical dilemma involves compromising one of your values for the benefit of another. For example, the seven Army values are Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage. If you have ever had to make a difficult decision in which you had to put one value over another, and learned about yourself and what you value the most in the process, then that might be an excellent essay topic.
4. Write a cover letter to your application introducing yourself to the Admissions Board.
This is a new essay topic this year. Coming from the military, I have little experience writing business cover letters and I can't really think of much utility for this option because it may rather awkwardly say "hey, see what a great person I am and what I've done, you should choose me." The best way to really convey that message is through stories that illustrate why that is so. Stories paint a picture and articulate who you are and what you can contribute to HBS and to the world afterwards. Perhaps if you have no business experience at all and you want to illustrate a keen mind for effective business communications, this might be a good option.
5. What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?
This is the classic business school essay, and I won't speculate into why Harvard does not mandate it. I would say certain applicants should be heavily encouraged to exercise this option. For example, older applicants and non-traditionalists. If you're older - closer to 30 - then your career path should be more well developed than a 23 year old. It's probably more acceptable to still be figuring out your career goals in your early 20s, but I imagine HBS is less tolerant if you are doing so and graduating in your early 30s. So this essay is a good opportunity to alleviate such concern. Similarly for non-traditionalits... for example, let's say you're a successful photographer or an athlete. Why would you be leaving a successful career to come to HBS? What do you want out of it? These are questions that I imagine would naturally pop in a reader's mind when looking at a non-traditional applicant, so answer those questions here. Conversely, if you are an investment banker or a consultant and have followed a more traditional path, it may not be as important to spell out your career vision. For the latter, it may be more important to convey your involvement with community, University, or your decision making. Of course, if you do have a career trajectory in mind which you think will give you an advantage over your fellow applicants, definitely consider answering this essay question.
So how should you decide which two of the five essays you should write? It clearly depends on your profile and what message you are trying to project to the Admission Committee. That in turn depends on your background and where you want to go in life. I would suggest that you outline all four essays before starting to write any one essay in full. Have a general idea or even a summary of all the key points you want to convey to the ADCOM, and then figure out in which essays you will convey each point. Word count is very limited, so treat it as a precious resource. There is no room for redundancy. Weave your story as well as possible through all your essays so that a complete, coherent picture emerges of you as a candidate, and ideally, why you should be chosen over all others trying to do the exact same thing.