Harvard Business School: Decoding one of the easiest yet confusing B School essay prompts

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Harvard Business School: Decoding one of the easiest yet confusing B School essay prompts

HBS receives about 10,000 applications year on year with a class size of about 1000 to fill. All applications come with great GMAT scores, fantastic GPAs and career trajectories. And then there’s the essay. In the countless discussions we have had with students who wish to pursue MBA abroad, the HBS essay conundrum makes it to the top. In this blog, we will help you crack the prompt, discover yourself in the process and put down your story on paper.

We have always emphasised that it takes 5 elements to submit a holistic application.

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Students who are applying to the best MBA colleges abroad, labour over a low test prep score or lesser work experience as a downer in the application. The truth is that the selection committee assesses your overall personality. While good scores and an impressive resume land you at the top of the pile, it’s your essay that connects the dots and tells your narrative to the admission committee. This narrative helps them to visualise a potential candidate and check his/her fitment to their specific B School environment.

The Harvard Business School essay often leaves the students wondering what they should say in it. Let us take a look at the prompt and diagnose it.

Also Read: Top application tips from a Harvard Business School graduate

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? 

What are they asking for? In the absence of a word limit, how much is good enough? I know this looks and sounds foggy for now, but let us help you clear the air.

HBS further clarifies:  Do not overthink, over craft and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language for those of us who don’t know your world. Be honest. De-jargonising is helpful.

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If you have a detailed resume that chalks out your professional journey, glowing recommendation letters, and scores to prove your academic bent, then you are covered here. You need not repeat this information in your essay. Instead, take your essay as a process of self-discovery and not a rehash of all of the above. What HBS is looking for is something deeply personal – about who you are, what makes you, and how HBS fits into your story.

Simply put, we are largely a sum of 3 parts.

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It will be a good idea to reflect upon these three and build your story – your authentic story. Sharpen a few angularities to differentiate yourself from other candidates and showcase yourself through a cogent narrative. Our favourite example to give here is ‘Show, don’t tell.’

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Personal

An MBA abroad for Indian students is a dream come true, and the essay can’t be overestimated or underestimated. Which story do you want to pick? Think this over, because it can’t be a barrage of stories that you will dump into the essay. What makes sense when you have to join the dots amongst the three parts of you? It could be your early childhood, parents, family and possibly the city you have grown up in, or the culture you followed at home. These elements may have shaped your personality.

Let us see an example: if you have grown up in Mumbai, it is impossible not to be affected by the lack of open space. The juxtaposition of poor shanties with uber-rich condos presents a contrast that is hard to miss. Despite all the hardships, Mumbai offers itself as a dream city to countless migrants.

This is just a suggestion. You may have a very different appreciation of your environment. We work with students to bring out their stories and the impact these incidents have had on their lives.

Education and Profession

What HBS is looking for is straight-up there for you to see on their pages.

While it is important to us that our students’ lives and experiences vary greatly, they all share the following common characteristics: The Habit of Leadership, an Analytical Aptitude and Appetite and an Engaged Community Citizenship.

This helps you with an outline of how to proceed. I must reiterate that they are looking for experiences that have defined you, not a mere list of achievements. They want to know which of the above characteristics you see in your journey of self-reflection. That’s what HBS wants you to discover for yourself. Bringing out an experience where you faced challenges and learnt a few critical lessons can help you get ahead in the game.

Can you include a professional story? Let me give you an example to illustrate this. Let us say you have helped a dwindling business make X times worth of sales in a short period. Or, have you won over a difficult client that has been a game-changer for the business? These figures would be available on your resume, but an essay is a space where you explain how you achieved them. Why did you do it? Why did you choose that particular client? What did you learn in this process, and how did you grow? All these aspects make your professional story personal.

Also Read: Start now and apply to Round 1- This is your time to begin

The Future

Should your story be related to your goals? Well yes, because at the end of the day, you are applying to a business school programme. If you could tie in your personal story with your professional journey leading to your career goals, that would be great. For example, we have a student who is passionate about building the green cover in Mumbai. He spends his weekends planting trees on the Aarey Forest land, in collaboration with the tribal folk. He has managed to extend this love to his workplace, where he is trying to build an ESG asset for the company as a new revenue line.

Let us not forget the beginning and closing of the essays. Think of the opening as the first ten seconds of a song or the first scene of a movie. This is crucial. It is the opening of your story. Spend some time deliberating over it. Is the beginning evocative enough for the person to read through? Or interesting enough to want more? Similarly, a good closing is like bringing all your efforts to a closure which sums up your story.

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Through your essay, you will be telling HBS who you are and what you bring to the classroom. Do not get caught up in lyrical prose, naming your accolades, or being dishonest. Instead, focus on the real you, your struggles, and your journey. Talking about a struggle may sound demeaning, but it isn’t. Nothing reads better than wading through a difficult phase. Most of the time, it brings out the best in us. Sharpen it with what you have learnt and how you emerged out of it. This is way greater than a pure success story. Pick one or two moments where you have showcased remarkable strength. They want you to shine through this essay, and not some made-up, perfected model personality.

To sum this up, I’m putting down tips from Chad Losee, the HBS Admissions Director –

The essay should be additive and add new information that can’t be seen anywhere in the entire application.

a) It should be the right length. Use your judgement to craft the correct number of words. It can’t be as long as 2000 words or as short as 500 words – a range of about 800-1200 should be good.

b) It’s about you and only you. Can this essay describe someone else? If the answer is yes, then it’s not authentic.

c) While drafting, re-drafting, editing and re-editing the essay, don’t over polish and lose the sheen of your story.

We invite students who are applying to the best MBA colleges abroad to spend a few hours brainstorming essay prompts and reflecting on their journey, where we play the role of curious, empathetic listeners. Our efforts are directed towards nudging students to pick up a few nuggets and string them together to make a fine piece of jewellery.

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