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As we announced recently, Harvard Business School has released its essay question for the 2013-2014 application season. This year’s prompt once again represents a marked departure from HBS’s previous application sets; while candidates were previously required to answer two essays totaling 800 words and complete a 500-character “why MBA” statement, HBS now asks applicants to write only one essay, with no word limit given. Moreover, HBS Admissions Director Dee Leopold has suggested that some applicants may not even find the essay necessary to include in their files, thereby making this essay technically an optional one. The school has, however, still maintained its post-interview reflection, which will require those who reach the interview stage to submit a reflection essay within 24 hours following their interviews with the admissions committee.
With such a broad mandate, applicants will need to be careful when deciding whether to undertake the essay and determining its topic and length. Let’s take a closer look at the essay question:
1. 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? (No word limit)
The school has provided further advice of which applicants should take note, writing, “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.”
For the past few years, HBS has asked applicants to describe at least one of their accomplishments, yet this year’s essay broadens the range of responses considerably and leaves applicants with a completely open field. Leopold specifically notes that “Maybe there will be admits this year who say we don’t need to know anything else beyond the credentials they have already submitted – for them, the application may be ‘essay-less.’” The first step is for you to assess whether you feel you fit that description, and if you believe you are represented well enough by your other application materials, including your recommendations, test scores and undergraduate records, you may not feel the essay is a necessary component of your self-presentation.
While this may well be the case for some applicants, it will still be advisable for many candidates to take advantage of this prompt. Although the essay is just one component of any application, it is the only opportunity applicants have to speak directly to the adcom in their initial materials and therefore a valuable tool for personalizing your file. If you have an element in your profile that might represent a “red flag,” such as a failed course or a long gap in your work history, it will be especially important for you decide how to make this one essay work in your favor in terms of explaining your situation in a positive light.
Considering that this prompt is the only essay that the adcom will read, it is crucial that you select an approach that allows you to highlight some of the key strengths of your candidacy. Although it may be tempting to draft a lengthy essay on traditional subjects such as your career goals, greatest successes, and interest in the school, the fact that HBS has been consistently trimming down its essay set in recent years likely indicates that a 1,000-word essay would be unwelcome. Reflecting on whether your need for an MBA or specific career goals are adequately covered in your other materials is a great starting point for narrowing your focus, selecting your topic and crafting a succinct essay. You should take care to steer clear of simply “recycling” essays from HBS’s peer schools, such as Stanford or Wharton, as the adcom will probably spot such an essay based on the highly unfocused nature of the HBS prompt and will not respond positively.
When evaluating an applicant’s credentials, HBS has traditionally been very focused on leadership qualities as well as the impact that the applicant has had on a project, group, or company. Thus, as you brainstorm potential topics for this essay, it might be useful to think about any quantifiable positive change you’ve created that is not adequately described in your other materials. You might explain the magnitude of a professional or personal accomplishment noted on your résumé, for instance. You could also choose a particularly meaningful activity or project and share why it is important to you, especially given your personal or professional goals. Keep in mind, however, the only real directive from the committee: sharing “what else” you want the reader to know about your file. For this reason, applicants could do well to spend extra time fine-tuning their résumés and working with their recommenders in order to ensure that the essay topic does not overlap with anecdotes or qualities already covered in their other materials.
If you’re unsure of whether you’re on the right track with your chosen topic, try speaking with a Clear Admit counselor.
In line with the policy instituted in the 2012-2013 season, applicants who are invited to interview will be asked to write a reflection about their interview experience. This essay must be submitted within 24 hours of completing the interview. Additional instructions regarding the reflection will be sent to applicants who receive interview invitations.
To help draft this reflection, applicants would be wise to jot down some notes immediately after interviewing so that they can later refer to a clear record of what was discussed as well as what, if anything, they would have liked discuss but did not get a chance to cover. When it comes time to write the essay, applicants should approach their response as if they are crafting a closing argument—or, in the words of HBS, “[having] the last word”—to their application.
You’ll want to take inventory of the message you’ve conveyed throughout your application materials (essay, résumé, data forms, etc.) and your interview, and then write your reflection with an eye towards emphasizing the key attributes of your candidacy. Lastly, the 24-hour turnaround means that this reflection will require a focused effort from applicants as well as some careful advance planning.
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