It must be spring, because Harvard Business School has just released its application essays and deadlines for the 2011-2012 admissions season. Note that these are for Harvard’s traditional MBA program; we covered the HBS 2+2 Program application a couple of weeks ago, although the two applications have become very similar to one another.
Here are the new essays and deadlines, taken from Harvard’s site. Our comments follow in italics:
Harvard Business School Admissions Deadlines
Round 1: October 3, 2011
Round 2: January 10, 2012
Round 3: April 10, 2012
These deadlines have not changed much since last year. Harvard’s Round 1 deadline crept back by two days and its Round 2 deadline crept forward by a day. The Round 3 deadline moved the most: It comes ten days later than it did last year. Most importantly, note that applying in Round 1 means that you’ll hear from HBS no later than December 19, 2011. That will give you at least a couple of weeks before most other schools’ Round 2 deadlines, in case you decide to wait to hear from HBS before pulling the trigger on a few additional applications.
Harvard Business School Admissions Essays
- Tell us about three of your accomplishments. (600 words)
For years this question asked, “What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such?” but Harvard has simplified the question, just as it did on the application for the HBS 2+2 Program. However, even though the wording is different, the meat of the question remains the same: They don’t explicitly ask for your “most substantial” accomplishments anymore, but of course you still need to come up with three impressive stories. Remember that we’re talking about HBS here, so at least one (preferably at least two) of your examples should highlight leadership. However, don’t overlook stories that also demonstrate other traits that admissions officers look for, including teamwork, innovation, and maturity. Regardless of the question’s phrasing, remember that the “why” in your story is even more important than the “what,” so be sure to spell out why these accomplishments are so critical to describing you as an emerging business leader. Also, ideally you will be able to draw upon multiple types of experiences — not only on the job, but also from your community involvement, your hobbies, and even, in some cases, your personal life. Yes, doing all of the above in 600 words isn’t easy, but don’t be intimidated! Harvard’s word limits force you to focus on your most important experiences.
- Tell us three setbacks you have faced. (600 words)
This question has also changed. HBS used to ask you to describe what you have learned from a mistake, but now this question has evolved to complement the “three accomplishments” question. Whether you call them mistakes, failures, or setbacks, these examples all share a common thread: They serve to show how you have grown in your relatively short professional career. The word “setbacks,” specifically, is interesting since it gives you the opportunity to talk about challenges you faced that weren’t necessarily of your own doing. For example, getting laid off when your company goes out of business represents a setback, but not a mistake. So, now you have more options here. In some respects describing three setbacks in 600 words is even harder than discussing three accomplishments, since the most important part of any “setback” essay is showing what you learned and how you grew as a result. Doing all of that in 600 words is a tall order. Still, your mission will be to show introspection (What did you learn?) and a motivation for self-improvement (How did you use what you learned to better yourself and avoid that mistake again?). Having one or two good work-related stories will be important, but remember to look for experiences in all aspects of your life. Your richest “setback” story may very well come from outside your job.
- Why do you want an MBA? (400 words)
Wow, lots of changes this year! This question is new, although some see it as a direct replacement for an old HBS application question that asked, “What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?” The key difference now is that, while that old question was very forward-looking, this new question will best be answered with a blend of discussion about your past and your intended future career path. Both are necessary ingredients for a credible, compelling essay here. For instance, you could write, “I want to get an MBA so that I can launch a global non-profit organization to wipe out illiteracy,” but if philanthropy and an interest in education don’t show up anywhere else in your background, this may seem like nothing more than a bunch of hot air. Also, although there’s no more talk of “career vision,” it’s important to show that you’re realistic about what an MBA can do for you. Earning a Harvard MBA is just one piece (albeit an important one) of your career puzzle, and you want to show the admissions committee that you understand where it fits in the grand scheme of things.
- Answer a question you wish we’d asked. (400 words)
This question is also new this year, and we like it! Kellogg used to ask “I wish the admissions committee had asked me…” but has since moved away from this essay prompt, which we thought was too bad. Questions like this may seem intimidating at first, but strong applicants will find them very valuable since they can serve one of two purposes: They can serve as a “catch-all” where you can cover important themes that you haven’t yet covered in another essay, or they can help you tell an interesting story that will stick in admissions officers’ minds. An example of the former is dedicating this essay to telling a story that doesn’t strictly qualify as an accomplishment but still demonstrates an important trait, such as teamwork or maturity. An example of the latter is discussing a unique hobby that you enjoy, one that would never come up in your application otherwise. Of course, they key is to tie that back to your overall story — saying, “I like to play the ukulele” isn’t very effective if you can’t explain why it matters to you — but you can use this essay too pique admissions officers’ interest. If you manage to land an interview with HBS, imagine how great it would be to hear the interviewer ask, “You play the ukulele? That’s interesting! How did you get started with that?”
- Joint degree applicants: How do you expect the joint degree experience to benefit you on both a professional and a personal level? (400 words)
Applicants to joint degree programs often have a hard time articulating why exactly they need multiple degrees. Harvard wants to see that you “get” what the joint degree (no matter what combination it is) will do for you, particularly when it comes to how it will help you reach your career goals. Interesting that HBS also includes the “and a personal level” part… We normally see applicants fall short on the “professional level” side of the story, since they can’t explain why a joint degree is necessary for their career goals. On the personal side, our advice is avoid going overboard with high-minded language. You really do need to nail the professional side of the story, first and foremost. Think of that as the “bones” of this essay, and your personal values and goals as the “flesh.” We’ve written about JD/MBA programs before; take a look at some of these posts as you articulate your joint degree story.
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You’ll have no trouble finding advice on how to write an MBA goals essay or a leadership essay – these are the typical MBA essays that most people expect in an application package. But what if you get a wild card? Creative or off-beat questions tend to trip up applicants and there’s not much info out there on how to tackle them well.
Here are a few examples of wild card questions that have been found on b-school applications: “Answer a question you wish we’d asked.” “If you could invite anyone to dinner, living or dead, who would be and why?” “You are the author for the book of Your Life Story. Please write the table of contents for the book.”
You get the idea.
Admissions committees ask these sorts of questions because they are digging for information about you as an individual. Sure stats are important, as are goals and leadership skills. But the answers to these questions reveal a side of you that the professional/statistical/academic answers hide. These questions provide the adcom readers with a window into who you really are – your interests, your passions, your values, your character, and your quirks.
So how do should you respond?
First, there are no right or wrong answers, but there are compelling, unique answers as well as boring, unoriginal ones.
Here are some tips for steering clear of the dull:
- Never answer a “whom would you like to meet” question with Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, or President Obama. William Shakespeare and Plato though dead, are equally unoriginal.
- For the question “Where would you want to spend one day?” don’t go on and on about the city where your target b-school is located. Booooring.
The best way to answer a creative question is to write an authentic answer. A few tips:
- Offer your reader a clear window into You. Discuss personal items or thoughts with honesty. If your most valuable possession is a friendship bracelet that your best friend gave you in second grade, then write a little about the bracelet and more about why it’s important – who was this person and why do you today still wear this piece of string?
- Be specific. For your “where in the world” question, don’t just talk about how you’d like to sightsee in New York City; instead, choose one or two things you’d like to do during your day in the Big Apple – like visiting a Bronx soup kitchen or playing leapfrog in Central Park’s Strawberry Field.
- Have fun, but don’t be silly or phony. Use details and a dash of creativity to paint a picture that answers the questions.
By Linda Abraham, CEO and founder of Accepted.com and co-author of the soon-to released book, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools. Linda has been helping MBA applicants gain acceptance to top MBA programs since 1994. This is the tenth and final article in a series on Perfecting Your MBA Essays.
Our Series On Perfecting Your MBA Essays: