A soldier who served on the front lines in Afghanistan. A process engineer challenged by a long series of early failures. And a female consultant whose passion became healthcare.
Three MBA applicants to Harvard Business School last year. Three students in the newest crop of MBA students at Harvard this fall. All of them answered the question now being asked of 2017-2018 applicants to Harvard: 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?
The school provides minimal guidance for applicants trying to make an impression. “There is no word limit for this question,” advises HBS admissions. “We think you know what guidance we’re going to give here. Don’t over think, overcraft and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don’t know your world can understand.”
Each of the three applicants above wrote a clear and compelling essay in their applications, essays that Poets&Quants is reprinting with permission from the MBA Essay Guide Summer 2017 Edition recently published by The Harbus, the MBA student newspaper at Harvard Business School. The guide contains 39 essays written by successful candidates who are now starting the MBA program at HBS. Proceeds from the sale of the guidebook go to benefit the non-profit foundation that supports The Harbus.
With application deadlines rapidly approaching at Harvard Business School and many other prestige MBA programs, these successful essays will, no doubt, give current candidates a bit of guidance. More importantly, the essays that follow are most likely to provide comfort, that there is no formula or singular way to craft a successful answer.
THREE SUCCESSFUL ESSAYS. THREE VERY DIFFERENT APPROACHES.
The latest edition of the MBA Essay Guide from The Harbus costs $61.49
In his 1,130-word essay, the U.S. Army applicant ties together his experiences of leading soldiers on the front line in Afghanistan together with staff postings in Army operations and logistics to paint a portrait of a dedicated and people-oriented leader.
Inspired by a selfless act from her nine-year-old mentee, this management consultant decided to challenge herself to make an impact in healthcare. In a 937-word essay, she uses a particularly difficult turnaround situation which she was put in charge of as exemplifying her strongest skills: building relationships and uniting people around a common goal.
In a 1,358-essay, a process engineer opens up to a long series of failures in his early life. By showing both vulnerability and honesty, he is able to transform this list of fruitless endeavors into a credible “badge of honor,” evidence of his resilience, determination and strength of character. It quickly becomes apparent that what appeared to be failures in the first half, actually proved to be successes or openings for new opportunities, given enough time and perseverance.
ONE APPLICANT DID 25 DRAFTS BEFORE COMING UP WITH ONE SHE LIKED ENOUGH TO SUBMIT
Behind every MBA application is a person and a story, and in this trio of representative essays the approaches taken by each candidate is as different as the essays they submitted to the admissions committee at HBS.
The engineer went through took eight drafts over two months. “I thought about what personal traits I wanted to share with the ADCOM and identified stories from my past that identified those traits,” he explains. “After two or three drafts, I’d figured out the right narrative and kept refining it, taking as much as a week to finalize each draft. My best advice is to be honest, start early, and have someone who knows what the ADCOMS are looking for to read through a couple of your drafts and give you pointers.”
The consultant estimates that she went through 25 drafts to get to her final version. “I think the most important thing with the essay is to iterate,” she advises. “Because the question is so open-ended, it is important to reflect as much as possible and give yourself the time (in my case two months) to go on the journey necessary to realize what you care most about communicating and how to do so in the most effective way. I also cannot overstate the importance of finding someone who will give you honest feedback.
(See on the following pages the complete and full MBA essays submitted to Harvard Business School)
Writing the perfect MBA application essay involves brevity, a degree of literary panache, and total honesty. It also helps if you mention you were South Korea’s first astronaut.
It is not a dean’s duty to sift through the thousands of student applications that the world’s most prestigious schools receive each year — they have admissions teams to do that. But they are often asked to pass judgment on the written essays — and increasingly videos and other multimedia applications — from notable candidates, so their opinions on style and content count
Rich Lyons, dean of Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, spotted Yi So-yeon, the first Korean to fly in space, in 2010 from the 15 candidates he was handed. Every year, he receives a sample in each selection round, picked for the exceptional qualities displayed from a pool of about 4,000 applicants.
“I don’t even remember what score she got in the GMAT [admission test], I just knew she would add value,” he says. “You have got to have something special to get through that stage.”
The Shanghai-based China Europe International Business School last year made offers to one in every four of its applicants to fill 180 places on its full-time MBA programme.
Each essay is read and scored by the admissions team — but this is just one element of the selection process, alongside GMAT scores and proven work experience, Yuan Ding, the dean, notes.
“[The essay] is where we learn about applicants’ career aspiration, understanding of China, and writing skills.” He adds that they also look for exaggeration or an economy with the truth.
Applicants to UCLA Anderson School of Management are given a 500-word limit for their essays. They must explain their short and long-term career goals and what their time at the business school would add to their professional development.
The essays are then assessed by at least two admissions team members, each of whom are looking for elements that make them want to accept an applicant, such as unusual work experience, rather than deny them a place, according to Rob Weiler, associate dean for the MBA programme.It pays to be concise, he adds. “If an applicant attempts to add too much supplemental information, chances are they are trying too hard.”
New York University’s Stern School of Business, this year “Instagrammed” its essay format by asking candidates to pick six visual items — photographs, charts and even emojis — and give each a caption, rather than writing a piece of prose. The school’s admissions team, which has assessed about 50,000 essays over the past 15 years, likes innovation, according to Peter Henry, NYU Stern dean. They were looking for creativity and an ability to be succinct and accurate. What makes any application “leap out from the pack” during the admissions process is that the writers can explain their career goals and how NYU Stern would help them achieve these, Prof Henry says.
Barcelona’s IESE business school does not set a format for applications. One applicant recently produced a video as his cover letter — a method of application increasingly common in US schools. But content trumps format, according to Franz Heukamp, the dean.
A place on the course: how MBA admissions work
The Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) is a pan-school online exam to assess verbal, analytical and writing skills. The test is required for most business school MBA applications but does not examine business knowledge or general intelligence.
Many business schools also set mandatory essays, which tend to ask applicants to explain their work experiences, why they would excel at the school and how the MBA would help with future career goals. Most set an upper limit of 500 words.
Not all schools set an essay. Some ask for a CV and cover letter.
Shortlisted candidates are usually invited for a formal interview either on campus or online with the admissions team.
“The ones that grab our attention do so not because they say something we have never heard before, are wild or outrageous,” he says. “What makes a cover letter special is when it is very clear that the candidate knows what he or she wants to achieve professionally.”
The most important element of an essay is a “clear and concise” message, according to Winfried Ruigrok, the dean at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland.
“An MBA application stands out if the applicant knows our specific programme strengths, structure and culture,” he says.
SDA Bocconi School of Management was the first European school to add mandatory video interviews to its application process, says its dean, Giuseppe Soda, with candidates required to answer a series of random questions on camera.
Those applying to its 12-month MBA course must also submit two reference letters and attend a face-to-face interview at the school’s Milan campus, as well as performing well in the GMAT exam — its average test score is 665 out of a possible 800, compared with a sector average of about 550.
The video format complements the wider objective of Bocconi’s admissions team, to get to know each candidate by name, according to Prof Soda.
This level of detail is possible at Bocconi — which last year received 375 applications for 132 places — but not feasible for larger institutions. “We want to focus on each candidate’s personal development,” Prof Soda says. “We want to know the students by name.”
Before becoming dean, Prof Soda’s job included reading every essay from the PhD applicants. “The problem was that they were always the same sort of essay,” he says. “Written pieces can be faked so a video seems a better way.”
He anticipates a day when the video test replaces the written elements of the MBA application.
“When you write you have more time to prepare,” he says. “With our video test there is the element of the unexpected. It is not just what they say but how they say it, and there is the pressure of being in front of a camera.”