by Jessica Nitschke
As Cecilia mentioned in an earlier post, Harvard Business School has radically changed the essay requirements of their application. They have reduced the number of initial essays from 4 to 2, narrowed the focus of these questions, and added a new, post-interview essay that they are calling “Have the Last Word,” in which the applicants are required to submit a written reflection within 24 hours of the conclusion of the interview.
In terms of actual number of words you as the applicant have to sell yourself, the HBS application has gone from 2000 words last year to 800 words this year, at least for the initial essays (more about the post-interview, “have the last word” essay below). Plus, admissions has thrown out more traditional questions like “Why do you want an MBA?” and “Talk about three setbacks” in favor of something more introspective: “Tell us about something you did well.” There has been a fair amount of speculation about what prompted these changes as well as concern about the challenges these changes they might present to candidates in trying to tell their story and sell themselves.
As to why HBS implemented these changes, the explanation is pretty straightforward. If the admissions office believed that having four essays – covering a broad swath of topics: various accomplishments, setbacks, reasons for getting an MBA, and anything else you feel like mentioning – was useful in deciding which candidates to interview, they would have kept them. They didn’t. They cut the number of words students can use to less than half the original. It’s clear the traditional essay requirement wasn’t working any longer.
Why is this? Well, there are several reasons. An essay on why you want an MBA is likely to just mimic what you’re going to say in an interview – why should the essays and interviews be simply duplicates of one another? Many have also pointed out that limiting the number of pre-interview essays and requiring an immediate, post-interview essay is an attempt to eliminate fraud and deception in the essay-writing process – both cases of outright ghostwriting as well as excessive editing or rewriting by outside professionals.
But beyond this, there is a larger dilemma with the MBA essays from the perspective of admissions. Even students who do not use a coach or counselor will often seek out models or guides for how to craft the “right” essay. There are no shortage of examples and templates online – if you haven’t already, just google “mba essays” and prepare to be overwhelmed. The rhetoric of a lot of these websites, regrettably, implies that there is a specific “winning” type of essay, thus implying (incorrectly) that an essay that doesn’t conform to its template or example will doom an application.
The result is thousands of cookie-cutter, formulaic essays, as applicants attempt to conform to what they think is the one, “right” way to present oneself. But the more similar applicants’ essays are, the less useful they are as a means of judging who truly is a good fit for the school. Essays were introduced into the application process as a means of allowing the students to explain who they are as individuals, rather than as just a set of data. But if everyone writes basically the same essay – slotting in their career data or their extracurricular achievements into an established template – then the essays aren’t really much more useful in expressing who you are as an individual than a GMAT score.
With their new essay questions, it’s clear that HBS is trying to cut through the conformity and guide applicants into really expressing who they are. Take the new question – “Tell us about something you did well” (replacing “Tell us about three of your accomplishments”). The new question is more introspective – it’s still a question about an accomplishment of sorts, but it’s asking for more context from you as the applicant, putting emphasis on your worldview and your perspective – not simply an elaboration of your resume. They’re asking you to think carefully about how well you know and understand yourself.
Harvard’s search for the thoughtful, self-reflective and authentic applicant is most clear in the “Have the Last Word” essay, which, in my opinion, is a brilliant move on Harvard’s part. In addition to bringing out a more honest, less polished and less rehearsed side of a candidate, it is a test that is more similar to the kind of communication and writing you have to do in both the MBA classroom and the real world.
But this new essay should be especially welcomed by prospective MBA applicants. While such an essay, with its 24-hour time limit, might seem daunting at first, I think applicants will find it a much, much easier and more worthwhile exercise than answering an essay prompt as vague and difficult as “Ask a question you wish we’d asked” (essay question #4 from Harvard’s old application). Why? You get to respond to something real (30 to 60 minutes of interaction with an actual representative of Harvard) rather than something abstract and hypothetical. I don’t think I know a single person who hasn’t had something thoughtful and meaningful to say immediately after an interview experience.
For applicants to any program, Harvard’s changes to the essay portion of their application is an important reminder of something that Reve has been stressing for a long time: as you look for guidance, models and inspirations, and as you write, fret, rewrite, edit, and fret some more, don’t make the mistake of editing yourself out of your essays.
Jessica Nitschke is a counselor at Reve. Originally from Michigan, she has a BA from the University of Chicago and a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. She has taught at Berkeley and is a former faculty member at DePauw University and Georgetown University. Most recently she was living in Tokyo, Japan before moving to Cape Town, South Africa.