Category Archives: Harvard Business School

Harvard’s New Essay Requirements and What It Tells Us About the MBA Admissions Process

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.

Harvard Business School Essay Question Analyses and Deadlines 2012-13: Major changes!

HBS Admissions Director Dee Leopold surprised the applicant community yesterday with an announcement of some substantial changes to the 2012-13 application requirements:

1. Reduction in the number of essays from 4 (traditionally) to now 2 (pre-interview).

2. The addition of a 3rd essay (a “reflection”) to be written within 24 hours of completing the interview, if invited.

3. Round 1 application deadline will be pushed up to September 24, 2012, the earliest ever. Applicants will be notified of their admission decisions on December 12.

Finally, HBS will begin conducting weekly Q&A webinars beginning June 1 at noon. Please register on their website if you want to participate.

Why the changes? Leopold says that they are all part of HBS’ overall effort to emphasize introspection among its students. The additional “24 hour essay” will be asking applicants to reflect on their interviews, to see if there is anything that they wished they could have communicated during the interview but didn’t. Also, she believes that the application process has come to emphasize essays too much, turning the process into an “essay writing contest.” Hmm. As an admissions counselor and former admissions officer, my thinking is that this move is a search for authenticity. The number of essays, when all is said and done, is only reduced by one (now 3 essays are required instead of 4); the only difference is that applicants now have a decreased chance of getting significant help writing them. Admissions committees across the board are finding it harder and harder to see the “real” applicants, given how overly polished so many essays are. The result is that essays can no longer be relied upon to serve the purpose of personalizing an applicant. I think this is a great move to weed out those applicants who have been relying too much on coaches and consultants to heavily edit or write their essays for them. (However, the one concern I have is how this would work for those applicants who are flying in from another state or another country; many of our clients, when visiting schools overseas, are going from one city to another and often need several days just to be able to compose and send a thank you note. I wonder if this is something HBS had considered.)

So, what are the new essay questions? I’ll list them below with my comments in orange:

Essays required for all applicants:

  • Tell us about something you did well. (400 words)

Given that you now have few opportunities to discuss in detail your proudest achievements, consider carefully the example you will use here. Also read carefully the question, and don’t simply cut and paste a “greatest accomplishment” story. They are asking not only for what you did, but what you did well; be sure that when you write this essay it is also a showcase of your greatest strengths and abilities, particularly those strengths most valued by HBS. Consider experiences in which you have shown leadership, teamwork, some level of introspection and self-awareness, and an ability to make things happen. If you accomplished something that few peers have, even better. Think about what is on your resume already, but don’t simply regurgitate what is already there. Bring an achievement to life, explaining why you were great in what you did: was it simply going through all the steps, or was there something bigger that you overcame? And what was the impact? The bigger your role and the greater the impact, the more memorable your story will be.

  • Tell us about something you wish you had done better. (400 words)

This question is targeted at your sense of introspection, something that HBS is now putting more and more emphasis on. It really doesn’t matter what you could have done better (though make sure it is substantial, and not something trivial), as long as you can show a deep level of self-reflection and attempt to understand how you could have done things differently.

Joint degree applicants only:

  • How do you expect the joint degree experience to benefit you on both a professional and a personal level? (400 words)

This question is straightforward, asking you to describe the anticipated impact that studying for both degrees will have on your life. Why do you need to study both degrees? How will the experience help your career and how it will help you on a personal level?

With just 2 essays for most applicants, you may worry if the admissions committee will have enough to go on in order to make the decision of whether or not to interview you. In their minds, 2 essays are enough for them to determine whether or not you are appealing and genuine, and then they will look at the other core information, including your test scores, academic history, work experience, and recommendations. It is true that now there is less to offset less than stellar test scores, GPA and recommendations…however, I believe that those components were always looked at heavily anyway, with or without the extra essays.

Now, what if you get invited for an interview? You will need to write and submit a another essay within 24 hours of your interview. The advice I can give will need to be tailored to each individual so I can’t offer a lot here. However, I can say this: the best and only way to prepare is to write the first 2 essays; the less work you do on those essays, the less prepared you will be to write that final 24 hour essay. Further, you don’t want to submit the first 2 essays so polished and heavily edited by a consultant that it appears drastically different from the one you’ll need to submit in 24 hours. Get into the habit of thinking and writing on your own (and support is fine, just not to the point where your words are no longer your own), and you’ll be able to handle that 3rd essay with little problem.

Finally, here are the deadlines:

(All applications are to be submitted online by 12 noon Boston time)

Round 1
Deadline: Monday, September 24, 2012
Decision Notification: Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Round 2
Deadline: Monday, January 7, 2013
Decision Notification: Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Round 3
Deadline: Monday, April 8, 2013
Decision Notification: Wednesday, May 15, 2013

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Harvard Business School Essay Question Analyses and Deadlines, 2011-12

HBS has released its essay questions and deadlines for this year’s application cycle. Please see below for the dates and my comments (in color) on the essay questions.

IMPORTANT DATES

Application Round Deadline (12 PM EST) Decision Notification
R1 Monday, Oct. 3, 2011 Monday, Dec. 19, 2011
R2 Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012 Thursday, Mar. 29, 2012
R3 Tuesday, April 10, 2012 Thursday, May 17, 2012

From HBS’ site http://www.hbs.edu/mba/admissions/writtenapplication.html

All application questions below are required.

HBS has changed all of its questions this year.

1. Tell us about three of your accomplishments. (600 words)

They’ve kept their classic question about the three accomplishments but made it simpler. In the past, applicants were asked to explain why these accomplishments were significant to them, but the 600 word limit probably made that difficult. Now, you just need to explain the accomplishments. If you have space to also mention how your experiences impacted you personally, feel free to do so.

In coming up with topics for this question, keep in mind the qualities that HBS looks for (leadership and related strengths and attributes) along with the strengths that are unique to you. You have an opportunity to present three stories, so consider balance and diversity, rather than focusing on a narrow part of you. What accomplishments best represent the best of you? What impact have you made on others?

2. Tell us three setbacks you have faced. (600 words)

This is a completely new question. The fact that HBS asks for 3 experiences of setback tells us that they are expecting to see a high level of introspection, self-awareness, and growth. They expect you to have failed or to have felt disappointed, and they want to see how you have grown from such challenges.

When approaching this question, be sure you understand well what a setback is. It is broader than “mistake” or “failure.” Discuss the setback, how you reacted to it, and what you learned/how you grew from it. I would recommend a mix of professional and personal setbacks (if you have them), but be careful about the appropriateness of your example if you talk about something personal.

3. Why do you want an MBA? (400 words)

This is pretty straightforward, and this essay questions your motive for studying for an MBA. Explaining your reasons will require you to discuss your goals and the skill set, knowledge and experiences that you feel you are lacking at this stage in your career. They do not ask why you need to study at HBS (they never have), and so you can certainly mention HBS’s resources but I would recommend mainly focusing on the question they do ask, which is why you need to get an MBA.

4. Answer a question you wish we’d asked. (400 words)

This is a great opportunity for you to round out your application in a way that will best represent your candidacy. What have you not had a chance to talk about? What other compelling story do you need to tell the admissions committee in order for them to get a full sense of who you are? Be sure you are adding value to your application and not simply giving them more of what they already know.

Harvard Business School Essay Question Analysis 2010-11

Please find below the instructions and essay questions from the HBS website along with my analyses:
Essays for the Class of 2013

As an opportunity to present your distinctive qualities, your essays are an important part of your MBA application. You will be asked to submit your personal statements online with the balance of your application materials. Essays should be single-spaced. Please limit your response to the length indicated.

All applicants must submit answers to four essay questions. The first two questions are required of all applicants. The remaining two essays should be in response to your choice of the next four sub-questions.

Joint program applicants for the Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Dental Medicine, Harvard Law School, and Harvard Kennedy School must provide an additional essay.

Essays:
  • What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such? (600-word limit)

Analysis:

The classic HBS question. Accomplishments mean achievement and impact. In what ways have you stretched yourself, gone above and beyond, and made an impact on others? The examples you choose should represent you well, meaning, as much as possible, combine professional examples with an academic, community or personal example. However, your own combination will depend on your own experiences. Do not force a weak example simply to diversify your stories. Try to find a balance between quality and diversity.

  • What have you learned from a mistake? (400-word limit)

Analysis:

HBS wants to know how self-aware you are and how willing you are to learn from your mistakes. That is the main point of this question, not how badly you have messed up. So be honest in the mistake you choose and don’t be afraid of showing a weakness. Describe what you did wrong, but show how you handled it and what you learned from it.

Please respond to two of the following (400-word limit each):

  1. What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience?

Analysis:

This is a question designed more for recent graduates who have fewer professional experiences to talk about. If you had a rich undergraduate life and you didn’t attend university too long ago, this may be a good option for you. I often get asked if it is okay to talk about non-academic experience. My answer is yes, as long as you are not talking only about your club and sports activities. That is, your answer needs to discuss your academic and intellectual work even if you want to talk about other activities as well. Questions to think about: What kind of a student were you? Were you intellectually curious? What kinds of intellectual pursuits did you have? If you were also active outside the classroom, talk about that too: leadership, community involvement, etc. Your experience as an undergraduate student will give the admissions board an idea of what kind of HBS student and leader you might be.

2.   What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?

Analysis:

This is more or less the standard goals essay, although many people ask me why HBS uses the expression “career vision” instead of “career goals” which is used by most other schools. HBS wants to know more than just the concrete things that you plan to do after graduation (e.g., become Director of Marketing); they want to know what your mission and career plan and path are (e.g., serve consumers in developing countries through a position as Director of Marketing). “Vision” is what you see for your future: what do you hope to do, what are the steps you will take to get there, what fundamental value, belief or desire is driving this career path for you? However, don’t get overly anxious about this essay question; if you write all your essays well, this goals essay should not be any different from the goals essays you write for other schools. The one difference between HBS’s goals essay and that of other schools, though, is that you don’t need to spend a lot of time convincing them why HBS is your top choice. ;-)

3. Tell us about a time in your professional experience when you were frustrated or disappointed.

Analysis:

This is a completely new question for this year. Through this essay the admissions committee wants to see how you deal with setback, when things don’t go your way. As usual, choose an episode and give enough context to explain what frustrated or disappointed you. Then focus on the main message, which is how you reacted and dealt with the situation. Please keep in mind that, if you choose to write this essay, you’d need to use a different story from the mistake essay above. The two topics sound similar but are different.

4. When you join the HBS Class of 2013, how will you introduce yourself to your new classmates?

Analysis:

Another brand new essay question. Keep in mind that this is a self-introduction to your future classmates. Reading between the lines, it means that it’s alright to cover some more personal topics here as well. What would you say to your new classmates – what would you like them to know about you? Cover the different areas of your background, values and personality but make sure you do more than simply regurgitate your resume. Let the reader get to know more about you as a person here.

Joint degree applicants:
  • How do you expect the joint degree experience to benefit you on both a professional and a personal level? (400-word limit)

Analysis:

This is a straightforward question asking you to talk about why you need the joint degree/joint degree experience. They want to know how studying for both degrees will help you professionally and personally.

Harvard Business School Application Deadlines for Class Entering 2011

The following is from the HBS blog:

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….……………

Class of 2013 – Launching the Application Season

from HBS MBA Program

Below are the key dates for the upcoming application season:

Round 1
Application deadline – Friday, October 1, 2010 at 12:00 noon EST
Decision notification – Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Round 2
Application deadline – Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 12:00 noon EST
Decision notification – Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Round 3
Application deadline – TBD
Decision notification – TBD

We are “TBD” on Round 3 – final dates will be determined in early July as we assess how much of an overlap we need with the 2+2 application timeline.

The application for the Class of 2013 will go live the week of June 21. To view the essay and recommender questions now, please visit the Written Application page on our website.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

For more information on HBS admissions, please visit their website at http://www.hbs.edu/mba/admissions

Stayed tuned this week, as I’ll post my analyses and tips for their essay questions. If you really can’t wait to see the analyses, you can check out my post from last season here: http://www.revecounseling.com/blog/?cat=12

A few of the questions have changed but the rest are the same.

Harvard Business School Essay Questions and Deadlines 2009-10

 

HBS released their 2009-10 essay questions and deadlines a few days ago.  There have been some changes in both the deadlines and essay questions. For anyone who’s been following the HBS applications, you’ll notice that their Round 1 deadline is earlier this year and their Round 2 deadline is later than usual (great news for me as a counselor!). As for the essays, some of the questions have changed and the new questions, I believe, reflect the information HBS wants given the current economic situation we’re in. For example, for the first time HBS asks for a “cover letter” essay which is the standard document you send to employers when looking for jobs.

While you may still be working on your GMAT and/or TOEFL, you should start thinking about these essays whenever you can.  HBS is not an easy application to work on first and so I recommend that you get your feet wet by working on some other schools before starting on HBS. This means that, for first round applicants, you’ll need to start early.

What follows below are the deadlines, instructions and questions, alongside my analyses.

Deadlines (all 17:00 EST)

Round 1: October 1, 2009

Round 2: January 19, 2010

Round 3: April 8, 2010

Essays (text from HBS website http://www.hbs.edu/mba/admissions/writtenapplication.html)

Essays should be single-spaced. Please limit your response to the length indicated.

All applicants must submit answers to four essay questions. The first two questions are required of all applicants. The remaining two essays should be in response to your choice of the next five sub-questions.

Joint program applicants for the Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Dental Medicine, Harvard Law School, and Harvard Kennedy School must provide an additional essay.

Essays:
  • What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such? (600-word limit)

Analysis:

The classic HBS question. Accomplishments mean achievement and impact. In what ways have you stretched yourself, gone above and beyond, and made an impact on others? The examples you choose should represent you well, meaning, as much as possible, combine professional examples with an academic, community or personal example. However, your own combination will depend on your own experiences. Do not force a weak example simply to diversify your stories. Try to find a balance between quality and diversity.

  • What have you learned from a mistake? (400-word limit)

Analysis:

HBS wants to know how self-aware you are and how willing you are to learn from your mistakes. That is the main point of this question, not how badly you have messed up. So be honest in the mistake you choose and don’t be afraid of showing a weakness. The bigger the mistake, the better in many cases. Describe what you did wrong, but show how you handled it and what you learned from it.

  • Please respond to two of the following (400-word limit each):

1.  What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience?

Analysis: This is a question designed more for recent graduates who have fewer professional experiences to talk about. If you had a rich undergraduate life and you didn’t attend university too long ago, this may be a good option for you. I often get asked if it is okay to talk about non-academic experience. My answer is yes, as long as you are not talking only about your club and sports activities. That is, your answer needs to discuss your academic and intellectual work even if you want to talk about other activities as well. Questions to think about: What kind of a student were you? Were you intellectually curious? What kinds of intellectual pursuits did you have? If you were also active outside the classroom, talk about that too: leadership, community involvement, etc. Your experience as an undergraduate student will give the admissions board an idea of what kind of HBS student and leader you might be.

2. Discuss how you have engaged with a community or organization.

Analysis: They are interested in knowing about the “team” or “people” person in you. If you were on a sports team, university club, or other community activity, this may be a good question for you to choose. The key expression here is “engaged with” which implies interaction and involvement.  Be careful not to write an essay that simply focuses on leadership and achievement and what you did to or for others; they want to know how you involved yourself with the target community or group. Did you motivate people? Coach them? Teach them? Inspire them?

3. Tell us about a time when you made a difficult decision.

Analysis: They want to know the logic and self-awareness you employ when making important decisions. In hearing about the process that you went through to make this decision, they can also learn about your maturity and personal values, which ultimately would form the basis of your decision making. Talk about the decision and elaborate on how you went about making that decision. The example you choose could be professional, community or personal.

4. Write a cover letter to your application introducing yourself to the Admissions Board.

Analysis: This is a clever essay idea that has long been the staple MIT essay question. Here you’ll need to know the conventions of writing a business/professional cover letter which is your self-marketing piece. Traditionally, employers read cover letters before moving on to resumes when looking for people to hire. They are more likely to move on to the resume if they like what they read in the cover letter. Therefore, you need to promote yourself in this essay and make the admissions board interested in you. Points to address: Who are you in a nutshell? What are the highlights of your background? What achievements and impact have you made? Why are you seeking a place in the MBA program at HBS and why are you a good fit/how would you add value? This is the place where you try to “stand out” from the rest of the applicant pool.

5. What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?

Analysis: This is more or less the standard goals essay, although many people ask me why HBS uses the expression “career vision” instead of “career goals” which is used by most other schools. HBS wants to know more than just the concrete things that you plan to do after graduation (e.g., become Director of Marketing); they want to know what your mission and career plan and path are (e.g., serve consumers in developing countries through a position as Director of Marketing). “Vision” is what you see for your future: what do you hope to do, what are the steps you will take to get there, what fundamental value, belief or desire is driving this career path for you? However, don’t get overly anxious about this essay question; if you write all your essays well, this goals essay should not be any different from the goals essays you write for other schools. The one difference between HBS’s goals essay and that of other schools, though, is that you don’t need to spend a lot of time convincing them why HBS is your top choice. 😉

Joint degree applicants:
  • How do you expect the joint degree experience to benefit you on both a professional and a personal level? (400-word limit)

Analysis:

This is a straightforward question asking you to talk about why you need the joint degree/joint degree experience. They want to know how studying for both degrees will help you professionally and personally.