Harvard Business School
Harvard MBA Essay Analysis
(2021-22 Application Cycle)
Harvard MBA Essay 1
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? (No word limit)
Harvard’s mission statement is simple and precise: We educate leaders who make a difference in the world.
HBS seeks candidates who have demonstrated this mission, and show promise to do much more with Harvard’s support. When it comes to defining leadership, there is no ‘one size fits all’. HBS is looking for people from all backgrounds and is keen to hear their different leadership stories. This is reflected by their essay prompt: an open-ended, reflective question, it opens the door for you to convey how you will add depth to HBS’ unique student cohort.
Over the years, I have seen how varied this essay can be. The most unconventional applicant has had a narrative just as strong as someone taking the traditional MBA route. So, what are some of the common factors that HBS looks for in this essay?
Use of Space
This essay prompt has no word limit. There’s enough room for interpretation, creativity, and storytelling. This is why it’s great, but also why it’s challenging. It’s tempting to write at length about your experiences and try to get it all in there. But Harvard values the ability to edit yourself. Can you create a consistent and central narrative yourself, without them providing a frame? In my experience, a 900 - 1200 word count is the ideal length to convey a compelling narrative and hold the reader’s attention.
Building an Authentic Narrative
Don’t start writing without a framework. Start by taking time to brainstorm your narrative, then you can write stories intended to support it. Get into details and think of the Golden Circle of why, how, and what.
Why - The purpose. The motivation behind your stories and experiences.
How - The process. How did you strive to achieve your purpose?
What - The result. Your lessons from your story, and how it helped you grow.
Your values, motivations, and goals cannot be expressed through dry statistics. This essay is your opportunity to develop these fully using stories. Successful essays with highly-personal stories contain details, emotions, and lessons that are unique to the applicant. These engage the reader and make them want to know more about the human behind the essay. Add an authentic story which shows your unique personality to connect with AdCom.
Breaking the Mold
Applicants often think of their essay from the university’s point of view. Many write what they think the Admissions Committee wants to hear.
Rather than asking yourself “Is this what they expect to see?”, ask yourself “Is this who I am?”.
There is no secret sauce to MBA admission success, but the best essays prioritize the applicant’s values and are infused with honest self-analysis. Leadership is not necessarily about heroism. You can be a leader through empathy and strong communication. Don’t worry too much about what the AdCom might think of your passions, your failures, or the gaps in your profile. If they add to a powerful narrative, the AdCom wants to read it!
Knowing What to Highlight
Leadership, community engagement, and analytical ability - these are Harvard’s top 3 student strengths according to the school. Use them to guide your essay. These can be interpreted differently in your story, and maybe one stands out more than the others. Knowing what to highlight so that your strengths are communicated to the reader can transform your writing. So, here are my tips on how to leverage these skills and become a better storyteller:
Even in the most nontraditional essays, subtly inserted details make the applicant memorable. For example, “Growing up, my family and I had a little nightly ritual. We would make ourselves a warm cup of tea and sit in bed, talking honestly and openly about what we felt that day. This was my inspiration for incorporating the mood check-in in our weekly calls, which increased our team’s psychological safety, especially before starting a new project. Just as I had learned to build trust through sharing, our team became more assured that we had each other’s backs.”
Use simple language. Utilize → Use. You can be creative and vivid with your words, but this should be an essay that everyone can read and understand without having to open a dictionary.
If you have a unique cultural perspective, it’s good to include it if possible.
If you’re applying from an over-represented MBA profession, such as investment banking or consulting, it’s particularly important that your stories are unusual. Consider using stories from your extracurricular activities (particularly since IB and consulting applicants tend to have few of these).
Don’t ramble on while describing an event or story. If you’re wondering where to allocate space, choose analysis.
When you’ve written your first draft, get a third-person perspective from an editor, an MBA alumnus, or an MBA admissions consultant. They can bring something new to the table and help you write more honestly.
Keep in mind that the approach that worked for someone else may not work for you. Harvard values individuality and grit. If your essay can show this and support it with personal and professional experiences, there’s a strong possibility that it will stand out.
Essay 2 - Career Goals Answer
Briefly tell us more about your career aspirations. (500 characters)
This is a short but important essay. Here, you can describe your employment plans, industry and function in the online application portal. This essay is an opportunity to showcase precision, clarity, and strategic planning about your goals after your MBA.
Center the essay around your short-term and longer-term goals. Be aspirational but also practical. These goals should be achievable, actionable, and logical.
"My post-MBA plan is to return to Oliver Wyman, which will sponsor my MBA. Upon my return, I will focus on FMCG clients, helping them to restructure and navigate new regulations. After 3-4 years, I may transition to one of these client companies, directly leveraging my leadership and strategy skills to transform the way that Vietnamese consumer goods companies finance their M&A. My long-term goal is to launch a health-tech startup with my sister in Hanoi."
Essay 3 - Post-interview reflection
Within 24 hours of your interview, you will be asked to submit a post-interview reflection. This includes direct prompts, as well as space for you to reflect on your interview. Here are a few points you must bear in mind while writing your post-interview reflection:
There is no word limit for this essay. However, a sensible guide is to stick to less than one page. This is not a formal essay, so don't approach it too clinically. Here’s a simple structure you can use for this essay:
Introduction: Begin your essay by thanking the interviewer and recapping the interview. If you think it went great, be concise.
Body: State what you learned and what you can take away from it; after all, you don’t get interviewed by Harvard every day. If you think there were some areas you want to explain or could have done better in, add them to your essay. Take notes about your interview conversation and dig deeper into the insights you discussed and are curious about.
Conclusion: While writing your concluding notes, view the essay like a closing argument in court. Remember to express enthusiasm and intent about your future at Harvard.