How To Answer Harvard’s New Essays

by John A. Byrne on

The official start to the new MBA application season for the Class of 2014 began yesterday (May 9) when Harvard Business School released its new essay questions. Nearly 10,000 applicants typically apply to Harvard’s MBA program each year, more than any other U.S. B-school. Stanford, Chicago, Northwestern, and the other elite schools will soon follow with their newly revised application essays.

This year, Harvard’s new questions were quietly posted on the school’s website, with only a brief earlier mention that they would be coming this week by Admissions Director Deirdre “Dee” Leopold on her blog.

Yet, the publication of Harvard’s questions is “the bugle that starts the Kentucky Derby,” says admissions consultant Sandy Kreisberg, aka HBS Guru. “That’s when anyone who is focused on applying next year starts paying attention. We’re talking about the first round mindset, the bankers, the PE (private equity) guys, the consultants. These guys have known they were going to apply years ago.”

This year’s big news: HBS applicants no longer have a choice among questions. They have to write as many as 200 more words than this year. And there are two new questions, including one that requires you to fess up to three setbacks as well as three accomplishments.

The new, four mandatory essay questions (with word limits):

* Tell us about three of your accomplishments. (600 words)
* Tell us three setbacks you have faced. (600 words)
* Why do you want an MBA? (400 words)
* Answer a question you wish we’d asked. (400 words)

They replace last year’s lineup:

* What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such? (600 words)
* What have you learned from a mistake? (400 words)
Please respond to two of the following (400 words each):
* What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience?
* What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?
* Tell us about a time in your professional experience when you were frustrated or disappointed.
* When you join the HBS Class of 2013, how will you introduce yourself to your new classmates?

Sandy Kreisberg, HBS Guru, in Harvard Square

Sandy Kreisberg, HBS Guru, in Harvard Square

With Harvard’s Oct. 3rd first round application deadline less than five months away, we turned to Kreisberg to assess the changes and to offer early advice on how to craft essays to answer HBS’s new questions. Kreisberg has been advising applicants to Harvard, Stanford, Wharton and other elite B-schools for some 15 years.

Sandy, what’s the headline news here?

The important news is that you now need six stories instead of four. Last year you had to write about three accomplishments and a mistake. Now you need three accomplishments and three setbacks. That will separate the men from the girls. There’s no choice of questions. You have to write 200 more words, and then there’s a free throw question on the essay to answer a question you wished Harvard asked.

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  • guest

    “Now you need three accomplishments and three setbacks. That will separate the men from the girls”?

    Really, Sandy? Sounds to me like such deep, honest, mature introspection will separate the WOMEN from the BOYS, n’est-ce pas? ;)

  • http://www.myjewishbooks.com Larry

    Come on! The men from the girls? WHo edited this peice. An astute editor would have told this guru to change his language and update his mental state.

  • http://hbsguru.com hbsguru :-(

    guilty, please forgive me. — I can recall my mental state when I said it with nano-time precision: I was reaching for some witty variant of men from boys and was toying w. sheep from ewes –but I was not sure exactly what an ewe is (young sheep, female sheep) and believe it or not cancelled that thought because I thought it could be offensive–and in that gender confusion, and my desire to say something that was not a cliche, men and girls came out. OK, you will believe me or not, but I have pristine recall of my thought process, and then after I said men from girls, felt that was stupid, but was so caught up with actually explaining the substance of what I was saying, just let it pass. And let me add, not only is it stupid, it’s not funny or clever either, soooo just a blot on what, ahem, allow me to say, is some GREAT advice.

  • Mel Gibson

    I didn’t think the “men from the girls” comment was particularly offensive.

  • http://www.vinceprep.com/ Vince

    Decent advice, Herr Guru Sandy Sir.
    But to the applicants, never trust a guru who gets paid by the hour.
    We have fought too many battles to fully listen to your words more than ours.
    Follow your heart and question your instincts.
    Always.
    Vince Ricci

  • Yaman

    Hi Sandy,
    You say they don’t like business ideas. Quote :”As a rule, they don’t like people who want to start their own businesses.”
    You also recommend sticking to past job experience (“Give examples of things you have been involved in”).
    Dilemma:: What should be the strategy if a person is already in a business? (not a job). Should he give a business plan. Or it’s better for him to say that he would probably like to join XYZ after an MBA?

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