Who Should Skip The Harvard Essay?

harvard_business_school.gi_You’re applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your resume, school transcripts, extra-curricular activities, awards, post-MBA career goals, test scores and what your recommenders have to say about you. What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy? Maybe there will be admits this year who say we don’t need to know anything else beyond the credentials they have already submitted – for them, the application may be “essay-less.”

And with those words, Harvard Business School Managing Director of Admissions & Financial Aid Dee Leopold opened up last Thursday (May 30) the unusual possibility that MBA applicants may not have to write even a single essay to get into Harvard’s Class of 2016.

The most obvious question now is who would dare skip the chance to put his or her spin on their story?

Beyond the raw stats and static replies in a typical MBA application, essays allow an applicant to differentiate their candidacy, to get out of the crowd. It would take someone with great self-confidence and an already impressive record of achievement to forgo the writing of Harvard’s one essay. So we contacted many of the most prominent MBA admissions consultants in the business to ask them if they would ever advise their clients to pass on the HBS essay, and if so, what kind of profile would a candidate have to possess to make that a smart decision? We also asked them to guess how many applicants would decide not to write Harvard’s essay this cycle.

Chioma Isiadinso, co-founder of EXPARTUS

Chioma Isiadinso, co-founder of EXPARTUS

Predictably, perhaps, one after the other admissions consultant told Poets&Quants that only “walk-on-water” applicants should forgo the essay. Rarely, if ever, would they counsel a client to take Leopold up on her suggestion to pass. For one thing, not doing an essay suggests an ego that Harvard Business School may find off-putting alone. The school is known for screening for arrogance and overbearing ego, often rejecting candidates who show no humility in their application or interview. For another, failing to do an essay allows Harvard to render a judgment on fairly limited information. Most admission consultants guessed that no more than 5% of applicants–less than 500–will apply essay-less.


Chioma Isiadinso, a former member of the Admissions Board at Harvard Business School and now an MBA admissions consultant, believes that fewer than 100 of the 9,500 people who are expected to apply for admission in the 2013-2014 season would skip the essay. “I can’t imagine a situation where I would tell a client to forfeit the chance to tell their story,” she says.

Just how extraordinary would an applicant have to be for Isiadinso, co-founder of the consulting firm EXPARTUS, to recommend no essay? “It would be someone who studied biology at Stanford, has a GPA of 3.9 and a 760 to 780 GMAT, and has been working in life sciences and would not traditionally go the business school route. Harvard would be hungry for that person and worry that he or she would go to Stanford instead.”

Dan Bauer, founder and managing director of The MBA Exchang

Dan Bauer, founder and managing director of The MBA Exchange

Even so, most agree with her that it’s highly unlikely that they would advise a person not to do the essay. “We would neverrecommend that a client not do the Harvard essay,” says Dan Bauer, founder and managing director of The MBA Exchange, one of the larger MBA consulting firms. “This open-ended opportunity for an applicant to candidly present his or her fit, passion and value proposition for admission is simply too important to pass up.”


Jeremy Shinewald of mbaMission

As Jeremy Shinewald, founder and president of admissions consultants mbaMission, explains it, “Even if someone had amazing ‘headline value’ — a professional athlete with a 700+ GMAT for example – we would still think it would be important that he/she write the essay, if only to send a humble message that says, ‘I am not better than anyone else and I take nothing for granted.’ I cannot see us advising anyone to eschew an opportunity to take control of their narrative and tell their story to the HBS admissions committee. I am sure that someone will have the audacity to apply without writing an essay and will succeed, but it would not be what I would recommend. I can see a situation where someone might apply without writing an essay out of sheer naiveté and later laugh at the fact that it was something ‘radical’ to have unwittingly tried.”


Other prospective candidates who forgo the writing exercise are likely to be people throwing a Hail Mary pass in Harvard’s direction, thinks Jana Blanchette, founder of Inside MBA Admissions. “I  predict there will be many people who apply without essays, who ‘always wanted to go to HBS’ but know they aren’t really HBS/Wharton/Stanford material. These people will rationalize that it is worth the cost of the application and a few hours of work to say they ‘at least tried.’  These won’t be my clients.”

Related Stories:

HBS Application Down To One Essay
Sandy On Harvard’s New MBA Application
HBS Applicants ‘Panicked & Confused’

  • short crosse

    I totally agree with your observation of the Harvard oversaturation. On PQ it is Harvard or nothing. Every theme is package as Harvard plus X. I read this website’s mission statement to make it the premier source for value added info for MBA applicants. The Harvard obsession hurts PQ’s goal of diverse reporting. It must be frustrating for non Harvard readers and admissions officers from other schools to get non Harvard events covered.

  • dada

    No one is saying there should be coverage on ‘just’ any school. All some of us are saying is that news on Booth, Wharton, Stanford and other top school will also be news worthy. Or you don’t think so?

  • TJ

    Best bschools and HBS are synonymous….a lot of people follow HBS. It’s important and newsworthy. In fact, quite a few people in my office were discussing HBS’ move during lunch. P&Q is popular because it covers schools like HBS in solid detail and has experts like Sandy opine on admissions, requirements, stats, etc. I for one would not be interested in whether Mountain Valley College decided to reduce its number of essays or change its interview format. In fact, any of the schools outside the top 15 or 20 aren’t even going to be that newsworthy to be begin with. P&Q does stories on Carson School of Mgmt (Minn) and Washington Olin — and those get 3 or 4 comments, if that. Any HBS story on here gets a ton more. That alone should answer the critics. HBS stories, MBA rankings, job placements, Sandy’s column — these are the main attractions.

    Keep up the good work P&Q.

  • JohnAByrne

    I certainly can understand your feeling that. Yet as far as applicant news goes–and this site’s core demographic is composed of applicants who want to attend one of the world’s best business schools–Harvard’s move to one optional essay is big and important news. Each year, about 9,500 people apply to HBS and probably 5,000 more want to but decide against it. When Harvard significantly changed its admissions process last year, many schools followed with similar changes, cutting back on words limits and the number of required essays. So there’s also the fact that HBS’s actions are widely followed above and beyond the 15,000 or so in the potential applicant pool.

    In recent days, we have also published stories on MBA admissions policies at Ross admissions (http://poetsandquants.com/2013/05/23/ross-to-roll-out-team-admission-interviews/) as well as Stanford (http://poetsandquants.com/2013/05/30/stanford-class-of-2016-essays-same-as-last-year/) and Columbia (http://poetsandquants.com/2013/05/30/columbia-business-school-sells-nyc-location/).

    Those changes were less newsworthy than the HBS changes because they are not nearly so dramatic or controversial, for that matter. That’s why they all received a single story and HBS has had several. Hope this explains why you’ve seen a bit more Harvard coverage in the past few days. Over the next few, I think you’ll see a shift back to more overall coverage.

  • Lars

    Amen bro. Three stories out six of Today’s Must Reads are about HBS. It is Harvard, Harvard and Harvard again. One might assume that events at other B-Schools not newsworthy.

  • dada

    I really hope John accepts this criticism in good faith. The Harvard news has been way over the top. As far as I know, other schools such as Stanford and Ross have also released their essays, so why this fixation on only harvard?

  • Shaniqua James

    What percentage of applicants are more or less competitive based on quantifiable metrics provided with the application? At least 80%, but more like 90 to 95%. There simply isn’t much value-added in the essay. Moreover, these consultants are telling prospective clients to believe that an essay won’t be without costs, that it is a costless option. Think about it this way: notwithstanding tactful packaging by Sandy or Linda Abraham, the median essay is pure dishonest and self-serving drive. In the past, when everyone was required to write the essays, no one was excessively penalized. But Ms. Leopold has changed the game: the competitive applicant who submits an essayless applciation places himself above the median.

    Think about it and, if you’re applying to HBS this year, think about whether you’re a competitive applicant. If you are a competitive applicant (which you should readily know), then you should apply essayless. Otherwise, you just shouldn’t apply. Success in life consists in knowing when to give up. Yes, there is a middle ground for an extremely small number of remarkable people. That doesn’t include Rhodes Scholars who most certainly won’t need to submit an essay. -Shaniqua

  • Faircoverage


    I respectfully inform you that P&Q’s recent coverage has become too Harvard centric. Surely there are other trends and themes outside Harvard? Your readers would thank you for a more balanced reporting. Otherwise P&Q can be merged with Harbus (HBS mag).