How To Answer Harvard’s New Essays

What do you make of the changes?

They do this very casually. There are no tea leaves to read. The biggest change was going from six to four required questions. This is about as minimal as it can get. I think they figured out that four is enough. They know what they are looking for and they can get it with these questions. I give them credit. There is no baloney about ethics. No concession to multi-media. They are not asking you to design a website. This is a very old set of questions.

It’s not a radical redesign, but it will require a little more horsepower because it’s six stories instead of four. That requires more experiences or more creativity. The three-setback question could be the stumper for some.

My top line advice: Be a victim or help victims.

That is a story situation which really pays off. ‘How I overcame being a Muslim in a conservative high school in Texas’ or ‘How I helped other Muslims/Latins/people in the slums of Brazil.’ Any slum is a great place to situate an HBS essay.

Do it anywhere you can, in your accomplishments and in your setbacks. Also keep in mind, the reason I say six stories is that any accomplishment could be posed as a setback. Your job is to come up with six stories and then figure out which of them is an accomplishment and which of them is a setback. What six situations in my life do I want to show a picture of? Let’s say you helped your dad turnaround his business and it was a great accomplishment because you get to help your dad and overcame a generation gap. That could be either an accomplishment or a setback. As a setback, you might write that you weren’t able to follow through with helping your dad turn the business around because you made some great starts but lost focus over the next year because you failed to balance helping him with your job.

So let’s take the first one. How does an applicant approach the requirement to tell Harvard about three accomplishments?

This is the most important question. What they are interested in is both a solid accomplishment and seeing some reflection. A solid accomplishment to them frequently has metric results. ‘I started an organization and it grew from zip to 500 members who have done one, two, three. And here is how I did it, and this is what I learned.’

They want to see you with and working through other people and see you leading people in different ways. So you should pick stories that conform to those criteria. What they don’t want is a brag sheet or something baked into your application. Winning a Rhodes scholarship is not an accomplishment. How you managed a work/life balance problem to be recommended for a Rhodes scholarship. And how you get help from advisors and friends to prepare for the Rhodes selection process is what Harvard is interested in.

If you do a work accomplishment, it helps if it has impact. It helps if you were able to gain allies. And it helps if you were capable of pointing out how you were effective in doing x, y and z. the biggest mistake is starting too far back. I read a lot of essays where after 180 words of throat clearing and explaining we finally hear about the accomplishment. In some cases, the last sentence should really be the first sentence. You don’t need a back story. A good rule of thumb is to just say doing X required me to be very flexible. And then write more specifically about how you were flexible in achieving X and show different types of leadership.

But whatever you do, pay tremendous attention to story selection. What they want to see is you having accomplishments in different fields—at work, with peers, your impact on the community. Good story selection and serviceable execution is better than boring and unimpactful story selection and brilliant execution. No amount of great execution can save a tepid story. When you read 100s of apps, as I have, you see this immediately.

The story selection advice has to apply to the second question that requires an applicant to write about three setbacks, right?

For setbacks, story selection is critical. Ideally, you will need to write about a professional setback, a personal setback, and an extracurricular setback. As a general rule, they are not interested in ‘I got it right the second time.’ That’s less important than people think. ‘I made a lousy presentation about my idea and then I did it right.’ Ho-hum. A better essay actually is why you did it wrong in the first place and what you learned about yourself. Sure, that could be told in the ‘after’ story, but often folks get so caught up in the ‘winner’ version, they blot out most of the reflection. Another common weakness in these answers is a story which is just bad luck and not a setback. For instance, ‘We bought a product to market and the recession killed us.’ That is not a setback that you can do anything about. They are interested in a setback that someone else with greater skill or different character could have done correctly, or a relationship that could have been managed correctly.

What they like is humble service leadership. Don’t be afraid to admit failure. Believe me. They don’t blame you for mis-managing your relationships with your ex-fiancé. Very powerful setback stories are about family mismanagement. ‘My dad was dying and I wasn’t able to help my mom enough because I was reenacting some bad oedipal script so I didn’t have the energy to deal with my mother. That is perfect.

A classic setback? ‘I was managing a team and there was a sales part and a quality assurance part. They were always fighting about the infinite features the sales team wanted. My job was to bring the two together. Instead, I got entranced with the train wreck. That is classic. Team mismanagement is a good setback. Mismanaging team dynamics is an excellent setback. Once again, story selection is key. ‘When I volunteered at the leper colony in Zimbabwe, I did not pay enough attention to the tribal chiefs and never was effective.’ That is a gold star. Keep in mind the golden rule: Be a victim or help victims. You can’t do better than working in a leper colony for Harvard Business School. Even if you failed, believe me, a complete failure in a leper colony is worth 100 success in some merger deal.

Page 2 of 3