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.”

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