Who Should Skip The Harvard Essay?

Jana Blanchette, founder of Inside MBA Admissions

Jana Blanchette, founder of Inside MBA Admissions

Blanchette estimates that about 5% of the candidates will not write the essay. but “80% of these (about 3-4% of applicants) will be the ‘dreamers’ and the rest (1-2%) will be the ‘all-stars.’ These are students who fall into an uncommon profile which is clearly evident just through their resume and application – and whose profile Dee feels she needs to balance her hand-picked class. Eclectic job experiences and extracurricular activities (“save the world” extracurricular activities, as I like to call them) can come through on a resume, so candidates whose differentiator falls into these areas could get away with not writing an essay.  I will always ask my clients – if they choose not to write the essay – is your “hook” or theme evident?  For example – a hook or them might be “ Ohh……he is the healthcare consultant who served in the Peace Corps and was a Division One athlete in college.”  In other words, memorable without an essay.

“I would rarely encourage a client not to write the HBS essay,” adds Blanchette. “I simply do not think there are that many candidates who have a resume, application, and other materials that “stand on their own.”  I think even top notch applicants who I would consider “shoe-ins” would benefit from writing the essay – as it gives them an open-ended way to really showcase more of their candidacy. I think if a candidate doesn’t write the essay, he/she should be very careful and make sure their application can “stand alone.”  Otherwise, I think the applicant is not respecting the question, the process, and doing themselves harm in the end. Even if they choose to write the essay – there is going to be a strategy, I will employ with each applicant to ensure we are showcasing the applicant in the best light.”

Linda Abraham, founder of Accepted.com

Linda Abraham, founder of Accepted.com

‘WHEN ONE HAS NOTHING TO SAY, THE BEST POLICY IS TO SAY NOTHING’

What if you write like a lawyer and don’t want to hire a consultant to help? Says Linda Abraham, founder of Accepted.com, “I can only see myself recommending no essay in very limited cases such as the walk-on-water candidate who couldn’t write if his life depending on it. In HBS terms though, it’s hard to imagine someone who has the leadership and impact that Harvard wants and really can’t communicate. Another possibility would be someone who simply had nothing else to say of value beyond what is presented by the required elements of the application.And if all HBS wants to know about are in the resume, school transcripts, extra-curricular activities, awards, post-MBA career goals, test scores and recommendation, and the applicant has nothing else to add… well when one has nothing to say the best policy is to say nothing. I see few people who are multi-dimensional and impressive having nothing to say beyond the required elements.”

Sandy Kreisberg, founder of HBSGuru.com

Sandy Kreisberg, founder of HBSGuru.com

Sandy Kreisberg, founder of HBSGuru and author of the popular MBA handicapping column on Poets&Quants, suspects that most people who pass will be applicants who aren’t in the know. “Who wouldn’t submit an essay? The real answer, as opposed to the fantasy answer, is some techie who is an innocent applicant with no consultants or friends applying who reads instructions quickly, and who by training, never answers optional questions,” believes Kreisberg. “I’ve dealt with guys similar to this. They just don’t take the application process super seriously and squeeze out every angle, like readers of P&Q.  They just apply and often succeed, if DNA is solid. Or some international applicant who gets the wrong impression from the instructions, similar to the techie in many ways, and thinks the essay is for extraordinary explanations like grades or low GMATs.”

The bottom line, as Stacy Blackman, founder of Stacy Blackman Consulting, puts it, don’t

Stacy Blackman, founder and president of Stacy Blackman Consulting

Stacy Blackman, founder and president of Stacy Blackman Consulting

take Harvard Business School up on its offer not to write. “I would never recommend that someone not do the HBS essay,” Blackman insists. “Since you supposedly do not know what goes in your letters of recommendation, not doing the essay sends a message that you are all about the things that you have done: scores, grades, awards – and there is no substance beyond that. That’s a very limited view of oneself – I’d like to believe we are all more than a sheet of paper. It feels pretty egotistical, too.

“I DO think that they will admit people who don’t do the essay,” she adds. “There will be some who are worth taking to the interview stage just on the basis of numbers and accomplishments, and they can always weed out after the interview if necessary.   And this will help HBS prove the point that this process is not about the essays.  However, as an adviser I think it’s not a risk worth taking, and a well put together essay will help more than not doing one at all.  This will generate great press around admissions time next year!”

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About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.