HBS MBAs Gathering Essays To Sell

Harvard essaysUSS Georgia hurtled through the Pacific hundreds of feet below the surface, and I was at her helm as Officer of the Deck. Our submarine’s massive battery was almost drained, common after a day of intense training, when I received an emergency report that a failed instrument had shut down the reactor. Without an operational reactor or fresh air for the diesel generator, the ship had to rely solely on its nearly depleted battery for electrical power. Unless I took decisive action, Georgia would go dead in the water.

That’s how Arthur Joseph O’Keefe IV started one of his essays to the Harvard Business School. Whether it made a major difference in his HBS acceptance, we’ll never really know. But his essay was made public because a group of HBS students at The Harbus, the MBA student newspaper, gathered his essay up and published it along with 64 others in a revealing guidebook.

Now, the MBA students at The Harbus are at it again. They’re asking applicants accepted in this year’s Round 1 to consider giving their essays over for publication in a brand new guide—and they are hoping that HBS-bound candidates will be as generous as O’Keefe had been in sharing their words with others.


After all, the first and second editions of the previous book is now stale and outdated. Published by St. Martin’s Press, the pragmatically entitled 65 Successful Harvard Business School Application Essays was first made available in August of 2004 when the school made applying to HBS more of an essay writing contest. Back then, Harvard Business School required six essays. A second edition came out four years ago when four essays were mandatory. Today, HBS has just one optional essay, though few if any applicants dare not submit anything.

“It actually sold pretty well, but it is now out of date, especially since the school has changed its application quite a few times since it came out,” agrees Alexander Kleiner, a second-year MBA who is also CEO and editor-in-chief of The Harbus News Corp. “So members of The Harbus staff know students who applied to HBS in the first round this year. We are going to reach out to them to see if they are willing to share their essays with us. We may choose to redact a sentence here or there if there is something someone doesn’t want shared, but the plan is to reproduce them anonymously as they were given to the admissions committee.”

With a precedent established earlier, there seems to be few questions about the ethics of it all. “I’m not sure if it crosses the line,” says Betsy Massar, an HBS alumna who is founder of Master Admissions, an MBA consulting admissions consultancy. “After all, they do publish the 65 Harvard Business School essays. I guess I have to laugh if The Harbus does it and no one complains, but if we (consultants) help out students, it’s an outrage. Honestly.”

Asked why applicants might turn over their essays to be reprinted for others to see, Kleiner says he believes it’s a way for admits to “pay it forward in a way. People are so proud of themselves when they get in that they feel a great sense of accomplishment. They want to share and give back. Secondly, a lot of these prospective students and applicants used our interview guide and feel grateful to us for producing that resource.”


The benefit of seeing other successful essays, thinks Kleiner, is that it can give an applicant confidence that their own approach could be successful, too. That’s why he thinks the book will be helpful to all business school applicants and not just HBS aspirants. “From my own perspective, I purchased the 65 Essays book. It was helpful just to read through and see what other people were saying. Clearly everybody’s story is different. I had never applied to business school before and I didn’t know what it meant to present myself to a business school. Reading what other people wrote really helped me frame my own story.”

Kleiner says the goal is to get about 25 essays from Round 1 admits. “If we can’t get that number, we’ll take what we get and say these work for the current application and source the rest with the essays written by first-year students. Last year was something of an open-ended question as well, so it’s pretty similar and the responses will largely be similar in nature.”

Indeed, when the 65 Essays book was published, it was divided up into nine separate sections with essays on leadership, a typical day, a defining moment, experiencing a setback or failure, an ethical dilemma, three accomplishments, strengths and weakness, and why a person needed an MBA from Harvard to begin with.These days used copies of the paperback are available on Amazon for as little as a penny.


For the 2013-2014 admission season,  HBS asked applicants to do only one essay and even made that optional. The prompt for it reads: “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?”

Kleiner believes the question is so open-ended that it no doubt attracted all kinds of essay examples that applicants to other business schools would find very useful. Amazon reviews of the previous book suggest he’s right. One reviewer, Christian Antal, said the book “offers a pretty good overview, it may trigger some thoughts and give indications as to what the application office might be looking for and the characteristics of a typical HBS student.”

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