For Sale: Successful HBS Applicant Essays

essay-writing-2When I was 12, I watched my dad tattoo himself for four hours. I assumed this meant he was the toughest guy in the world. I quickly learned, however, that he was human, and nothing demonstrated this like our family’s finances. Bounced checks, late rent, and payday loans were de rigueur within families like ours, and bill collectors’ calls were always screened with extreme prejudice.

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What else would I like you to know? I am who I am today mostly because of my brother. He was born when I was four years old, and he had an extremely rare birth defect called Robert’s Syndrome. At the time, he was one of a handful in the world to have it. He was born without arms, couldn’t walk or talk, and had many other severe physical and mental defects.

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I love people. I cannot remember a time when I did not have a genuine interest in every person that I met. Where are they from? What makes them tick? What do they love? On road trips with my family, I would watch out the window for hours and wonder who my fellow travelers on the road were. Where were they going? What had brought us here together so close to one another?

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Random opening paragraphs from three different memoirs? No, the passages above are the opening lines to essays that helped to win the writers of those words an invitation to enroll as an MBA student at the Harvard Business School in this year’s incoming Class of 2016.

Those essays are among 23 that are being published for the first time from admitted applicants who have applied under HBS’ new, slimmed down application process. For just fifty bucks, the latest crop of HBS candidates can get a full peek at the essays in a just published 55-page collection of them, courtesy of The Harbus, the MBA student newspaper at Harvard. (For a witty, irreverent and candid review of the book by HBSGuru Sandy Kreisberg, see Sandy’s Take On The New HBS Essay Book).

This is not the first time that the editors of The Harbus have made available a guidebook filled with essays of admitted students. The first edition of an earlier guidebook, published by St. Martin’s Press, had appeared when HBS required applicants to write six essays in 2004. So the two editions of that book entitled 65 Successful Harvard Business School Applications Essays are stale and outdated.


After all, today HBS has just one optional essay, without a word limitation. The prompt for that essay reads: “You’re applying to Harvard Business School. WE can see your resume, school transcripts, extracurricular 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?”

It was the question answered by all 23 admits who turned over their essays to The Harbus for publication. The primary appeal of ‘The Unofficial Harvard Business School Essay Book,’ says Harbus Editor-in-Chief Nabil Mohamed, is that it “expands your imagination of what could and could not work. As (MBA Admissions Director) Dee Leopold says, ‘Getting into HBS is not an essay writing contest.’ She’s right. This is not that. It’s a bunch of people telling stories about themselves. I think it would benefit applicants very much to see those stories. Some people trap themselves in the same formula over and over again. The book gives applicants an idea of how their essays can work in so many different ways.”

Indeed, the biggest surprise to him was the variety of the essays—the longest was four pages long while the shortest was just three-quarters of a page. “They are completely different,” says Mohamed. “We began the project with the intention to provide some commentary or analysis next to each essay or group of essays. But we found them so different from each other that the only logical thing about them is that they are gripping. Some are cheeky. Some are conservative. Some tell highly emotional stories. Some are mostly about mentorship or guidance a person received.”

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