Before You Write That HBS Essay….



Harvard Business School (HBS) has announced that it has a new essay question for those aspiring to be part of its Class of 2018 and that writing an essay is now mandatory. Apparently, though, no one considered last year’s essay optional, because HBS Director of Admissions Dee Leopold reported in a recent blog post that every single applicant submitted one. All candidates will be writing an essay this application season, so you should start by taking a look at the school’s new essay prompt and then reading our dos and don’ts.

First, here are our top five tips for what to do when approaching this question:


Before you start writing, ask yourself, “Who am I, and what do I stand for?” Then, as you write, rather than just presenting a string of anecdotes about achievements you feel might sound impressive, strive to communicate your sense of purpose and the values that motivated you to achieve the important objectives in your life. If your essay is more biographical in nature, be sure that your narrative clearly conveys how certain events shaped you and what drove you to make subsequent decisions, thereby revealing the values that are important to you. As you near the end of the writing process, ask yourself that key question again, and if you feel that you have successfully revealed what defines you as an individual, you will likely have given yourself your best shot.


You may expect that everyone entering HBS will have won an Olympic gold medal, sold their popular start-up to Google, and then dedicated themselves to fighting hunger in Africa. Let us reassure you that such candidates are the very rare exception rather than the norm. Sure, every HBS class includes a few really spectacularly accomplished individuals, but the vast majority of the school’s admits are simply professionals who know how to do regular things—regular, at least, for hardworking über achievers—remarkably well. The key is not to worry about how impressive or distinctive your accomplishment or journey is but to focus on articulating your personality through the sharing of that achievement or journey. Think about how you have excelled and where you have shown initiative and succeeded. Identify life-shaping experiences and what has made you the person you are today. Then share these experiences, and imbue your essay with details to mark your chosen stories as specifically yours.


You may have heard the old journalistic maxim “show, don’t tell,” which means sharing a story by presenting the details of how it played out, rather than making declarative statements about the incident. Recounting the progression of a story makes for a much more interesting essay than direct statements of conclusion. Showing your story enables you to engage your reader and provide a more authentic sense of who you are, by describing what you have done. And narratively walking your reader through the experience you are presenting allows your reader to naturally arrive at the desired conclusion (e.g., you were successful in your endeavor, you felt pride in your accomplishment) without your having to “tell” that outcome yourself. Here is a comparison of the two approaches for you:

Tell: “My best qualities are that I am dedicated and compassionate. I can’t help but feel empathetic toward all people and animals. So I have been volunteering at a no-kill animal shelter for several years. It warms my heart every time I see a puppy rescued, and I am relentless in finding the owners of strays.”

Show: “How many posters must you affix to lampposts to find a stray dog’s owner? I’ve learned that in Brooklyn, the answer is usually two per block for 50 square blocks. I always post on Fridays so that people will notice the fliers over the weekend. In the past two years, I have easily posted more than 20,000 notices and returned no less than 30 dogs to their teary-eyed, always grateful owners.”

A story that is shown, rather than told, will always be more engaging and illuminating, because it immerses the reader in the story. In this case, the writer of the second example never needs to say, “I am dedicated to and compassionate about animals,” because the details she shares make the point for her. Showing lets you more effectively demonstrate who you are and what is important to you.


On the HBS admissions blog, Leopold recommends that applicants “imagine simply saying [their story] out loud.” We would take this advice a step beyond imagining and suggest that when you have a workable first draft, go somewhere quiet and actually read your essay aloud! And we do mean this literally. Hearing your essay aloud will give you a sense of its sincerity and impact. If something does not sound quite right, you will know to cut or change it. As you revise, after each subsequent draft, read your essay out loud again, carefully noting which parts feel true to who you are and which do not—and keeping in mind that an effective and compelling essay will be deeply personal. Listening to your words aloud will ensure that your voice is as strong as it can possibly be in print.


Anyone who has ever spoken with Dee Leopold—and especially anyone who has asked her an admissions question—knows that she is about as direct and straight-talking as they come. She says what she means and should therefore be taken at her word. Dee stated on the HBS admissions blog, “We have no pre-conceived ideas of what ‘good’ looks like. We look forward to lots of variance.” So you can believe that there is no template or cookie cutter approach to writing a successful HBS essay and that the admissions committee has no expectations beyond hearing what you want to say. Focus on writing the right essay for you and the message you want to share with the school, rather than trying to decipher what you think the admissions committee “really” wants. Aiming to fulfill an imagined want at the expense of communicating your sincere experiences is a fool’s errand.

Author Jeremy Shinewald is the founder and president of mbaMission, a leading MBA admissions consulting firm.

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