And here are our top five recommendations of what not to do in writing this essay:
1. DON’T WRITE MORE THAN 1,250 WORDS (OR IDEALLY, EVEN MORE THAN 1,000)
Earlier in this piece, we encouraged you to read your essay aloud. Building on this advice, we now encourage you to specifically read something of 1,250 words aloud. Doing so (at a normal speaking pace) should take about ten minutes. Note that HBS says that “should you enroll at HBS, there will be an opportunity for you to share this with them,” meaning your classmates. If you got up and spoke to your classmates for a full ten minutes, you would need to have some really gripping material to hold their attention the entire time. We are sure you have an interesting story to tell, but is it gripping enough to captivate 90 people for that long? If not, erring on the shorter side may be a good idea.
As HBS has done away with word counts over the past few years, we have seen many applicants succeed with essays of 600–1,250 words, with most being between 750 and 1,000. Remember that HBS’s preferred teaching method—the case method—requires that students identify the most important facets of a situation and be able to discuss them clearly and succinctly. On some level, the admissions committee could use this essay to evaluate your ability to do just that—only with yourself as the subject. You do not want to send the message that you are a self-important individual who will speak inordinately in class, but instead that you are a thoughtful person who understands what is important and can pinpoint and reveal truly interesting and relevant information in a concise manner.
2. DON’T FEEL COMPELLED TO WRITE ABOUT GOALS, ‘WHY HBS?,’ OR THE CASE METHOD!
As we noted earlier in this article, Dee Leopold is a real straight shooter. Therefore, given that HBS does not explicitly ask you about your career goals, why you want to go to HBS, or the case method, you can be sure that you are not expected to write about these topics. If your professional aspirations, reasons for targeting HBS, or connection to the case method truly define you and would be important elements of introducing yourself to your classmates, however, then addressing these subjects in your essay might be a good idea, if not necessary. Otherwise, using this essay opportunity to discuss your interest in the school, where you intend to take your career, or why you like the case method would be a waste of valuable words—and your introduction would end up sounding trite and clichéd. (Note: Do not interpret HBS’s request that you watch a video about the case method to mean that you must tie your experiences or values to the case method for this essay.)
3. DON’T BE OVERLY LITERARY OR GIMMICKY
Your essay is clearly quite important, but to craft a compelling submission, you need only to sincerely express your experiences and accomplishments. Your writing does not need to mimic famous literature or be the caliber of a Pulitzer Prize winner’s. You should diligently edit and refine your work, of course, doing your best to ensure proper spelling and grammar, but always remember that the true star of your essay is your content—not your punctuation or word choice. In short, give the admissions committee a window into your life and personality, not your creative writing abilities. Its focus is not on the number of syllables in your adjectives but on gaining an impression of you as an individual and your potential as a student and professional.
4. DON’T RE-PACKAGE YOUR RESUME
Yes, we know what you are thinking: you are applying to business school, so you must use the essay to share all your business achievements, right? Wrong. Do not forget that this essay is meant to serve as an introduction of yourself to your future classmates. So ask yourself, how boring would listening to someone reciting his/her resume be? That would hardly serve as a compelling introduction. Although your professional life is likely very important to you, it is not all that you are. Discussing a particularly interesting, challenging, or illuminating professional moment is certainly okay if doing so helps reveal an important part of your character, values, or personality. Otherwise, rest assured that your resume will provide the school the information it needs about your career highlights and progression, and use the essay to create a more rounded image of yourself to the admissions committee and, ideally, your fellow students.
5. DON’T REPURPOSE ANOTHER SCHOOL’S ESSAY YOU THINK IS SIMILAR
Although the HBS admissions officers will not be proactively trying to identify whether any candidates have repurposed an essay they wrote for another school (such as for the Stanford Graduate School of Business’s “What matters to you and why?” prompt), thanks to their extensive experience, they can clearly tell when someone has reused an existing essay and made only minor changes. This kind of shortcut is for lazy applicants, and HBS has no interest in lazy applicants, so steer clear of this approach. HBS wants to know that you have taken the time and effort to consider and craft a response to its essay prompt specifically (and clearly, “introduce yourself” is not the same as “what matters to you?”). If you have already written (or made substantial progress on) an essay that you feel has significant overlap with what you want to say for your HBS submission, avoid the temptation to copy, paste and rework that essay. Instead, even if many of the same experiences will be included in your HBS essay, start anew and write your HBS essay separately. Each school’s essay questions are different, so your responses should also be different.
Author Jeremy Shinewald is the founder and president of mbaMission, a leading MBA admissions consulting firm.