How To Apply To Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School


This is the most patently important step in the entire process and it is easy to understand why candidates fixate immediately on essay writing when it comes time to apply to HBS (or anywhere else).  However, if that eagerness and singular focus results in skipping over the previous seven steps in this guide, the best essays in the world won’t make a shred of difference.  You must reach this step in the process armed with the insight, perspective, and tools to succeed, or you are just wasting your time and money.  That said, for the candidate who has properly prepared, the essay stage is conquerable just like everything that comes before it.

HBS asks a post-interview question and has a short “what are your career plans” question within the app, but for the most part, it all comes down to one question:

“It’s the first day of class at HBS. You are in Aldrich Hall meeting your “section.” This is the group of 90 classmates who will become your close companions in the first-year MBA classroom. Our signature case method participant-based learning model ensures that you will get to know each other very well. The bonds you collectively create throughout this shared experience will be lasting.

Introduce yourself.

Note: Should you enroll at HBS, there will be an opportunity for you to share this with them.”

We suggest you view this video before beginning to write: 

We’re going to start with analysis of the video and then move to the rest of it.

Video Analysis

Here is what we think this video is about:

  1. The Case Method really mirrors what managers do in the real world.
  2. The Case Method puts the student in the seat of that manager or employee confronting a problem.  It helps to imagine yourself as the protagonist; how would you analyze and respond accordingly? Think – “what would I do if I were the protagonist in the case?”
  3. Learning (via the Case Method and at HBS) can be fun, but it is also very challenging. You have to be prepared each day and for each class (we call this “putting on your hard hat and showing up to the job site ready to go”).
  4. The Case Method establishes an open dialogue in class and in your learning teams and groups. You have to be intensely prepared for your case and for class. This is crucial because if you are not prepared for class you will not be able to have a friendly and dynamic discussion with all your classmates. (The video seems to drill this point home again and again.)
  5. The Case Method also allows professors to engage each other with different views about the same material – of course, the same goes for students – you can look at the same facts and come to very different conclusions.
  6. At the 5 min, 51 second mark the video takes you into Aldrich Hall – which, spoiler alert, is the building referenced by the HBS essay prompt! This is where all the Learning Team magic happens – that is to say, it’s where your Learning Team will meet and where you hold each other accountable for developing a vetted perspective on the case.
  7. At HBS and with every Case, there is going to be someone who has direct personal experience with that individual Case. I suppose this is a testament to how diverse and experienced HBS students are.
  8. Through the learning environment (produced by the Case Method), each participant should prepare to have their thinking changed or evolved into another paradigm, especially after discussing it with your learning team.  This is where you will get the chance to go out on a limb to discuss your ideas and where you will hear similar ideas from others.
  9. Knowing that you may be called upon to articulate your intelligent opinion in front of other people that you respect is a powerful motivator to properly prepare your Case before class.
  10. Everyone at HBS does a really good job of listening and then coming up with reasons as to why they agree or disagree.  And then (of course) articulating their point in turn.  These people are perfect, right?  Ha.
  11. Great class discussions are where the debate is “still raging 20 minutes after class.”
  12. Professors might articulate that HBS is looking for people to be courageous in approach, to be confident, to handle uncertainty, to handle pressure, and to display good judgment.
  13. Per HBS – “There are special moments that pull everything we have learned into focus. When theory, practice, experience and talent all come to one sharp point — a decision that shapes a definitive course of action. When it’s no longer an issue of what can be done, but of what you will do.”

Overall, HBS has used this video to help clarify what, which goes hand-in-hand with the way they have made some very clean and beneficial changes to their essay that will help most candidates respond in a way that is more on point than in the past. They also do a much better job at clarifying what type of person succeeds in the HBS learning environment – the Case Method being core to the DNA of the school. Again – and we said this last year – they are looking for individuals who will do well in this type of learning environment.

Question Analysis

Before even getting into this essay, we want to start with that last line.  They are including this for a bunch of reasons, which I would guess include: A) to show that you will be doing some “deeper” stuff when you get there (trying to get onto some Stanford turn there a bit), B) prove that this isn’t “just” an essay (it truly seems Dee can barely stand essays) but an ongoing part of your HBS life to come, and C) most importantly, indicate to you that they want something in your voice.

(Note: we have analysis and instruction for our clients on how to achieve their own “Essay Voice,” but for business and fairness reasons, we have to retain that as exclusive to our HBS Strategy Memo.)

Okay, let’s start identifying the ingredients of what might go into this essay.

Ingredient #1 – “Not Stanford.” The first and most important thing to do here is ditch your What Matters Most Stanford essay.  If you submit that (or a proximity) to HBS, you will almost certainly get dinged.  If it’s overly emotional and sentimental, it’s probably not the right fit here.

Ingredient #2 – Thesis Statement.  A must in every single essay you will write, it’s especially critical here.  You don’t want this to feel like a Jackson Pollack painting, where you are just flinging paint everywhere.  It needs to be precise, cohesive, and confident in its specificity.

Ingredient #3 – Confidence. We already waxed on about this above, so how do you display confidence?  Well, outside of just the way it bleeds into everything (if you want to gird yourself for the road ahead, please read the book The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox, which I recommended in the Blueprint document I sent at the outset of the engagement), it also becomes a major factor in this essay by virtue of how much focus and restraint you show.  If you try to run down your whole resume or put everything about yourself into this essay, you are toast.  You will not come across as confidence, cool, and self-possessed.  You will see over-eager and desperate to impress.  It may or may not be fair, but that is the game as I see it.  You want to put a narrow scope around this essay and use a slice of your life to speak to the larger parts of it.   For instance, if I, Adam Hoff, was going to address this prompt I would introduce myself as a storyteller. I would then talk about what they meant to me as a child, because they helped me sleep at night and they connected me to my mom.  As I grew older, they connected me to my dad through his old sports tales and books he passed down to me.  By the time I became my own person, I used stories and the ability to tell them to seize control over my world (filled with upheaval, both big picture in the U.S. and in my own life) until it became my primary form of expression and, ultimately, a career.  It’s a narrative that runs through my whole life, but it’s specific – it’s about one thing.  And yet it still allows people to feel like they know something intimate and important about me, but I didn’t have to give them my whole bio along the way.

So the CONTENT RULE OF THUMB IS: NARROW THE SCOPE.  Don’t try to write about everything, don’t try to cover it all, more is not better, etc.  Have one specific thesis and stick with it!  You will honestly be 40% of the way to a great essay if you just do this one thing.  And you will also separate yourself from so, so many of your peers.

Ingredient #4 – TrajectoryOkay, we know this shouldn’t be Stanford #1 and we know it should have focus and a specific topic, such that it displays real confidence.  But can we get any other clues as to what else should be in this?  The topic is very much open to brainstorming (see below), but I would say one helpful ingredient would be to have some thrust or “trajectory” to it.  Don’t just tell background information – share information that is leading somewhere.   HBS wants rock stars, natural born leaders, and people with big ambition and big engines.  So anything you share should have a propulsion to it and an arc that goes AT LEAST to “Why I am applying to HBS” and probably beyond.

Ingredient #5 – Word CountI wish this was more interesting, but let’s put a cap at 900 words and/or 1 page (however you have to tweak the font and margins to get there).  HBS has been shrinking the essays for years and the one reason simply has to be strain on the old eyes.  Don’t make an admissions officer groan when they see that there’s a two-page optional essay in there.  One page, three to five paragraphs, 600-900 words.

(Note: more than any other essay in the MBA landscape, the HBS essay requires specific, targeted brainstorming to unearth the right response, which is something we obviously help each of our clients with.  Our hope is that the above will at least point you in the right direction.)

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.