When Steve Hind and Alula Eshete were putting together the annual admission and essay guides to Harvard Business School, what struck them most about the essays that helped to get current and future classmates admitted was how different they were from each other. No cookie-cutter formula was evident. There was no paint-by-the-numbers approach. If a pattern of any kind could be discerned, it was how genuine the essays read.
“There is no right way, but there are so many different paths into Harvard Business Schools,” says Eshete, 27, who will show up for MBA orientation at Harvard on Aug. 24. “The essays prove that going the authentic route is the way to go. Reading about the doors people are opening in their lives was very moving. It made me feel like mine was a bit drier than it could have been. It was a thrill to read all of them and see the diversity of people coming into the classroom.”
In retrospect, Hind, who will enter his second year at HBS in a couple of weeks, thinks his essay was too boastful. “As an Australian, we are told that you really have to talk yourself up because the natural Australian inclination is not to talk about one’s achievements. But after reading these other essays, I think my main reaction was that I talked myself up too much. And if you tried to draw a list of five things all essays have in common you would really struggle because there is enormous diversity.”
‘WE’RE DEMOCRATIZING ACCESS TO HARVARD AND OTHER TOP BUSINESS SCHOOLS’
Hind, editor-in-chief of the MBA student newspaper The Harbus, and Eshete, products manager for the Harbus, have just come out with the latest updated The Harbus Essay Guide as well as The Harbus MBA Admissions & Interview Guide. The 51-page essay guide costs $49.99, while the 76-page admissions guide is priced at $65. All proceeds go to support the non-profit Harbus Foundation. Along with other staffers, Hind and Ashete carefully read 16 new essays turned over to the newspaper by successful applicants to the school. All of them are included in the new Essay Guide, along with a fat paragraph of analysis on each essay.
Hind, a former consultant with BCG, and Eshete, who has worked across five different divisions of a major health care company, Abbott Labs, used the products when they applied to HBS. And they make no apologies for “spilling the beans” on how to get into the school. “We’re democratizing access to Harvard and other top business schools,” insists Hind, 27, who is doing his summer internship at BuzzFeed. “If you went to Harvard College and work at McKinsey, it’s really easy to talk to people about the process of applying to HBS. And it’s really easy if you can afford the help of an admissions consultant. But if you are not a Harvard alum and at Goldman and McKinsey, all of the informal networks that can help you don’t exist. As much as you might try to scrape together the money for a consultant to help you, it’s not quite the same.”
That’s where they believe the guides come in. Unlike much of the drivel produced by MBA admission consultants who largely crib from the school’s websites, the advice and the essays come from incoming HBS students who are willing to share the questions they were asked and the essays they wrote. “We are trying to give people a roadmap for what it takes to get into HBS as well as a better understanding of the process going into it,” says Eshete. “It’s not a blueprint but examples from other successful MBA candidates.”
‘THE BIG DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE PREVIOUS QUESTION AND THIS ONE IS THE AUDIENCE’
Of course, one big issue with the latest essays is that they address a different question. Dee Leopold, managing director of admissions and financial aid, recently changed this year’s application question, simply asking candidates to introduce themselves to their classmates in an essay. Eshete maintains that last year’s essays are just as relevant to the new question. “The big difference between the previous question and this one is the audience,” he says. “Instead of telling the admissions board some interesting facts about yourself outside of your application materials, you are directing it to the students.”
The 16 essays, altered only to protect the confidentiality of the students who wrote them, offer a glimpse into the different ways successful applicants have surmounted the hurdle of differentiating themselves to an admissions team that in any given year reads nearly 10,000 essays. Each essay is simply identified with a title, ranging from “The Inquisitive Mentor” and “The Techy” to “The Vegetarian” and “The Trailblazer.”
No less intriguing, however, is that each essay includes a short statement from its author who explains what it took to get the essay done. A 1,003-word treatise from a U.S. military commander took 20 hours of work and 12 drafts. An architect confesses that her 816-word essay consumed at least 45 hours, four story lines, and 24 drafts to get it right. A footballing engineer says his 1,075-word statement went through 12 to 13 iterations in total over a period of two months of on-and-off work.
Hind and Eshete have favorites. Hind was so struck by one essay written by an investment banker and self-published fiction author that he has invited her on The Harbus staff. The essay that most stood out to Eshete was one penned by a military recruit who did two different tours of duty. “He wrote in detail about the missions he was on, the successes and the failures,” says Eshete. “There was leadership written all over it and life lessons he gained throughout the entire experience. It read like a novel more than an application essay.”