Incoming HBS Students Share Their Essays

Harvard Business School Baker Library - Ethan Baron photo

Harvard Business School Baker Library – Ethan Baron photo

Over a six-month period, she went through three distinct exercises to decide what to write about in her Harvard Business School application essay. First, she wrote down every important moment in her life going back to kindergarten. Then, the candidate re-read all her journals. And finally, she jotted down everything she loved to do. All told, it took 30 hours of work that led to a first draft that was turned out in two hours.

He meticulously went through two dozen drafts of his HBS essay before finallying settling on version 25. The consultant’s first 15 tries were not constrained by length or perfect grammar, and he spend a fair amount of time writing down the traits he chose to highlight and then a handful of supporting examples for each. Whenever he felt something wasn’t fitting, the applicant swapped it out with a better example. He tightened up his final 10 drafts, removing superfluous points and paying attention to conversational yet proper grammar. His most important editors? The consultant’s parents and colleagues.

This female engineer began working on the essay in June when HBS made it public. Her drafts over two-plus months assumed four storylines, with about 10 versions between the two two when all was said and done. She estimates spending more than 30 hours writing and editing what would become her 958-word essay, having a writher and a friend critque each draft. She also employed a strategy of reading every version out loud to make it easier to single out awkward phrasings that needed smoother or more conversational tweaking.


The New 2016 Harbus MBA Essay Guide costs $49.99

The New 2016 Harbus MBA Essay Guide costs $49.99

The essays and strategies of these three successful MBA applicants to Harvard Business School are among a record 37 essays published in the newest edition of The Harbus’ MBA Essay Guide. Their responses to last year’s essay promp—Introduce yourself to your classmates on the first day of class—are a varied lot from an exceptionally diverse group of candidates who are starting the first year of Harvard’s MBA program this week.

Among the essays in the 2016 guide are those from applicants hailing from 15 countries, including Japan, Peru, France, Australia, Pakistan, and El Salvador. They were written by consultants, investment bankers, project managers, engineers, accountants, venture capitalists, brand managers, and an intelligence officer in the U.S. military. Some 16 of the 37 were women. The longest essay, from a female consultant who applied to five schools, comes in at 1,672 words. The shortest, from a former actor from Puerto Rico, is a mere 370 words long. Each year, incoming students share their essays–scrubbed for details that would more likely reveal the identity of the candidates–for publication by The Harbus.

Writing an essay that could make or break your chance of gaining admission to a highly selective business school can be a high wire act for many MBA applicants. How do successful candidates to the world’s number one business school do it? What do they actually write about their personal and professional lives?


The 126-page Essay Guide is a liberating tome, if only because of the remarkable variety of winning essays in it. As Shantanu Misra, product manager for The Harbus, points out, “The most valuable lesson candidates can draw from reading these essays is that there is no ‘right answer’ to the question and no standard path to arrive at the ‘perfect essay.’” In that sense, it’s a highly valuable peek at MBA essay writing whether you apply to Kellogg, Olin, or INSEAD, given the wide diversity of approaches taken by successful HBS applicants.

No kidding. A former military intelligence officer who got into HBS recalled the time he had to brief a high-level government official on the Arab Spring shortly after the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. “Within two hours of the invitation, I found myself sitting inside the secretary’s office describing the key actors, likely outcomes, and potential worst-case scenarios in each of several Arab countries experiencing large-scale protests,” he thoughtfully wrote. “After a few straightforward follow-up questions, I was asked to elaborate on the root causes of the uprisings. It was a question I was prepared for, so I confidently rattled off some stats. Four hundred million people living in the Arab world. Sixty percent under the age of 25. Unemployment rates of 25 to 50 percent—and rising. A perfect storm of economic underdevelopment, demographic pressures, and bad governance had compelled a generation of Arabs to take to the streets in protest against their unresponsive and unaccountable governments.”

Or how about this passage from the essay of a female accountant who worked for a private equity firm. “Basketball,” she wrote, “changed my life. I developed tolerance—the day I scanned the locker room and realized that gay or straight, black or white, rich or poor, my teammates had transformed into my sisters. I understood teamwork—after we overcame a losing record to play in a tournament championship game, shattering female sport attendance records in the process. I learned discipline—the first time I set a 4:30 AM alarm to study before practice. Most of all, I gained the quiet confidence to continue pitting myself against the best throughout my career. I learned to believe in myself, to trust that after selecting the next daunting path, I would muster the resolve to traverse it. The desire to share with other women the benefits that competitive athletics provided to me is why I have mentored an adolescent girl for the past eight years, and why I volunteer for a charity that teaches entrepreneurship to low income teenagers at a sports-focused high school. It is also why I want my MBA.”

Perhaps the most innovative approach this year was one adopted by a woman environmental onsultant. She imagines being interviewed by The New York Times as the CEO of a company. Just the way she began the essay—the longest one in the book at 1,672 words—immediately draws any reader. “One of my favorite Sunday rituals is reading ‘Corner Office’ in the New York Times business section,” she wrote. “Every week reporter Andy Bryant interviews top executives about lifeand leadership. I am fascinated to learn about how successful CEOs got their starts. I often think about how I would answer Bryant’s questions, as I aspire to one day hold a C-suite position. As a means of introducing myself to my HBS classmates, this is whatI will say if I have the chance to be interviewed for ‘Corner Office.'”

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