Incoming HBS Students Share Their Essays

A case study discussion plays out in a Harvard Business School class

A case study discussion plays out in a Harvard Business School class


Given the cost of admission consultants, test prep, GMAT or GRE exams, and application fees, the $49.99 cost of the 2016 guide seems a bargain. And you can also get the 2015 version as well for an additional $20 or all three of the last editions for a total price of $79.99. All proceeds go to support the non-profit Harbus Foundation. The Harbus also sells an Interview & Admissions Guide with more than 40 post-interview reflections–a required part of the application process at HBS–and 65 new interview questions asked of last year’s batch of candidates, on top of the 150 plus interview question pool.

The two main additions to this year’s guide are the author bios, which provide insight into the author’s nationality, industry and occupation, along with more detailed excerpts directly from the authors, including time spent, number of drafts, overall essay strategy and even facts about whether they were re-applicants, all of which compliment the essays and the accompanying paragraph of analysis for each entry.

As helpful as it is to read the winning essays of applicants to HBS, it is equally valuable to learn the story behind each of the published essays. Consider this narrative behind the essay written by a male who worked in e-commerce and was a re-applicant to Harvard Business School.

I wrote the essay over the course of five to six weeks, spending anywhere from five to 15 hours per week (nights and weekends). For the most part, I would spend nights when I didn’t have other plans or weekend days working on the essay. From first draft to last draft, my essay definitely changed quite a bit (probably had 12-14 drafts) but the last 5 or so drafts were not materially different. 

A few days prior to the HBS application deadline, I decided that I couldn’t keep trying to react to every piece of input I got from people around me. I sent the essay to ~20 friends and family members for review and at times, I found that their feedback was contradictory. Ultimately, it’s important to look at all the feedback you get and make the changes you feel comfortable with. I think having others review is helpful as it provides you with useful insight but you have to be able to filter out the things that won’t make a material difference and should only act on the things you feel comfortable with. You probably don’t need to reach out to as many people as I did. 

Ultimately, think about the really compelling, unique story that you have to tell (I found linking personal experiences to professional choices was a cool route), outline it, write from your heart, have people review and then edit. Don’t over think and don’t overspend your time — in my opinion, I don’t think that admission is correlated with drafts turned or hours/ weeks spent writing.

Or how about this perspective by a management consultant and project manager from South America?

“At the risk of sounding like a consultant, I would probably split my essay process in two parts:

●      The first phase would be the thought process. I would say this took 3 weeks, probably 4-6 hours of work, but lots of hours of thinking and talking things through. In this phase I:

○      Wrote outlines

○      Chose and thought thoroughly examples I was going to use

○      Chose and thought thoroughly examples I was going to use

○      Made sure my essay “fit” with the rest of my application

○      Bounced ideas with mentors and family, etc.

●      The writing phase probably took 10-12 hours over 10 days. I highly recommend putting a starting and ending date on this part of the application, or else it could go on forever and ever with marginal benefits with each new version. 

During this time I:

○      Wrote my first draft

○      Reviewed with mentors and friends

○      Re wrote and edited for word count

Overall I think the key to the essay is to make sure:

○      You answer the question

○      You are able to transmit how your personal and professional experience makes you an interesting candidate for HBS

○      Make sure it “fits” with what your CV, recommenders and work experience say about you”


Though Harvard has changed its essay question this year to “what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?,” the examples in the new guide are just as helpful. “This year’s prompt, though worded differently, is still geared towards understanding ‘your story,’ adds Harbus product manager Misra. “Indeed we feel reading essays written in response to the old prompt is still excellent preparation.

“The guide,” he says. “also provides the ability to review and assess the number of unique and, sometimes, daring ways in which people have chosen told to tell their stories. Once readers have been able to review these winning examples, they will not only get advice on the approach, but they will also appreciate the value of letting their personality show, the importance of exercising vulnerability and examples of how to effectively do so.”


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