HBSGuru Reviews The Harbus Essay Guide

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 nearly 40 successful MBA applicants to Harvard Business School’s Class of 2018 are the meat and potatoes in the newest edition of The Harbus’ MBA Essay Guide. The guide, published annually by the MBA student newspaper at HBS, costs $49.99. We asked long-time HBS watcher and prominent MBA admissions consultant Sandy Kreisberg of HBSGuru.com for his candid opinions on the book (to listen to the podcast version click here).

So Sandy, what is the skinny on the new Harbus Guide

I’d buy it. The 37 essays in the Guide answer last year’s prompt (‘Introduce yourself to your classmates’) versus this year’s (‘What else do  you want us to know beyond your resume, recs, transcripts, etc?’) but most of the essays would be helpful to current applicants.

How so? 

If you have the starch to sit down and read through those essays, and see how they work or don’t, you would walk away with several learnings.

First, you’d be liberated at how different they are, how informal many are, how some work as being talking resumes and how others just talk about one thing, how one uses a gimmick (a mock interview) and how some go through a long song-and-dance about why HBS. Some don’t mention that or even what the writer’s goals are. You would also discover that one is real short, 370 words, and works, and most are about 900 words, and some are too long but, they worked.

Second, reading the bad ones here, and there are several,  might encourage you to find your way to tell some story in a clear, direct, non-braggy way. Although let me add, several of those essays, possibly many,  ARE transparently braggy and self-serving, and to my highly refined filters, deeply annoying, but it is liberating to see that is not a deal breaker at Harvard.

What else would you learn?

Well, some of the essays we will look at below actually helped move the needle. I think they made a difference in the outcome, but that is not typical, IMHO.

How many do you think did that?

Not many, although the trick here is that  most of them just traversed the assignment in some OK way, and the outcome would turn on the usuals, including prestige jobs, high stats, working for feeder firms, and the need for class diversity. To a naive reader, the takeaway is, “Gee, this is quite a mixed bag of people and backgrounds, wow, anyone can get into HBS.”

And that is the takeaway HBS wants you to have?

Well, don’t get me started, let’s get back to the actual essays.

Sandy Kreisberg, founder of HBSGuru.com

Sandy Kreisberg, founder of HBSGuru.com

What do you mean by saying, as you have,  that most of these essays are not really good essays in terms of  being “logical, revelatory, or even clear . . . .”

I taught Freshman Comp (called Expository Writing) at Harvard College for eight years, and one assignment each semester was to write a personal essay, sorta like the HBS essay. Eight years,  60 kids a year =480 personal essays. This being Harvard College, there were two grades A- or B+. Most of the essays in the Harbus book would get a B+, with notes like,  “need to be more clear about when this happened, what impact was on you, what impact was later, who is actually talking here.” Those were technical notes. There were also notes like, “your thesis is banal, missing, incredible, preachy, annnoying (I love that term), unclear, not shown to be proven with good examples, etc.” That is what I mean by those essays not being very good. Often, the thesis is banal or incredible or preachy, or missing,  and on top of that, technically, in terms of showing us powerful stories and facts to support the thesis, they also are more like sketches and first drafts or notes to yourself than seriously considered essays. Of course when I taught Comp, those were notes on the first draft, and then the kids got an opportunity to re-write the essay.

And did they move the B+ to an A-?

Usually not, the first draft usually did not really have a workable thesis, so the second draft just struggled with that, and blah, blah, let’s get back to the Harbus Guide.

OK, talk about a good one.

There’s an essay called The Dreamer, essay 25 on page 86 of the guide.

It’s written by a woman from Lithuania who writes about growing up in that country. For HBS purposes, Lithuania is a great place to grow up. I know what you are thinking, “But I grew up on Long Island?” Yup you did, and that makes things harder essay wise, but not impossible. But don’t let anyone fool you into thinking it does not make a difference. Saying you want to rebuild Lithuania, as she does, is good. Saying you want to rebuild Long Island? OK, you can say other things (You want to save Long Island from pollution and over-building).

But let’s get back to her. It’s a terrifically warm-hearted tale with an origin story in which she learned something significant from her grandfather. HBS loves stuff like that. Here is a snippet:

I distinctly remember, I was 6 years old when I first heard about Harvard. You may wonder what the context may be in which a first-grader would come to learn about Harvard. Well it just so happened that I was the finest first-grader and one dear wishful thinker told me that one day I might get into Harvard. . . .That wishful thinker who put the dream of Harvard in my heart was my grandfather

But there is more, she’s got an added hook as well. Her grandfather was a victim of the Soviets:

I don’t know what it means to live in complete isolation, to lose your job just because you publicly spoke against the regime, or to have a folk song as your only weapon against tanks, as you block a TV tower from occupation to uphold free broadcasting. But I was raised to appreciate the freedom to pursue your dreams, and to cherish international learning and development opportunities that are now open to me.

In the rest of the essay, she links her career to the rebuilding of her home country and goes through her two jobs, including one in the U.S. Embassy (come on, anyone can work there). She does a great job of capturing that experience. Next, she works for a global health care company. She just does normal things in these jobs and somehow becomes a great believer in how the digital revolution can help people.

True, my friends, and you can say that, too. But it won’t make your essay as good as hers. The essay is also worth reading because the last half of it is a goals statement. She wants to set up an all-encompassing venture to match social and technical entrepreneurs with networking opportunities.

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