29 Essays That Got Applicants Into HBS

Iconic Baker Library on the Harvard Business School campus. Photo by John A. Byrne

THE FIRST OF 75 DRAFTS WAS ‘BORING AND A TERRIBLE WAY OF SELLING HIMSELF’

“Every essay is going to be different. What you don’t see is all of the rest of the application. The applicant may not have the best essay writing skills but the person could be phenomenally recommended by one of their peers or have experience that shows mettle. But you still need to be able to craft your story in a reasonably compelling way to make it through.”

As for the French Canadian applicant who went through 75 drafts to get to his perfect essay, he admits that his first version was particularly bad. “My first draft was all about describing in detail my resume,” he told The Harbus staff. ” I had someone from HBS and an alumni read it… and they told me it was boring and quite a terrible way of ‘selling myself.’􀀑 After that discussion, I really wanted to convey something different in there than what was already in my resume/short answer questions; I wanted to address the ‘why am I who I am’ as opposed to discussing the ‘what I did to deserve my spot.

“􀀅 I did A LOT of introspection, spoke to my parents and even went once to a psychologist to dig very deep into the question. (I wasn’t very good at this whole self-awareness thing in the beginning).􀀑 I wrote down a few key pointers and had a couple of friends/colleagues read through them and refined them until they looked right.”

‘HE COMES ACROSS AS SOMEONE WHO IS TRUE TO HIMSELF & LIVES HIS VALUES’

What the 2+2 candidate ultimately came up with was stellar example of a highly personal composition in which he shares his passion for volunteer work and for making a contribution to society. Here’s part of The Harbus editors’ commentary on the essay: “He comes across as someone who is true to himself, lives his values and stands up to a challenge. By sharing deeply personal stories, he allows the reader to understand the source of his values. The essay, thus, connects with the reader on a very personal level.”

The applicant began his essay by pointing out that he was a first-generation college student from a family of modest financial means, a young person who owes a debt to his family for their support and the strong human values they instilled in him.

“High school put my values to the test,” he wrote. “When I was 14, my desire to make a contribution to society led me to initiate the first blood drive in my school’s history. I went on to organize five more, and eight years later a blood drive is still held there every year. My being the youngest blood drive organizer in the province of Quebec did not go unnoticed. I received numerous prizes, as well as recognition by Héma-Québec (the provincial blood bank) and the school’s administration. However, all that publicity, combined with my good grades – not to mention my being quite tall for my age – earned me little respect from my classmates. I was so different that I could not be part of the group – or at least that was the message I received from my peers. Was I part of the problem? Probably. Did I deserve to be excluded? Probably not.

‘I BECAME FUELED BY THE SMILES OF THE PEOPLE WHOM I HELPED’

“I had a choice. I could try to blend in, or I could be true to myself, whether others liked it or not. I opted for the latter, and with the invaluable support of my family I overcame the hardships and even made some true friends along the way. My family’s influence and insights reinforced my social values and made me realize that I was having a positive impact on those around me, whether through my volunteer work with the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada or through my home tutoring of a teenager stricken with cystic fibrosis and unable to attend regular classes. I became fueled by the smiles of the people whom I helped, and by their words of gratitude. People in need have taught me that selflessness is the path to happiness; it is the greatest life lesson that I have ever learned.”

His conclusion? “When I look back on my life, I see how important my parents and grandparents have been. They have taught me perseverance, courage and selflessness, and they are at the root of my desire to help others and make a difference in the world. In their own way, they have shown me what true teamwork is: working together to achieve a common goal. By morally supporting me at all times, they have ensured that I leave no stone unturned as I strive to develop my full potential. My grandmother is now fighting Alzheimer’s disease and can barely remember my name. I have always shared the greatest moments of my life with her, and I must admit that she is one of the reasons why I hope to succeed in the 2+2 Program. To live this moment with my grandmother while she can still feel my joy is one of my greatest wishes.”

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About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.