I’ll be honest: Staying awake was the biggest challenge I faced at application review time at Harvard Business School (and before that, in admissions at INSEAD). Too many applications were so dull, boring and lifeless. What really put me to sleep were the candidates who used their HBS essay to confess how they’d always excelled at everything, before segueing to the details of some deal or consulting project. Honestly, I don’t know anyone who wants to hear about that, let alone read about it.
With the HBS round one deadline in less than a month, I’ll get straight to the point: Your essay is the make or break factor for HBS. It’s the essay that sets your overall application apart and earns you the interview amid so many applications with impressive credentials (10,351 apps last cycle, to be precise). You can’t expect to compete on credentials alone at any top tier business school, let alone Harvard, because HBS has seen it all.
Don’t get me wrong – your credentials are incredibly important, but they only get you to the threshold. Short answers are also a critical element often overlooked for levity too. But once you’ve reached a certain level of exceptionalism in terms of being brilliant, dedicated and driven, it’s about your story. And if that feels intimidating, remember this: No one else has lived your story but you, so you’re the one best poised to tell it. Think of it like drafting a “movie trailer” for your life – your essay should be engaging, interesting, dramatic and fast paced.
Here are my top five tips on capturing the HBS admissions team’s attention with your standout essay:
- Go deep, get personal. The more personal you can be in terms of why you do what you do, the more interesting and memorable you’ll be. Because so few people are. Few people are honest, and fewer are vulnerable in the process of storytelling. But there is something so powerful about the truth when you read it – it hits you. When you take the risk to be vulnerable, it inspires a human connection, and it’s so much more appealing to read. I was always more impressed with those who had stumbled and overcome challenges than those who had never fallen. In my view, if you are never making mistakes, you aren’t working hard enough.
- DON’T use the essay to showcase a highlight reel of professional achievements. The biggest snooze is a “resume to prose” essay, which will put your wearied admissions reader to sleep. Your essay must not read simply as a story of successes and accomplishments. It’s a common mistake, and it robs your story the potential for making an emotional connection. Above all, write an essay you yourself would want to read.
- Respect the unstated word limit. There’s clearly no given word count, but try to keep it within three-to-four pages or under 2,000 words. This may surprise you if you’ve been advised stay within 800 – 1,000 words, but the truth is content is everything and some stories need more space. And if it’s too short, admissions may assume you are following misguided advice or are being inauthentic. That said, while there’s no hard-and-fast rule, I don’t recommend anything longer than 2,000 words.
- Reveal greater dimension to your candidacy. Think about what you have done in the past in terms of what it says about you, and how it shapes your values and attitude toward life. When I see that someone is speaking from their core being – and it’s logical within the arc of the application – I pay attention. For example, you might talk about a failure – a time you fell and picked yourself back up. Underscore what you learned from the experience and how it shaped you as a human being. It’s so much more compelling when you allow people to connect to your experience.
- Craft with coherency in mind. Your essay should leverage some creative theme or thread that is big and deep and acts as a mechanism to pull the story all together. Open with that theme, then bring it to life with experiences and then end on that theme – come full circle. This may sound formulaic, but when in doubt, rest assured this is a tried and true model. Any great story or even speech (from Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream to the latest Hollywood blockbuster), successful stories have a cohesive pace and flow that retain the attention of the audience.
HBS is looking for people who are extraordinary and ambitious, with an impressive track record, a habit of leadership, and a penchant for consistently hitting their goals. More than that, they’re seeking mission-driven individuals who are motivated by a deeper purpose and poised to make the institution proud. If you can fuse that with a captivating story of who you are as an individual, you tip the odds in your favor.
Karla Cohen is an Expert Coach at MBA consulting firm Fortuna Admissions and former Associate Director at Harvard Business School. Fortuna is composed of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 12 of the top 15 business schools.