After a three-year hiatus, the MBA students at Harvard Business School today published a new collection of admission essays written by successful applicants to HBS. The new guide, assembled by the editors of The Harbus, the school’s MBA student newspaper, includes 22 essays along with commentary by essay contributors and individual analyses from the newspaper’s editorial staff.
Harsha Mulchandani, a first-year MBA at Harvard and CEO of The Harbus, attributes the lapse of publishing what had been an annual MBA essay guide to other priorities for earlier editors of The Harbus along with a natural reluctance among many students to share their essays.
“People often feel that the essays are too personal and so it takes a lot of reaching out and multiple rounds of following up to get people to contribute essays,” says Mulchandani, who has also worked for The Boston Consulting Group. That’s despite the fact that The Harbus agrees to anonymize identities, cities, countries, and institutions to protect the identity of the authors.
ESSAYS FROM STUDENTS IN CLASSES OF 2020 & 2021
The summer 2020 edition of the MBA Essay Guide sells for $64.99 and can be instantly downloaded from the newspaper’s website (you can read three of the essays reprinted with permission from The Harbus at Poets&Quants). There also are higher-priced packages for prospective applicants who may want the latest version with the last guide published in the summer of 2017. Funds raised from the sale of the guides go to the non-profit Harbus which distributes its surplus to a charity at the end of the academic year.
The essays in the updated guide are from students in the classes of 2020 and 2021 and address the school’s current lone essay prompt: “As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program?”
Mulchandani, who says she bought a copy of the previous guide before applying to HBS from WestBridge Capital where she was an investment analyst in Bangalore, considers the it an invaluable to candidates of any of the highly selective business schools. “I was a fan of the guide before I was a student,” she says. “I was a user. I urged some of my friends who didn’t have guidance from an admissions consultant to buy a guide.”
‘SHE HAD JUST BEATEN MY SOLDIER WITH A FRYING PAN’
The editors note that the book is a “great resource to help you figure out how you want to write your story in a way that is personal and gives the reader a glimpse into your world. Reading the enclosed essays will show you how the admitted students approached the question in creative ways.”
If anything, the collection shows that you don’t need the skills of a New Yorker writer to craft an effective essay. Few of the pieces are especially eloquent, though there are some rather fetching openers. Example: “Why? It is a seemingly simple question, but often one of the most challenging and uncomfortable to answer. It’s the question every entrepreneur asks before coming up with a disruptive solution. It’s the question Newton asked the day a falling apple changed physics forever.”
And there are lines, for sure, that grab one’s attention. “I never imagined my first duty as an Army Officer would be to pick up a soldier from jail after a domestic violence dispute. But there I was at the military police station, confronted by an angry Army wife who had just beaten my soldier with a frying pan.”
‘WRITING THE APPLICATION WAS THERAPY’
The upshot: Reading this collection would likely liberate applicants from at least some anxiety over facing a blank screen on their computers. Some of the essays are informal; others are little more than talking resumes. They are generally free of grammatical errors and typos, though many are not as clear nor concise as they could be.
Sometimes, more helpful than the essay itself are the perspectives or advice from the applicants. One Israeli student who had worked in the tech industry revealed that for him writing the application was therapy. “Revisiting my life in general, and my career path in particular, I tried to find what were some different factors that played as main drivers to my decision,” he wrote. “I had a good friend with whom I held lengthy conversations, and who helped find the link, or the motif, between some of the stories. This link became my narrative. After writing a few drafts, I hired a proofreader to polish the essay, as I am not a native speaker. The next phase was to send out the essay to alumni friends and acquaintances that were kind enough to provide me with feedback. I put less emphasis on why MBA made the most sense to me, and more on my personal journey, leading the adcom to see themselves from my writing.”
Some 15 of the 22 essays were written by candidates who lived in the U.S., two from India, and one each from Brazil, Greece, Israel, Netherlands, and Russia. The authors worked in a wide variety of industries, from consumer products and tech to i-banking and consulting. There are a pair of essays from successful applicants to Harvard’s 2+2 deferred admissions program. And women were clearly more generous in sharing their essays than men: 14 of the essays were written by women versus the eight by men.
‘A RETAIL LEADER FROM WILLY WONKA’S CHOCOLATE FACTORY’
Each essay boasts an often catchy headline written by the editors, including “Master of Your Destiny,” “Dancing With The Stars,” “A Retail Leader from Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory,” and “Beauty and the Beholder,” the last of which is reprinted by Poets&Quants under arrangement with The Harbus. It is also a personal favorite of Mulchandani, who with her classmates played a major role in assembling the guide and getting it published.
The editors also parcel out some basic, if worthwhile, advice to would-be applicants. “First, begin your writing process with a period of honest reflection about your motivations, goals and choices to date,” the guide advises. “Secondly, seek out feedback on drafts of your essay from people who know you well. Others can tell you whether your essay is clear, but only people who know you well can tell you whether your essay really brings out YOU.”
The essay, of course, is just one of many parts of a successful application to a business school. Many would argue that a candidate’s grade point average or standardized test score looms larger in the scheme of things as does whether an applicant went to a feeder college or worked for a feeder company.
Asked if she could estimate how important the essay is to an admit at Harvard Business School, Mulchandani believes it would be impossible to assign a weight to it. “It is no more or no less important than the other elements of your application,” she believes. “It is seen as a package. I could not put a number to it if I wanted to because that would not be factual. But it is one of the critical elements that can help you in the process.
‘IT’S IMPORTANT TO SEE ALL THE PIECES OF THE PUZZLE’
“Everything else in the application is where you lay out facts,” adds Mulchandani. “And this is where you get the chance to tell a story. Stories are the most well-accepted form of communication. Putting a story out there that speaks to who you are makes it one of the most important elements. It adds another element that is really important and is a part of your personality.”
That view was reinforced when she did her 30-minute interview with an HBS admissions officer that ultimately led to her acceptance. “I felt that in my interview at least 70% to 80% of the questions were based on my essay. The stories I spoke about were the stories that were emphasized in the interview. In that sense, it bleeds into other elements of your application. So it’s important to see all the pieces of this puzzle.”