Harvard Business School Essay: 3 Tips To Stand Out

Harvard Business School. Courtesy photo

Harvard Business School Essay: 3 Tips To Get Stand Out

Earlier this month, Harvard Business School officially announced its two application rounds for the upcoming Class of 2024.

Harvard’s open essay prompt asks applicants to respond to the following question: “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?”

Karla Cohen, an expert coach at Fortuna Admissions and former HBS associate director of doctoral programs and an MBA interview board member, recently offered a few tips on how to write a compelling MBA essay for Harvard and what the B-school’s admissions officers are looking for.


Cohen says character is the upmost important factor that HBS admissions officers look for in applicants.

“The Admissions Committee seeks principled, passionate individuals who have the potential to fulfill the HBS mission to education leaders who make a difference in the world,” Cohen writes.

While the B-school states that it specifically reviews prior academic performance and GMAT or GRE scores, it also places importance on engaged community citizenship.

“So much of our MBA experience – including the case method, section life, and student-organized events – requires the active collaboration of the entire HBS community,” according to the HBS website. “That’s why we look for students who exhibit the highest ethical standards and respect for others, and can make positive contributions to the MBA Program. The right candidates must be eager to share their experiences, support their colleagues, and teach as well as learn from their peers.”


One of the biggest pitfalls that applicants make when writing an MBA essay, according to Cohen, is merely writing about their professional achievements.

“What really made my eyes glaze over were narratives from candidates who sailed through life, having never failed or struggled, who always excelled at everything and then segued to the details of some deal or consulting project,” Cohen writes. “This can’t be overstated: Your essay must not read simply as a story of successes and accomplishments. It’s a common pitfall, and it robs your story the potential for making an emotional connection. Above all, write an essay you yourself would want to read.”


The most compelling and powerful essays are the narratives that are grounded in real life, including the failures. Cohen says that one of the best ways to write a compelling essay is to be vulnerable in your writing.

“Most people are afraid to be real, and they spend hours polishing and perfecting an “image” or ‘brand’ that is an illusion,” she writes. “When you take the risk to be yourself, to be vulnerable, it inspires a human connection. It gives you credibility. What’s more interesting to read – the story of someone who sailed through life and had everything work out perfectly, every single time? Or the story of someone who struggled, faced extraordinary challenges, and demonstrated the tenacity and resilience to not only survive but to thrive?”


When writing, it’s important to also write in a way that walks the reader through your experience – from the feelings you felt to the lessons that you learned.

“Avoid the temptation to qualify your experience or tell the readers what they are supposed to think,” Cohen writes. “Show them instead. For example, what is more powerful – someone saying, ‘I had a horrible flight,’ or, ‘We pulled onto the runway, and I could see from my window the dark clouds above; the captain announced once cleared for takeoff, we were in for a bumpy ride. I could feel my pulse quickening.’

Lastly, be sure to tie your experience back to the lessons you’ve learned.

“Underscore how it shaped you as a human being and what you learned from the experience and remember to SHOW them the impact vs. simply telling them,” Cohen writes.

Sources: Fortuna Admissions, HBS, HBS

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