Anna’s Harvard Business School Essay
Harvard MBA 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?
On an otherwise average January morning in 2014, my shriek “AHHHH!!!!” has coworkers
running to my desk. Ecstatic, I’ve just received news I’ll be heading to France for a rotation at a manufacturing facility. My stomach fills with butterflies at the unknown: a technically challenging role in a foreign language and culture. I’m not sure what it will take to succeed, but I want to find out.
That weekend, I head home to celebrate with my parents and learn of a different sort of unknown: my dad confesses that the doctor found a tumor—late stage, as we’ll soon discover. The shriek of joy is now a silent sob. (1) Tears fall down my cheeks as I hug him tight. “I’ll cancel the Bordeaux assignment and find a local job.” “Go,” my parents urge me. I need to continue on my personal journey; everything is going to be fine.
The next month, my preparations begin—book the movers, find an apartment and car, and invest in a copy of Rosetta Stone’s Beginner French. Preparations also start for my father‘s battle. The first day of chemotherapy is President’s Day. Mom and I accompany Dad to the hospital to meet with the oncologists and review the treatment plan. My parents are overwhelmed with the information, so I call the insurance company to clear my father for his treatments—no small feat on a national holiday, but a necessary one.
One month and one shipment of 500 pounds of possessions to southwestern France later, I’m ramping up in my new job. I realize quickly that I won’t learn much by staying behind my computer. So, instead, I gown up head-to-toe in a bunny suit, hair net, steel-toed boots, and protective goggles and spend time on the factory floor. (2) Not only is the culture different (each morning, I “faire la bise” with every person I pass in the hall), but so is the engineering expertise required to keep equipment up and running. I learn the most during the lunch hour where I do my best to keep up with the rapid, truncated French conversation. Gradually I build relationships, gain confidence in my French, and identify which subject matter experts to rely on. Some low-hanging fruit of opportunity is readily apparent, and getting buy-in from upper management is an easy sell (reduced equipment downtime and higher productivity). But I need time and support from people on the floor to execute lasting change.
My family visits me over Memorial Day Weekend. I’m thrilled to share all I’ve mastered, from keeping up with the crazy driving to easily navigating a menu. They’re glad to be away from their hospital-filled life, but it’s clear my dad is in pain. Soon after, he’s told he’ll need a bone marrow transplant. I get tested to see if I’m a potential match, but they want a sibling of his instead. Things are stressful at home and exhausting for both of my parents; I feel guilty for the fun I’m having. (3)
Departing Bordeaux in November is a mix of emotions. I’m leaving behind a mark on our factory’s processes by establishing a new level of rigor, and the country has taught me how to involve people and relationships to make an impact. Yet, I’m happy to give my mom a break from the caretaker role she’s been playing for the past 8 months. Dad’s sure to be on the way up, and I’ll be there through his recovery.
I’m home in time for Thanksgiving. The aroma from the turkey my dad and I cook fills the house. He’s weak from the bone marrow transplant so I carry the turkey to and from the oven for him, but he’s all smiles, and we have a great day as a family.
The following Monday I start my new rotation. This time, I’m learning the language of new product development at company headquarters—conveniently located in nearby Chicago. That same Monday is the last day my dad spends at home; he’s readmitted to the hospital where he’ll stay for the next 20 days. I spend each evening after work with Dad. I cherish this time, playing games, distracting him from his boredom. Dad is so frail that I can lift all 6’1” of him—this big guy who is my hero now needs me to help him get up and go to the bathroom. The next day he goes in for emergency surgery to remove the large tumor in his intestine. We continue to insist he’ll be fine— there’s no other scenario we will allow ourselves to imagine. Because of our chosen naivety, we are in disbelief when he suddenly passes away two days later.
The eulogy I read at Dad’s funeral is all too similar to the 50th birthday poem I’d written for him only 8 months earlier. In those days, weeks, and months after, I feel both like I have all the strength in the world, which I need to take care of my mom and my younger brother, and like I’m going to collapse at any moment. There’s a car to get rid of, a house to sell, finances to manage. When my brother suggests running a half marathon for charity, this seems like the perfect outlet for all of our emotions. We raise over $15K for blood cancer research and I organize a charity poker tournament (one of Dad’s favorite hobbies) in his memory with an oncology fellow he had befriended in the hospital.
Three and a half years later, 2014 remains the dividing, maybe the defining, time in my life. There was “before” when I was innocent and sheltered. Then there’s “after.” When I was thrown into my family’s worst-case scenario but somehow managed to come out the other side. When I was given the chance to adapt to new cultures and work styles, and discovered how to have an analytical and a relationship-based impact. It’s kind of amazing when you survive the challenges—even the unbearable ones; risks don’t seem so risky anymore. I’ve learned to trust myself as a leader throughout. The fear of failing has flown out the window. (4)
Expert Commentary By Liza Weale, founder of Gatehouse Admissions:
Joy and growth, guilt and grief. What makes this essay such a standout is Anna’s willingness to “lay it all out there”—to be vulnerable and open about a pivotal time in her life. In the essay, she explores two very different yet equally significant experiences that unfold at the same time. Anna leverages switching back and forth between the two narratives as a storytelling device, advancing them in parallel toward their life-changing end points. The strategy works well, and the reader feels the highs and lows right alongside her. We recognize her eagerness to learn as much as possible and leave her mark on the world, and we appreciate the deep and unyielding love she feels for her father and the rest of her family.
This essay is also a powerful example of the use of a single anecdote. This one moment—or rather, one year—has so defined Anna that it is clearly the most important story for her to tell. And although her essay is a deeply personal one, she still offers considerable evidence of leadership. Examples of action, initiative, and accomplishment, such as improving a factory’s operations and taking the lead in dealing with her father’s estate, are effortlessly woven into her essay because they were essential steps in her journey. The essay’s conclusion eloquently summarizes the growth and pain she has experienced and the resulting fortitude she will bring to her endeavors in the future.
(1) Anna establishes her writing device of showing contrasting paths by repeating some of the language she used in the previous paragraph (e.g., “unknown,” “shriek”) but in a very different context.
(2) This is a clear (and simple!) example of “show, don’t tell.” By describing what she must wear to meet with the factory operators in their world, she demonstrates her commitment to joining them.
(3) Anna employs a straightforward, matter-of-fact style to let the reader experience her story without being told explicitly how to feel. This style is always a wise choice for business school essays (at least, in my opinion), and it is an especially good option when sharing difficult moments. Applicants often have a tendency to want to use adverbs and other forms of emphasis to underscore the gravity of the situation they are describing, but writing about the moment in a simple manner instead and focusing on the facts results in a narrative that is both more compelling and more credible.
(4) Here in the final paragraph, Anna takes a moment to reflect on the gravity and impact of this chapter in her life. Her concluding sentences have a rawness to them; we feel that she is not holding anything back. Perhaps ironically, one must let go of the fear of failure to apply to a school such as HBS, where the bar to acceptance is so high. Anna proved that she was willing to try, and her risk paid off.