What does a successful MBA essay look like at Harvard Business School and Stanford Graduate School of Business?
The answers will vary greatly from applicant to applicant, just as the essay prompts for these two schools differ dramatically. Harvard asks applicants the following: 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?
Stanford’s prompt is among the most iconic MBA essay questions in admissions: What matters most to you, and why?
Both prompts are notoriously challenging. Even if these schools had more generous acceptance rates (currently 10% and 6%, respectively), their essay prompts would still vex candidates with both their simplicity and open-ended nature. How do successful applicants respond to these prompts and, more importantly perhaps, how do they adopt their narratives to fit each school’s requirements? (see She Applied To Harvard & Stanford With These Two MBA Essays).
Here are four recent examples from successful MBA applicants who shared their essays with us for What Matters? What More?, a unique collection of 50 successful essays written by applicants to either Harvard, Stanford, or both business schools. Published by Poets&Quants with mbaMission and Gatehouse Admissions, the guide is instantly downloadable, at a cost which is less than $1 an essay. Accompanying each essay is expert commentary from mbaMission founder Jeremy Shinewald or Gatehouse founder Liza Weale on the strengths and sometimes weaknesses of each one, even including detailed footnotes to highlight key passages in every single essay.
If you plan to apply to Harvard Business School or the Stanford GSB or any top MBA program, this digital book is a must-have resource. You can access the book here.
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? (Word count: 1,213)
Despite all we had been through in recent years, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I asked my mother one summer evening in Singapore, “What role did I play during those tough times?”
In 2014, a pulmonologist in Singapore, where my parents live, told my father he had three months to live. The only solution was to undergo a complete double lung transplant in America—a precarious, logistically complex, and financially burdensome procedure. Despite the daunting news, I sprang into action and spent weeks researching options. I channeled my inner Product Manager and delegated aspects of the research and planning to different family members, creating dozens of spreadsheets detailing our to-dos. We then waited patiently for the call.
After months of nervous anticipation, I received word from the hospital that a matching donor lung had been found. We hastily grabbed our “go bags” and rushed to the hospital. The 10-hour surgery, though harrowing, was a stunning success. Assuming my work was done, I flew home to San Francisco with an enormous burden lifted. In the subsequent months, though, my mother would call me almost every day crying. Sometimes she was upset that my father—struggling with his recuperation—wasn’t appreciative or, worse, was harsh with her; other times she was stressed by the body- and mind-numbing labor that goes into postsurgical care. I listened and would tell her that everything was going to be alright, but no amount of reassurance seemed to make her feel better. To be honest, I had to wonder if it actually would be; there was no clear end in sight, and everyone’s patience was running thin.
There’s a saying in Chinese: “Amongst the hundreds of virtues, filial piety is the first in line (百行孝 為先).” I had been there for my father and did not want exhaustion to prevent me from supporting my mother, who had given up her career and dedicated her life to raising and supporting her children. One evening, I stumbled upon an opportunity to volunteer at Helping Hands, a suicide prevention hotline that focuses on providing emotional support. I knew that helping strangers would be rewarding in itself but also thought the program could expand my own perspective and help me guide my family through this emotional crisis, so I signed up on the spot.
I had never encountered any experience as intense, rigorous, and grueling as Helping Hands. Helping Hands volunteers go through an active listening boot camp, with dropout rates higher than the Navy SEALs. After all, there is no room for error when you’re taking calls on a suicide hotline. After months of relinquishing all weekend hours to training, I took my first call: a teenage girl who just wanted to “be a kid and go to school” but had to work to financially support her chronically ill parent. My first instinct was to respond with phrases like, “it’s ok, don’t worry,” but training taught me that platitudes prevent the caller from feeling heard. Instead, an active listener must validate the callers’ feelings and ask open-ended questions, empathetically steering the conversation “towards the pain.” Rather than avoiding sensitive topics, active listeners get to the root of suffering through deliberate dialogue.
Taking over 500 calls at Helping Hands, I learned how judgment and excellent listening skills are incompatible, especially when the other person holds views or values that are completely diametric to yours. 2 For example, I will never forget the call from a serial pedophile who had nobody to turn to except for us. Helping Hands requires operators to treat every caller equally and with empathy, no matter how you feel about them. So, I cast aside all presumptions and focused on talking to the caller like an old friend, listening to what he had to say and unraveling the struggles he was wrestling with. By helping him get troublesome thoughts off his chest, I could only hope that I helped reduced the chances of him reoffending. Practicing empathic listening with these callers enabled me to understand and connect with humans who are vastly different from me.
Working with Helping Hands also taught me the importance of knowing my own emotional limits, so I learned to practice self-care as a means to engage others. I started journaling regularly and became far more open to being vulnerable. Having inherited a stoicism from my father, I had to take an honest, critical look at myself in order to manifest this shift. When I allowed myself to truly unmask my feelings, I started to find real strength and resilience within.
As I came to these realizations, I began to incorporate them into phone calls with my mother. I withheld advice and simply listened actively, validating her feelings and allowing her to unpack her emotions. Slowly but surely, brick by brick, she began to piece her own life together in her own way. She allowed herself to leave my father’s side and instead to focus on her own well-being. She picked up yoga and made new friends at her local church. A year later, she even took a solo trip to the UK to attend a retreat at a monastery.
Since my time volunteering at Helping Hands and supporting my mother, I’ve also incorporated active listening into my professional life. When I discovered that a teammate was struggling to keep up with her programming tasks, instead of jumping to conclusions, I put my active listening skills to use. She confided in me that she felt her manager had neglected her and that she had been struggling with personal issues outside of work. After talking through her concerns, we made an action plan that would allow her to get back on track. I followed up with her consistently and supportively, and a year later, she was nominated to become a technical lead.
In another instance, two executives with disparate opinions on our fraud management strategy kept talking past each other. One believed that Square should fight fraud using internal resources, while the other wished to leverage multiple external vendors. When the conversation reached an impasse, I used my active listening skills to paraphrase each person’s position so both executives felt heard and followed up with open-ended questions to ensure the issues at hand were sufficiently explored. I steered the conversation out of the stalemate, and the executive team reached a multilateral solution— to conduct a time-bound test of the potential systems before choosing a path. The following day, the CTO commended me on my approach and my diplomacy. Active listening allows me to work and understand people at a level that is simply unattainable if all I do is listen passively or speak without thinking.
So, with this new perspective on personal growth, I found myself one quiet evening chatting with my mother, looking back at how far we had come from those trying times. She briefly pondered my role amid our family crisis. Against the sounds of cicadas in the humid Singapore air, she looked at me and replied, “you were my lifeline through my darkest times, listening to me day after day without fail.” In the end, the best way to support my mother had been to provide her with the scaffolding from which to reconstruct her own life.
Commentary by Jeremy Shinewald of mbaMission: Many applicants have preconceived notions about how a great HBS essay should read. A candidate could be forgiven for thinking something along the lines of “HBS wants to see ferocious, unyielding leaders who achieve the impossible,” but the idea that most applicants would fit this mold is unrealistic. Reading this guide should prove that point! In this essay, which is one of our absolute favorites, the applicant writes about a superpower that effectively plays directly against the aforementioned perceived HBS “type.”
Rather than being the kind of leader who raises his fist and screams, “After me!,” he listens and is continuously improving his ability to listen, while developing an enormous well of empathy in his dealings with others. In managing a complicated family dynamic, he realizes the importance of truly paying attention to what someone is saying, and he adroitly hones this skill through challenging community work, which itself equips him to solve personal and professional problems. Throughout, the applicant creates a narrative that is deeply thoughtful and calming. His voice in the essay gives the reader the sense that he is a fundamentally introspective person who draws power from reflection. But do not try to simply replicate his voice in your essay. What is critical is finding your own.