Breaking Down the New (Class of 2014) HBS Essays

We tell clients all the time to sign up early because the process starts earlier and earlier.  There's no greater proof of that fact than HBS releasing its new essay questions during the second week of May.  One of our Round 3 clients literally just got his acceptance letter and already we're talking about next year.  

This means we have to scramble the fighters and update our How to Apply to HBS Guide in the coming days, lest we send out dated advice to the world.  In the meantime, we figured we'd take a stopgap measure by posting our thoughts on the new questions here in the blog.  So here are comments and thoughts on the new HBS Essays: 

Essay 1: Tell us about three of your accomplishments (600 words). 

It's basically the same old famous Essay #1 - the "accomplishments" essay.  What is noteworthy about the phrasing this year is that they have taken out some of the "lead a horse to water" language from last year.  Gone is the requirement that you include your *most significant* accomplishments, as well as the instruction to explain why they have meaning.  

So ... do we think you should ditch last year's instructions the way HBS has?  Yes and no.  It seems as if taking away the phrase *most significant* is a pretty clear signal that HBS was getting too many down the middle answers and not enough personality.  When you see *most significant,* you tend to think "best" or "most impressive," and fail to explore personal growth.  In our professional opinion, HBS wants to see candidates be more intelligent in the way they compose responses to this question - chose accomplishments that create a thematic progression or that take us chronologically through your development.  Don't just pull the best three resume items you have and write paragraphs about them. 

On the flip side, we believe you should absolutely still explain why they have meaning.  In fact, stating any accomplishment - on any application - without including relevant meaning means that you are probably wasting an opportunity.  Here, we think HBS just wants to give more diligent applicants an advantage - those who go a level deeper and provide meaning will likely have stronger essays than those who just bang out formulaic responses. 

In all, don't fear this essay.  It's a chance to be creative, to brag about yourself, and to really show HBS what you can do.  

Essay 2: Tell us three setbacks you have faced (600 words).  HBS is going heavy on introspection!  Harvard has had a "mistake/failure" essay in place for some time, but it was shorter and basically just a diluted version of the Wharton mistake essay (which asked for more developmental insights).  The placement stays the same - right after you get done bragging, it's time to break out the humility, but the increased word count and mirroring "tell us three" device is a clear signal that Harvard wants a little less boasting and a little more thoughtfulness this time around.  

(Note: Perhaps HBS is starting to see some fallout from skewing young?  We don't feed into the hysteria that younger generations have no social intelligence/EQ, but we know that admissions officers worry about that and we also know that no school admits a younger class than Harvard.  Perhaps Aldrich Hall is just a little too full of people with a little too much confidence and this is a course correction.  Or maybe we're just fanning a flickering flame and yelling fire.  Who knows.)

Essay 3: Why do you want an MBA (400 words)?  This question is going to be maddening for applicants, we have a feeling, but in reality, it should be a pretty easy essay to handle.  If you look closely at Chicago Booth Essay #1 last year, they asked for 300 words on Why an MBA - separate from the defining of career goals and separate from Why Chicago.  In much the same why, this is not HBS boiling down the typical career goals essay ("What are your short and long-term goals and how can an MBA from School X help you achieve those goals") into 400 words, but rather HBS asking for a very specific part of a career goals analysis - why the degree itself?  Surely if you are HBS material, opportunity beckons from all corners.  So why business school?  The key to answering this question is to be heavy on vision, on personal passion, and on motivation.  Don't bog them down with specifics (Harvard, like MIT, does not seem to care much about detailed career goals) and definitely don't waste words bragging about your skills (you already did that in Essay 1!) ... this is all about WHY.  Not WHAT, now HOW, not WHERE ... WHY.  

Again, this should be an easy question, but tons of applicants will throw up a brick here, so if you are reading this blog, be happy that you are ahead of about 75% of your fellow candidates. 

Essay 4: Answer a question you wished we'd asked (400 words)?  Wow, what a wrinkle!  Okay, listen carefully:


I can only imagine what kind of whining we are going to see people wedge into this space in the coming year.  Remember that HBS - like chance - favors the bold.  Come with swagger and confidence (save for Essay 2, of course) or don't come at all.  Please, as a favor to all consultants and HBS admissions officers, don't create a prompt like "I wish you had asked me to explain my GMAT score."  If you do, it's game over. 

Okay, so what should you do?  You can start by looking to the very recent past (last year) to cherry pick one of the "choice" essays that HBS has done away with.  Career vision is out, obviously, as Why an MBA hits close enough to that.  We always hated last year's new addition question of "introduce yourself to your classmates," so probably best to avoid that.  But "what would you like us to know about your undergraduate experience" was a cool question that was unique to HBS (again, admitting a younger class makes college a more recent and more relevant experience), and "a time you were frustrated" was very solid, as it was a great chance to take a negative prompt and turn it into a positive, "impact" essay.  So going to one of those two questions is probably a pretty safe strategy.

You can also look to other programs.  See a 400-word essay out there that you love?  Use that and tell HBS "I love this question that Tuck asks" and then answer it.  Trust us, HBS will love that you have the guts to do that and, frankly, it helps them hone in on good questions for the future.  Because clearly, they are at a bit of a loss on this last question.  They've tried all kinds of cannon fodder at the end of the app and the "invent a question" strategy is an admission that they are getting crap in return.  I mean, sure, you could look at it as HBS changing the game and encouraging creative expression, but I guess we're just too cynical to buy that one.  No, this is more test balloon than evolve the process, we suspect.  

But the main thing here is don't get cute and try to show how you smart you are with the question.  Above and beyond everything else, make sure you create a prompt that actually funnels toward an answer of strength.  It doesn't have to be so on the nose as to be embarrassing (you are a conflict resolution master so you write "Tell us about a time you resolved a conflict" - that's a bit obvious), but there are no points for esoterica either.  

(If you are really stretched, go with "What was the last great book you read?"  This is pretty much the most enjoyable answer to read in an essay and can be surprisingly informative as well.  So if you are in a panic, feel free to use that one!)

Overall, good luck on your HBS applications this year!


If you are interested in a free initial consultation, please email Our boutique approach pairs you with one of the principals of our company, meaning you will be working with someone capable of walking you through the above steps and perfecting your application. Finally, make sure to download our free How to Apply to HBS guide.