3 Key Thoughts on the HBS Essay

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Despite HBS featuring the most publicized changing of the guard in admissions that I can remember, they are basically keeping their "open-ended" question style intact.  In fact, more than keeping it intact, they have reverted to the more straight forward version they used in 2013 and 2014, rather than the more clever (but probably ultimately less effective) "introduction" prompt from last year. 

Harvard Business School's case learning environment requires participation, but even more so, it requires the type of student who thrives in environments where they are constantly challenged by the material and their colleagues.

Harvard Business School's case learning environment requires participation, but even more so, it requires the type of student who thrives in environments where they are constantly challenged by the material and their colleagues.

And because they are staying in this lane, it means that my three thoughts need to stay in the same lane they have been in for years - because understanding the psychology behind this essay goes a long way to explaining how you might solve it.  



For three years now, I have watched a MASSIVE (all caps are necessary here) gulf emerge between good and bad use of this space, among candidates.  

More important than even the size of the gulf is the nature of the divide - you could almost amass all of the applicants into two groups on each side of it: the self-assured, clear-speaking confident types and the hot messes.  I'm being rather cruel to the latter group and probably overstating it a bit, but it's still true.  This is because it's been clear for years now that HBS has been introducing ambiguity into the process.  Is that intentional?  I believe it is (I won't go into why in this post), but even if not, it's still a fact.  Consider just these three clues, which are today's Three Thoughts: 

1. The post-interview response assignment measures confidence.

This is a Type A person's worst nightmare.  A 24-hour window to get it done (basically restricting you from getting the type of feedback and reviews you are probably accustomed to), vague instructions, hints suggesting it should be a little scruffy rather than polished.  I mean ... that's not a comfortable assignment for the typical person who has made it as far as an HBS interview.  It's almost like a dare.  How comfortable can you be in your own skin?  Can you shrug, and just knock it out or are you going to melt down?  I would wager that what they are looking for when they review those is evidence of stress.  When they see something free and easy, confident and cool, they are impressed.  When they see something that came out of a stress ball implosion, they are like "next."  That's my interpretation at least.  

(Note: when I work with clients on this I approach it in the way HBS wants me to ... but not because they are bullying me, but rather because it's the correct approach.  There are times when I need to be like a golf swing coach.  I need to break down my client's swing, work out some kinks, help them discover their best self, etc.  But when it comes to the post-interview response, my role becomes caddie on the 18th green of the Masters.  My job is to say, "You are a good golfer.  Your swing is grooved.  Stop tinkering.  Stop thinking.  Hit the damn ball."  This is what HBS wants, guys.  They want you to just step up and take your swing, confident and true.)

2. The unusual waitlist scenario measures confidence.  

HBS will waitlist you, defer you to a later round, and basically ask you to hang around for sometimes months and months to get a result.  That's not terribly unusual - all schools have to use some sort of WL mechanism to control enrollment numbers.  What is unique about HBS is that they don't let you respond in any way.  More specifically: they say of you want to stay on the WL, do nothing.  Only respond if you *don't* want to stay on.  And then - don't do anything.  Don't move a muscle.  In my opinion, it's another dare.  Who can hold their powder?  Who can stay cool and just ride it out.  I'm reminded of a thriller movie I saw once (can't remember what it was) when the hero and the villain were in a standoff on opposite sides of a wall.  Neither knew for sure if the other was on the opposite side, though they both had their suspicions.  They waited in complete silence.  For hours.  Waiting each other out, not moving a muscle, not making a sound.  Finally, the villain determined that no one could wait that long and came around the corner.  The hero blew him away.  That's who you have to be - the one willing to wait it out longer than anyone else.  When you flinch, when you panic, when you just can't resist sending an email or having your boss/uncle/friend/[insert whoever you think has sway at HBS] lob a call in ... you're DOA.  

3. Most of all, the open-ended essay question measures confidence.  

Ah, finally, we come to the part of the post you clicked on this to get to.  The HBS question that was introduced in 2013 and that has been more or less restored this year is, to me, the latest (and greatest) example of this trend.  It's another dare.  Can you follow their instructions?  Can you resist repeating your resume?  Can you resist telling them your entire life story?  In short, can you step up with confidence and state something that they don't already know, that is worth sharing?  It's not an easy thing to do, but it's absolutely essential.  I have seen dozens of failed HBS essays from the last three years and while the formats differ, the length is never the same, and the content is all over the map, they all have the same exact scent - a scent of desperation.  There's no confidence, control, or assertive elegance.  Contrast that with what I signed off on as it went out the door - different formats, length, and content on this end as well, but all defined by a strong (and often simple) thesis and a self-possession that came through on the page.  I firmly believe that even more than what those essays said, it was HOW they said it that generated such good results.  

Last personal note, aka "Why I love Harvard, but Harvard probably doesn't love me."  

There is a prevailing and lingering theory out there that HBS is trying to drive admissions consultants out of the process.  I'd like to respond to that - as much to Harvard as to potential clients. It's self-serving to say this, of course, but in all my years in admissions, I never felt more valuable to my clients than I have for my HBS folks the last three years.  And not because I told them what to write or gave them some secret formula, but because I helped them find what made them special to begin with and then I gave them the permission and confidence to believe in that and to articulate it clearly and with assurance.  I stood behind them so they could stand strong and confident.  And when they did that, they thrived.  Now, HBS may still wish I didn't exist, but I firmly believe that they have admitted over 30 amazing Harvard students the past three years at least in part because I was involved in their candidacy.  Everyone comes to a point in life when a coach helps them not just train or boost their skills, but to gain clarity.  I've hired trainers and life coaches and each time, they've helped me get out of my own way and put my best self forward.  HBS' application process helped me serve the same role for my clients last year.  So if Harvard really is trying to drive me out of the process, it kind of backfired.  I've never been more valuable or fulfilled in my work.  

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