A Tip for Applying to HBS - "don't overthink, overcraft and overwrite"

I wanted to get ahead of something - a potential problem - I see with my clients to HBS and Stanford GSB. Frankly, it's a problem that I consistently see with most applicants answering any essay question meant to evoke an author's deepest (or cursory!) values, beliefs, norms and experiences. HBS calls it out as "overthinking, overcrafting and overwriting", I call it "overselling" your point when writing.

First, some background.

The HBS essay prompt this year is as follows:

"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?"

This is an essay that anyone applying to top business school programs would know. However, this question prompt also has an equally known, but much lesser regarded explanatory text, which is as follows:

"There is no word limit for this question.  We think you know what guidance we're going to give here. Don't overthink, overcraft and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don't know your world can understand."

I do appreciate that the HBS admissions committee readily acknowledges that their advice has been around since the beginning of time ("We think you know what guidance we're going to give here.") Putting myself in the shoes of the admissions committee, this is for good reason. I can see how Dee Leopold (and now Chad Losee) and company must roll their eyes and groan every time they see an applicant disregard their sage advice. Multiply this by 10,000 or so applications, and it must be like playing the 8.5" x 11" (PDF) version of Russian Roulette.  

Anything any applicant can think to write, the admissions committee has already seen.

As the applicant, you know that the admissions committee always warns "don't tell us what you think we want to hear.!" The opposite of that is not "tell us what we don't want to hear", but that is what applicants are effectively doing when they disregard the guidance that HBS puts forth and calls out explicitly alongside their essay prompt.  Rather, the correct response is being authentic and genuine, on point and on message.  Easier said than done, I know. But that's what Harvard admissions means when they tell applicants to flush the bullshit by not "overthinking, overcrafting and overwriting."

My advice

What the admissions committee values, more than anything else is clarity.

This is why I always tell my clients that I am against grandiose and big-time essay openers or introductions because what the admissions committee values, more than anything else is clarity.  You want to avoid anything that could possibly make them roll their eyes or make them search for what it is you really want them to know (or what it is a really should know). 

In general, you want to spare them the dramatics because they have seen it all.  They really have.  Anything any applicant can think to write, the admissions committee has already seen.  This includes quotes or any type of riddle or any type of drama. Frankly, for any applicant or anyone who is not a professional writer, it's really hard to pull off writing that is both emotional and meaningful, or witty and on-point. What usually happens is that the author/applicant comes off as a unreliable narrator - a storyteller not to be trusted - because they rely too heavily on (dramatic) speech that oversells the point trying to be made. This is exactly why Harvard specifically gives the following advice alongside their question prompt - again - "Don't overthink, overcraft and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don't know your world can understand."

If the author believes in the story, why do they seem so nervous about whether or not we will believe in the story?

Overcrafting and overwriting equals overselling, which undermines confidence - the author's credibility and confidence in their story and ultimately, the reader's confidence in the points the author is trying to make in the story.  Adding too much language around any event - especially a tragedy - makes the author look like they are trying too hard.  It looks anxious.  The reader thinks - "if the author believes in the story, why do they seem so nervous about whether or not we will believe in the story?"  Top business school programs, and the admissions committee members who read your story, want applicants who are confident.  

So it goes beyond a dramatic story, it goes beyond whether or not the story is true, it goes beyond even being on point, and it has everything to do with the confidence you display - so this is why I always believe that less is more when writing anything emotional or personally trying.


If you are in the midst of finding your most authentic voice for HBS or Stanford GSB, or if you are just starting out on your MBA applications, contact us at mba@amerasiaconsulting.com or www.amerasiaconsulting.com/contact for a free consultation.