For anyone who has tracked Harvard Business School’s application over the years, it has been obvious the information they seek from applicants has diminished. Now down to one question only, the HBS application makes it tougher than ever to get noticed.
There was a time, about a decade ago in fact, that the Harvard Business School application looked a lot like other applications to top schools, with several essay questions designed to allow applicants to unpack their story and share impressive achievements. As the years went by and the number of applications to HBS soared, however, it became clear to the admissions committee there that it was simply not sustainable to read 40,000 individual essays (three or four per applicant).
Harvard initially addressed the problem by cutting down dramatically on their word count and for many years, Harvard was the stingiest of all top schools in allowing applicants to run away with the pen on their applications. Applicants who violated the word count were often rejected outright, with the justification that their bypassing the rules demonstrated poor judgement, poor communication skills, or poor attention to detail, all of which were bad business traits for a group whom they generally expected to take over the world after graduation.
Finally Harvard took the laziest route of all: eliminate the essay altogether.
They told applicants that they did not require any essays, but if there were anything you wanted to tell them, you could do so at your own discretion. No word limits, no guidelines. This sort of backfired on HBS as well, and they found themselves swimming again in an avalanche of amateur novellas.
More recently, HBS has compromised, and has settled on one required essay:
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?
Again, there is no word limit for the HBS essay, but the key words in the question are, “more to know.” These words are deceivingly simple, because when you look at the whole of the HBS application, you will quickly see the only thing outside this one essay that HBS is going to know about you will come from your resume and your recommenders.
For Harvard, the important thing to ask yourself is, “what are they looking for?”
The answer to this question is largely revealed by HBS themselves; in short, they seek analytical leaders who are engaged in their work and community. Resumes are good at listing what you do, but not why. They show achievements, but not how they were achieved. Certainly the how can often be addressed by recommenders, who hopefully will comment anecdotally on your approach to the job and how you get on with others.
If it were me, I’d address the why with my essay.
Resumes and recommenders don’t often reveal the why behind the what, so it’s really only you who can unpack this important question. Incidentally, it’s really in the why that who you are as a person is mostly revealed. HBS and other top schools are trying to understand who you are. If you approach their essay with this in mind, you will be ahead of the pack.