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HBS Essay Topic Analysis 2009-2010

For the 2009-2010 admissions season, Harvard Business School applicants will need to respond to a total of four essay questions.  While the number of responses candidates must compose remains the same as last year, HBS aspirants now have an additional option.  Candidates must respond to the two initial questions on the list and may then choose two of five additional questions – one more than last year – to round out the set. With this greater flexibility, it becomes even more important for applicants to choose topics judiciously to provide a comprehensive and meaningful picture of their candidacy.  Applicants must also be clear and concise to fit their essays within the 1800 word total limit.  Let’s take a look at the essay questions for this year:

1. What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such? (600-word limit)
This essay question has been a hallmark of the HBS application for many years. Due to its top billing, this question could be the first element of your file that the adcom reads, making this response a great opportunity to present the reader with three strong stories that introduce the major themes of your candidacy. Each accomplishment can be presented as a stand-alone section here, so you needn’t be overly concerned about composing a seamless narrative.

HBS has traditionally been very impact-oriented in evaluating applicants’ credentials, so one way to determine which three accomplishments to describe in this essay is to think about the end results. Experiences in which you made a lasting and quantifiable impact can lend themselves to concise, factual narratives, and considering that each accomplishment must be described in approximately 200 words, this can be an important consideration. However, this isn’t to say that the process followed, skills gained, and lessons learned along the way aren’t important, too; these factors could be a great way to address the second half of the question: why you view these accomplishments as your most significant to date.

A final point is that it’s also important to select stories with an eye to balance. An applicant who describes two professional successes and one extra-curricular accomplishment, or perhaps one each from the professional, academic and activities realms, can show that he or she excels in any environment.

2. What have you learned from a mistake? (400-word limit)
This question makes an appearance for a third consecutive year. The subject of failure or setback is a popular one for business school essays in general, and there are a few important elements to consider in addressing this and similar prompts. Firstly, professional maturity, self-reflection and insight are key qualities to communicate. Towards that end, successful essays will describe the mistake in straightforward, step-by-step detail, and will also own the misstep rather than making excuses.

Another important element to touch on is that you’ve experienced some growth or development since the initial mistake. While applicants should not ‘gloss over’ their mistakes, it is important to emphasize positive growth and the learning experience that can come from missing the mark. An effective essay will present this growth in terms of thoughts and feelings, while balancing comments about internal reflections with descriptions of more external actions and changes in behavior.

Please respond to two of the following (400-word limit each):
1. What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience?

While MBA applicants often draw upon their extracurricular experiences during college as topics for essays, it’s rare that they get a chance to talk about their more intellectual interests and achievements. This is your chance to go into some detail about why you chose your school and major and tell the admissions committee about your academic interests and educational milestones. A great essay will underscore an applicant’s intelligence and work ethic, as well as incorporate some element of leadership (especially if the applicant had a significant impact on the department or school as a whole).

2. Discuss how you have engaged with a community or organization.
Carried over from last season, this prompt opens a wide range of topics for discussion and skills and qualities that an applicant can highlight. While the “organization” component clearly lends itself to coverage of an extracurricular involvement or leadership at work or at school, the “community” side could just as easily apply to international experience or immersion in a new team or demographic – essentially focusing just on the positive conclusion of a “culture shock” or “outsider” essay. Harvard’s continued use of this question suggests a strong interest in applicants who are proactive in making connections and building relationships, perhaps toward some specific cause or goal. The interpersonal elements of this experience will therefore be of just as much interest and your reasons and the results of this engagement. Though this essay lends itself nicely to a discussion of a long-term or ongoing involvement with the community or organization in question, centering the essay on a single meaningful anecdote will also be a viable strategy for showing your skills in action.

3. Tell us about a time when you made a difficult decision.
New to the HBS application, this essay topic calls for applicants to discuss a choice that had significant professional or personal ramifications.  Not all situations in life are win-win, and this question may be designed to help the adcom glean some insight into the approach and considerations a candidate takes in arriving at the best possible solution in light of situational limitations and necessary sacrifices.  A wide range of situations could be applicable to this question, from taking a semester off from school or taking a professional risk to confronting an ethical dilemma at work or making a tricky call in the absence of a supervisor.  Meanwhile, the thing that effective responses will have in common is a carefully considered explanation of the situation and through process that led to the final decision; hopefully there will be some positive results or personal growth to share as well. Given the great emphasis that Harvard places on leadership, it would be a nice bonus to discuss a situation in which you exercised leadership qualities and demonstrated confidence and maturity.

4. Write a cover letter to your application introducing yourself to the Admissions Board.
While this essay prompt is new to the HBS application this year, it mirrors MIT Sloan’s long-standing cover letter essay topic.  Given the current economic climate and resulting ultra-competitive job market, it’s hardly surprising that the adcom would take an explicit interest in how candidates tie their experiences together to market themselves in this context.

In approaching the cover letter, applicants should prepare to discuss the standard cover letter themes, such as attributes and skills, why you are interested in joining the ‘company’ (HBS), and what you feel you could contribute.

A potential outline for this essay might open with a ‘greeting’ to the committee followed by a statement of your interest in HBS and what you would bring to the school, then a short statement of your career goals with a summary of the ways in which your experience to date has prepared you, then a “why HBS” section briefly explaining why it is the best place for you in terms of what you need from an MBA and your fit with the school (though this particular explanation won’t be as important, given that HBS hasn’t traditionally put much emphasis on “why HBS”), concluding with a thank you.

5. What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?
Always unique among b-schools, HBS not only frames its essay about the applicant’s professional future in terms of a broad vision rather than concrete goals, but also makes it optional.

Harvard’s adcom tries to identify future business leaders, so applicants presenting a directed vision will make a positive impression. Because this essay is about your career vision, you might summarize your past experiences in a very concise manner (i.e. just a few sentences) before moving on to a detailed discussion of your future plans and the reasons that these plans are meaningful to you. Whereas many schools request a clear description of the candidates immediate post-MBA program, this particular question lends itself to a long-term, big picture outlook. Of course, you might also touch on the ways in which HBS will help you achieve your vision. Think about how Harvard’s program (specific classes, classmates and clubs) would prepare you for your future.

Conclusion
While each of these topics require a careful approach, one of the more challenging aspects of the HBS application is assembling the right mix of anecdotes across essays so as to provide the committee with the most complete (and strategic) view of your candidacy.  This is compounded by the fact that HBS allows for several choices in the final two essay topics.  As such, we recommend that our readers be sure to take a step back and consider their essays holistically as they move through the process of topic selection and writing.

As is the case with most schools, demonstrating an understanding of the unique merits of HBS’s program is crucial to an effective approach to the essays.  Taking the time to learn about the school’s unique curriculum, special programs and extracurricular activities – whether through a visit to campus, conversation with alumni or reading the Clear Admit School Guide to Harvard – will pay dividends here.

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