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Harvard Business School Essay Topic Analysis 2012-2013

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As we announced recently, Harvard Business School has released their essay questions for the 2012-2013 application season.  This year’s questions represent a marked departure from those of last year; while applicants previously had to answer four essays totaling 2,000 words, HBS now asks applicants to write only two essays of 400 words each, in addition to a 500-character statement explaining why they want to pursue an MBA.  (Applicants should also note that if selected for an interview, they will be asked to submit a reflection essay within 24 hours of completing their interview.)  With such limited space, applicants will need to carefully select their topics for each essay as well as be concise in their writing.  Let’s take a closer look at the essay questions:

1. Tell us about something you did well. (400 words)

For the past few years, HBS has asked applicants to describe three of their accomplishments in the first essay.  This year’s question, however, calls for applicants to pick just one time when they were particularly successful.  Considering that this essay could be the first element of your application that the adcom reads, as well as the fact that applicants now have significantly less space to explain themselves, it is crucial that you select a topic that allows you to highlight some of the key strengths of your candidacy.

When evaluating an applicant’s credentials, HBS has traditionally been very focused on the impact that the applicant has had on a project, group, or company.  Thus, as you sit down to brainstorm potential topics for this essay, it might be useful to think about times when your actions have translated into lasting and quantifiable positive change.  Being able to point directly to the impact you had will help the adcom to understand why you consider the achievement to be “something you did well.”  Be careful to avoid presenting a one-dimensional answer here, though; it’s important that you explain the entire story behind your accomplishment—the situation, task, action, and results—rather than spending all 400 words describing the outcome.

Given that this is a relatively short essay, applicants will probably find it easiest to interpret “something” to mean “one thing,” and feature one concrete event in their response.  However, there could be exceptions to this, such as building an organization over time or leading a team towards a series of milestones.  If you’re unsure of whether you’re on the right track with your chosen topic, try speaking with a Clear Admit counselor.

2. Tell us about something you wish you had done better. (400 words)

Last year, HBS used this essay to inquire about three setbacks an applicant had faced; the year prior, Essay 2 asked applicants to describe what they learned from a mistake.  For another year running, the adcom is using Essay 2 as an opportunity to learn about a time when things went less than ideally for an applicant.

In asking applicants to describe “something you wish you had done better,” the HBS adcom is looking to see that applicants can recognize their own shortcomings.  To that end, using this essay to highlight a veiled success—for example, “I beat the target by $10 million but I wish I’d beaten it by $15 million!”—would be unwise.  Instead, take personal responsibility by describing the situation and how exactly you did not meet your own expectations in a straightforward way.  Another key element to touch on is the growth or development you experienced as a result.  One approach might be to use the first 300 words or so to detail the situation in which you underperformed, and to use the last 100 words to describe how, in the time since then, you have applied the lessons you learned from the experience.

As with Essay 1, it is likely easier to for applicants to interpret “something” as meaning one concrete event.  Again, though, exceptions may apply depending on the details of your candidacy and experiences.  On the whole, the key to a successful response here is to own up to your weaknesses and to showcase your maturity by indicating key takeaways from the experience.

Short Answer: How does pursuing an MBA support your choices above? (500 characters)

In the Employment section of this year’s online application, applicants are asked to select their intended post-MBA industry and function, and to then explain how attending business school will help them earn such a position.  With only 500 characters—around 60 to 70 words—to explain their reasons for pursuing an MBA, applicants will need to get directly to the point and be concise in their answers.  Possible responses to this question might include explaining the specific gaps in your knowledge that you need to fill, as well as the soft skills you hope to learn by working in a collaborative academic environment.  Note that this is not the place to pander to the admissions board by discussing how great the school is.  Instead, impress the adcom by showcasing your understanding of your current skill set and what you need to learn at HBS to succeed in your post-MBA career.

Post-Interview Reflection

According to the admissions blog, applicants who are invited to interview will be asked to write a reflection about their interview experience.  This essay must be submitted within 24 hours of completing the interview.  Additional instructions regarding the reflection will be sent to applicants who receive interview invitations.

To help draft this reflection, applicants would be wise to jot down some notes immediately after interviewing so that they can later refer to a clear record of what was discussed as well as what, if anything, they would have like to have mentioned but did not get a chance to.  When it comes time to write the essay, applicants should approach their response as if they are crafting a closing argument—or, as Director of Admissions Dee Leopold calls it, a “last word”—to their application.  You’ll want to take inventory of the message you’ve conveyed throughout your application materials (essays, resume, data forms, etc.) and your interview, and then write your reflection with an eye towards emphasizing the key attributes of your candidacy.  Lastly, the 24-hour turnaround means that this reflection will require a focused effort from applicants as well as some careful advance planning.

As always, stay tuned to our blog, where we will release further information about this new element of the HBS admissions process as it becomes available.

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