First of all, the vast majority of applicants will only have 800 words. This is not a lot of words, and it is a great reduction from prior years. However, let’s face it: many experts can look at an applicant’s stats and brief bio and in 90 seconds form an opinion on whether or not he/she is “HBS quality.” So now Harvard has 800 polished words, a resume, test scores, transcripts and a set of recs. That’s probably more than enough to select a set of people to interview.
800 words—let’s discuss the fact that you will need to be very, very economical in your use of these words. Map out all of the things that HBS needs to know about you and then figure out how those stories can be told through other parts of the application. Don’t even think about regurgitating the career path that is already present on the resume or the awards or titles that were entered through the data form. Your “top performer” story from work might be something that a supervisor can discuss in a letter of recommendation. When a colleague from the YMCA Young Leadership Board writes a letter on your behalf, that also might eliminate the need for an essay about your performance and innovation in that role. You might need to be more strategic in selecting and guiding recommenders in order to make sure that the right stories are told.
So after you have figured out ways that your resume, transcript and recommendations actually say what needs to be said, you can work with them to hone in on a handful of topics that reveal even more about you and help convey a thoughtful personal brand. So let’s look at those essay questions:
- Tell us something you have done well.
- Tell us something you wish you had done better.
For better or worse, these questions are very open. It’s basically a free-for-all.
“Something you have done well” could be . . . anything: navigating a challenge, bouncing back from failure, accomplishing something, learning a new skill, or managing a project. Note that this question is NOT asking about an accomplishment. It might be an accomplishment that your client chooses to write about, but a person can do something very well and still fail. It’s possible.
Same thing with “something you wish you had done better.” This does not have to be a failure. It could be a situation that actually turned out really well for you but you wish you had handled some aspect of it better.
It’s basically up to you to think hard about who you want to be in the admissions committee’s eyes and then generate key points and stories that need to be communicated. Perhaps you want to show off how ethical you are. You could write an essay about how well you navigated a tricky ethical situation. You could write an essay about not navigating it well and learning a ton. Or perhaps you want to convey that you’re innovative. So tell that innovation story in response to either one of the prompts. I see the essay questions as irrelevant. There is very little that cannot be squeezed into those prompts. They are basically saying: “Briefly, tell us two things about yourself.” Again, I suggest deciding what needs to be said, and then figuring out how to slot it all in. Do your best to squeeze the most essential messages into that first phase of the application. That way the interview and follow-up essay are just gravy . . . and they can be really excellent gravy.
The interview is obviously a wild card and if I know HBS the way I think I do, it will be very much out of your control. You may feel like you are facing the firing squad, answering rapid questions with little opportunity to plot things out or ask questions of your own, much less take a breath. The interviewer may ask questions about things not included in the initial application, but more likely they will drill down on what was in the application in order to clarify inconsistencies and probe like crazy. They will challenge you, and you might walk out of the interview feeling like you’ve been through the grinder and have a million things you want to clarify and restate.
This is where some planning in advance can help you stay sane on the follow-up essay and not come off as a crazy, emotional person—defensive and apologizing. Take some time after the interview and consider whether there is anything further that should be stated or clarified. If not, this is the time to insert some already prepared messages that did not previously get through. I recommend fleshing out potential themes for this essay in advance.
The key to success here is planning. Plan out your personal brand and messaging, and then determine how you can efficiently convey that brand every step of the way. It’s true: HBS is not asking for detailed work history, career plans, failures, successes, teamwork, ethics—it’s all completely up to the applicant. You can discuss those things, but you don’t have to. The messaging is 99.9% in your hands.
I have no doubt that HBS is still seeking the same qualities they always have, so be sure to package yourselves in a way that resonates with HBS’s core values of leadership, vision, ambition, impact and success.
On that note, I would like to clear up some rumors:
- Rumor #1: HBS no longer values leadership. What? This new process is the ultimate test in leadership by seeing if applicants can keep calm, think clearly, and be both decisive and strategic under pressure. The interview and the follow-up essay are also clever tests of leadership. If you do not have the endurance to write an essay after their interview—and if you cannot make savvy decisions about the content of that essay—perhaps you do not have what it takes to go to HBS.
- Rumor #2: HBS is no longer asking “why HBS?”. Here is a piece of news: they never asked that question. Lots of people wanted to answer that question, but that was a mistake because really, the HBS admissions committee already knows why applicants want to go to HBS.
- Rumor #3: HBS no longer cares about an applicant’s career plan. I don’t understand why this has surfaced as an interpretation of the new application. HBS wants to hear whatever a candidate want to tell them. If your career plans are meaningful and important to you, and if they provide insight into an important aspect of your motivations and personality, then by all means those career plans should be clearly communicated in the application, via recommendations, the essays or interview.
- Rumor #4: It will be harder to get into HBS this year. It is true that the new format makes it “easier” to submit an initial application, with only 800 words initially required. An easier application will likely lead to a higher volume of applications. As a result, the numbers will make it seem like it is now harder to get in, as a lower overall percentage will be admitted. My guess is that this is one of the motivations behind the application overhaul. However, those numbers never reflect the quality of the application pool. The percentages can be very misleading: 10% of a very strong, competitive applicant pool, is just not the same as 10% of a lackluster one. Applications will increase and in turn, statistics will become more intimidating. However, HBS is looking for the same inherent qualities as always, and for the same types of very accomplished, driven and visionary people. I don’t think it will be any harder to get in, unless you are the type of person who buckles under the pressure that will be created by the interview and follow up essay.
Remember, this application provides an opportunity to develop your personal message and convey it to HBS admissions. Deciding upon the message is the first challenge. Do some soul searching; your brand should reflect who you are as well as values that resonate with HBS.
Once you map out a message, the second challenge is fitting it all into the HBS format. I think this is a great exercise as it forces you to prioritize and be super selective about what is communicated. Although the HBS application format has changed, I truly do not believe that the qualities the school seeks have changed. They are experimenting, innovating, and perhaps getting more focused about the way they screen.
About Stacy Blackman
Stacy Sukov Blackman launched her MBA admissions consulting company in 2001 and has since helped thousands of clients gain admission to the most selective business schools in the world, many with merit scholarships. Reviews from her clients can be seen here. Blackman has published a series of online guides which contain in depth guidance on how to develop essays for top business schools. Blackman has degrees from both the Wharton School and the Kellogg Graduate School of Management.