A soldier who served on the front lines in Afghanistan. A process engineer challenged by a long series of early failures. And a female consultant whose passion became healthcare.
Three MBA applicants to Harvard Business School last year. Three students in the newest crop of MBA students at Harvard this fall. All of them answered the question now being asked of 2017-2018 applicants to Harvard: 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?
The school provides minimal guidance for applicants trying to make an impression. “There is no word limit for this question,” advises HBS admissions. “We think you know what guidance we’re going to give here. Don’t over think, overcraft and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don’t know your world can understand.”
Each of the three applicants above wrote a clear and compelling essay in their applications, essays that Poets&Quants is reprinting with permission from the MBA Essay Guide Summer 2017 Edition recently published by The Harbus, the MBA student newspaper at Harvard Business School. The guide contains 39 essays written by successful candidates who are now starting the MBA program at HBS. Proceeds from the sale of the guidebook go to benefit the non-profit foundation that supports The Harbus.
With application deadlines rapidly approaching at Harvard Business School and many other prestige MBA programs, these successful essays will, no doubt, give current candidates a bit of guidance. More importantly, the essays that follow are most likely to provide comfort, that there is no formula or singular way to craft a successful answer.
THREE SUCCESSFUL ESSAYS. THREE VERY DIFFERENT APPROACHES.
The latest edition of the MBA Essay Guide from The Harbus costs $61.49
In his 1,130-word essay, the U.S. Army applicant ties together his experiences of leading soldiers on the front line in Afghanistan together with staff postings in Army operations and logistics to paint a portrait of a dedicated and people-oriented leader.
Inspired by a selfless act from her nine-year-old mentee, this management consultant decided to challenge herself to make an impact in healthcare. In a 937-word essay, she uses a particularly difficult turnaround situation which she was put in charge of as exemplifying her strongest skills: building relationships and uniting people around a common goal.
In a 1,358-essay, a process engineer opens up to a long series of failures in his early life. By showing both vulnerability and honesty, he is able to transform this list of fruitless endeavors into a credible “badge of honor,” evidence of his resilience, determination and strength of character. It quickly becomes apparent that what appeared to be failures in the first half, actually proved to be successes or openings for new opportunities, given enough time and perseverance.
ONE APPLICANT DID 25 DRAFTS BEFORE COMING UP WITH ONE SHE LIKED ENOUGH TO SUBMIT
Behind every MBA application is a person and a story, and in this trio of representative essays the approaches taken by each candidate is as different as the essays they submitted to the admissions committee at HBS.
The engineer went through took eight drafts over two months. “I thought about what personal traits I wanted to share with the ADCOM and identified stories from my past that identified those traits,” he explains. “After two or three drafts, I’d figured out the right narrative and kept refining it, taking as much as a week to finalize each draft. My best advice is to be honest, start early, and have someone who knows what the ADCOMS are looking for to read through a couple of your drafts and give you pointers.”
The consultant estimates that she went through 25 drafts to get to her final version. “I think the most important thing with the essay is to iterate,” she advises. “Because the question is so open-ended, it is important to reflect as much as possible and give yourself the time (in my case two months) to go on the journey necessary to realize what you care most about communicating and how to do so in the most effective way. I also cannot overstate the importance of finding someone who will give you honest feedback.
(See on the following pages the complete and full MBA essays submitted to Harvard Business School)
Who are you, beyond the GMAT?
To get to know their prospective students, Harvard Business School asked applicants to answer the following question in 2015:
"It's the first day of class at HBS. You are in Aldrich Hall meeting your 'section.' This is the group of 90 classmates who will become your close companions in the first-year MBA classroom. Our signature case method participant-based learning model ensures that you will get to know each other very well. The bonds you collectively create throughout this shared experience will be lasting. Introduce yourself."
The Harbus, HBS's student newspaper, publishes an annual collection of successful answers in "The Essay Guide." One of the best examples of a strong essay, "The Balance Act," from the 2016 edition of the guide, is included below.
The applicant is a woman from the US who worked in manufacturing/engineering product management and operations before applying to business school.
"I've been to Reno, Winnemucca, Salt Lake City, Chicago, Buffalo..." What sounds like a verse from Hank Snow's "I've Been Everywhere" is actually the chain of cities I've crossed four times since 2011. You see, the first engineering position I took after college required that I relocate for new assignments every six months.
If you had peered inside my car during one of those moves, you'd have struggled to guess my age (more than 300 vinyl LPs lay stacked in the trunk), my profession (the back seat was jammed with boxes of cake decorating tools), or why a person with Illinois plates owned a Buffalo Bills football (as my Bills enter the 2016 season now having missed the playoffs for 16 consecutive years, I'm struggling with that one too).
The link behind these seemingly dissimilar interests lay on the dashboard, in a dog-eared page of Sheena Iyengar's "The Art of Choosing." On that page, a Wynton Marsalis quote read: "You need to have some restrictions in jazz. Anyone can improvise with no restrictions, but that's not jazz. Jazz always has some restrictions. Otherwise it might sound like noise."
The thing to know about me is this: my two favorite things are CHAOS and CONTROL. "Get Smart" reference aside; I love rules ("restrictions" for Marsalis), but also disorder. I love routines, but also spontaneity.
Contradictory? Not really. My desire for routine (jigsaw puzzles over coffee every Sunday) and my flair for spontaneity (impromptu urban taco crawls) at times reveal themselves in quite separate pursuits. But more and more, the two combine into structured, yet inventive projects (most recently, a Kanban inventory system for custom cookies in my four-person apartment).
My upbringing built in me the love for "control." My dad, a lawyer and a lifelong coach, taught me to trust rules and fundamentals. I started playing baseball, repeating daily the same basic drills on the batting tee. I taught myself to cook, studying family recipes and following them to a T. I listened to my parents' LPs, memorizing every lyric and mimicking every note on the violin or piano.
Routine ruled my life. And I loved it, particularly as an athlete. I was recruited to the [TOP U.S. MIDWESTERN CITY PRIVATE UNIVERSITY] Softball team, where I continued emphasizing the fundamentals: throwing, glove work, sprints. These fundamentals made the "fun" stuff — making diving catches, throwing people out, winning — possible. Where fans saw graceful, instinctive skill, I saw a series of assessments, decisions, and actions.
This unwavering faith in fundamentals would propel me to success until 2010, when, after 15 years spent perfecting the skills my sport demanded, I hit a slump. To respond, I worked harder at the same drills I had always known. I re-ran weekly our toughest workout (up every stair in the 48,000-seat football stadium) with the expectation that more practice would make me "good" again.
No effort I made led to improvement, however, and I was eventually benched.
I to that point had defined self-worth solely by athletic performance. So when I felt my career ending despite extreme effort, I almost lost faith in those fundamentals.
That same year, though, I had joined a campus group, [NAME OF CAMPUS CHRISTIAN ATHLETE GROUP]. A group leader one day called for someone to bring food to the meetings. Remembering studying family recipes as a kid, I volunteered.
I ended up cooking for [CAMPUS CHRISTIAN ATHLETE GROUP] every week for two years, earning the nickname "Chef [APPLICANT'S LAST NAME, WITH AN 'IE' AT THE END]." I quickly discovered that the thing I loved about softball, I too loved about cooking — that I could learn fundamental "rules" (like throwing a ball, or packing brown sugar) to do something bigger (like winning a game, or baking a killer snickerdoodle).
But I discovered a freedom in the kitchen that I had never experienced as an athlete. I was instinctively substituting an ingredient here, tweaking a step there, to create new recipes. Just as Marsalis and others did with their music, I was taking the cooking rules and now re-arranging them into improvised creations, such as the ever popular "Molson Maple Glazed Donut."
That small change in approach in the kitchen gave me the appetite to improvise, and even explore, elsewhere. It provoked me to take the rotational position that soon sent me packing to new cities every six months. It motivated me to embrace new cultures as I moved, rather than live inside my known rules. It led me to taste stinky tofu in Hangzhou, China, to become the biggest Buffalo Bills fan you'll ever meet, and to try hang gliding in California (I won't be doing that again).
Throughout these adventures, though, I've held onto rules, to traditions. I explore each new city by running its best stairs, to honor those [UNDERGRAD UNIVERSITY] workouts. And I fill each new apartment with my boxes of LPs and cooking supplies.
The rules, the routines are still important — in fact, necessary — for me to create.
That's what brings me here — that mix of rules and improvisation, of control and chaos. I want the rigidity of finance and engineering mixed with the volatility of interacting with real people. I want to study through Case, the perfect marriage of preparation and adjustment. I want to take my existing knowledge of operations in manufacturing and transform it to retail and consumer goods.
I hope you'll each introduce yourselves to me over the next few weeks. You can find me running Harvard Stadium on Fridays or watching the Bills at Bleacher Bar on Sundays, as I learn to combine my existing routines with this new school and new city.
And as we go through TOM, I'll create a miniature cookie "factory" in my kitchen for anyone who wants to practice the basics of production flow. I'm thinking we can make Heath Bar Sandie's.
The editors of the guide provide a brief analysis of the strengths of each essay. For this particular one, they point out that the author nicely incorporates her many interests, including "athletics background, her love for cooking and her regular travel as part of her job."
The author also shows how these facets of her personality make her a good fit for business school.
"Towards the end, the author ties in her theme with the HBS case method by describing the cases as a perfect combination of 'chaos' and 'control' — thus emphasizing, in a very innovative way, how the program will be a perfect fit for her," the guide says.