Student about to type their Harvard Business School essay

How to Write the Harvard Business School Essay

May 28, 2021
Part 1. IntroductionPart 2. What is the Harvard Business School EssayPart 3. Purpose of the Harvard Business School EssayPart 4. Step by Step Guide on Writing the Harvard Business School Essay Part 5. Harvard Business School Essay Example Including What Made It Successful Part 6. Tips for Creating A Standout EssayPart 7. FAQsPart 8. Conclusion

Introduction

Harvard Business School’s MBA is one of the most well-known, acclaimed professional degrees in the world. When applying for such a competitive next step in your education and career, every aspect of your application deserves careful deliberation and preparation. The application essay requires even more thought because Harvard Business School views  essays as a real-time representation of who you are, professionally and personally. This blog will take you through a step-by-step process so you’ll know exactly how to write the Harvard Business School essay.  Hopefully, it will also help invigorate your pride in your own story, for Harvard Business School will be more likely to see your potential if you demonstrate that you see it too.

What is the Harvard Business School Essay?

The Harvard Business School essay is just one component of a complete MBA application, but it certainly has its own considerations. So, it is important that you take time to consider the essay separately from the rest of the documents and information in your application. The essay prompt is as follows:

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?

This essay question is particularly challenging for many applicants due to its vague nature.  The other potentially unexpected kicker to this prompt: there is no word limit. Regarding the length of your essay, the Harvard Business School webpage suggests that you “use your best judgment, and try to be clear… and concise.” We’ll discuss how to best work on this deliverable later in the blog, as it is an important factor in the overall presentation of your writing. 

Unless you have an exceedingly in-depth resume, the essay is definitely going to be the most personal aspect of your application. The essay is your chance to use your own words to describe yourself, your values, and your insights. It will be the most significant signal to the admissions committee as to how your background has influenced you and how HBS would fit well into your future.

Purpose of the Harvard Business School Essay

In light of this, the purpose of your essay is to give the admissions committee an integrated look into who you are as a student, professional, and person. Harvard wants you to reflect on the  aspects of your education, work experience, and social life that you think are most significant and use the essay to tell the story behind them. In other words, the essay is your chance to demonstrate passion.

Your analytical abilities will be communicated through your GMAT scores and your undergrad transcript and GPA, so you do not need to use the essay to explain how exemplary you’ve been as a student. Your resume and letters of recommendation provide insight into what you have achieved professionally and academically and give a picture of how you present yourself to others. So, what’s missing from your application when these are complete are your motivations. This could include what your main motivating factors are, where and how they developed, and what goals have come from these points of inspiration. Again, this is really just the story of what you’re passionate about and why. 

It’s through this kind of thought process that the seemingly broad essay question becomes more specific. Before deciding what you’d like to write about, consider what kind of information the admissions committee will gather in other parts of your application, and then consider what else would be important for the admissions committee to know about you. This will ensure an original, fascinating, and authentic essay that answers even more questions that Admissions might have about you. 

Step by Step Guide on Writing the Harvard Business School Essay

Organization is key to ensuring quality in an open-ended writing assignment such as the prompt offered by HBS. It’s important to order tasks in an accomplishable, reasonable way where each goal is clear and manageable. Exploring blogs about MBA essay writing is one way to get ideas flowing. To help wrap your head around organizing your essay-writing efforts, here are some beginning-to-end steps for the creation of your Harvard Business School essay:

  1. Self-Reflection
  2. Decide on the Right Story and Its Theme
  3. Write an Outline
  4. Start Your Essay Carefully and Deliberately 
  5. Draft Your Essay and Revise
  6. Get an Outside Perspective

1. Self-Reflection

Start the process of HBS essay writing with something as equally fundamental as it is simple: thought. Consider the role that the essay will play in your application and how to make the essay benefit your goal of getting into Harvard Business School. There are two sides to useful self-reflection regarding a goal like a Harvard MBA.

First, think purposefully about your career goals and tie them to an MBA at Harvard Business School. Ask yourself, how would a Harvard MBA help you get to where you want to go, professionally? What would you most like to gain from your time studying at HBS? Thinking about these things and then including them in your essay will demonstrate to the admissions committee that you have a clear trajectory for your MBA experience and your career. Additionally, revealing these considerations in your essay will speak to your confidence in your aspirations and in your decision to apply for Harvard Business School, which will likewise be attractive to the admissions committee.

The other side to a useful introspection would be considering what you as a student would contribute to Harvard and to its MBA program. A US News article about successful MBA essays encourages you to highlight what you would contribute to the HBS MBA program, so that you come across as a useful addition instead of simply a “taker.” If you were in the admissions committee's shoes, what would be the most enticing aspects of your past education, your experiences, and your personality. Essentially, you should think, specifically and without judgment, about what your biggest strengths as an applicant are, realistically. Knowing this will help you, both consciously and subconsciously, weave your most compelling characteristics into your essay so that the admissions committee gets to know your best side.

2. Decide on the Right Story and Its Theme

You absolutely do not want to use your essay as a canvas on which to dump information about yourself. Harvard is not interested in reading an essay that expands on your entire resume or simply describes you. Tell a story! Elucidate on an impactful experience or explain a significant lesson you’ve learned. You’ll probably either overflow with abounding exciting examples to choose from, or you’ll struggle to find even one compelling anecdote. Don’t worry if you sit in this situation for a while; after all, you’ll ultimately still need to decide on just one topic, whether that means whittling down your options or sifting through your past to isolate that one perfect story. 

Once you finally do settle on that one excellent, fascinating subject that excites you enough to write about, you should also deliberate about what you intend your themes and tones to be. What would the ideal takeaway(s) be for a reader of your essay? Additionally, and this is annoyingly subjective, so apologies; how do you want to sound? You should have a picture of how your essay will present your information, and you should have a picture of how your essay will present you. The admissions committee will use the essay to try to imagine you and the role you’d play at Harvard, so keep in mind how they would do this with the essay you write.

3. Write an Outline

This step is fairly straightforward. Take the most important points of your topic, and put them in an order that would flow well as you write. Make sure, as you lay these points out, that they align with each other coherently and that they reflect your intended theme. From there, write out some thoughts on how best to integrate each point into a complete essay. You might want to explicitly write out which details are most crucial to each part of your story or subject. For example, let's say your compelling story about a transformative internship abroad begins by explaining what you were doing before it. Then, intuitively, you’d have to include details about where you were at this stage of the story and whether you were working, studying, traveling, etc. Put this information in your outline, so you know that you don’t leave things out and lose your reader. 

4. Start Your Essay Carefully and Deliberately

The way you begin your essay is quite important and will in many ways determine how the rest of your essay will shape out. First things first, make sure you feel good about your first sentence. Just like the opening scene of a movie, the first statement or two of your HBS essay will introduce your writing style and general tone to the admissions committee readers. Consistency always improves readability, and consistency starts with your opening sentence. Try to make the first couple sentences intriguing to garner some interest right from the get-go.

From the first sentence, ensure you’re keeping to your tone, at least peripherally. We can all agree a shift in tone tends to break the flow of good writing, and to have that break early on in your essay might throw the admissions committee off. The more sentences you write in a consistent tone and manner, the easier it will be to continue to write in holding with them. Because you’re trying to tell one, coherent story, the reader will be most interested if your writing follows an intuitive flow of ideas.

5. Draft Your Essay and Revise

From this last point, try as best you can to find a steady pace, and begin expanding on your outline. The nice part of this step is that you don’t have to get carried away with wording, sentence structure, or length. Again, focus on including all the relevant details and continue matching your tone. Try to write at a reasonable rate for decent chunks of time instead of writing intermittently while giving in to distractions. The more consecutively you write each sentence and paragraph, the better they’ll run together when someone’s reading them.

The reason you’ve already prepared an outline, and plan to edit throughout the rest of your writing process, is to make your first attempt at writing the essay as easy as it can be. Mistakes and breaks in your thinking can easily be caught by careful reading after the fact, so capitalize on inspiration when it hits and simply get your first draft onto the page. When writing an important, personal essay like this one, it also serves you well to keep boosting your confidence. If you fixate on word choice and how your writing is sounding, you’ll be more likely to break up the flow of your statements and make reading your essay feel choppy. You are telling your own story, and the point of the essay is for the admissions committee to get a better idea of your personality and character, so take pride in the fact that you’re unambiguously the best writer for this subject.

6. Get an Outside Perspective

Once you’ve written the entirety of your essay and edited it carefully and precisely, get some extra peace of mind by having one or two other people read your essay. The more insightful and writing-experienced your readers of choice are, the more you’ll benefit from their critiques and opinions. The crucial part of this step is to get thoughts from someone unattached to your writing. As fervently and specifically as you may edit your own essay, you’ll always struggle to distance yourself from your emotional attachment to certain phrases, details, or even words. It’s ok. Every writer goes through this with the things they write. Trust us.

This other person allows you to hear a perspective from someone who read every sentence as how it sounded, not how it was intended. In this way, they fill the shoes of the admissions committee, but at a stage where you can still make changes to your essay. Don’t take criticisms personally; it's better to hear them now than to be at their mercy after submitting your application. 

No, you don’t need to force yourself to accept every change proposed by your reader(s). The point of an outside perspective is not to find a qualified editor and let them rewrite an essay about something important to you. This step is more useful just in reinvigorating your own thoughts about your paper because, in the late stages of your essay writing, it's much easier to get bogged down with the same considerations and forget the bigger things you’re trying to say to the admissions committee.

Sample Harvard Business School Essay

Sample Introduction:

“Start again,” my mother would demand after tossing my less-than-perfect homework into the trash. As a kid, I was taught that ‘work is finished when it’s not just your best work, but the best.’ Most kids would resent a parent for this, but I didn’t: my mom practiced the same rigor with her own work. She had to—a Latin immigrant with only a high school degree in 1980s [City] was held to a higher standard, especially one fighting to change both the media’s and corporations’ impressions about Latinx consumers.

Sample Body Paragraphs:

I have applied this doctrine of “do better, be better” throughout my life, focusing on improving my own communities, be it through offering students a taste of food around the world with a college underground pop-up kitchen or planning a [Latinx event] as a conference chair. Last year gave me the chance to continue to work on being an inclusive leader in the Black/Latinx (B/LX) community as a ‘white-passing’ individual. Ultimately, however, these concerns were unimportant when given the opportunity to improve things now for the B/LX community. My new work projects helped me confront leaders I felt had not supported teams during the summer’s tragedies. I learned how feedback framed as suggestions could have powerful consequences. In fact, one of my managers actually came to me for advice on how to engage his peers in order to help his local community use pooled funds from [consulting group].

These experiences have helped me refine my long-term aspirations. Though I would still like to build on my mother’s legacy of a community-minded entrepreneur, I dream of founding my own venture capital fund. I want to alter the face of business by empowering young, diverse entrepreneurs who will bring novel approaches to lingering problems from past generations. Rather than improve my community only through projects supporting others’ priorities, I intend to be an active participant, building an incubator for entrepreneurs of color to eliminate barriers that maintain inequality such as urban food insecurity and underfunded education systems.

Sample Conclusion:

HBS will immerse me in the rapidly evolving entrepreneurial environment, helping me to understand process and practice creating ideas as both a founder and funder. On campus, I intend to be an active participant in HBS’ Anti-Racism goals, fighting to bring equity and inclusion with the same passion I have brought to my office and B/LX network. After graduating, I plan to continue engaging with HBS, either by working with student-run investment groups (like IVP’s Steve Harrick and the students behind the inclusion-focused Phoenix Fund) or working with professors to influence HBS’ future (like alumni Lulu Curiel and Eric Calderon, who helped develop a case study with Professor Alvarez to improve Latinx representation in MBA programs). Internalizing the case-method and the hands-on experiences acquired in my two years on-campus will embolden me to disrupt the status quo, both from the grassroots and executive levels.

What Made It Successful 

So, what works well in this thoughtful, personal HBS application essay? Starting with the introduction, the anecdote that this writer starts their essay with grabs attention through the strict rigor that their mother required for them growing up. Again, the key to the first few statements of an application essay lies in their ability to compel the reader to read on. An excellent introduction. will ensure  reading your essay is  a pleasure instead of a chore. Further on in this essay example, the reader understands where the applicant's motivation for equality and fair representation stems from, and this theme persists throughout the piece. It’s through demonstrating strong points like these that the reader reaches a higher empathy for the writer, which never hurts when applying to Harvard Business School. We also gain appreciation for the leadership skills of the writer due to their clear descriptions of past examples. Crucially, do not just hear how these examples played out, but what lessons the writer learned from them that they continue to apply. Finally, the essay’s conclusion cites both short-term and long-term goals for the writer's schooling and career, and this section feels very specifically written for HBS. Including references to Harvard Business School and its alumni, as done in this example, shows the admissions committee that your efforts in writing this essay are totally aimed at getting into HBS’s MBA, and that you’ve thought hard enough about the decision to do in-depth research.

Tips for Creating a Standout Essay

1. Show don’t tell.

If you use your essay to outright explain what you’re trying to show the admissions committee about yourself, you run a much higher risk of losing readability and taking your application from an opportunity to a plea. Instead, demonstrate your takeaways, your best qualities, through your story and its examples. The reader is far more likely to be compelled by the conclusions of your essay if they feel like they came to them themselves. By not explicitly explaining the point of your essay, you come across more sure in the topic you’ve chosen and its ability to reveal the point.

2. Use rich anecdotes.

Your essay will be bolstered or weakened by the intrinsic quality of the experiences about which you write. Only include anecdotes that you’d be just as comfortable and confident about retelling to dinner guests or friends at a bar. Obviously, the formality of those situations and the Harvard Business School MBA application differ starkly, but the gist of this statement is that if you’d feel awkward telling a story to your friends, it’d be hard to make it sound good for an unseen admissions committee reader. If it’s a story you’ll enjoy writing about, it’ll stand a better chance of being enjoyable to read. 

3. Tell a story.

Allow for your topic to run a course through several experiences or lessons. Connecting the different events you’re using with cause and effect relationships will encourage the admissions committee to keep reading and see why each addition to the essay was included. That isn’t to say you should strive to connect unrelated experiences or anecdotes, just that your examples should run together well, with a beginning to end arch in mind.

4. Get professional help.

Utilize guides and blog posts about the undertaking of applying to an MBA program, getting as specific to Harvard Business School as you can. Reviewing a concise guide about applying to Harvard Business School can be the best way to ensure that your application is sound, not just for any MBA program, but for Harvard Business School’s MBA. Many resources, like Final Application Reviews, will focus heavily on your essay, but will also provide insight on every aspect of your application so you feel best about your attempt.

FAQs

1. How can I best edit my essay?

It’s important to feel confident about the details you’re using in your essay. That being said, the actual content of your story should not be your main focus in the editing process; this could just lead to more doubt about your subject overall. The editing process is more for syntax, word choice, and the like. Luckily, there are many ways to make this easier for you. Start by looking up common mistakes made in MBA application essays, and professional essays in general. Rake through your essay for these issues; they aren’t just the most likely mistakes to be in there, but they’ll also be the ones that the admissions committee will be most likely to notice. Following this, we’d recommend using Grammarly to check over your whole essay. You have the option to accept whichever changes feel correct, but utilizing Grammarly’s editing database greatly decreases your likelihood of turning your essay in with mistakes.

2. How long should my essay be if there’s no word limit?

Trust your instincts. If your essay feels too wordy, it's in your best interest to submit an essay that’s quick and easy to read. Your allegiance is to your topic, not to having a lengthy essay, so tell your story clearly and don’t undercut your points by over-explaining anything. If you’re reading this looking for an exact suggested word count range, you’re out of luck. The HBS admissions committee chose not to implement a word limit for a reason. Completeness in this essay is not a matter of length, but of narrative, so shoot for one to three pages in length, but trust your gut.

3. Is the essay portion different if I’m reapplying?

Harvard Business School has not indicated an additional prompt for reapplicants. The only additional essay question is for joint program applicants for the Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Dental Medicine, Harvard Law School, and Harvard Kennedy School. All applicants, whether they’ve applied before or not, must answer the  same essay question to ensure that no one applicant has any advantages or disadvantages.

4. Can I use the same essay if I’m reapplying?

HBS does not explicitly prohibit this, but, intuitively, it’s probably a better idea to write a new essay. You would have no way of knowing that your essay and the topic you chose played no role in your initial rejection. The issue is not that the admissions committee would recognize you and your re-use of the first essay. The issue is that your rejection is an indication that you could write a better essay, so make full use of your second chance and start fresh.

5. Are there bad topics to write about?

There should be a personal tinge to whatever you decide your essay should cover, as it’s really the only place that the admissions committee will glimpse your true personality. For this reason, resist the urge to describe some academic accomplishment or impressive professional success, unless it goes to a broader, more personal theme. Your resume will illustrate these kinds of milestones and achievements well enough for the admissions committee to factor them into your decision. So, writing your essay about this sort of topic with a simple take-away of showing how impressive you are could give the admissions committee the wrong impression of you and strips them of a better chance to get to know you in a deeper way.

Keeping with the issue of redundancy, also avoid writing an essay on something that’s alluded to or fundamental in one of your letters of recommendation. By telling the same story twice in your application, you’re short-selling your chance to give maximum opportunities for the admissions committee to see your value. Write about something original and unique, and from there keep reminding yourself of the importance of your topic. If you struggle to defend the importance to yourself, you might have picked a flimsy subject.

6. Can I over-edit my essay?

You can absolutely over-edit your paper, the result of which being that your writing will start to sound stilted and fragmented in style. Not to mention, the very idea of “over-editing” indicates that it uses time that would be better served following other objectives. It is difficult to know at what point your paper has been edited perfectly, and at what point you may have gone a bit too far with it. One tell-tale sign of over-editing would be instances where you make changes, and the before and after of your edit have no clear or substantive difference for how the sentence is delivered. At that point, you may realize that you’re at that point making changes just because they’re occurring to you, and that’s when you should start to ramp-down your efforts.

Conclusion

Harvard Business School’s MBA program is competitive and prestigious, so remember that the HBS application gives the same essay opportunity to every applicant. The essay is your chance to differentiate yourself from other prospective students and demonstrate how your unique experiences and insights make you a stronger MBA candidate. The key to writing the Harvard Business School essay is finding the right topic: something that you’re excited to write about and that reveals a better, more holistic representation of you. Along with this, use organizational resources and careful time management to progress your essay one step at a time so that it develops in the best way possible. Use the steps outlined in this article to keep this task as simple as it can be, and be authentic and enthusiastic throughout your writing. From there, the last important reminder in how to write the Harvard Business School essay is to maintain self-confidence in your choice of topic and your writing style and ability. Feeling sure of yourself as you write and when you finally submit your application will result in a more certain-sounding essay. Not to mention, your emotional health will end up in better shape. After all, you’re applying to the Harvard Business School for a reason; don’t let the essay portion stand in your way. Use it.

About Inspira Futures

At Inspira Futures, our sole focus is to get you accepted at your dream business school. Our team of experts consists of former admission committee members and alums from Harvard Business School, Stanford GSB, and other M7 schools. Our goal is to help you write great essays, ace interviews, and win scholarships. Without any stress or hassle. Our clients have gone on to secure admits at the world's top business schools while also being winners of some of the most prestigious scholarships like Stanford Knight Hennessy, HBS Baker Scholars, and many others.
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