So you’ve taken the GMAT, you’ve lined up your recommendations, and you’re sitting down to write your business school application essays. Dreaded as they are, they’re also supremely important.
Just a few years ago, I was there too, and I remember it being a bit daunting. I wanted to go to Harvard—but no one I knew well had gone there before. I didn’t go to a prestigious private high school or Ivy League college. I also wasn’t an investment banker or a management consultant (I was an engineer). I did have good undergraduate grades and a great GMAT score—but I strongly suspect it was my essays that landed me my acceptances to both Harvard and Stanford.
There were a few key principles that helped me when I was writing my essays. And no matter what school you’re hoping for, the same strategies can help you get there, too. Here’s what to consider before you start typing.
1. Line up Your Critics
You don’t have to go through the process entirely alone. In fact, you’ll need outside perspectives—after drafting, revising, re-revising and re-re-revising, you will lose your ability to be objective. From the beginning brainstorming stages to the final read-through, you need people to sanity check what you’re writing to make sure it makes sense and is interesting.
Line up one person to be a consistent primary feedback-giver, and plan to touch base with him or her fairly regularly. You should also have two or three other people review your essays to get some different perspectives, but be careful adding more than that—getting too many differing opinions may give you feedback whiplash.
The best feedback-givers are people who have been accepted to the schools you’re applying to—they’re most familiar with the application process (and they obviously did something right). In the absence of a B-school alum, someone with good business sense and writing skills will work just fine, too.
2. Share Your Passions
In 2005, I heard Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi, speak, and she said something that has stayed with me ever since: “Success is what happens when the passion for what you do outweighs the fatigue of doing it.”
Top programs are looking for passionate people—they’re more likely to be successful and, frankly, more interesting to be around. Schools want to know that you understand yourself and what you’re passionate about, that you have interesting examples of how that passion has surfaced in your life, and that you want to channel your passion to do big things after business school. (There you go, beginning, middle, and end to the “what matters most to you and why?” essay question from Stanford.)
So, tell a story about your passions. Be consistent, and be genuine. Admissions officers read thousands of essays and if you’re not authentic, they will sniff you out—if not on first read, then during the interview process.
3. Show Upward Trajectory
Like a good story, your essay should build. One strategy to do this effectively is to talk about something small that becomes bigger and better over time. (Even better if you can show that you’ve overcome obstacles to reach the bigger and better state—everyone loves an underdog.)
It’s a given that you need to illustrate how you’ve progressed professionally, but you should also show growth in your extracurricular endeavors. For example, did your weekend volunteering at a non-profit turn into you landing a board seat? If you’re passionate about mountain climbing, did you start with Mt. Rainier and then rise to the challenge of climbing Mt. Everest?
4. Illustrate Your Ability to Give Back
Business schools aren’t completely altruistic—they want to know that you’ll make their campus richer by participating in community events and taking on leadership roles in campus organizations. And because the best predictor of future behavior is past performance, it’s smart to use at least one essay to illustrate how you’ve previously given back to a community.
The best examples of charity hit on two points: they demonstrate your benevolence and also reinforce your stated passion. If you’re passionate about environmental sustainability, have you volunteered to speak to high school students on the topic? Did you lead a fundraising campaign for a preservation organization?
5. Be Concise (and Correct)
There’s absolutely no excuse for going over a word limit or making grammatical errors. Both are just plain lazy—and in some cases, might get your essay tossed in the trash without a second thought.
So, once you’re done with your applications, go back with a critical eye. Cut out all unnecessary words by using contractions (doesn’t vs. does not) and eliminating excessive adjectives (“successful” is just as effective as “very successful” and “a long, dangerous, windy path” can be shortened to “a path”). Leverage your feedback-giver to help you figure out all the places where adjectives and adverbs aren’t adding anything to your story.
And please, proofread. Multiple times. Have someone else proofread, too.
Beyond that, don’t overthink it. Pick up 65 Successful Harvard Business School Application Essays—I was impressed (and reassured) by how straightforward the essays were. After all, it’s not about showing schools something that’s never been seen before—it’s about showing them that you’re a good fit.
Want more? Ask your essay and admissions questions on Twitter @ssahney. Good luck!
Photo courtesy of Patricia Drury.
Harvard Business School graduation for the Class of 2016
HOW TO START A COMPELLING ESSAY
In all essay writing, of course, you learn that a lead, the way you entice a reader into your writing, is all important, in part, because it should generally be compelling enough to grab someone and make them want to read on. In that regard, there are some fairly grabby leads.
Consider how this young American woman begins with her family’s financial difficulties while she was in college so the admissions committee might gain a greater appreciation for the path she followed into investment banking and financial technology:
I would like to share some unusual, formative experiences from my upbringing and career which have helped shape who I am and where I would like to take my career next.
During my first year at the [United States College], my parents declared bankruptcy. The bankruptcy was caused by my father’s growing drug addiction and it had a cascading impact on our entire family. Since my parents were co-signers on my student loans, our bank refused to renew them after my first year. I did a number of things to get by, including working 3 jobs simultaneously to make ends meet. I also tried to support my dad by helping to manage his rehabilitation process as much as a teenager reasonably could. I tried to stay on top of his required check-ins and spent hours trying to locate any resources that could help him.
INSPIRED BY APPLE’S TIM COOK AND GENERAL MOTORS’ MARY BARRA
Or, how this American applicant who worked for an aerospace company worked in a couple of role models to kick off an essay that shared his personal and professional experiences:
Reading about Tim Cook and Mary Barra, two business leaders I personally admire, I’ve often struggled to imagine them as twenty-something Associate’s – still wet behind the gills. Yet, like everyone else, that’s exactly where they began their careers. At twenty-seven, I sometimes think that my long-term goal, to become the CEO of a global manufacturing organization like [Name of big tech company], seems like a lofty one, but in those moments I remind (and reassure) myself that good business leaders aren’t born, but rather developed. For me, that development process is a three-fold one and involves cultivating knowledge, experience and good
Or, for that matter, how this American applicant compellingly writes about a series of failures:
A wise woman once told me that I have had an extraordinary number of failures for someone my age. I’d never thought about it that way before, but she’s got a good point:
At 16 years old, I proudly started my first business, selling performance after-market parts for hobby-class radio controlled cars. I designed my own parts, contracted out the manufacturing, and sold the kits online. Within 5 years, it failed. In college, I declared my major as Mechanical Engineering and signed up for Calculus III. I failed. I landed a 3-semester internship at [Tech Company], but due to a last minute layoff, I was unable to return for my third & final semester. Expecting to work and not having registered for classes, I scrambled to find a new company for my 3rd semester, got an interview against all odds, and failed to get the job. I started a 2nd business, wiser from my teenage years, this time a real estate investment company. It failed. I ran for student body president, gained significant ground as an independent running against fraternity-backed competitors, and failed to get elected.
AN ESSAY FROM A EPISTEMOPHILIAC
Then, there is this essay from an auditor and consultant who opened his submission by expressing his profound belief in education.
For a long time, my analytical left brain and creative right brain battled to define me. Am I an accountant? A consultant? An artist? A dancer? A writer? An education activist? Different words described me, but none defined me until the day I stumbled upon the term epistemophiliac: one characterized by excessive striving for or preoccupation with knowledge. As an individual with great passion for learning, I perennially seek to expand the boundaries of learning not only for myself but also for others.
The pursuit of knowledge was so revered within my household that my family named me [XYZ], which means Mother of Knowledge in my native language. My grandmother, who raised me, inspired my love for learning. Forced to quit school to marry, she was widowed at 21. Seeking financial support from a charity, she educated herself, became a teacher in one of India’s largest philanthropic institutions, and influenced the lives of thousands of students. Growing up hearing my grandmother recount her struggles and triumphs, I developed a deep-rooted belief that education is the most powerful lever in transforming individuals and communities. My belief influenced not only my academic discipline and my drive to seek a wide range of learning opportunities but also my commitment to support the cause of education at every stage of my life.
‘WHY WASTE YOUR TIME AND MONEY APPLYING TO HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL?’
Some candidates start in counter-intuitive ways, even expressing doubt about applying to HBS. Here is how an accountant from Zimbabwe started his winning essay:
“Why would you waste your time and money? My friend scored a 780 on the GMAT, has an uncle on the Board at Harvard, a HBS alumnus dad, and she has a great job in [Big Asian city]; still yet she was not accepted into HBS. Why don’t you apply to easier schools instead?”
This was my best friend’s response upon learning I was applying to the Harvard MBA. The truth is she was not saying anything I had not recited to myself countless times; “HBS was too far a reach”. I chose to banish all doubts and instead to chase after what I believe to be the best thing I could do for my professional and social life at this stage: pursue the Harvard MBA. I would like to share briefly how I came to be where I am today.
‘THE MOST IMPORTANT POINT: GIVE YOURSELF ENOUGH TIME FOR INTROSPECTION’
While Wibaux’s own essay is among the 29, any identifiable elements in it are disguised or eliminated to protect his anonymity, just as all of the essays have redacted pieces. Each essay is published under a tag, ranging from “Female Leader” to “Passion For Healthcare,” and accompanied by a simple synopsis as well as comments from the writer on their approach to writing for Harvard’s prompt.
Reflecting on his own experience, Wibaux advises that applicants shouldn’t hurry the process. “The most important point is giving yourself enough time,” he says. “Having the time for introspection necessary to craft a compelling essay is probably the most important point. Before I put pen to paper, I had a lot of discussions with friends and colleagues, people who knew me well, so I could find the story I wanted to tell. That is where I started from. I dissected my life from where I lived and what jobs I had and tried to draw out key themes that represented me well.
“I started with bullet points on what I wanted to cover. I think I did 25 to 30 drafts. Some of them were tweaks. Some had a different paragraph or a completely different theme. The process of having to do that really made you think about what it is you want to convey. I am pretty sure the last five drafts were minor changes but I didn’t want to send a draft I wasn’t happy with.”
ESSAYS THAT STANDOUT IN THE COLLECTION
Asked to cite essays in the new book that truly stand out, Wibaux says several immediately come to mind. One was written by a female engineer on an oil rig in the Middle East. “She recounts how she had to fight her way in, sleeping in a truck because there was no separate accommodation on the drill rig,” recalls Wibaux. Another memorable submission came from an applicant who fled a civil war in West Africa and ended up in the U.S. “He had to take classes in English and had already failed at his first attempt at the SAT, but he persevered and ended up in investment banking.
“There are stories like that that have a real power to them. Others are just as inspiring in terms of the resilience a person may have shown. One that comes to mind was about a U.S. Army officer while on tour in Afghanistan finds out a fire is raging near his home in Colorado as he listens in to it helplessly over the Internet from a fire department scanner. His home ended up getting destroyed, but his wife, pregnant with their first child, was evacuated.”
What strikes him most, however, is the sheer variety of stories in the essays. “I wouldn’t say there is anything that binds them all together. That is the beauty of it. It shows that there isn’t one mold for someone to be admitted to HBS. It shows that the principle of the case study method is that you need that diversity in the classroom for a class to be enriching for everybody.