5 Essays That Got People Into Harvard Business School

Graduating class: 2010

Current Job Title: Strategic Planning Manager at Invesco

Essay prompt: "What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience?"

I first considered applying to Berry College while dangling from a fifty-foot Georgia pine tree, encouraging a high school classmate, literally, to make a leap of faith. Every autumn, my school's graduating seniors took a three-day trip to Berry to bond on the ropes course, talk about leadership, and speak frankly about the future, and it was on that retreat, after the ropes course, that I made my own leap.

I had narrowed my college choices to my top scholarship offers, but after a number of campus visits I still hadn't found a place that truly felt like home. On the retreat, I realized Berry College was different. The students I met were practical, caring, and curious. The 28,000-acre campus was idyllic. The atmosphere was one of service, leadership, and intellectual curiosity (as founder Martha Berry termed it, an education of the "whole person . . . the head, the heart, and the hands"). Berry also offered what I thought was the best opportunity to mold my own academic experience, take diverse leadership roles, and change myself and my college community in the process.

That is exactly what I did. Taking a "case method" approach to my undergraduate education, I complemented every academic lesson with a practical application. I supplemented my formal education in economics, government, and political philosophy with cigar shop chats, competitive international fellowships, leadership in student government, and in-depth academic research. Rather than studying communication, I practiced communication. As a freshman, I was the campus's top new television reporter, and as a junior and senior, I translated that passion for human connection into a stint as Berry's top newspaper opinion columnist and a widely read campus poet. I was the lead in a one-act play and led my college speech team to its highest ever national finish. I learned business, finance, and organizational leadership by founding a community soup kitchen and leading the campus investment group to unprecedented stock market returns; and in everything, I sought not simply to become better educated, but better rounded — a "whole" person—and to change my campus community in the process.

At Berry, I learned that you can stand trepid before a challenge, transition, or experience. Or you can embrace new challenges, define your own experience, and make a leap of faith. I am proud that my undergraduate academic experience was a period lived in leaps.

Why it works

Not only does the essay show that a brand name or Ivy League college isn't the only path to Harvard Business School, it does an excellent job of showing the author's personality through the narrative and the way it's written, has a clear sense of energy, and makes it very clear what John would bring to HBS.

Source: 65 Successful Harvard Business School Applications

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.

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