Harvard Business School Essay Topic Analysis 2015-2016
Harvard Business School’s 2015-2016 MBA application essay was announced last week. This is a new prompt for this admissions season; whereas applicants were previously invited to share something with the admissions committee that didn’t appear elsewhere in their applications, they are now asked to introduce themselves to their sections: the 90 students with whom they will take all of their first-year MBA classes. Further, whereas the HBS essay has been technically optional for the past two years (even though virtually every applicant chose to respond, according to a blog post from Admissions Director Dee Leopold), the adcom has reverted to a required response this season.
While the imagined audience for this essay is different from that of past year, there are some elements of the new prompt that are consistent with previous seasons. There is still no stated word limit for this response, and the program continues to urge applicants not to “overthink, overcraft and overwrite.” The program also asks that candidates take care to “answer the question in clear language that those of us who don’t know your world can understand.” This last directive makes particular sense in the context of addressing one’s section, the members of whom will come from a range of countries and industries. (Although, for the record, writing in accessible language will be a good idea for all of your MBA application essays).
Let’s take a closer look at the prompt:
Required Essay: 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.
Note: Should you enroll at HBS, there will be an opportunity for you to share this with them.
We suggest you view this video before beginning to write.
On the surface, this essay is an opportunity for applicants to reflect on what they would actually want to share with members of their sections upon first meeting them. This prompt has echoes of a Columbia Business School question about what one’s cluster-mates would be pleasantly surprised to learn about the applicant. And, in another CBS-esque move, the adcom includes a link to a video that HBS MBA hopefuls are encouraged to watch before developing their responses.
At a deeper level, there are several strategic issues to consider here. First, as the HBS adcom has said itself in its introduction to last year’s essay prompt, they’ve already seen your resume, data forms, and recommendations. Applicants will therefore want to make sure that their comments in this essay build on (rather than reiterate) content that is covered elsewhere in their application materials. We’ve also advised HBS applicants in past years to focus on the “greatest hits” of their professional histories, as this program has historically been interested in admitting accomplished professionals with proven potential. At the same time, given the promised opportunity to share this response with one’s section if admitted, this essay also needs to serve as a credible introduction to the applicant’s future classmates. An emphasis on one’s greatest accomplishments would therefore sound rather boastful in this context. This means that effective responses will likely strike a balance between two elements: the impressive stories of impactful leadership that the HBS adcom has typically sought in the past, and the kind of comments about one’s personal background and salient interests that one would typically share with new colleagues.
In viewing the video — which centers on instructors’ and students’ experiences with the case method of instruction — we identified some potential jumping-off points for applicants as they aim to walk this line. First, we were struck by the repeated emphasis on how members of learning teams contribute to each other’s understanding of each case by drawing on their own professional histories during pre-class discussions. And of course, section-mates continue this process by building on each other’s comments during larger class discussions. Accordingly, you might choose to mention how your broad industry knowledge, or even the expertise you gained through a specific project, might enable you to contribute to case discussions in a relevant class (you can find information about the Harvard MBA curriculum on the school’s website, or in the Clear Admit School Guide to HBS). We also counted a number of comments about the importance of preparation for class, the need to actively take a stand on the issues being discussed, and the hope that students found joy in the learning process. This could be an opening for comments about how the applicant has applied these concepts in tackling a specific challenge or project in the past – ideally with positive results and transferable lessons to share.
Of course, applicants might also choose to share a compelling element of their personal background, or to comment on an aspect of their identity that will inform their experience at HBS. We do feel, however, that the emphasis on the case method in the prompt signals that the adcom is interested in hearing about what the applicant will be like as a collaborator and co-facilitator of learning for their fellow students. It also seems likely that the adcom wants to make sure that students understand the case method–and the poise and polish it requires of students–as something that differentiates the HBS education and student body from those of other leading MBA programs. So, no matter what applicants decide to cover in this essay, there should be some clear connection to the classroom experience at HBS in their remarks.
A final note on length: while the adcom doesn’t specify a word limit for this response, applicants should be mindful that this essentially amounts to a test of their judgment in deciding what and how much to share. While we’re sure that HBS will see effective responses of a wide range of lengths, we’d advise applicants to stay in the ballpark of 750-1000 words with this response.
Clear Admit Resources
Thanks for reading our analysis of this year’s Harvard MBA essay topics. As you work on your Harvard MBA essays and application, we encourage you to consider all of Clear Admit’s Harvard Business School offerings:
Posted in: Essay Topic Analysis, Essays
Schools: Harvard Business School
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.