A Guide to Filling Out One of the Most Important Forms You Will Ever Complete: The HBS Application
In life, we fill out so many forms: tax returns, credit card applications, Facebook personality quizzes (admit it). With so much focus on the essay, recommendations, interviews, and resume in the business school application process, it’s easy to forget about the actual application form. But trust me, this form is a lot more than a repository of requisite contact information and detail on education, employment, and interests.
You already know that you want your Harvard application to look perfect: immaculately free of typos and spelling errors. But have you thought about the story the form itself is telling about you? Have you crafted an identity that will set you apart from other HBS applicants? When admissions officers set down your application, have you given them something to remember?
Harvard’s MBA application happens to be one of my favorite business school apps. It’s friendly in tone, even humorous, and visually appealing and straightforward. But don’t confuse this informality for cavalierness, however. HBS is very serious about what you put on its application (and about you following instructions). There’s no fluff here. Every single question is carefully chosen and crafted to tease out of you exactly what they want to know.
Let me illustrate this by walking through some key parts of the Harvard MBA application form itself: the components of your app that are NOT the resume, essay, and test scores you’ve been working so hard on. (Update: there’s a bit on the essay below as well. I couldn’t resist.)
What Harvard Wants to Know: The Employment Section
You might be wondering why Harvard wants you to rehash details that might already be on your resume or CV. The thing is, it doesn’t. Use the descriptive space here to tell them what’s NOT on your resume. Some of this is going to be required information you probably don’t put on your resume anyway, such as your salary and your biggest challenges. Salary data (along with the required list of key accomplishments) gives Harvard admissions officers a sense of your level of experience and your value (monetary and otherwise) to your most recent employers. When you list your “key accomplishments” in the teeny 250-character limit space, make sure they can understand what they are. It might be tempting to want to squeeze more in by abbreviating awards and names of titles, but this doesn’t do much for you if admissions can’t make heads or tails of them. Once again, remember you are crafting an identity that you want to be woven throughout your entire application–what are the accomplishments that best support the “you” you are selling admissions?
The required “biggest challenge” response for each of your three latest jobs can be a tricky prompt, but it’s a crucial question that tells HBS a great deal about your personality and your thinking. This is not the place to hide behind platitudes such as “My perfectionism made it challenging to keep up with the rigorous pace.” Give them something real (but not incriminating). They will appreciate it. But also make sure you let them know how you positively addressed this challenging circumstance.
Most applicants once again balk at the 250-character word limit here, but this is no mistake on Harvard’s part. HBS prides itself on attracting and developing students with superb communication skills, and conveying substantial information in a concise manner is a real art.
Finally, although it should go without saying, don’t lie here or anywhere on your app! If you’re accepted, this information will all be verified by HBS.
After HBS: The “Intended Goals Post-MBA” Response
For those of you wondering why Harvard doesn’t explicitly ask you to talk about your goals in your essay, you’re not entirely off the hook. You are required to state your post-Harvard ambitions in 500 characters or less on this portion of the app. This is a key place to set yourself apart from the pack. HBS, with its focus on leadership, attracts leaders (aka a lot of applicants who will say they want to be a CEO). So don’t waste this space telling them that you would like to be CEO of some yet-to-be-determined company one day (unless it’s one you want to start–and even that is tricky because you’ll have to sell the plausibility of this in a very small space).
Even if you are planning a career change, avoid giving them an answer here that is completely out of line with your past education and experience, or one that is wishy-washy. An MBA is only two years, after all; you don’t have a lot of time for dabbling. The reality may be that that is exactly what you will do at HBS, but now’s not the time to dwell on your indecision; they want to know that you will be hitting the ground running from day one.
HBS Life: The Extracurricular Activities Section
Here you have a little bit more freedom to, once again, craft your HBS applicant persona. You get to choose which of the many activities you’ve likely participated in that you want to tell admissions more about.
My recommendation is that you first list out all of your activities and evaluate them on their ability to demonstrate (in 200 characters or less) each of the following criteria: leadership, dedication, and uniqueness. Leadership means you took on some type of shining role within the activity, whether it had an actual title or not. Dedication means the activity took up a good portion of your time (whether that is hours per week or years of your life) and your energy. HBS life is filled to the brim with activity both inside and outside of the classroom; it is a school that attracts individuals who like to have their schedules full, and you want to show the admissions committee you’ll fit right in with others who are equally involved. Finally, uniqueness. Fraternity soccer team does not jump off the page as much as ukulele band or trapeze team. It doesn’t necessarily have to be as quirky as these examples–but think about something you’ve been involved in that is not something everyone and their brother has also done. In other words, show some personality. Give them something they will remember; something that will make them smile. It may be that you have one activity that perfectly demonstrates all three of these traits; or it may be that you choose three activities that each demonstrate one of these traits. But regardless, consider the balance.
Harvard’s MBA Essay
Oh boy, this could be its own topic for a much longer discussion, but let me just point out a couple things here. Harvard’s MBA essay is traditionally and famously open-ended. The current prompt is:
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.
If you enroll at HBS, you will have the opportunity to share this response with your classmates, so that should encourage you to truly take this question to heart. (It will also help you avoid the temptation to impress or try to be something you’re not in your essay.).
The application also suggests that you view a video on the Harvard Case Study approach before you begin your essay. I find this to be really telling. HBS wants to make sure you know what it is like to study at HBS–this means that you will be hashing out and arguing your case with your peers, both in small groups and in front of large lecture halls, on the daily. There are many aspects to HBS other than the case study method, of course, and a great deal of diversity amongst its students, but the hidden message here is that Harvard wants to make sure you are a good fit. So…maybe don’t talk about your fear of public speaking here, for example. Your essay should also complement or further develop the identity you’ve been crafting for yourself throughout the other open-ended parts of the application.
Get Feedback on the Message
After you’ve drafted your application responses, get feedback not just on your essay, but on your entire application, from people you trust. Have them tell you what is jumping off the page about you–whether it is positive or negative–or if the message is muddled. Make sure what they learn about you is what you wanted them to learn, and if it’s not, go back to the drawing board.
The best applications, even though they may never explicitly call attention to it, send the message that the applicant fully understands what the school considers to be important and what they will be bringing to the school. So make sure you do your scrupulous homework on HBS, think carefully about the identity you want to pitch, and make sure your entire application nails it.