This post is most relevant to folks applying to Harvard Business School in 2016, but in many ways, it could be helpful for folks considering application essays for many business schools. This year, the question on the application for the class of 2019 is simply the open ended question: “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?” The website adds the parenthetical advice: “There is no word limit for this question. We think you know what guidance we’re going to give here. Don’t overthink, overcraft and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don’t know your world can understand.”
Like the other Harvard essay questions in recent years, this is astonishingly open-ended: as Bob Dylan said, “but for the sky there are no fences facin’.” The caveat of using clear and simple language is particularly striking: the Sermon on the Mount, Sojourner Truth’s spontaneous address at an 1851 Woman’s Convention, and Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech all are examples, in straightforward language that anyone could appreciate, of works that communicate something profound about what it is to be human. The Gettysburg Address, a profound political statement, is also a masterpiece of earnest simplicity. What those four have in common is the gift of capturing, in specific memorable phrases, words that touch us to the core. That is the standard for which to strive.
What the Harvard Business School essay is not
Think about it. The folks on the HBS adcom already will know your GPA, your GMAT score, your work experience—all the cut-and-dry aspects of your qualifications. Keep in mind that, across the spectrum of HBS applicants, a great deal of the cut-and-dry stuff will look similar: impressive GPAs at impressive undergraduate institutions, impressive GMAT scores, impressive recommendations, impressive work experience, etc. Think about the intelligent folks who work on adcom: they see this slate of impressive data for candidate after candidate. These folks need something to give them a glimpse into the person behind the data. If your papers look like those of dozens of other applicants, and there is nothing to make you stand out as special, then they are unlikely to get excited about you in particular.
So don’t use the essay to repeat any of the cut-and-dry information: that would be simply redundant and annoying. Don’t craft an argument about why you would be particularly impressive, because this could very easily come off as weak and needy.
Think about about ordinary everyday human relationships. If I approach potential friends with the energy of “Gee, I really want you to like me,” that is likely to be perceived as needy and off-putting. By contrast, if I am confident in who I am and present myself unapologetically as who I am, that may put off some but it ultimately will garner more allegiance and enthusiasm. If you can balance unapologetic confidence with heartfelt compassion and sincere vulnerability, that is a combination that will open a great many doors.
If you have faced particular challenges in your life, these might already be present in other parts of your application (perhaps in your recommendations). If not, you might mention in passing the challenges unique to your situation, simply touch on them, but the whole focus of this essay should be where you are going, not where you have been.
Thoughts on approaching this essay
Here are a few thoughts about how one might approach this essay. This advice is likely to applicable to many other essays on many other applications.
1) Write from the heart, not from the head: of course, once you have a message, it’s fine to use your head to make sure the grammar is good, etc. The core message, though, should come straight from your heart. This is your life: what inspires you? What gets you excited and passionate? Speak about what inspires you at the deepest level. Don’t make a head-centered argument. Think in terms of your heart, and make it your goal to speak to the hearts of your readers.
2) Focus more on “why” than “what”: a laundry list of what you want to do is not particularly engaging, no matter how impressive the items are. People connect with why. Simon Sinek argues that we should “start with why.” Why do you want to do what you want to do? Why does it matter to you? Why should it matter to anyone else? Say more about your vision and your dream than about your plans.
3) Be completely honest and authentic: the folks on HBS adcom want to know who you are. If you speak in your in full sincerity, they can feel who you are. If you try to make yourself appear as something other than what you are, in all likelihood this will not come off well. Make the essay an honest statement of who you are and what you are about. Nothing is more impressive than the utter sincerity of someone who has absolutely no intention of impressing anyone.
4) Be poetic: it can be hard to communicate one’s feelings, one’s dreams, the language of one’s heart, into words. Often a well-chosen metaphor is perfect for conveying what one has to say. In the fourth and fifth paragraphs of the “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King uses the metaphor of a bank check to discuss issues of racial justice, and this very plain metaphor became the occasion for powerful statements. A metaphor can powerfully convey your vision, but you must be careful: anything that sounds cliché will fall flat. It’s tricky, because sometimes the most brilliant metaphors are just a shade different from cliché. Please get extensive feedback on any metaphorical statement you choose.
Admittedly, this final recommendation would be more challenging if you don’t already have the habit of reading poetry for enjoyment. Of course, Bob Dylan, mentioned above, is justifiably called “the poet” of rock music. One poet I would recommend is David Whyte, who has work extensively with corporations and business people; his work The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of Soul in Corporate America may be a particularly germane introduction to poetry for anyone contemplating an MBA, and studying that book may give you access to some of the metaphors that mean the most to you. If you want to be more daring in your exploration of business and poetry, you might examine the poems of the banker T.S. Eliot or the insurance executive Wallace Stevens.
In giving you such a wide open prompt, HBS is giving you a blank canvas. Some people, given a blank canvas, can barely produce stick figures. Given a blank canvas, Leonardo produced the Lady with an Ermine. Given a blank canvas, Botticelli produced Primavera. Given a blank canvas, Van Gogh painted wheat fields. Every masterpiece began with a blank canvas. That is precisely your situation in facing this essay. What masterpiece will you create?