This article provides general advice on writing the HBS MBA essay as essay examples from former applicants. While it’s tempting to only read the essay examples, I encourage you to look at the essay overview and analysis sections too (lots of great insights there – and not the generic advice found elsewhere). If you’re applying to multiple MBA programs check out more MBA essay examples and MBA essay topic analyses from mbaSTORY.builders

I Overview HBS Essay

Harvard Business School’s lone MBA essay is an opportunity for candidates to give the admissions committee a sense of their experiences, personality, and ultimately, likability.

HBS is has a reputation for producing a disproportionate number of Fortune 500 CEOs relative to other business schools. While the popular perception is that HBS develops these leaders, the reality is that they build their MBA class by culling, a priori, candidates who demonstrate, charisma, great leadership experience and leadership potential in their essays. That’s why I say that the essay (and later the interview) is an opportunity to demonstrate likability.

Successful leaders tend to be great storytellers – capable of captivating their audience (employees, colleagues, shareholders and the wider public). Your written Harvard Business School MBA application is where you need to plant the seed in the admissions committee’s mind that you have all of the aforementioned qualities. The onus is on the applicant to exude Harvard MBA-level polish through their written application and especially in interview. Learn more about MBA interviews at HBS and begin practicing using questions from past HBS interviews.

We teach people the courage to act under uncertainty. We’re asking people how to learn to take a stand.

HBS Video: Inside the HBS Case Method

My thinking is that if a client tells an engaging story about themselves in their HBS essay, it goes a long way to reassuring the adcom that they’ll have what it takes when they need to take a stand (tell a story) with imperfect information (under uncertainty).

HBS interviews.

II Analysis Harvard MBA Essay

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?

What the HBS essay isn’t:

  • It isn’t an opportunity to enumerate every one of your academic and professional achievements to date. That’s not storytelling, that’s throwing spaghetti at a wall and hoping that some of it sticks (in your reader’s mind).
  • It isn’t an opportunity to dedicate 700+ words to your post-MBA goals and why you really need a MBA from HBS. It’s ok to include that information in the essay (and nearly all my clients do), but it shouldn’t constitute the essay’s central theme.

In short, while highlighting a particular achievement or describing your career goals is permissible, the essay should be a story about you, not a list of things you’ve done. So if some of achievements or goals do figure in your essay’s final draft they should be there to support the broader story. If your essay were a house, those elements would be the paint and siding – not the structure’s wooden frame.

What more would you like us to know?

HBS asks ‘What more would you like us to know…?‘. More being the operative term, given that your candidacy and your academic, community and professional accomplishments are already summed up in what I call the facts: your resume, recommendations, online application and short answers. The facts are the immutable part of your story. If you are an investment banker you can’t very well present yourself as not an investment banker – right? Right. That’s ok because the facts aren’t the key to a great HBS essay.

The facts live outside of us but great essays are born inside of us – within, what I call, not the facts which are our subjective personal experiences. At the beginning of their MBA journey, candidates don’t yet realize this. Clients will often say something like, “I‘m an investment banker – how can you help me differentiate myself?”I’m an Indian guy in IT and it’s a very competitive applicant pool – what can I do to stand out?” Notice how these concerns center on the external characteristics they have in common with other applicants? But when an essay centers on external characteristics or achievements, a candidate doesn’t differentiate himself, instead he actually makes it easier for the adcom to compare him with others. Why would you put yourself in that position? Here’s an example:

An investment banker uses the facts to write his essay. He talks about what an exceptional employee he’s been – he received accolades from several clients and was promoted six months ahead of schedule. He joined the corporate employee committee and spearheaded a campaign for free snacks…etc. The problem with the facts is that it leaves him trying to stand out as an investment banker rather than as a person. Another investment banker will easily ‘one up’ him by writing her essay about being promoted a whole year ahead of schedule and spearheading a campaign for free lunch (not just snacks).

When you shift your focus to not the facts you get gorgeous storytelling like this:

At the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, 951 Chicago Avenue, Oak Park, biographies were our biggest seller. I suppose because Wright’s architecture, viewed in isolation, was beautiful, but understood through his life’s narrative, the work took on meaning.

I’m not sure how I got the idea for a summer job at the Wright Home and Studio. Growing up, cultural enrichment meant the odd excursion into the bustle of downtown. Mission: back-to-school. Destination: Filene’s Basement, 830 North Michigan Avenue. Then, with each passing stop on the Green Line, home again – westward – to Austin Boulevard. Every so often some kid would vanish from William Hatch Elementary, 1000 North Ridgeland Avenue, Oak Park, because his parents were had – faking an address to get into one of the good schools. By design, Mom had chosen, and then scraped by on minimum wage to keep, our tiny apartment on the ‘in’ side of Austin Boulevard. Across the street lay the Chicago Public School District where – I realized later in life, when I began frequenting lectures at X – if you were poor and black and male and fatherless you were basically guaranteed to finish a dropout, or unemployed, or in jail, or dead, or all four, and in that order.

When I attend a networking event at the Z Forum, I’m not necessarily the only African-American in the room, but statistically speaking, I’m the only one who grew up poor. Poverty is a better predictor than race when it comes to educational and professional outcomes. That fact is a constant reminder that because of the unlikelihood of my own success story, I have an obligation to not only be a role model within the community but also to act as a representative of the community.

My job is to get that investment banker to tell a unique story that is already inside of him. That will differentiate him because they’ll be absolutely nobody who could tell his exact story, in exactly the same way and therefore there is nobody for the adcom to compare him with ‘apples to apples’.

Here are just a few of the approaches Ive used in the past to write not the facts essays for my clients:

  • Used my client’s old journal entries as a backdrop for a reflection on inequality and intercultural differences
  • Leveraged a unifying theme from my client’s childhood right on through to their present day job (such as entrepreneurship that ran in the family or a life-long interest in mechanical engineering) to weave a unique story of who they are and what they hope to do in and for the world
  • Wrote an essay centered on the values and lessons my client had learned from pivotal people and mentors throughout her life to create an expose on the why behind the choices they’ve made and hope to make

Maybe you’re wondering, how will I know if my essay focuses on not the facts? Ask yourself this question: ‘Would my reader have been able to reasonably guess at the topic of my essay after reading through the rest of my written application? If the answer is no, then you’re on the right track.

The facts includes your resume, recommendations, online application and short answers.’Not the facts’ could include (but is not limited to) a characteristic or attribute that has woven its way throughout your life, inflection points in your life or career, an anecdote, philosophy or core values.

  • A characteristic or attribute that has woven its way throughout your life Before you show your reader not only how that characteristic or attribute has impacted your personal and professional lives you’ll want to give ample discussion to where that characteristic or attribute originated from. For instance, The Giving Pledge is a commitment to give the majority of your net worth to philanthropy, either during your lifetime or upon your death. The Pledge is a moral commitment, not a legal contract. What is much more intriguing than all of the good that Bill Gates has created through his pledge (via the Gates Foundation) is what gave him the idea to create the Giving Pledge in the first place. I’m sure there’s an amazing backstory there!
  • Inflection points You may want to think about some important or pivotal moments in your life and consider how they have shaped the person you are today. Identify the factors/people/events/traits that most shaped your personal and professional course and/or worldview. Now think about any downstream implications in other areas of your life? Don’t worry if the inflection points you identify aren’t chronologically or logically connected to one another. What’s interesting about inflection points is how they reveal your underlying values.
  • Singular Anecdote, Philosophy, Core Values Anecdotes can be leveraged as a way of revealing your core values or reflecting on a topic that is relevant to your personal or professional journey. My favorite essays usually have an anecdote (no matter the length). Anecdotes are powerful because they create an immediate, human connection with the reader.

A ‘not the facts’ essay always conveys something relatable about who a candidate was, is or would like to be.  Relatable essays allow you to connect with your reader on a personal level. They transform a candidate from a two-dimensional object into a three-dimensional human being – one that another human being on the adcom will remember, and even like!

Because people feel more comfortable helping those who they know and like, this gives clients a distinct advantage. When someone gets done reading your essay (or listening to your speech) you don’t want them to think you’re a Master of the Universe, you want them to think ‘Mark/Melissa seems like a really neat person. I should grab a coffee with him/her and talk about my start-up idea/career goals/their experience at Bain etc.

Tell a genuine story about yourself that, in passing, relates some of your accomplishments, but primarily gives the listener insight into who you are on a deeper level: your worldview, how you handle adversity, your values etc. Any story can be a compelling one if executed correctly and the HBS MBA admissions committee will judge you on the execution of this essay/speech just as your classmates will judge you on your ability to articulate ideas out loud in class. As a future business leader (en germe, for now) your employees will look to these same skills when deciding whether to follow you or not.

III Example HBS Essay Example - Project Manager

This essay helped my client secure admission to Harvard Business School after having been dinged without interview by a number of top business schools the year before (during which time he had penned his own essays). This essay is currently one of twenty-nine essays from the HBS class of 2019 featured in the HARBUS MBA Essay Guide.

The essay is strong because it:

  1. Focuses on backstory and granular details to draw readers inAnecdotally, as a high school senior I naively submitted just one college application; singling out X University largely because there was no application fee. | When I began touching my heart after every conversation as a sign of respect, people’s eyes would brighten in recognition.
  2. Demonstrates a mature, big picture understanding of oneself and the wider worldI’ve often struggled to imagine them as twenty-something Associates – 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, seems like a lofty one, but in those moments I remind (and reassure) myself that good business leaders aren’t born, but rather developed.
  3. Contains airtight logic and sentence structureFor me, that development process is a three-fold one and involves cultivating knowledge, experience and good judgment. I’ve grown in practical experience through steady career progression… I’ve sought out and gleaned knowledge through the mentorship of seasoned professionals… The HBS case method appeals to me as a new way to experiment with business problems and hone good judgment because…

3 adjectives that the admissions committee will remember about this applicant: Resilient, Insightful, Immigrant

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?

I’ve grown in practical experience through steady career progression at Company and progressive responsibility for larger projects, teams and deliverables. I’ve sought out and gleaned knowledge through the mentorship of seasoned professionals like Henry X, a President at Company, who has generously shared lessons and insights from his own career. The HBS case method appeals to me as a new way to experiment with business problems and hone good judgment because it represents a unique learning platform that exists between first-hand experience and imparted knowledge. In addition, the possibility to grow personally and contribute to the growth of others at HBS is made possible by the nature of the HBS student body, with its wealth of different industry and functional perspectives.

While my professional experience has been critical, my personal experiences have been equally influential in shaping my vision of what good leadership and management mean. After immigrating to the US from Vietnam, my father spent the remainder of his working life as a short-order cook, while my mother became a seamstress. Our family budget was always tight, but the situation was exacerbated when, my father’s employer went bankrupt and my father was laid off after twelve years of service. ‘Name, truth is I fifty-two years old, can’t read and English not so good’. He never found work again. Directly assisting the General Managers of Company’s Interiors Division, I’ve gained initial exposure to P&L management. That’s led me to wonder whether the bankruptcy might not have been avoided through better leadership, managerial foresight or administration. Businesses are at the heart of any free-market economy, but they’re likewise an integral part of the social fabric. While they benefit shareholders and clients, they also exist as institutions from which individuals and their families derive a livelihood. That’s been top of mind for me when on location in Bandung, Indonesia, and, most recently, Colorado Springs where I’ve worked under pressure to turn around plants struggling to meet their business objectives.

‘The cleats are $50 and the uniform’s another $90’ Mom told Dad in Vietnamese. ‘And the next thing you know he’ll break his arm and that’s $400 at the emergency room.’

What my sister and I went without weren’t so much the petty indulgences, like soccer, as the tacit and explicit guidance parents usually provide: helping their children navigate societal norms and envisage an educational path and professional career beyond high school. Anecdotally, as a high school senior I naively submitted just one college application; singling out X University largely because there was no application fee.

Because of my family situation, I believe that determination and self-reliance were qualities that I developed at an early age. At the time, they were coping mechanisms, but today, I see them as characteristic of my approach to challenges. At Company I’ve often found myself in unchartered territory, be that culturally, on-location at plants in Indonesia and India, or be that functionally, performing financial and operational valuations on acquisition targets. Over time I’ve come to know myself better and have developed a strong inner sense of what I can achieve. I think that type of self-knowledge is pivotal to leading others as well. In order to fully understand the challenges team members face in their work, managers and leaders at operationally focused organizations like Company must be adept at building relationships on an inter-personal level and communicating on a technical one.

‘Any questions?’ I asked, wrapping up my first meeting with staff – all of whom were Indonesian. ‘Yes, when you leave?’ asked Widiyanto in a tone that made me question whether the meeting had really gone as well as I thought.

One example of relationship building took place when I was in my 3rd rotation of Company’s Operations Leadership Program in Bandung, Indonesia. Under the plant’s previous owner, Another Company, managers weren’t expected to scrutinize metrics unless there was a blatant issue. Many people felt frustrated with the new Company approach, which required them to record and analyze everything. My goal was to help the Bandung staff make the transition by taking reporting off their plates and handling it myself.

Indonesia is a very hierarchical society, and gossip and suspicion were rife in the plant. ‘You are taking over reporting for firing us.’ I was emphatic, ‘No. We’re increasing production not reducing it. I’m trying to help you and the whole plant.’

My stance of ‘just wanting to help’ was seen as mere lip service because it deviated from the Indonesian way of thinking. If my behavior were more culturally relatable to the staff, I thought I’d be more successful in sharing my ideas with them.

When I began touching my heart after every conversation as a sign of respect, people’s eyes would brighten in recognition. I began greeting colleagues in Indonesian, wore a traditional Indonesian shirt on Fridays and, admittedly, resorted to a ‘ploy’ – showing up to an all hands meeting with pisang goreng (a.k.a. banana fritters). Relations improved, and staff began sharing the data I’d been requesting. The same employees, who were at first reticent, ultimately played a huge role in carrying out our expansion plans and helping with logistics.

Months later, we were on the cusp of expanding our manufacturing by fifty percent. I’d also managed to put staff at ease with capturing reporting data and discussing it with colleagues in the U.S. Reaching those milestones had to do with many smaller successes along the way. Chief among them was an ability to face communication and leadership challenges and work through them.

Before heading back to the States, Widiyanto asked me again, ‘Hey, when you leave?’ but this time it was in order to plan a going away tea for me at the plant. That felt great.

In this essay I hope to have provided you with insight into where I’ve come from, where I’d like to go and my personal understanding of leadership. In closing I’d like to thank you for your time in reviewing my application for the HBS Class of 20XX.

IV Example HBS Essay Example - Corporate Finance Associate

This former client is an accomplished athlete who has been equally successfully in her corporate finance role at Nestle. This essay does a great job of highlighting where her core values stem from (family) and how she has applied them through her work and community outreach.

Three adjectives that the admissions committee will remember about this applicant: Principled, Humble, Athlete

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?

At sixteen, I had a singular goal in life: play first line center on the Madison East High School hockey team. Instead, I played third line center. ‘John doesn’t have good hands (he meant I was a subpar stick handler). We took him because he’s got good attitude’. I’d overheard the head coach’s comment one day before practice. Of course, playing for Wisconsin’s top high school hockey team was an honor, and the grueling practice schedule (six days and eighteen hours per week) had taught me commitment and discipline beyond my years. Yet that paled in comparison to what I construed as second fiddle status.

A reporter for the Southeastern Wisconsin Journal, Mom had taught me that good questions were the first step in writing an interesting story. By switching from the close-ended sort, ‘Am I the best player?’, to open-ended ones, ‘What is my value to the team?’, I saw my contribution through a new lens, or, as my mom would say, from a new angle. Angles in journalism are a lot like attitude – they set the stage for how you’ll approach something. I found my angle as the six-foot-three underdog, who carved out his place in the competitive world of Minnesota hockey no thanks to brawn, but to brains and stale mating the opposing team’s top line, a role I learned to embrace.

Thinking slightly outside the box, empathizing, getting involved, acting, are all habits that have carried over into my adult life. They’re as much a result of personal experience as my family’s influence. Take Mom and Dad for instance – both journalists. They didn’t care about things but ideas, and more than ideas, ideals. Grandpa Palmer had a different outlook. As a child of the depression turned corporate financier, he was famous for his work ethic and colorful expressions, ‘It’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick’.

Although I’d grown up middle class or better, that didn’t insulate me from the necessity of a part-time job. An opportunity to build character. I chose Pizza Brutta restaurant. That’s where I got to know people from the Latino community. Jose, a short order cook, dreamed of attending community college. $2,000 per month, minus rent $800, utilities $150, gas $120, food $300, car payment $250, baby formula $150. That left $230. Jose’s wife said he was crazy. The truth was that wanting something badly wasn’t enough to will it into existence. A blow to my naivete, but, per Mom, an opportunity to empathize.

Jose introduced me up to the Latino community. I went on to study Spanish at university and volunteered with various Hispanic advocacy groups, most notably working with a group of Dreamers as a Youth Leader for Santa Croce. Currently I’m working with another group, Lucha Latina. In the last twelve months I’ve restructured Lucha Latina’s finances and secured tax-exempt status as a nonprofit.

My experience at Nestle has borne out the hunch I had during my very first interview, that it is an organization rooted in integrity, one which treats its employees and stakeholders fairly. As with any established organization of its size, there are business and cultural challenges. As top line sales have wavered over the last five years, a culture took hold, one of underbudgeting at the beginning of the year and then hoping for a windfall to make up the difference. In the third quarter of 20XX that approach broke down and our stock price dropped ten percent in one day.

As a Senior Financial Analyst, I own the creation and management of our $800M freight (transportation) estimate. As I was presenting my proposed 20XX budget, our finance director advised that I reduce my figure by $14M. ‘How will we make up that $14M?’ I asked. He said that was the way things were done and it had always worked out in the past.

I should have mentioned this earlier, but one reason I really wanted to play first line center was that my Dad had. In fact, he’d been a tier one hockey player in college. You’d never know it though. He’s never been impressed with his own achievement. Instead, Dad valued his ability to impact the outside world. For instance, he’d spend half the night working on an article to get it just right. Mom would get annoyed, “They’re not paying you for that”, but Dad didn’t care. He did stuff on principle. His actions taught me to set my own standards and live up to them.

I could have let it go, but the truth is, I couldn’t. To maintain my estimate at $800M (rather than reducing it to $786M) I went out on a limb and advocated all the way up to the VP level. My proposal was finally signed off on by CFO. As a result, we’ve stopped underestimating, and we are now providing more modest annual guidance to Wall Street analysts. My insistence sparked a cultural shift within Nestle’ Supply Chain function. We’re transitioning from an overly optimistic ‘good news culture’ to a ‘news’ culture. I’m proud to have put the cogs in motion even if the change is something our organization is not yet comfortable with.

I was applauded by my director and other senior decision makers for my willingness to press an issue in a respectful way and for my ‘truth telling’. My director is now advocating for Nestle to sponsor my MBA education.

In the future I’d like to bring my unique line of questioning and creativity to the analysis of investment opportunities, thereby influencing the strategic direction of the organization. With a short-term view to advancing within corporate finance function at Nestle or another consumer packaged goods company, I hope to pursue my MBA at Harvard Business School.

My budgeting experience taught me that good ideas are nothing if they can’t be transformed into action. Influencing is key to that. In my opinion, learning to frame a problem in a compelling way and articulate how a win-win outcome can be achieved are two core components of the case-based teaching method at HBS. That sentiment was echoed by Brian Smith (HBS Class of 20XX) who is currently a senior finance manager at Nestle. Brian emphasized how engaging with classmates and learning the BATNA framework afforded him a deeper understanding of what motivates different people.

Brian’s advice only reinforced my feeling that Harvard is a natural fit for me given my loyalty to Nestle and my desire to be among the leaders who will shepherd it into the future. Thank you for considering my application.

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