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MBA Admissions Essays: Harvard Business School

Posted by Chioma Isiadinso

Are you applying to HBS this year?

Wondering whether or not you should write the ‘optional’ HBS admissions essay? If so, how will you write an essay that gets you accepted?
Harvard took a pretty big step two years ago when they made their single essay question optional, leaving thousands of applicants to decide if they really needed an essay.

Now, admissions officials say that the concept is still working, and that they’re getting more varied, helpful essays. MBA applicants, however, have found the open-ended question fairly difficult, and have often struggled with what to say in their essay and how to say it.

In this post, we’ll give you the one reason why you should write the HBS optional essay and then we’ll show you four ways you can develop an HBS essay that’s unique and compelling.

MBA admissions essays

The One Reason Why You Should Write The HBS Essay

Should you or should you not write the HBS optional essay?

In the vast majority of cases, the answer is an emphatic YES! Here’s the one reason why you should consider writing the HBS optional essay:

MBA admissions essays are your best chance to showcase your personality and personal brand before you’re even allowed to interview. 

It’s vital to show a side of yourself that goes beyond grades and resumes. You want to jump off the page as a human being – a vibrant, interesting person that’ll contribute value to HBS’ exceptional community.

The HBS essay is typically your best chance to:

  • Drive home the point that you’re a vibrant, interesting person that can make a contribution to the HBS community,
  • Introduce a new interesting, compelling and unique element to your application, and
  • Prove your character as someone with a track record of making an impact through leading, changing or creating.

Now, let’s get down to the specifics of the HBS optional essay.

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How To Write Your HBS Essay

So, here’s the HBS optional essay question:

You’re applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your resume, school transcripts, extra-curricular activities, awards, post-MBA career goals, test scores and what your recommenders have to say about you.

What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?

This is pretty broad, and as such, can be very intimidating. To get started, think about your personal brand themes and the key brand elements that you want to convey.

  • What have you already emphasized in your application?
  • What do you want to emphasize more?
  • Are there any new elements or examples that you want to include?
  • Do you have any key anecdotes that drive these points home?

Once you specify the brand elements that you want to convey, begin thinking about how you can illustrate those traits and tell your story.

This is your chance to introduce yourself to the HBS MBA admissions board, and, to borrow a phrase from HBS’ main competitor (guess who?), tell them what matters most to you.

Here are four ways you can develop a unique and compelling personal story for your HBS essay:

1. Share stories or examples that have driven your career choices.

If you’re particularly sure and passionate about your career path, this is a great time to tell the MBA Admissions Board what has motivated that passion.

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Did you work in the family business as a child? Have you come through the fire of entrepreneurial failure? Can you fill a need in a particular community?

2. Share your personal background.

If you’ve had an unusual childhood or adolescence, you could use this space to give the admissions committee more insight into how those experiences have shaped who you are today.

Don’t keep things entirely in the past, though. Make sure you emphasize your character today and how you’ve reacted to your childhood circumstances.

You want the MBA admissions board to see how you’ll behave on the HBS campus. Emphasize how your previous choices have shaped who you are, and where you will go next.

3. Share significant community involvement.

If a particular charity or cause is a large part of your life, discuss your involvement, how you’ve impacted the organization, and how it has impacted you.

If you’ve got plans to continue your involvement while in business school, detail how you’ll do so.

4. Share examples where you’ve made an impact.

HBS is all about impact. The school wants applicants who’ve made a big impact at work, school or in their community and are looking to make an even bigger impact in the future – with the help of the HBS MBA and the HBS community.

So what does that mean for you? You need to tell stories of where you had an impact at work, school or in your community.

Led a group or team before? What did you achieve? What was the impact of your leadership? Changed something that already existed or created something new? What impact did you have in either case?

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Once you’ve settled on the stories you want to tell in your essay, you’ll need to develop the outline and structure of your essay.

Make sure that you structure your essay as a narrative, with a clear beginning, middle and end.

With such an open-ended prompt, it’s tempting to simply list a few different subjects, but you don’t want to ramble.

You want to tell your story.

Admissions board members, like most people, enjoy hearing a good story, rather than a simple laundry list.



In this post, we gave you the one reason why you should write the HBS optional essay and then we showed you four ways you can develop your own unique and compelling HBS essay.

Yes, the HBS MBA admissions essay is ‘optional’, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less critical to your application. This is your opportunity to tell your story in your own words and define your application in your own terms.

A great MBA essay transforms an average application into something extraordinary. Strive for this transformation, and put in the time and effort required to make it happen.

For more information on the HBS application, click here to visit the HBS Admissions website.

HBS Application Deadlines:

Round 1- September 9, 2014;

Round 2- January 5, 2015;

Round 3- April 6, 2015 

Have more questions about the HBS admissions essay? Send your question to and we will get back to you.