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MBA Essays: How to Handle the New 2015 HBS Essays

Have you seen the new 2015 HBS essay questions?

Wondering how to tackle these new essays?

[Click here to read about the new changes to the HBS application process for the class of 2015.]

Last year applicants had to answer these four questions and had 2,000 words to answer them:

1. Tell us about three of your accomplishments. (600 words)

2. Tell us three setbacks you have faced. (600 words)

3. Why do you want an MBA? (400 words)

4. Answer a question you wish we’d asked. (400 words)

The new HBS essays give you 800 words to answer the following two essay questions:

1. Tell us something you’ve done well (400)

2. Tell us something you wish you had done better (400)

Are you scratching your head wondering how to tackle the HBS essasy questions.

Notice that the tone of the questions is much more chilled out than in the past (you can’t help but notice that it sounds a bit like HBS’ biggest competitor on the other coast).

You’re probably wondering what essay topics to choose. You can choose a variety of topics to reflect your biggest successes as well as something you could improve upon.

In fact these two questions are not that different from your accomplishments and setbacks.

For the ‘Something You’ve Done Well’ question, the phrasing of this question is more inclusive than when it was worded as achievements.

In general, there is more of a push to encourage MBA applicants to use these essays to share who they are and not to be too formal with the essays. 

The example, or examples, behind your essays will make or break your admission decision so

choose the best examples to anchor your story in the minds of the admissions board in a way that gets you through the first hurdle to the interview stage.

The more specific the example is the better.

Let’s start with the first question.

The What, Why and How

This essay is asking you about your achievement/accomplishment (the ‘What’) but it isn’t simply about the trophies, accolades or the usual suspect big project where you achieved X or Y.

It’s inviting you to reflect on your more nebulous achievements or strengths that you’ve experienced.

Before deciding on the essay topic you’ll write about, invest in the time to identify your values, goals, passionsyour personal brand or what makes you tick.

Then, through this self-reflective process, you’ll identify the examples of the different things you’ve done that you’re really proud of.

You’ll then need to go through each of the examples with a fine tooth comb to decide which ones make the most sense to write about for your essay.

Here are five examples of what you could write about in this essay:

1. An innate talent that you have (think elite athlete, accomplished musician, etc).

2. Your professional achievements (though I would not make this the first priority given that they will have three recommendations to brag about that plus your resume).

3. You’re being resourceful in the face of constrained resources.

4. Your ability to bring people together to build a team that accomplished something unexpected.

5. Something as “unbusiness-schoolish” like being a good friend.

The “what” in this essay is important — but don’t overlook the “why” and “how”.

You’ve got to show that you’ve got good judgement when picking your essay topic (the ‘What’). But equally important is why what you’ve done matters (the ‘Why’).

Don’t neglect to share the how you got it done — the personal traits that you drew on, the self-awareness and insight you gleaned from the experience (the ‘How’).

First, You’ve Got To Do It

Let’s get one thing straight about this essay question:

You’re expected to have done something already.

HBS doesn’t say “Tell us something you wish you had done”! The admissions board is asking you about “something you wish you had done better”.

The emphasis is onyou had done better’.

Implicit in this statement is the fact that you’ve done something already and that in your reflection of that experience you can identify a few things you could have improved upon.

Like the first essay, this essay also requires a good dose of judgement and self-awareness. Honesty is important in selecting your topic for this essay.

But you have to temper your candor with good judgement. You don’t want to reveal an area of improvement that sends the wrong message about you/your brand.

For example, “I wish I hadn’t been a spoiler on every professional team I’ve been a part of” is an example of an essay that is likely to derail an applicant’s MBA ambitions.

So what topics are acceptable for this essay? Here are five topics you could write about:

1. Managing a difficult personal or professional situation differently

2. An academic example, especially for those who have a genuine weakness in their academic story that they will have to address

3. Projects that you led and encountered problems and how you could have handled it differently

4. Starting something, maybe your first entrepreneurial attempt didn’t go quite as planned and you realize you could have done things differently

The big questions here are How will this essay fit into your bigger brand message? How will the essay reinforce everything else in your application?

Next Steps

Here’s two more tips about how to handle the HBS essays.

1. Fresh Content – If something is already covered in other parts of your application, then think carefully about the necessity to write about that same topic. Make sure you’ll be adding significantly new insight for the admissions board by covering that topic in your essay.

2. Avoid One Off Examples – Implicit in this question is an interest in learning about something that’s core to who you are as a person not a random thing you did and succeeded at. To help you pick the right topic for your essays ask yourself “So what? How does this new information strengthen the overall message I want to communicate about myself?”

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Chioma Isiadinso

Chioma is a former Harvard Business School admissions officer and the CEO and Co-Founder of EXPARTUS, the first MBA admissions consulting company to use personal branding as a key part of the b-school application process. Chioma is the author of The Best Business Schools' Admissions Secrets, one of the leading books on how to successfully navigate the MBA admissions process.

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