As you likely have memorized, the Harvard Business School MBA essay asks: “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?”
We had a request for a freebie review of this Harvard essay come in a few weeks back and thank you to the patient BSer who has been hanging tight, waiting to see if we’d be able to talk about what they put together. Today we will!
Here’s how this BSer’s Harvard essay opens:
There is a lecture from a Naval History class in my first semester at the United States Naval Academy that has stuck with me over the years. The lesson focused on the Royal Navy’s performance at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Uncontested on the high seas for 100 years, the Royal Navy grew complacent in the years preceding World War I. While Germany slowly amassed maritime prowess, the Royal Navy remained stagnant, their leadership’s egos buoyed by storied victories over the French and Spanish fleets of the Napoleonic Wars a century prior. Many British citizens believed naval glory to be their birthright. However, at Jutland, the Royal Navy suffered a major blow, suffering a disproportional number of casualties in an inconclusive battle.
In all honesty, EssaySnark is getting very squirmy. We’ve plowed through a WHOLE PARAGRAPH of dense historical information — which has NOTHING to do with the person who is applying for business school. Why does any of this matter? (Hint: It doesn’t!!) Anyway, let’s keep reading…
I think about this lesson often and reflect on the importance of humility, self-assessment, and growth. The Royal Navy learned a hard lesson, and I cannot help but wonder whether a more reflective and self-critical Navy might have avoided the folly at Jutland altogether. It is this sort of thinking that drives me. I have a healthy paranoia towards complacency; I strive to grow as a leader of character, and do so through critical analysis and self-assessment. I apply this mentality not only to myself, but also the teams I lead.
OK we’ll stop there.
Here are the issues with these two paragraphs:
1. Paragraph 2 opens with a reference to “this lesson” and we’re just not sure what that is about. What “lesson”? What were we supposed to have learned from the paragraph that opens the essay? We’re not completely convinced that a “lessons learned” from a historical incident is going to be that valuable to any MBA essay, but it’s really tough when the reader has to study the content and figure things out for themselves. If you want the reader to know something, including your intended takeaway message from any story or content element in the essay, then it should be served up on a silver platter and stated directly. Don’t make your reader expend any mental effort in trying to figure things out; chances are, they won’t. There are too many other applications waiting in the stack.
2. Essentially that whole first paragraph is committing the same essay-writing sin as opening with a quote — but an even worse one. Because it’s a whole paragraph!
3. Paragraph 2 has a statement about “the importance of humility, self-assessment, and growth” — which might be fine things to talk about in an essay for Harvard. The problem is, we see nothing about “humility”, “self-assessment” or “growth” in the history lesson that precedes it. If you’re trying to make some point about those attributes, make them about YOU. Not about some event that happened more than 50 years ago.
If you were applying for a master’s program in history, then by all means, use history lessons in your essay! But please, when the essay question says “Tell us what you want us to know about you” then please don’t bog things down with totally unrelated facts and data. It does literally nothing for your candidacy for Harvard.
Even if there were an argument to be made that the lessons of the battlefield apply to the business world (which we realize some people make, but we really don’t think it applies in this case especially), none of that would be relevant to an essay showing why you should be admitted. It gives the reader literally zero information about you. All we learn about this BSer is that they are from a military profession. But a quick glance at the resume should have already informed your reader that that’s the background you’re coming from.
Clearly EssaySnark is not a fan of this opening.
But! That’s OK! Because this essay writer actually started in on something more pertinent in their next paragraph:
An experience while serving as a divisional officer aboard USS
So….. overlooking the writing errors in this paragraph (eek!) we will say that this is where the essay exhibits some glimmers of hope. We’ve seen a very similar story told from many other transitioning military, so this is not necessarily going to be a story that shows this BSer as Harvard material — but it has way more potential than everything that comes before.
So, BSer, please ditch the hyped-up language about the importance of integrity etc — unless you’re going to write an essay that shows you in a situation where your integrity was challenged — and instead, focus on the evidence of how you’re a distinguished candidate who’s done important things to help your team and overall organization. This third paragraph finally starts to go in something that resembles that direction (the story itself continues on for much longer than seems necessary and it’s not really hitting on the qualities that we believe would catch the attention at Harvard, but at least it’s in the right ballpark, in terms of presenting stuff focused on YOU and what you did in a specific situation to bring change).
Going back to that opening paragraph, the biggest problem that we see?
Dang, it seems a bit harsh to criticize the entire Royal Navy about a mistake they made during wartime in circumstances you have never lived through.
It’s easy to be a Monday Morning Quarterback, and sure, the whole point of learning about history is to (hopefully) not have to repeat it.
But the language used in this essay seems to be a tad harsh in the criticism of those who’ve gone before — while also professing or at least implying that the essay writer is one who values “humility.”
We’re only going by what we read on the page, but there’s some cognitive dissonance in how the ideas in these paragraphs come across.
Anyway, not meaning to be too harsh or come down on this writer too hard. It’s really difficult to get the tone and messaging right in these essays! A key first step is making sure you’re actually writing about stuff that will help the adcom in their task of evaluating you as a person, so sticking to stuff that’s ABOUT YOU — and skipping the history lesson — will likely help you get closer to that goal.
For anyone else up for the snark treatment: You can try sending in your own draft, though time is running tight and we’re fairly busy supporting many other BSers behind the scenes. We do still have capacity for helping you with a formal Essay Decimator, for HBS or for any other school. And today’s BSer may also want to consider that service for this draft, given how high the stakes are with Harvard. And hopefully this person (and all the rest of you) also is taking full advantage of the extensive guidance we offer in the Harvard MBA Application Guide, which will point out the important things to be emphasizing and guide you away from the topics that may wreak havoc on your chances.