This post is actually going to be more specific to Harvard, but it applies universally. This was captured in a recent exchange with a BSer, but we had a near-identical exchange with a different BSer about a week ago, so we figured we’d toss this out to all of you!
The question comes in many forms, but it’s essentially, “Hey, there’s this other consultant dude who says the opposite of what you say about how to get in!”
Let’s walk through the known facts about admission to HBS, shall we?
1. People get into HBS for all sorts of reasons — and there certainly is not one formula for how to approach the Harvard essay. We stand by what we state in our Harvard strategy guide and elsewhere on the blahg: The Harvard essay is not a test of your writing abilities. It’s testing how you THINK.
2. In our experience working with so many clients over the years, the advice that we lay out in that Harvard guide, which in a nutshell is to focus on professional achievement as a means of differentiation, tends to be reasonably easy for them to follow, in a way that allows them to execute a draft that HBS will respond to. In other words: EssaySnark’s approach is proven. It’s not that other approaches won’t work, only that ours tends to be super straightforward, and definitely leads to results for candidates who are qualified and work hard to prove it.
3. Can personal stories work for Harvard? Well sure – because see #1. But personal stories, as you may discover if you get to read essays from students who were accepted to Harvard, often a) sound like they were written for Stanford, which can be offputting to a Harvard admissions person; b) are typically REALLY hard to execute on well. Can they work? Sure. Are they harder? Almost always. Are they more likely to get the attention of the reviewer at Harvard than essays that showcase achievement and leadership? Definitely not.
4. Please never forget: YOU ARE THE ONE WHO IS APPLYING. It’s your essay and your strategy. Yes, listen to others, snarky folks and otherwise. Do your research. (We don’t personally believe that reading “sample essays” is in your own best interest but we know it’s like a siren call to want to do that.) In all things, you need to follow your gut, or your heart, or your instincts, or your head, or whichever thing in your life that guides you in a way that you can trust. We have seen people do essays on personal topics and sail straight into HBS. And, clearly, there’s literally no way of knowing. We cannot do A/B tests on this (errr, well that’s not entirely true – we often work with people who were rejected from HBS the prior year, but then they work with us and make it in).
If HBS likes the entirety of your profile, a mediocre or non-optimized essay won’t stand in the way of an admit. If you do a personal story, and HBS likes your profile, then the personal story will get you in. Or more accurately, an application that has an essay that happens to talk about something personal is accepted.
Which is why those books and websites touting HBS essays have so many personal stories in them. 🙂
However, we also have seen applicants whose profile did not scream “Harvard material!” and they presented an essay following EssaySnark’s methodology, and they got the interview in the first batch. Which is a clear sign that the essay had power in that decision.
Remember, the point of your essay is to earn an interview. From there, your task will be to earn an admit but for now, you need to be focusing on winning the first stage only. A great essay with a Harvard-acceptable profile can totally tip the scales. If your profile is already superlative, it kind of won’t matter what your essay says. As long as it’s not riddled with typos and grammar errors and shows you can put thoughts together on the page. This is about optimizing your situation. If you feel you’re Harvard material, then heck, just write anything! Harvard used to allow you to apply without submitting anything in the essay at all. That’s how unimportant the essay may be. They are looking at the entirety of everything else that you submit. The essay is therefore a crucial opportunity. When used strategically, it can absolutely tip the scales on an otherwise ho-hum situation.
We know there are many differing opinions out there and seemingly conflicting advice, and we can’t say they’re wrong – but we believe that possibly we’re more right. 😉
Want help with Harvard? It’s not too late to get our take on your strategy! Please start with our Harvard MBA Application Guide as a logical first step. Then sign up for our Harvard Essay Decimator and we’ll see what you’ve got!