We went on and on last month about why you probably shouldn’t be reading “sample” essays and we made the assertion that sometimes people get in despite the essays. Like, they had craptastic essays, but they still got the admit.
Or as seems to have been happening right and left this round, they at least got the interview invite, and we’ll have to see what happens in a few weeks on the acceptance front.
It’s not that the essays don’t matter. In some cases, for some profiles, and especially at certain schools, the essays can matter A LOT.
Writing top-notch essays as part of your MBA application is definitely a better path to possible success than so-so essays. Makes sense, right?
But unfortunately, even top-notch essays aren’t a sure thing when we’re talking about Harvard or Stanford.
Want to get proof?
Ask around to some of your buddies who have been rejected from Harvard in Round 1. If you happen to know any who went through some decimation of said essays by the ‘Snark, you may be especially interested to see that, hmmm, their essays were actually kinda good. In some cases, even really good. And still, they didn’t make it through to the next stage.
For Harvard, the essay alone isn’t gonna get you in the door. It needs backing through all the other elements of the profile coming together in the package that you submit. You need to show differentiation based on what you have sought out to accomplish in this life.
Remember, Harvard more than perhaps anyone is constructing a class. Yes, the members of that class tend to be seriously high achievers, which means that a high GMAT or GRE and an impressive GPA from college tend to be correlated with that. But those data alone do little to let you stand out. They’re a ticket to play the game. They’re not going to take you over the finish line — and they’re not even mandatory elements. They are correlations, not causations of success.
And simultaneously, you can have a really interesting background, with unusual datapoints in your personal history and a combination of life experiences that you don’t see every day — and if you don’t execute on the essay and make it part of a pitch where you’re using each and every part of the application to paint a full picture of who you are as an individual today… Well, that also can turn into a “no” from Harvard as well.
The further you move down the competitiveness scale for the schools, and the farther you get away from the H/S/W realm, then the more tolerance you’ll find built into the process, where a single non-optimized component does not hold you back if the facts of your background have these highlights of interest.
In other words: You can get away with a good rather than great set of essays to a school like UCLA and still move forward in their process, especially in Round 1, even if you’re coming from an oversubscribed pool, if there are enough other of those highlights peeking out.
Probably the most important first component at Harvard Business School Admissions is the resume. That’s because the resume captures what you have done with your life to this point.
We’re not saying you need to have a pretty resume. A straightforward standard-format professional layout resume is actually better than one that tries to showcase your style. (Unless you’re a designer or coming from a creative background, and then it might be appropriate for some of that to be reflected on the resume itself. As long as form doesn’t get in the way of function. It still needs to be easy to scan and digest quickly for an admissions person, which usually means that using a more standardized format, and having data in the spots where the reader expects it, will help you communicate to them on their terms. Which is always, always an aim to shoot for in this process. Make it easy on your reader, Brave Supplicant!)
If your resume tells a story of high differentiation, then that’s going to get you really far. The HBS Admissions Board is gonna lap that right up. (Do you know if your resume tells such a story? Our Comprehensive Profile Review will do so!)
If that’s the case, it’s not going to matter too much if your essay is not going above and beyond what’s being conveyed on the resume. (As long as you don’t say something wildly inappropriate, of course.) This is why we say that it’s not wholly about the essay for Harvard. The essay is an opportunity to show how you approach a challenging and ambiguous assignment (also discussed here, and of course in our Harvard Business School MBA Application Guide). The essay is your chance to shine, in terms of demonstrating self-awareness and maturity, and showcasing what you believe are the salient features of your own profile, in a way that goes above and beyond what the other parts of the application are already presenting.
But if the other parts of your application are already robustly demonstrating that you’re a person of depth, of experience, of thoughtfulness, of ambition, who offers diversity in some dimension or another, then that’s what the Harvard Admissions Board will respond to. That’s where an interview invitation is born.
If you’re showing a career path that is quite common to what others in your category have pursued, then it’s going to take a lot more evidence of that differentiation to prove to admissions that you’re one to more actively consider.
That’s certainly where the essay can help. But if the evidence of that isn’t already in place in the application, then it’s a missed opportunity. And if the essay is only recapping the same facts that are already in the other parts of the app, then it can be so much of a missed opportunity that the adcom takes a pass.
The prompt for the Harvard essay seems so innocuous: “What more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?”
It requires digging into the details for yourself, knowing who you are, understanding the landscape of admissions and appreciating what Harvard is about, before writing even the first word of that draft.
(Want help with all of this? Our Complete Essay Package can be a tremendous asset in supporting this process of self-exploration and analysis, and guiding you to what can work best for YOUR profile and YOUR application for an MBA from Harvard Business School.)
So basically, this is yet another cautionary tale: There are so many ways for this to go sideways! AND, you are sitting here RIGHT NOW with all the options available. If you’re considering Harvard in Round 2, then starting the work on that application today is important. If you didn’t make it past the hurdles for HBS in Round 1, then you’re actually in really good company. Today’s post may have made you feel worse about it all over again, and that wasn’t the intention. Instead, it was meant to try and help you cut yourself some slack. You took the actions that you did through the summer in putting together your app strategy, and you’re likely in a very good position at some other very good schools, even if the HBS dream didn’t pan out. And, this whole thing about applying to business school is HARD. It likely feels like a direct rejection of YOU, which is understandable when they’ve asked you to serve up all of yourself on a platter through the app. But a rejection is not saying you’re not any good; it’s saying that there was a gap in execution of the strategy, and that there is more competition for this process than probably anything you’ve undertaken before. The way that Harvard defines “unique” and “accomplished” is quite variable, and there is no one mold that you can aspire to, that will make it all turn into gold.
But, if you’re early days in the process, there are steps you can take to make sure you put together the absolute best app that you can. (Like, starting now. Leveraging the resources available. Working diligently non-stop on app components from here to submit.) And if you do that, then you’re going to come out the other end of the process feeling proud of yourself, no matter what some silly adcom ends up doing in response.
You may also be interested in:
- What does it mean to be “differentiated” in the context of your MBA applications?
- Another example of the “Harvard type”
- What is an ‘MBA resume’?
- If you want detailed, actionable feedback on the essay strategy you have constructed: The HBS Essay Decimator