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…
Today we’re looking at an actual honest-to-goodness essay that an intrepid Brave Supplicant has written for HBS, and sent in for us to look at and talk about here on the blahg! In case you’re new in these parts, we’ve got this little thing on offer where, if you’re feeling especially courageous, and you’re willing…
We’re not talking about your life.
We’re talking about your essays.
Which, at this point on the calendar as we head into Round 1, may be (should be!!) one and the same!
We realize that some of you just rolled out of bed and looked at the calendar and rubbed the sleepboulders from your eyes to realize that, “Oh. Hey. Aren’t some applications due pretty soon?” And you haven’t really begun the heavy lifting of writing any essays yet. (If that’s you: You still have time to go through all the steps of the Complete Essay Package and come up with a strong pitch!)
But others have been writingwritingwriting and despite our many warnings about DON’T DO THAT!! you wrote a full draft for Harvard’s open-ended question, or about Stanford “What matters most?”, as your very first project.
And now you have a frankenstein monster that’s 2,000 words and has every single thought that you’ve thunk in the past three years referenced somewhere.
As much as it pains us to even suggest it: It might be better to start over.
We see signs when this might be the best (only) way out of an essay morass with things like this:
- The introduction says stuff that’s never referenced again anywhere in the essay. Ever.
- The same story appears in multiple places, but only in bits and bobs.
- There’s timewarping out the gazoo.
- The essay is 3x as long as it’s allowed to be by the school’s instructions.
- The essay commits the #1 worst mistake in all of essays to bschool ever.
These are just some of the signs, and it’s certainly not an exhaustive list. But if even one of those is present in a draft, it is a good indication you may be headed for trouble.
It’s possible to do open-heart surgery on a draft that’s in trouble, but usually, it just makes a mess and gets guts on the floor and the patient ends up dying on the table anyway. And then the surgeon is exhausted and goes out to have a cigarette and doesn’t come back for two days.
That’s inefficient and non-productive (and dangerous: somebody’s gonna slip and fall in that mess of guts you left behind).
So yeah. We’re saying to put this beast out of its misery and start over.
But you know what?
If you do this, it may be painful at the beginning — just because that decision to drop what you’ve started and abandon all the words you wrote seems like a defeat.
But very, very soon, if you do this and ditch the too-long/overfraught/impossible spaghetti-mess of a document that you’ve constructed, and you do that horrible little step of “File->New” in Word, and stare at a pristine blank page that’s seemingly laughing back at you…
If you have the bravery to do that, then guess what?
It’s highly likely that the same good ideas you had before will still be there. Those good ideas will still make their way to this draft. And very soon, after going through some emotional angst in the difficult decision, you’ll start to see sunlight again, and you’ll get energized.
That is, provided you don’t repeat the same process that got you the Frankenstein before.
You need to start over and do the first step differently.
Don’t start over by writing a new draft.
If you do this, then you need to START OVER WITH OUTLINES.
Figure out EXACTLY what the answer to the question is first. This needs to be YOUR FIRST STEP.
Now that you’ve written a bunch on this topic, you will have a whole arsenal of ideas to pull from. The step that many people skip is ORGANIZING THOSE IDEAS. Selecting the best ones, and leaving the others aside for another essay on another day. Structuring your thoughts. Putting things in their proper place. Sticking with the skeleton form of an essay first. Not writing it.
If you just start writing, the draft will end up looking like the inside of your brain looks: a frenetic upchuck of random crazy thoughts and ideas that may be tangentially related but really don’t make all that much sense. (Isn’t that how your thoughts work in your head? Lots of pingponging? Associations and tangents? Snippets and memories and muddiness and distractions? We often see essays that are a direct representation of the thought patterns going on in the person’s brain. Revealing that to the adcom is not actually a good way to get into bschool. 😉 )
Here’s some actual honest-to-goodness real-life feedback we gave to a BSer after coming to the conclusion that this person’s Harvard draft was similarly unsalvagable:
(Such feedback — and plenty more like it, that’s actionable and specific and very very detailed — is given through our Essay Decimator Essay Review service, in case you were wondering.)
Remember, writing essays is not a writing exercise.
There are very, very few people who know what they want to say before they start writing — yet they start writing anyway. And then they have an essay that doesn’t know what it’s saying.
Don’t be that guy.
Sometimes the quickest way to where you want to get is to slow down, or even, sometimes, to start over.
You may also be interested in:
There are so many complexities involved with applying to bschool — and applying as a reapplicant is especially complicated. To a large degree, your reapplicant strategy needs to be built around what the specific school you’re trying for values. The strategy you develop to reapply to Harvard is going to be less similar than what…
We’ve long used a term here in Snarkville to try and capture what it means to be a candidate who’s actually got a chance of acceptance at Harvard Business School: The Harvard type. We’ve used this term (and the complementary phrase “Harvard material”) frequently as a way of giving BSers a heads-up on what’s required…
Apparently it’s time for our “Is there a bubble?!?” post. We write these every few years (2015 version: Our annual “bubble” post; 2014 version: The whole “MBA bubble” thing rises again; 2011 version: The cost of education/is there a bubble? 8-part series), because apparently it’s a cyclical trend. The media gets bored, or someone (usually…
If you missed Part 1 of this topic, go read it here first and then continue on. So here’s the thing: When you’re truly differentiated, you kinda know it. You might be the type of person who realizes that you could come across as braggy in certain situations if you’re not careful, because…
This is another follow-on post to the “3 Innocent Mistakes” that we wrote about previously. You need to become the type of differentiated applicant that the schools want to see. You need to have a multi-dimensional approach. Stories of leadership and impact are ever more important in this day and age – but unfortunately, from…
In case you don’t follow us on Twitter (we don’t tweet often but we do tweet good!):
Whelp it’s happening! Harvard HBS MBA Class of 2022 requirements are starting to come out! Deadlines have been announced … expecting to see lots of such news coming this week. https://t.co/8n4aReYz86 Watch the blahg for more!
— Essay Snark (@EssaySnark) May 6, 2019
Harvard has confirmed that they’re leaving their main application requirement the same this year. You’ll have an unlimited-length essay to write in answer to this question:
So how do you answer it?? What more would you like them to know? How in heck do you even figure that out???
There are two main aspects to learning how to deal with this question in the most effective manner possible: You need to know about Harvard, and you need to know about YOU! Seems obvious when we say it that way, right? And even then seeing it stated directly, you still may not know what to do with that as an instruction. These are both non-trivial exercises!
The best way to answer an open-ended question is to figure out what the asker of the question values. What does Harvard prioritize? What does Harvard care about? What can you do to convey to them that you have those qualities?
Pro Tip: The first place where people fall down in their essays to business school is that they try to figure out what they think the adcom wants them to say. That is NOT what we are suggesting you do.
Read what we wrote again.
We’re saying to figure out HARVARD.
And the second step is to figure out YOU.
Harvard does not care about “school fit” nearly the same way that other schools do — and again, that’s not what we are suggesting you do for your Harvard MBA essay writing assignment. You’re not trying to convince them that you love Harvard so much and that’s why they should let you in.
This essay is about pitching yourself.
How do you demonstrate the qualities that show you as “Harvard material”?
That’s a snapshot of your map to success with your Harvard essay. It’s also important to remember that the essay is just one piece of your application. They’re also going to have the entire app dataset, your resume, your full academic history including transcripts, your employment data, and two letters of recommendation (which should be from recent experiences, professional context vastly preferred).
This Harvard essay writing assignment is so complex that we’ve written a whole book on it — and hey lookee here! We’ve already updated it for the current year’s application! Our 2019 HBS MBA Application Guide has been refreshed for the Class of 2022 app, and is ready to roll in support of you and your essay-writing task!
But! Before you get too excited there, pardner:
Pro Tip: Please do not make Harvard Business School your first application!
While we would hate to squash the enthusiasm of some hot-to-trot Brave Supplicant who is chomping at the bit to get started, we strongly encourage you to slow the roll and make a plan.
Want even more support in the planning stuff? Or perhaps you’re a little nervous that you’re more a procrastinator than a planner?
The EssaySnark MBA Countdown to Round 1 can help with all of this too! The Countdown is accepting signups now and officially launches with the first weekly to-do list, sent via email on Monday, May 27th, and continuing with weekly support to keep you productive and focused all the way to the Round 1 deadline for Harvard in September. Of course, you can use The Countdown on any Round 1 applications; we just tie the scheduling to that HBS deadline since so many of you will be aiming for it. All the other schools will have their deadlines coming staggered thereafter for the month of September into early October, so making the HBS date your first target is standard, regardless of what other schools are on your short list.
Or, don’t know which ones should be short-listed? Our Comprehensive Profile Review can get you some input on that, too! Maybe you have some vague ideas of names of schools that might be worth trying for…. but you don’t really know. The Profile Review is a personalized review of your exact profile (thus the name!) against what you want to do and why. It will help you refine your list, and we usually can suggest some other schools to consider as well.
But back to Harvard.
Their application requirements have been published (“What more do you want us to know…”).
You know the date that it’s due (September 4).
So how do you get started?
Well, Shameless Self-Promotion: You really should pick up our guide. 🙂
We’re on Version 9.0 of our Harvard application guide. That’s nine years of revisions, updates, new insights, suggestions, ideas, and most importantly, exercises for you to unpack the prompt and do the investigation, inventory, and thinking that’s required to figure out a good way to answer it. There is not a single path to success with the Harvard essay, but you know what? There’s lots of paths that are total dead ends, and the vast majority of Harvard essays that we see from people who haven’t read our essay guide fall into all of those same traps. (Even people who’ve paid a bunch of money to some other consultant to help with their essay before coming to us; yes, unfortunately, that happens quite a bit.)
Last year, when a BSer who was invited to interview hit us up for help on preparing, they told us: “Also, your essay guide is amazing !” which was kinda cool to hear, given that we’d not interacted with this person at all and they were able to leverage this guide to make it to the interview stage. That’s always our hope, that you dive in and make the most of all the gobs of application goodies that we make available, you immerse yourself in this and figure out how to craft your own message, and then you pop out the other end of it and show us your successes. (Of course, we’re totally here to help with actually essay development and message crafting too! but it’s fun when someone is the do-it-yourself type who makes it happen on her own independently.)
We certainly cannot guarantee you’ll make it in to Harvard by reading this guide. But we can say you’re helping your chances immensely if you read it, and study it and do the work that we lay out that needs to be done.
If you’re reading this today, you are in the BEST POSSIBLE POSITION for success this year with applications. Don’t waste this opportunity! We’re doing all that we can to empower you with the tools, insights, and actionable information that you’ll need. We encourage you to take advantage of what we’re laying out. We’re here to help! Check out what we offer, let us know if you have questions, and no matter what, we hope you’ll be one of those who emails us excitedly in December with news of your admits.
[WARNING: This is a looooong post! May want to jump to the bottom and hit that little Favorite button to save it for later! (Favorite feature available to blahg members)]
We originally wrote this in 2018 and we’re republishing here in 2019 to help you eager-beaver BSers who want a leg up on the quintessential of the quintessential-est schools.
Because anybody who first starts thinking they want to get an MBA is immediately going to be thinking about Harvard.
And why not?
Harvard is a world renowned brand.
EVERYBODY has heard of Harvard.
Even if you have only a vague notion of what an MBA is or why you might want one, you have still heard of Harvard Business School, and you probably wouldn’t mind going there.
An application to the MBA program at Harvard in many ways is going to look like an application to an MBA program anywhere.
They want a GMAT score, or a GRE is fine.
You’ll upload your resume and enter your work history.
They need an essay, and some letters of recommendation.
Pretty standard stuff.
However, that’s where the similarities end.
The approach that you take with your Harvard application should not necessarily be the same as what you might take with, say, Columbia.
Both these schools offer the MBA degree. Both have semi-similar profiles that show average GMAT and grades and they’re not terribly different from one to the next. You can expect that a high GMAT score will be beneficial to you in getting into Harvard, as it would be for Columbia, or Kellogg, or anywhere else.
If you want to get into Harvard, though, you can’t be just another cookie-cutter candidate.
The secret to getting into Harvard is to show how you’re different.
BUT!! There is risk here!!!
Being “different” for the sake of being different is not going to help you.
Wearing different-colored socks to your interview will not demonstrate that you’re unique.
All that will do is demonstrate that you want to stand out and attract attention. That might get people talking, but it’s not necessarily going to land you an offer at this school.
The most important thing to keep in mind with Harvard is that they are trying to construct a class.
That’s true at any school in the world, but Harvard gets first pick.
They’re like the Cleveland Browns but for opposite reasons.
(For any non-US-football-fans out there: The Cleveland Browns were the football team with the worst record in 2017, so they earn the privilege of picking their players from the college draft first in 2018.)
In the bschool market economy, since EV-ER-Y-BO-DY wants to go to Harvard, then Harvard has an abundance of riches. They can cherrypick the ones that they like most. They get first dibs. The best of the best.
Or, in this case, the most unique and differentiated who will fill out their class.
What this means is, if your profile is stereotypical — the Princeton grad who went to McKinsey and now wants to go for an MBA — then HBS will need to see superlative grades and an exceptional GMAT and particularly wonderful recs.
You need to be the best out of a crowded category of very good players.
What if you…
Work at Deloitte (not the most prestigious firm) and went to BC (Boston College; good but also not considered “the best”). You have a 3.6 GPA and a 730 GMAT.
When faced with the profile of the Princeton-McKinsey person, you may assume you have no chance at all. You’re obviously qualified but being qualified and being accepted are two different things.
Or, what if you…
Are an international applicant, like the Indian engineer, or you are coming from finance? Or applying from Singapore or Hong Kong or China?
For all of you, finding ways to stand out will be crucial. It’s not going to be only the basics of your profile. The adcom will need to know who you are — best revealed by what you have done — for you to have a true chance. This is where the advantages of an MBA admissions consultant can pay off. (A very good one, that is. A merely competent consultant is not necessarily going to add much value for Harvard.)
We saw some stat somewhere once that something like 90% of applicants to Harvard are qualified — meaning, they fit within the parameters of acceptance that the school has mapped out. Not sure if that’s saying that 80% of applicants fit within the class profile (the range of GMAT or GRE scores and college academics) or if it was against some internal measure of acceptability that the Admissions Board has.
Regardless, almost anyone applying shows evidence that they could succeed in the curriculum, and that they are capable of completing the program.
That is hardly enough to guarantee admission. It’s kind of like going with a competent admissions consultant. If you’re going for the gold and you’re going to pony up the dollars for help, then make sure you’re going with one that actually can add value in the game that you’re in.
If being qualified is not enough to get in to Harvard, what then does matter? What will tip the scales and convince the HBS adcom to want you?
There is not a specific profile or a specific collection of app stats that will ensure you get in. However, over the years, we have identified what we now call the “Harvard type.” It’s someone who is obviously a go-getter, an overachiever who’s done something interesting in life.
We cover it in many posts here on the blahg:
What is “the Harvard type”? is a good place to start.
We also discuss it at length in our MBA essay and application guide to Harvard Business School.
Heck, we have a whole category of posts here on the blahg on HBS and what they are looking for.
What we would boil all of this down to is one simple word:
The secret of getting into Harvard is that you have to show evidence of drive.
This fact is the main reason we’re able to with complete confidence predict people’s chances of interest from Harvard in our Comprehensive Profile Review. Through that service, you lay out the details of your background, your career, your school targets and core stats, and we go through it all and assess your chances to see if you are presenting enough evidence that will give Harvard reason to say yes. We are very very rarely off base with these and when we are it is only marginal misses. Usually we have BSers come back to us at the end of the season saying some variation of, “Wow, you were right! You said I wouldn’t get into X but that Y would admit me, and they did! That’s exactly how it went with my apps!”
For almost every single business school in the world, we are firmly convinced that getting help on the app is beneficial.
For Harvard? Yes also beneficial, very much so — but only to one certain extent.
The people that Harvard is likely to admit are very likely to get into Harvard anyway. Even without outside help.
Will outside help be useful? Sure, in giving an assist to the process. In making sure that you don’t step in it, and mess things up in an avoidable way. (See also: A Stanford applicant case study: Avoidable Mistakes)
But very often we see Harvard give interviews even for applicants whose essays truly sucked. Where they did not take advantage of what the essay could do.
But based on the other aspects of their profile — or more often, based on how they are coming from a less-crowded pool and so it was easier to stand out against the crowd — this person earned an invite to interview even in the face of a pisspoor job on the essay.
For whom then is getting help on the app the most helpful? In what situation would an MBA admissions consultant (an exceptional one, if you are serious about Harvard) add the most value?
Either for the applicant who is overwhelmed by the steps of applying, or who does not know where to start, or who lacks confidence in her own writing ability, and especially for someone who finds value in the ability to bounce ideas off of someone. Or all of the above. A very good admissions consultant can help that person create a very good essay for Harvard.
You do not “need” an admissions consultant to get in though.
We remain unmoved by any admissions consultant who brags about how many applicants they got into Harvard. It’s like a coach at the Olympics. The coach cannot take credit for the athlete’s success. Yes, a coach can be supremely helpful. But it’s not the coach who earned the medal. It’s the hard work and dedication and the willingness to persevere and the sacrifices made by the athlete that earned that person the spot on the podium.
When Harvard admits people, many times they would admit that person whether or not the essays were incredible. It’s because they are admitting the whole package; the entire set of facts. Not just granting a Best Essay award. That’s not always how it works elsewhere. Sometimes, an exceptionally mediocre applicant can put together an amazing set of essays that totally wins him or her the admit at another school. An incredible essay alone won’t do it for Harvard.
Of course, an MBA essay can keep you out of Harvard, too.
Very often, BSers make foolish mistakes in their essays. They say silly things. They focus on the wrong elements. They don’t maximize the opportunity at hand. For these people, a (highly qualified) admissions consultant can do wonders.
But the secret of getting into Harvard Business School does not come down to the essay. It’s the entirety of who you are and what you are presenting, and it’s at least as much about Harvard as it is about you.
That’s why when you’re rejected from Harvard, it’s not actually that big of a deal. So many incredible people are rejected each year that you cannot read anything into it.
Harvard is the one school that’s least served by the admissions consulting industry.
We’re not saying not to get help on your HBS MBA application. We do believe we can help you! We have dedicated services exactly for that.
But someone who is the Harvard Type is likely to get into Harvard anyway. Not because they paid the big bucks to a consultant to assist them.
It’s one reason we strongly recommend against reading other people’s essays in your quest for the HBS admit. Seeing what someone else said is not going to let your best essay come through — and frequently, an essay did NOTHING for an applicant’s chance of success. All you can extrapolate from reading a Harvard student’s essay is that the essay did not PREVENT them from getting in. You cannot know that the essay itself helped them at all.
ESPECIALLY not when the essay was written in a different admissions cycle for a different entering class in a different era of MBA admissions, such as we’re entering now.
Someone who got into the Harvard Class of 2009 was operating on a totally different playing field as an applicant, compared to someone who got in for the Class of 2019, and most definitely there are major differences from what the ’19 applicant faced compared to what the Class of 2021 will be facing this year. It’s a different school. It’s a different admissions landscape. Almost definitely it will be a different application for Harvard this year. You cannot make inferences from one person’s essay to your own.
The only constant that remains?
The Harvard Type.
It’s something that we recognize when we see it (the Comprehensive Profile Review being the best way for us to assess this). It does not come down to any static descriptor or a set of stats on a profile. It’s the sum total of who you are based on how you present yourself — in the resume, in the college experience, in your profession today. Yes, in the essay itself too, but that’s rarely the differentiator that it can be at other schools.
There are many ways to get your message across in your HBS MBA essay, and we’re not saying that the essay is inconsequential. The essay matters — for some candidates even more than others. But the adcom is going to overlook a subpar essay if the profile itself shows as differentiated against the pool of others with whom you’re competing.
If you’re wondering right now whether or not you’re the “Harvard type” then that’s a fair question. We can help you with some objective advice on whether you might be perceived that way today.
And what else you can do is work on being that even more in your day-to-day efforts at work.
Nobody can predict with certainty if you’re going to be accepted into Harvard. But stepping it up and doing all that you can to be a better person every single day is the best way to find out.
We wrote a whole book on how to get into Harvard Business School!!
You may also be interested in:
- More examples of the “Harvard type”
- How to add greater value at work (plus, Harvard secret)
- The Harvard secret we didn’t get to yesterday
- Which came first, the ambition or the advantage?
- Once more with feeling: SOME ADMISSIONS CONSULTANTS MAY HURT, NOT HELP