Most of the world’s leaders who have MBAs come out of Harvard Business School. Everyone knows this, and in turn, everyone seeking an MBA wants to go to HBS to become one of these future leaders, captains of industry, etc. It’s important to remember this point as we go through and analyze the application questions for Harvard Business School.
Let’s start with some basics. Harvard doesn’t waste much time, so if ever there were a time to be succinct and to the point, now would be that time. They don’t want to know why you want to go to Harvard specifically, they already know—it’s the same reason as everyone else: the Harvard brand speaks for itself and is well known the world over. So, don’t waste time telling them stuff they could have told YOU!
So what *DO* they want to know from you?
Well, we can “reverse” into the answer by knowing what makes the Harvard brand special. Think about it logically. If their graduates did NOT go on to become the world’s leaders… their cache would fade over time. They’re looking for people who are going to not just be successful, but ULTRA-successful. The “ultra” part can be pinned to a very particular (and very Harvard-specific) trait: leadership. Harvard is looking for folks who can lead. Folks who can inspire. Folks who can shepherd the “new BIG idea.” Folks who can motivate “giant companies” through magnetism and charisma. You don’t just learn this at a school—you’re born with it (or you’re not). Harvard is scanning the thousands of applications for THIS quality. For the lucky few who HAVE this trait, you need to let it shine through in every aspect of your writing.
Let’s get into some specifics for Harvard’s MBA essay questions for 2011-2012.
1. Tell us about three of your accomplishments. (600 words)
For those who might be familiar with Harvard’s previous years’ questions, you might notice a slight modification in the wording. Now, when a school like Harvard modifies its questions, it’s worth taking note. They USED to ask about your three “most substantial” accomplishments. This year, they want three “OF” your accomplishments. See what they did? They are now asking you to tell them which three accomplishments you feel are worth knowing about. Or, put differently, which three accomplishments show you off… the best. What we’re looking for, remember, is “proof” of your ability to take charge, motivate, inspire. We need to know that you’re a commander in chief. And it’s up to you to give it to us three ways.
How can you mess this question up?
Simple. You can write about the same thing, three different ways. That tells us you’ve basically done one thing in life and have very little else to write about. Bad, bad, bad. You can either write about the same experience in different ways, OR discuss multiple experiences at the same work place. Avoid this. The thing that makes leaders great is their ability to navigate through complex situations; that never happens when a person’s only experience is limited to one job, or worse, one event AT one job. Aim for some diversity here. Create the impression that wherever you go, whatever you do, there is an accomplishment to speak of. Make it seem like this is a list of three accomplishments out of an overal list of FIFTY. Rather than… these are my three and ONLY three accomplishments. Again, the way to achieve this is though diversity of responses (a mix of personal, professional, community service, athletics, interpersonal, military, etc.).
It is also a bad idea NOT to include an example (or two) from career-related achievements. We need to know you’re gonna be successful in whatever industry you pursue. If all you talk about is extra-curricular stuff, we might wonder if you have the chops to do something in the BUSINESS world. Make sure there’s a cracking example from the workplace.
Another way to mess it up is to give us your resume. We have it. We don’t want the accomplishment presented to us in the same reductionist way it appears on your resume. To rehash your resume is to shoot yourself in the foot in a HUGE way.
So, how do you CRACK it?
Again, simple. We don’t just want the accomplishment. We wanna know the obstacles you overcame and we want to get a sense of WHY you succeeded, at whatever the accomplishment.
We can break it down into components that will help you answer this three times, at roughly 200 words apiece:
1) set up the OBJECTIVE, the GOAL. there was some “thing” that needed to happen—a deal needed to go through, a team needed a leader to step up, etc etc. Give us the goal, nice and clearly.
2) give us the OBSTACLES that were in your way. What made it hard? What made it possible to fail? We need to know that it wasn’t easy.
3) walk us through the “HOW” of your accomplishment. I “did” this. I “did” that. Then this, then that, etc. But remember, there had to have been a quality that made YOU (in particular) succeed. Or, a quality that made you succeed in a particular way. To get to that quality, you must identify the specific impact YOU had, and why.
[Let's get to part 2, shall we?]