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Business School Essays Tips

So you’ve taken the GMAT, you’ve lined up your recommendations, and you’re sitting down to write your business school application essays. Dreaded as they are, they’re also supremely important.

Just a few years ago, I was there too, and I remember it being a bit daunting. I wanted to go to Harvard—but no one I knew well had gone there before. I didn’t go to a prestigious private high school or Ivy League college. I also wasn’t an investment banker or a management consultant (I was an engineer). I did have good undergraduate grades and a great GMAT score—but I strongly suspect it was my essays that landed me my acceptances to both Harvard and Stanford.

There were a few key principles that helped me when I was writing my essays. And no matter what school you’re hoping for, the same strategies can help you get there, too. Here’s what to consider before you start typing.

1. Line up Your Critics

You don’t have to go through the process entirely alone. In fact, you’ll need outside perspectives—after drafting, revising, re-revising and re-re-revising, you will lose your ability to be objective. From the beginning brainstorming stages to the final read-through, you need people to sanity check what you’re writing to make sure it makes sense and is interesting.

Line up one person to be a consistent primary feedback-giver, and plan to touch base with him or her fairly regularly. You should also have two or three other people review your essays to get some different perspectives, but be careful adding more than that—getting too many differing opinions may give you feedback whiplash.

The best feedback-givers are people who have been accepted to the schools you’re applying to—they’re most familiar with the application process (and they obviously did something right). In the absence of a B-school alum, someone with good business sense and writing skills will work just fine, too.

2. Share Your Passions

In 2005, I heard Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi, speak, and she said something that has stayed with me ever since: “Success is what happens when the passion for what you do outweighs the fatigue of doing it.”

Top programs are looking for passionate people—they’re more likely to be successful and, frankly, more interesting to be around. Schools want to know that you understand yourself and what you’re passionate about, that you have interesting examples of how that passion has surfaced in your life, and that you want to channel your passion to do big things after business school. (There you go, beginning, middle, and end to the “what matters most to you and why?” essay question from Stanford.)

So, tell a story about your passions. Be consistent, and be genuine. Admissions officers read thousands of essays and if you’re not authentic, they will sniff you out—if not on first read, then during the interview process.

3. Show Upward Trajectory

Like a good story, your essay should build. One strategy to do this effectively is to talk about something small that becomes bigger and better over time. (Even better if you can show that you’ve overcome obstacles to reach the bigger and better state—everyone loves an underdog.)

It’s a given that you need to illustrate how you’ve progressed professionally, but you should also show growth in your extracurricular endeavors. For example, did your weekend volunteering at a non-profit turn into you landing a board seat? If you’re passionate about mountain climbing, did you start with Mt. Rainier and then rise to the challenge of climbing Mt. Everest?

4. Illustrate Your Ability to Give Back

Business schools aren’t completely altruistic—they want to know that you’ll make their campus richer by participating in community events and taking on leadership roles in campus organizations. And because the best predictor of future behavior is past performance, it’s smart to use at least one essay to illustrate how you’ve previously given back to a community.

The best examples of charity hit on two points: they demonstrate your benevolence and also reinforce your stated passion. If you’re passionate about environmental sustainability, have you volunteered to speak to high school students on the topic? Did you lead a fundraising campaign for a preservation organization?

5. Be Concise (and Correct)

There’s absolutely no excuse for going over a word limit or making grammatical errors. Both are just plain lazy—and in some cases, might get your essay tossed in the trash without a second thought.

So, once you’re done with your applications, go back with a critical eye. Cut out all unnecessary words by using contractions (doesn’t vs. does not) and eliminating excessive adjectives (“successful” is just as effective as “very successful” and “a long, dangerous, windy path” can be shortened to “a path”). Leverage your feedback-giver to help you figure out all the places where adjectives and adverbs aren’t adding anything to your story.

And please, proofread. Multiple times. Have someone else proofread, too.

Beyond that, don’t overthink it. Pick up 65 Successful Harvard Business School Application Essays—I was impressed (and reassured) by how straightforward the essays were. After all, it’s not about showing schools something that’s never been seen before—it’s about showing them that you’re a good fit.

Want more? Ask your essay and admissions questions on Twitter @ssahney. Good luck!

Photo courtesy of Patricia Drury.

A soldier who served on the front lines in Afghanistan. A process engineer challenged by a long series of early failures. And a female consultant whose passion became healthcare.

Three MBA applicants to Harvard Business School last year. Three students in the newest crop of MBA students at Harvard this fall. All of them answered the question now being asked of 2017-2018 applicants to Harvard: 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?

The school provides minimal guidance for applicants trying to make an impression. “There is no word limit for this question,” advises HBS admissions. “We think you know what guidance we’re going to give here. Don’t over think, overcraft and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don’t know your world can understand.”

Each of the three applicants above wrote a clear and compelling essay in their applications, essays that Poets&Quants is reprinting with permission from the MBA Essay Guide Summer 2017 Edition recently published by The Harbus, the MBA student newspaper at Harvard Business School. The guide contains 39 essays written by successful candidates who are now starting the MBA program at HBS. Proceeds from the sale of the guidebook go to benefit the non-profit foundation that supports The Harbus.

With application deadlines rapidly approaching at Harvard Business School and many other prestige MBA programs, these successful essays will, no doubt, give current candidates a bit of guidance. More importantly, the essays that follow are most likely to provide comfort, that there is no formula or singular way to craft a successful answer.

THREE SUCCESSFUL ESSAYS. THREE VERY DIFFERENT APPROACHES.

The latest edition of the MBA Essay Guide from The Harbus costs $61.49

In his 1,130-word essay, the U.S. Army applicant ties together his experiences of leading soldiers on the front line in Afghanistan together with staff postings in Army operations and logistics to paint a portrait of a dedicated and people-oriented leader.

Inspired by a selfless act from her nine-year-old mentee, this management consultant decided to challenge herself to make an impact in healthcare. In a 937-word essay, she uses a particularly difficult turnaround situation which she was put in charge of as exemplifying her strongest skills: building relationships and uniting people around a common goal.

In a 1,358-essay, a process engineer opens up to a long series of failures in his early life. By showing both vulnerability and honesty, he is able to transform this list of fruitless endeavors into a credible “badge of honor,” evidence of his resilience, determination and strength of character. It quickly becomes apparent that what appeared to be failures in the first half, actually proved to be successes or openings for new opportunities, given enough time and perseverance.

ONE APPLICANT DID 25 DRAFTS BEFORE COMING UP WITH ONE SHE LIKED ENOUGH TO SUBMIT

Behind every MBA application is a person and a story, and in this trio of representative essays the approaches taken by each candidate is as different as the essays they submitted to the admissions committee at HBS.

The engineer went through took eight drafts over two months. “I thought about what personal traits I wanted to share with the ADCOM and identified stories from my past that identified those traits,” he explains. “After two or three drafts, I’d figured out the right narrative and kept refining it, taking as much as a week to finalize each draft. My best advice is to be honest, start early, and have someone who knows what the ADCOMS are looking for to read through a couple of your drafts and give you pointers.”

The consultant estimates that she went through 25 drafts to get to her final version. “I think the most important thing with the essay is to iterate,” she advises. “Because the question is so open-ended, it is important to reflect as much as possible and give yourself the time (in my case two months) to go on the journey necessary to realize what you care most about communicating and how to do so in the most effective way. I also cannot overstate the importance of finding someone who will give you honest feedback.

(See on the following pages the complete and full MBA essays submitted to Harvard Business School)

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