Monday, July 14, 2014 at 1am

Deconstructing Harvard Business School’s Optional MBA Essay Topic

Deconstructing Harvard Business School’s Optional MBA Essay Topic main image

When is an MBA essay not what it seems? When it's Harvard Business School's deceptively simple, deceptively welcoming, deceptively optional prompt of the past two years: "You're applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your résumé, academic transcripts, extracurricular activities, awards, post-MBA career goals, test scores, and what your recommenders have to say about you. What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?"

Picking the right essay topic for your MBA essay

Yes, it looks clear enough. By explicitly telling you what they don't want to hear about – your accomplishments, grades, extracurricular activities, and goals – they're practically leading you by the hand to your true subject matter, right? Wrong. Harvard's "We can see …" list is a feint, a false signal, meant to confuse the unsavvy and literal minded. After all, if you exclude experiences from your "résumé, academic transcripts, extracurricular activities, awards, post-MBA career goals," etc., what exactly is left? Your family history? A treatise on your favorite rap song or sitcom? Golden memories of your high school prom? Maybe a paean to your boyfriend? Obviously, any of these would be disastrous, a fact that immediately calls into question Harvard's deceptively helpful instructions: "Use your judgment as to how much to tell us. We don't have a 'right answer' or 'correct length' in mind".

Come on. It's not at all difficult to imagine 'incorrect lengths' (anything over, say, 5 pages – better to stick to 2) or 'wrong answers' (the four I just listed, or indeed anything else that shows poor taste or political incorrectness, such as social, religious or racial intolerance, extreme self-pity, negativity, or self-absorption – you get the picture).  

Adding more flesh to your MBA recommendation letters and résumé

And while we're deconstructing Harvard's MBA essay prompt, let's not forget the cutely deceptive disclaimer: "Believe it or not, the essay is optional." Don't believe it. As Harvard's admissions director Dee Leopold has admitted, only 10 applicants last year took the 'optional' instruction seriously, and only one got in. Not very inspiring odds. So if you are one of those exceedingly rare applicants whose MBA résumé, recommendation letters, and 'numbers' (GMAT, GPA) speak for themselves – because you've started a multimillion-dollar company, saved thousands of souls through your NGO, or survived some extreme experience like imprisonment in North Korea – then, by all means, take Harvard's optional instruction seriously.

So if Harvard's MBA essay prompt is not at all what it purports to be, what should you write about? To repeat, you certainly can write about experiences from your resume and extracurricular activities. But given that the challenges you have overcome, your personal evolution, will at best only be hinted at in the other parts of your application, consider letting your MBA recommendation letter talk about your professional evolution (to the extent they can within Harvard's 550-word recommendation letter). Save your 'optional' Harvard essay to focus on how key life experiences (or even a single key experience, if it's significant and powerful enough) have enabled you to grow into who you are. Thus, one of my clients admitted by HBS last year described how an unexpected crisis in his homeland forced him to embrace his family's legacy, another about how a quixotic non-profit she started redeemed an earlier entrepreneurial failure, a third about how his innovative pursuit of operational excellence at an iconic tech company confirmed his commitment to his family's business.

Seeing through Harvard Business School’s smokescreen

What did the MBA essays of these and other successful HBS clients share? Again, they ignored Harvard's false advice to write about something other than your resume, academics, extracurricular activities, and goals. Though written by as demographically diverse a set as you can imagine and focusing on very different specific experiences, they all shared an ability to zero in on key experiences that, when taken together with their MBA résumé, recommendation letter and application, revealed what made them tick and what they valued. They all chose experiences that challenged them and, in that testing process, made them grow and understand themselves better. Sometimes these experiences were accomplishments, sometimes they were failures, but they changed the applicants and showed them reaching toward a better understanding of themselves – being brave enough to put themselves on the line in order to become better, truer versions of themselves. This is what your 'optional' Harvard Business School MBA essay should also strive to do. All of Harvard's deceptively helpful guidance is a smokescreen to convince applicants (and Harvard Business School) that the world's most powerful business school isn't really passing judgment on your life story. It is, of course, so make sure you're bringing the best story you have.

About Paul Bodine

Paul Bodine is the founder and president of Paul Bodine Admissions Consulting and the author of Great Applications for Business School. A graduate of University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins, he has been helping applicants gain admission to elite business, medical and graduate schools since 1997.

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