After HBS (and other schools) have released their essay questions for this year (see my last post about the new HBS essays), some of you are probably starting to think about their essays.

Before starting to write any essays, it’s important to create a holistic strategy for the application in general and the essays in particular. The strategy will give you a bird’s eye view of the entire application and at the same time will provide you with content for individual essays.

What is “The Strategy”?

Basically the strategy will include a “list” of topics / stories / achievements / qualities you’d like to include or demonstrate in your application – your life’s “highlights”. By creating it before starting to write anything, and following it through while writing, you can make sure you don’t miss any important theme and that you manage to display a coherent and attractive picture of yourself.

How Do I Build The Strategy?

Here’s a suggested process for crafting such a strategy and using it to write the essays:

  • Prepare a list of all of your achievements. They don’t only have to be ‘hardcode’ achievements like ‘Best Employee 2005’ but also ‘successfully implemented a new system, surpassing deadline by 25%’, and ‘led marketing team of 7, increasing market awareness by 33%’.
    • Build four lists: academic (dean’s list, scholarships, top 5%), professional (best employee, yearly bonus, successful projects and leadership tasks), extracurricular (co-president of the soccer club, winner of the national swimming contest) and other.
    • Work chronologically to conjure them up. Use your CV, old e-mails, photos, university records and friends to help you recall achievements that were quite important at the past, but were somehow forgotten.
    • Using the achievements list, think about 3-5 qualities, attributes or ‘things’ that you feel represent you best, and are also as unique as possible. For example, for me one attribute was vast international exposure, both academic and professional (I studied and worked abroad). If you’re applying to HBS, or to any other business school really, leadership ability is a quality schools seek in candidates. However don’t make it up if it doesn’t really exist…

The qualities can also be more concrete, rather like points you’d like to stress out – for example, volunteering in the community or being a successful athlete.

These are the qualities that you’d like to demonstrate throughout your essays. You’ll do so by directly specifying them, but more importantly – by using the stories and achievements from the list, to make the adcom figure them out on their own, without spoon-feeding them.

  • Don’t list the achievements in a rigid order, but think about the 4-6 most important ones. Around these, you build longer, more lively ‘stories’ or ‘anecdotes’ that you will use in the essays.
  • Connect the stories to the personal qualities, and make sure each quality have 1-3 strong supporting stories. If not, it might be this is not such a representative personal quality of you…
  • While writing the essays, use the stories and achievements you gathered before. Try to create a balanced display of the personal qualities – don’t use four essays to demonstrate the same quality.
  • After reading the essays, make sure you included all of the points you intended to include, in a balanced way. It will not always be possible – after all, you do need to address the school’s essay questions and not just write whatever’s on your mind – but with some persistence and “creative” writing, you should be fine.


Retrospectively, the essay writing period was extremely intense, stressful and at times agonizing. At the same time, I did enjoy it, mainly because it caused me to think about myself and ponder my life so far, as well as my future plans – as vague as they might be. I’m a nostalgic person, so thinking about past experiences and achievements or digging up my old university records were fun for me.

In my timeline post you can read my recommendation for scheduling the application process. In general, I’d say you need to dedicate a few months to the essays. Of course it varies according to the number of schools you’re applying to, but anything between 2-4 months makes sense. Anything less than a month is crazy, and anything more than 6 months will make you crazy.

3 Responses to “Building an Application Strategy”

  1. Anjani Says:

    Thanks for this very helpful post!

  2. cs@hbs Says:

    My pleasure! Glad it helps!

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