HBS Essays for 2008

June 26th, 2007

HBS just released its essay questions for the 2008 application. It’s quite similar to last year’s (the one I submitted), but introduces more flexibility in selecting essays and new essay questions.

A while ago I posted my analysis of last year’s essays; Most of these essays appear in the new application: Essay 1 is last year’s #2 (accomplishments), optional essay 1 is last year’s #3 (leadership), optional essay 3 is last year’s #1, optional essay 4 is last year’s #5. They removed the ethics essay, a very understandable decision (in my analysis, I nicknamed this essay “the oddball”).

I won’t write an analysis for the new essays; after all, I don’t have to apply this year :) However, you’re more than welcome to use the parts of my analysis which apply to the current essays. I’ll just say a couple of words about the new essays and the new application structure:

– The last optional essay (“What else would you like the MBA Admissions Board to understand about you?”) is practically a gift; a “joker” that you can use to say whatever you’d like and didn’t manage to in the other essays.

– The two new optional essays both discuss globalization; which I really like as an admit – I’m glad HBS puts more emphasis on global issues. So I guess that application-wise, that’s good news to those of you with extensive international exposure – now you have plenty of space to ‘show it off’. And thanks to the flexibility of the new application, applicants without impressive international experience can simply choose other essays. Btw, the “culture shock” essay is practically a “copy paste” from the Insead application.

– The other new essay (“What have you learned from a mistake?”) is not an easy one; however it might be somewhat relieving to know that other schools also feature a variation of this question, so at least you’ll have some stories you’ll be able to share between applications.

Good luck! To be honest, I really don’t envy those of you now beginning the long process of applying and writing the essays… It’s hard, and at least for me wasn’t like anything I’ve done before. On the other hand, you’ll learn a lot during the process, and definitely will have moments of satisfaction and pride during (or probably after…) it.

For more information about the new essays, Accepted.com already published their own analysis of the new essays – good read. I’m sure ClearAdmit will follow with their own analysis.

I have another post coming up soon about preparing a general essays strategy – “stay tuned”… :)

Deirdre Leopold, HBS Director of MBA Admissions

BusinessWeek recently conducted an online chat with Deirdre Leopold, HBS Director of MBA Admissions (aka “the one who’s going to decide if you’re in or not”). They also posted the chat’s transcript.

The entire transcript is worth reading, as it includes interesting information for applicants – mainly changes in the structure of application essays and the introduction of an admissions blog.

However, there’s one specific point I’d like to talk about. Ms. Leopold was asked:

ramtelecom: What do you, compared to previous admissions directors, look for in new HBS candidates?

And that was her answer:

HBSDeirdre: I have been thinking a lot about leadership and how to both define and identify it. I think there’s a danger in thinking that there is just one model of a leader—someone who is larger than life and always out in front—who should be at HBS. I prefer to think in terms of an assortment of leaders, some of whom gravitate to traditional leadership roles in an established organization, some of whom like to start things and get them up and running, some of whom motivate small groups, “thought leaders” who provide the unexpected and provocative way of looking at a problem. One of the most exciting ways of thinking about diversity in the case method classroom is on the dimension of leadership styles—bringing together all these folks and hearing how they tackle the real life problems in a case.

This really resonates well with my own thinking, and the way I analyzed HBS leadership essay.

I said there that:

I was a team leader of 5 people, and also managed a couple of global ad-hoc projects, the largest of which included ~10 people. You see the numbers aren’t huge. However, throughout my entire life I believe I showed a lot of initiative, creativity and ability to come up with new ideas and follow them through to successful implementation. I was also a trainer and speaker and had opportunities to lecture and talk in front of large, senior audiences. All of this, in my opinion, is also part of leadership. I believe leadership consists of many implicit things: the ability to convince people in your ideas – your supervisors, your team members and your subordinates, the ability to make people follow you, to inspire your team members, to successfully delegate, to develop your people and keep them happy and motivated, and many other things that together constitute ‘good leadership’ and ‘good management’.

And that was one month before the chat took place :)

So my point here is the same one I made in the essay analysis – many applicants believe HBS only looks for larger than life superman leaders. I don’t think that’s the case, and you shouldn’t be afraid of applying if you don’t posses the supposedly-classic leadership achievements. (of course if you do, that’s great!)

For more, read the essay’s analysis, or my analysis to all HBS essays. HBS hasn’t posted the essays for the 2007 application year yet (they probably will at the beginning of July), but I imagine part of them will remain unchanged.

Here’s another insightful post about What Is Leadership, from the blog of fellow MBA admits.

By the way, during the HBS admit weekend in March Ms. Leopold was one of the speakers, and turned out to be smart, witty and engaging. You can read my admit weekend post here.

5. What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you? (400-word limit)

As opposed to other schools’ essays about this topic, this one’s pretty vague and open-ended, and does not include the infamous ‘Why HBS’. It actually been claimed by some that HBS are so sure you want to go there, they don’t bother asking why. Which is kind of nice, I guess – I mean, being a self confident person, if someone wants to date me, I don’t ask ‘Why Me? Why Date? Why Now?’

So I don’t recommend on writing “Why HBS”. As I described in my analysis of Essay 4 (Ethics), I indirectly discussed my deep interest in HBS there, but if they don’t explicitly ask “Why Us”, save yourself the effort. They know why them – ’cause they’re HBS, duh!’ (kidding, right)

Also, in contrast to other schools that ask for a short-term, mid-term and long-term career goals, HBS is much more vague. I did structure my essay in the form of four sections: the past, post-MBA goal, long-term goal and a slightly longer “why is it meaningful to me” section.

A few words about the entire topic of future plans: most people know this is somewhat a “game” between the school and the applicant. The minute you’re in, and it’s no secret, the school tells you that they know you didn’t necessarily mean what you said in that essay. And it’s OK. And they’ll help you decide. And hold your hand. Of course there are also the people who really know and mean each and every word they write in this essay, and indeed execute in the short, mid and long term. But I don’t think they’re the majority, to put it mildly.

So why the game? Tell you the truth, I’m not completely sure. Maybe the next couple of years will give me a better understanding. I guess the school wants to know you’re possible of future planning and clear thinking, but still, they also know you might not really mean the amazing strategy you outlined in the essay… Anyways, right now that’s the game and you need to play along.

My opinion is that you do need to think about what you want to do after the MBA – and why are you doing the MBA for. Hey, I certainly hope you gave that a lot of thought regardless of this essay!

But in the essay, you need to clearly outline your goals, and also demonstrate how you’re going to get there. Preferably it should be obvious that with your previous experience, including your undergraduate degree, and the MBA, your future goals are just a natural continuation.

Don’t forget “and why is this choice meaningful to you?” – again, to showcase how the career vision connects to your qualities and what has been important for you so far.


Though the question is a bit fluffy, make sure your answer is structured and to the point. Your career vision should make sense by being connected to your past, and not come ‘out of the blue’.

4. In your career, you will have to deal with many ethical issues. What are likely to be the most challenging and what is your plan for developing the competencies you will need to handle these issues effectively? (400-word limit)

That’s an interesting one. In my opinion, it’s quite different from the rest, because even if you come up with a really ‘good’, polished answer, it doesn’t really help you highlight anything significant about you, your strong qualities, achievements and the other goodies you managed to promote in the other essays. The best it can show is that you know how to come up with good answers about ethics questions…

In fact, after thinking about it I came up with a subversive (!) idea – HBS already managed to collect lots of information about you in the other essays and the application itself; therefore, it just uses this essay to signal and ‘show off’ its strong emphasis on ethics. Something like – “look, out of only five essays, we actually dedicate one entire essay solely to ethics! Must be really important for us!”. Tongue in cheek, but I assume next year will undoubtedly convince me that HBS really takes ethics seriously.

According to this – admittedly bizarre – logic, it doesn’t really matter what you write here, as long as it’s plausible and somewhat original. One possibly good advice I’d received is to tailor the ethical issues to your future industry – for example, if you’re going to do agriculture then discuss ethical issues related to that, like using cheap fertilizers vs. environmentally-friendly ones.

As the weird guy on the block, this essay was also the one I used to talk about my knowledge of HBS. Since HBS doesn’t have the infamous “Why HBS” question, I wrote here about my HBS visit experience, and a class I attended which happened to discuss a supposedly trivial ethical issue in a truly eye-opening way.

As for the plan for tackling these issues, in addition to mentioning all the great stuff I shall learn at HBS, I also used this place to mention specific books I read that related to the topic.


This is an oddball – try to make the best out of it by answering the question, of course, but also throwing in other bits and bites you didn’t manage to write anywhere else…

3. Discuss a defining experience in your leadership development. How did this experience highlight your strengths and weaknesses as a leader? (400-word limit)

Everybody knows that HBS is just crazy about leadership. <Irony> You don’t stand a chance if you didn’t start your own company, managed at least 50 subordinates or at least led a fund-raising of a sum greater than 500,000 Italian Lira. </Irony>

Well, similar to my analysis of Essay 2, also here I can at least use my example: I was a team leader of 5 people, and also managed a couple of global ad-hoc projects, the largest of which included ~10 people.

You see the numbers aren’t huge. However, throughout my entire life I believe I showed a lot of initiative, creativity and ability to come up with new ideas and follow them through to successful implementation. I was also a trainer and speaker and had opportunities to lecture and talk in front of large, senior audiences. All of this, in my opinion, is also part of leadership. In fact, I believe leadership consists of many implicit things: the ability to convince people in your ideas – your supervisors, your team members and your subordinates, the ability to make people follow you, to inspire your team members, to successfully delegate, to develop your people and keep them happy and motivated, and many other things that together constitute ‘good leadership’ and ‘good management’.

I’m sure you can come up with great examples demonstrating you abilities in these areas, even if you were not a team leader or in another explicit leadership position.

A few technical comments:

  • This essay naturally calls for one good story that you’ll develop, with a few representative anecdotes. Don’t include more than one story, as the question specifically asks for one example, and there’s not much space anyway.
  • Don’t forget the “strengths and weaknesses” part, and supply short – but descriptive – anecdotes for each one, or at least for the strengths. Don’t just write “I successfully delegated tasks” but give a concise example.
  • You’d want to write twice as much about the strengths, of course. However, don’t write about ‘pseudo-weaknesses’ or weaknesses that are really strengths-in-disguise. For example, in my first draft of this essay I wrote that the project I was leading put me in a lot of stress and made me drink too much coffee and dream about it at night. Well, nice, but it’s not that much of a weakness… After getting feedback along these lines I added a more ‘real’ weakness – the stress caused me to demand too much of my people, including asking them to stay too long at the office and overreact in general.


Another place to impress – but this time about leadership. Remember that leadership isn’t always the obvious ‘I managed 75 people’ (although if you did that, great, and definitely talk about it as this is an uncommon leadership achievement) – in fact, it might be even more unique and conspicuous to discuss leadership from a different angle.

Make sure this essay doesn’t unintentionally overlap with the accomplishments essay – no need to waste ‘airtime’ repeating things that have already been said; best to highlight additional points.

2. What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such? (600-word limit)

Yeah, that’s a tough one. Maybe even the toughest. When I visited the US couple of months before applying, I went to one of those huge US book stores and amusingly surveyed the University Admissions Help section. I was less amused when I picked up “65 Successful Harvard Business School Application Essays: With Analysis by the Staff of the Harbus, The Harvard Business School Newspaper”. The first essay I read was this one, and the guy’s accomplishments were the following (quoting from memory…): 1. broke his leg/arm/some combination of them in a horrible accident, was told he’d never walk again, and was able to walk within 4 months, 2. after that, managed to graduate with honors and start his own company, which was incredibly successful blah-blah, 3. also founded and a was a member of an extremely valued jazz band, which had concerts in fancy clubs and was featured in several magazine articles.

“Wow!”, was my first thought after reading that, “I stand NO chance at HBS!”. See, I’m not a superstar. Haven’t founded any company (yet?), don’t have a band, and (fortunately!) didn’t have any accidents. What will I write about? My own accomplishments, which I thought were pretty decent up until this point, seemed to turn pale in comparison.

Well apparently, they were just enough for HBS. I can tell you roughly what they were:

  1. Overcoming a major professional hurdle at work and managing to come out of it in a very good way, including a prestigious award.
  2. Launching a significant initiative at work, that was completely ‘mine’ from the conception of the idea to its successful implementation, which involved guiding other team members. In the long run, this initiative also led the way to my career progress from my first position to the current one.
  3. Successfully combining a demanding full-time job and demanding full-time undergraduate studies.

See? In my opinion, these are quite impressive achievements, but they’re certainly not ‘superman’ ones. I definitely view them as my substantial achievements and I’m proud of each and every one of them, but I don’t think they’re ‘extraordinary’ or ‘superhuman’. I think HBS is aware of the fact that not many of us would have ‘superman’ achievements, at least not at this point in time.

After writing a draft for this essay, I showed it to someone whose opinion I highly valued. Her feedback was – “That’s it? I think you should come up with something more impressive!”. Naturally, I was upset. But after thinking it through, I just realized that this is me, these are my achievements, I’m proud of them, and I’m not going to embellish or make up anything. And apparently I was right.

A few technical comments:

  • Start off with this essay, even though it might be the hardest – or at least start with an outline or decide what are the accomplishments you’re going to write about. After that, the accomplishments or key strengths that were ‘left out’ would need to be mentioned, somehow, in the other essays (like the first or the third).
  • 600 words isn’t much. Unless one of the achievements is clearly more significant than the others, make a deliberate effort to devote 1/3 (200 words) for each one. Otherwise one will look more important, just because of the length.
  • I gave a short ‘title’ for each accomplishment: “Accomplishment 1 etc. It makes it clearer and easily shows the reader that there are three distinct ones.
  • Don’t forget to answer the second part of the question: “and why do you view them as such”. Sometimes, especially when the accomplishment isn’t that “bright”, the explanation can give you an extra “wow factor”. Of course here you can also explicitly bind the accomplishment to the values and qualities you want to convey in the application:

“The ability to juggle between responsibilities and requirements in different fields, and to successfully perform under time constraints for a long period, make me view this achievement as a significant one.”


Though the essay is undoubtedly one of the hardest to write, I think you should view it as an excellent opportunity to showcase your best strengths and achievements to date, without the risk of sounding arrogant or vain. After all, that’s exactly what they want to hear, and this is your chance to impress, point-blank!

  1. What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience? (400-word limit)

This is the place to:

  • Highlight significant achievements that occurred during your undergraduate studies – naturally academic ones, but not only:

“while studying full-time for a highly demanding physics degree, I was also able to win $27,384 in the national TV game ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire'”.

  • Describe any academic-related quirks that may help you stand out as someone with a special undergraduate experience:

“One of the focal points of my sociology studies was a subject I was always passionate about – sociology of extraterrestrial planets. This created a synergy with my physics studies”.

In my essay, I talked about my exchange semester abroad, about a concentration of courses I took related to gender studies which also involved some extra-curricular activity, and about the reasons that led me to choosing my majors, as their combination was quite unique.

  • Mention any extra-curricular activities related to your undergrad or that took place during that time:

“In addition to studying theoretical concepts about women in underprivileged societies, I volunteered in a shelter for women in distress”.

If you have several points you’d like to mention, organize the essay in several paragraphs, each several sentences long, and dedicated to a specific topic. The paragraphs do not necessarily have to be connected. However if you only have one or two good points, build a good short “story” around each one of them and display each one in more detail. I felt I had several interesting topics I wanted to highlight, so I wrote a few sentences about each one.

In my opinion this is also a good place to explain/justify a not-so-bright GPA – the reasons should try to be sound enough: lots of extra-curriculars, working full-time while studying, etc. However, and that’s a good advice for all essays (and perhaps for life in general…), don’t whine and don’t be apologetic.


I think this essay is pretty straight forward – a good opportunity to highlight anything you have done OUTSIDE work, that’s related to academy or occurred while you were studying. A good place to add up to the well-rounded, interesting person you’d like to present to the adcom.