Tag Archives | HBS

Wrestling with MBA Application Essays

You are thinner, of course

Writing MBA essays can be hard work. If you know anyone who is applying to business school you may have heard them muttering to themselves, “What does matter most to me and why?” (Stanford GSB) or  “What do you hope to gain professionally from the Wharton MBA?”  (or any other school).  They may be victims of an energy-draining syndrome that shows itself every year about this time called MBA essay nightmare.  It’s a regular sinkhole of drafting, pondering, redrafting, questioning, redrafting, wondering if it is getting better or worse, redrafting, and whining.

The essays matter.  Of course the GMAT does too, and, but the real differentiator is the answer to the question behind all those questions, “Why should we admit you to our business school?”

Your answer is going to be as unique as your own DNA. But getting there is quite the chore. You could watch this MBA Podcaster video on YouTube regarding essays (in which I feature with admissions reps from Wharton and Columbia Business School), or you could read on.

Writing is HARD. You aren’t the only sufferer.

I’m going to tell you a secret.  Writing isn’t easy for anyone.  Oh, every so often, someone will tell you that they whipped up their essays the night before the deadline and were accepted everywhere they applied.   Fine.  That person is in the minority.

If you are finding that you are writing and rewriting, and rewriting again, and then stumbling, and rewriting, you are not alone.  Ernest Hemingway was said to have rewritten the ending of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” 39 times. That’s just the ending.  That means he already struggled with getting words down on paper for the first time.  Remember the movie “Adaptation,” where the main character  nearly drives himself crazy from writers block?   That should remind you that lots of people have faced down a blank page.

To write those essays, you have to start somewhere, and believe me, your first try doesn’t have to be perfect.  In fact, it can be terrible. Annie Lamott, author of Bird by Bird, a wonderful book on the writing process, life, and everything else, says it is ok to write whatever comes into your mind. “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous,” she says. “In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”

Death by Rewriting

Or what if you are looking at an essay that you’ve rewritten two or three times, and it still isn’t going anywhere?  It feels like it is getting worse word by word. Don’t be afraid to stop writing.  Read it first thing in the morning if you are an early person, or right before you go to bed if you are a late person. Or both. Keep your computer or a pen and a printout of the draft by your bed.  Print it out, walk around with it.

If you hate it, talk the essay over with a friend, confidant, or advisor.  Tell them the story without worrying about the words on the paper.  Does it makes sense? Are you excited by it? If not, go back and forth with this other person: have them tell you when they feel your energy.  If they don’t feel your energy at all when you tell them your story, believe me, the admissions officer won’t feel it either.  You may have to start all over.

These are just some quick ideas to remind you that it is perfectly OK for you to feel stuck. This is really, really normal.  Just don’t be afraid to rewrite, revise, and reconsider your own assumptions.  You probably don’t have to go around 39 times, but give yourself permission to work it until it’s right.

Tired of my advice? Great MBA admissions tips from someone who made it to HBS

Quora question about Harvard Business SchoolEvery so often I see a piece from a student that actually helps prospective candidates and is not filled with in-jokes or self-congratulations.  So, if you been searching around on the internet for advice on the application process, here’s are some down to earth tips from someone who does not advise prospective applicants for a living.

I found these Harvard MBA admissions tips on Quora, in answer to the question, “How Do I Get Into Harvard Business School?” There you will find your typical answers from admissions consultants, but in the midst of all the “I know more than you” bravado, there’s a brilliant, honest answer from a guy named Talal Khan, who is a member of the Harvard Business School class of 2016. I am unashamedly reposting it here.

My favorite parts of the must-dos?  Taking notes on your own story and working on your unique selling proposition. Favorite don’t? Have self-doubt.  It’s a lovely sentiment and true.

How do I get into Harvard Business School?

by Talal Khan, Harvard Business School, class of 2016

I have started this year, and thought of adding my experience to the conversation. This will be helpful to folks planning to apply sometime soon:

Things I’d do again:
A- Start research early: I started doing my online research (reading forums, connecting with people, getting profile reviews) a year before I actually ended up applying. In my case, this all started with random doodling on the web, and the thought that I might apply to Bschool next year. But to potential candidates reading this, I’d say start your research well ahead of time, as it’ll help you present a stronger case (better GMAT, stronger story – reviewed by more people) Oh and that’s the external research. You’d also have to spend time thinking about your own life (highlights/lowlights/decision points). This helps immensely with points B-F below. For me what worked was, that I took pen and paper (not laptop, so no social media distraction) and started jotting down any and all moments that I was proud of. I listed even the most basic achievements. When I picked up that paper a week later, it helped me see my own story in a new light. (Connect the dots looking backward, Steve Jobs reference)

B- Talk to (lots of, different) people: This is where (A) really helps. You should try getting advice from multiple people, from diverse backgrounds (geography, industry, school, function etc). Since you’d be talking to successful (i.e. busy) people – they’ll need time to get back to you. Not all people you engage will respond back. But if you request enough people for help, more than a reasonable number will respond (source: my experience only). In my case, I found that each of these conversations added a lot of color and nuance to my perspective on Bschools and applications (on issues ranging from how much work experience is sufficient, to which schools to apply to, to what a particular school defines as fit etc).

C- Engage with admission consultants:  Their years of experience helped me immensely in aiming high enough (for context: I was initially planning to apply to schools ranked between 20-30). This happened as they were able to succinctly point out my unique strengths (vis-a-vis the competitive pool that they’re so well aware of, given their experience). Highly recommended for international applicants.

D- Prepare your elevator pitch: Have a 3 line summary describing your candidacy. Since this is about summarising the best parts of your application, it will take time and thought to prepare this. But having a concise summary immensely helps people whom you’re asking for help with profile reviews etc, and in turn improves the response rate you get. As for what to include, I like to think of it as highlights from
i) where you come from (personal history, gmat/gpa etc)
ii) where you stand (current work profile, title)
iii) where you want to go (future goals- industry/function)

E- Follow Stanford GSB’s advice on recommendation letters: Nuggets of gold! To quote from the site,

…when I read a really great recommendation the person jumps off the page and they really come alive. I feel like I know them; I know the good, the bad, the warts; if I walked into a room, I could almost pick out this person.

F- Work on my USP: When advising me on essays, a senior asked me what differentiates me from everyone else? While this may sound cliched, it is an important question that needs a lot of thought. Another way to think about it (borrowing from principles of branding) what is the one unique trait that you’d like to be remembered for? Another spin: If the adcom member were asked about you 5 days after they read your app, what would you want them to say? ‘Oh XYZZ! the person who ………?’ For the adcom member to recall the …. part, there has to be one unique, remarkable trait displayed consistently throughout your app (resume/essay/reco letter)

G- Pray: Helps immensely in coping with pressure and sustaining morale. Definitely one of the most important things that kept me going till the end!

Things I wouldn’t do:

A- Miss the basics: submit application on last day, try paying through a card that wasn’t working for some reason

B- Become complacent: After my HBS interview went fine, I prepared little for my Booth interview. That led to some awkward pauses during the interview, and could’ve ended up costing me the Booth offer. For example, I went blank for a few seconds when my interviewer asked me, ‘So that’s about it from my end. Do you have any questions for me regarding Booth or life in Chicago?’

C- Take practice exam after practice exam: When I got lower scores than I was aiming for, I’d start taking exam after practice exam. Without drilling down to exactly which areas I was struggling with (topic, question type). I wasted precious time because of this approach, not improving my skill deficiency, and getting frustrated because of it.

D- Study GMAT without a practice partner: Again, this would have helped me save time and stay motivated. But I relied primarily on online material and a Kaplan book for help.

E- Have self doubt: This is that gnawing feeling inside you, saying ‘But I’m not good enough for this..’ This is all those times when you tried extremely hard and failed miserably, in plain public view. Pangs are sharpest as you draw nearer to hitting Submit. How does one respond to this? On a rational level, remind yourself of all the people you’ve talked to, all the thought you’ve put into this and that post all those weeks of discussion/thought, You decided that this was the best option (and it was never meant to be risk-free) On an emotional level, think of the inverse situations – where you had major doubts about your ability to do well, but you went ahead and aced whatever it was you were doing. That arts class. That debating competition. That heroic on sports day. That eternally-un-impressable boss. And add to that, testimony from countless successful candidates, saying that they’ve all felt something similar, at many points, in the application process. So have faith and take the leap!


Reposted from Quora with minor edits for clarity. To find the original, click here, but please skip the other answers, and go straight to Talal Khan’s, which is listed at about #8. I don’t know how they rank the other posts, honestly. 

Tired of my advice? How about from an HBS first-year student?

You could wear this on your blue blazer

You could wear this on your blue blazer

Some of the best admissions advisers are those who have gone through the process recently, and I think that one of the posters over at Wall Street Oasis, has been incredibly helpful in his musings about getting into Harvard Business School.  His posts and his responses are incredibly thoughtful, and I suggest you take a few minutes to go through his entire 2-page Q&A.  This is one articulate and humble guy.  He’s also honest and will tell you that he didn’t even get an interview at Wharton, blew the interview at Stanford, and was put on “further consideration” for HBS.  So just remember, this stuff isn’t predictable.

I’m quoting him below and have highlighted some of the most important points about how you differentiate yourself in the HBS essay.  You’ll see right here on this website a video on how to differentiate yourself in the short answers, and now here are some great tips on the essay.  Remember: they are looking for someone who can add to the class of already excellent MBA students.

From Wall Street Oasis:

The professor who heads the first year curriculum told us something that stuck in my head: “you weren’t selected because you’re the best at learning things (though we think you’re very good at that, too) but rather because we think you’re the best at teaching.” So when you write your application, think about what you’ll teach people: is there something unique to your background (whether work experience or otherwise) that causes you to see the world – especially business world – differently? Do you have some special skill or interest that you could introduce to HBS? Do you have a way of pulling people together (whatever the style) that could be beneficial to have in a section?

I’d highlight the sort of thinking and domain knowledge that someone with a Corp Fin background could bring to a classroom that would contrast, say, the sort of knowledge that someone with a PE background or IB background could bring. Has your job taught you interesting things that you wouldn’t realize about how the world works if you hadn’t had that experience? If not, can you seek out such experiences? Can you get your bosses to attest to that? A lot of people think that PE types are auto-admits while Corp Fin guys face much harder slogs. I’m more skeptical; I think if you make this case well, you’ve got a huge tailwind.

Another thing I’d do is find something – whether in your job or outside it – that shows that you enjoy contributing to teams. It doesn’t have to save the world, it doesn’t have to be prestigious, it doesn’t have to be big… it just has to show that, in your day-to-day life, you’re the sort of guy who voluntarily contributes to the groups you work with (b/c it means you’ll be a voluntary contributor to your section). Please make it something you like; it’s much harder to do anything of consequence without intrinsic motivation.

The key here is that you are showing the admissions committee how you add to the experience of the other people who are trying to get the most out of their two years. Remember, business school, particularly at HBS, characterized by the case method, is the ultimate crowd-sourced experience. How can you contribute?

Deadlines and Some Inspiration for Those About To Write Essays this Weekend

This is embarrassing. I have been so incredibly busy with deadlines — HBS Round 1 was this past Monday — and metamorphosisalready interview invitations will be sent out Oct 9 and Oct 16. That means you actually COULD apply to Round 1 for other schools if things didn’t work out for you at Harvard. I’m guessing there will be more applicants because of the “easier” and more user-friendly admissions process. I write “easier” in quotes because the open-ended essay format gives people almost too many choices!

Next up is MIT Sloan (Sept 24), which is cool because you can do a one-minute video for the optional essay. Don’t believe me? Check out what the admissions office says about it all at by clicking here.

And then it gets really intense:

Oct 1 – Michigan Ross and Wharton
Oct 2 – Columbia Early Decision, Cornell, INSEAD, Stanford GSB
Oct 3 – Booth
Oct 4 – London Business School
Oct 7 – Carnegie Mellon Tepper
Oct 9 – Tuck Early Action
Oct 10- Georgetown
Oct 11- Cambridge
Oct 15- NYU Stern, UT Austin, UVA Darden, USC Marshall
Oct 16- Berkeley Haas, Kellogg
Oct 18- UNC Kenan-Flagler
Oct 21- Duke Round 2 (sort of)
Oct 22- UCLA
Oct 25- Oxford

So buckle up and for perspective watch this video for some inspiration and a shot of some humility too.

HBS Admissions Director Discusses the 2013 Application

Harvard Business School likes to be innovative, and that filters down into the admissions office. This time, the admissions board has taken away formal essays, letting the candidate fill in he or she thinks is missing.  Dee Leopold, the long-time head of HBS admissions has been outspoken about the admissions process and about the changes.diploma for Martin

I’ve been following her utterances for years and always find her quotable. Throughout, she hasn’t changed her philosophy of admissions, as can be seen from comments she made in years past, as can be seen in her remarks here, here, here and here.

A few weeks ago she discussed Harvard’s upcoming MBA admissions process for the season 2013-2014 in her kickoff Q&A webinar, offering a few suggestions and side comments worth noting. Note that although some of these themes are repeats, that simply means they are still critical criteria for HBS admissions.

HBS Looks for A Habit of Leadership

Harvard takes pains to embrace all kinds of leadership, from someone who was always president of the student government, to the loudest voice in the room, to someone who diplomatically who brings team members together, or a influences the course of a discussion by being a quirky thought leader.  Leadership comes in many “flavors and varieties” says the admissions director, and they are looking for the kind of person “to whom others turn.”

 HBS Wants You to Like the Numbers

Some have said that because Harvard relies on the  case method that it’s all about “air time” in class. But the cases are numbers-driven. Believe me, all of us Harvard Business School graduates have worked on cases with dozens of pages of exhibits of financials, cash flows, or regression analyses.  As Dee Leopold states emphatically, HBS is not “a leadership salon where people sit around and talk about ‘If I ruled the world’ in vague and ephemeral terms. It’s data-driven leadership.”

Like Most Business Schools, they Look at Your GMAT or GRE Sub-scores

So here’s the money quote: “If there is a notable weakness in one component, it might be offset by other evidence in the transcript.”  My translation: if you have weak quant but straight A’s in STEM courses, then they may give you a pass.  But if you have a weak quant score (less than 75-80% percentile) and nothing to counteract it,  take the test again.

The “Essay” is Optional. Sort of.

Yes, the application states that the essay is optional, implying, “What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?”   But in a school that grades on class participation, who wouldn’t like to talk more about themselves, given the chance. The admissions director’s comment? : “I do not know how many people will choose to say “No, you know everything. I can imagine for some candidates that might be a legitimate response. But we will see…we are looking on many levels for this to be a judgment call.”

Reapplicants Can Apply Any Round

I consider this a new twist. Usually admissions professionals want to see that the student has changed or grown or improved in some way since the previous application.  Rather, HBS’s admissions director says, “I don’t think that a reapplicant has to demonstrate a truly dramatic change in a particular element…there is very likely not a specific reason why you were denied the first reason, so trying to self-diagnose imaginary issues may not be fruitful.”

It sounds to me that there’s no harm in reapplying to simply take advantage of the change in the candidate pool.

Criteria for 2+2 Candidates: A High Hurdle for Academics

In the case of 2+2, “we are looking for people who have done well academically. If you’re applying from the real world with X number of years of doing absolutely top-rate professional work in an analytic field, that can very easily be more compelling for us and offset some problems you might have had in undergraduate coursework.”

Going Forward

These outreach webinars will be held weekly throughout the summer. Meanwhile, the HBS admissions committee will go on the road and present world-wide.  There’s a tremendous amount to learn from the people who have to market their program and give you enough information so you can put in a substantive application.  Take seriously what real admissions people say, and believe them far more than alumni, who, in the case of Harvard, have zero input into the admissions process.

For more insight, straight from the Director of HBS Admissions, take a look at Dee Leopold’s blog.

What’s next? The recommendation process.