Crafting a well-written essay for your MBA application is a daunting exercise for most applicants. After all, if you’re applying to a highly selective business school, the admissions staff is typically looking for a reason to ding you. An essay that reveals any weakness in your candidacy could quickly put you in the reject pile.
So what does a successful essay to a top business school look like? For the past two years, The Harbus, the MBA student newspaper at Harvard Business School, has collected and published essays from successful applicants now enrolled as students at the school. What those collections clearly show is that an essay doesn’t have to be a masterpiece to get you an invite to attend Harvard. “They just need to serviceably present your story and not be annoying of odd or offensive or confusing,” says Sandy Kreisberg, founder of HBSGuru.com, the MBA admissions consultant.
The new 51-page essay guide costs $49.99, the proceeds of which go to support the non-profit Harbus Foundation. It contains 16 essays written by students admitted to Harvard’s Class of 2017. For just $20 more, The Harbus will toss in last year’s essay guide which includes an additional 23 essays. You can buy them here. Unlike much of the drivel written about how to write an MBA essay, the advice and the essays come from incoming HBS students who are willing to share the questions they were asked and the essays they wrote.
NO PAINT-BY-NUMBER APPROACH FOLLOWED BY SUCCESSFUL MBA APPLICANTS TO HARVARD
The new essay guide includes 16 successful essays written by this year’s incoming HBS students
Of course, one issue with these essays is that they address a different question asked by the school’s admissions staff. In the past two years, HBS used this prompt: “You’re applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your resume, school transcripts, extra-curricular 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?”
All the essays published in both books address that question rather than the 2015-2016 prompt to introduce yourself to your classmates. The big difference between the two questions is the audience. Last year, applicants addressed the admissions committee. This year, they need to address their own peers. The actual content may or may not be all that different which makes these essays valuable and worthwhile.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO WRITE LIKE MALCOLM GLADWELL TO GET ACCEPTED INTO HBS
What you can’t do, of course, is crib from an existing essay. That is the quickest route to rejection. As Kreisberg points out, reading and even studying the essays of those who have made the cut “can loosen you up, show you some useable gimmicks, and prove that you do not need some extensive career road map and belabored rap on why HBS.”
The four samples that follow from the past two years, reprinted here with the permission of The Harbus, may well surprise you. In most cases, content trumps style. Admissions staffers aren’t expecting master storytellers. After all, the Harvard Business School (or any other business school for that matter), does not enroll the likes of a Malcolm Gladwell or a Stephen King.
That doesn’t mean they didn’t take real effort. One MBA student says she labored over 15 drafts that consumed something like 50 hours of time to do her 703-word essay. “It was like six hours on the first eight drafts, then probably just one hour of tweaking on each of the next seven drafts,” she confides. Another says her HBS application 895-word essay was “a work in progress for two months. Wrote it, edited it, let it sit, edited it again, etc. I would say (I wrote) five drafts and (took) 20 hours.“
The greatest benefit of reading these samples? They’ll take a lot of pressure off of you because, although we picked some of the best examples to guide you through the process of doing your own essays, they are quite imperfect.
DON’T MISS: WINNING ESSAYS OF HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL STUDENTS or BEFORE YOU WRITE THAT HBS ESSAY….DO’S & DON’TS
I partially agree with some of your points, but where do b-schools draw the line? Do they also disallow gmat scores for people who used a personal tutor? How about those who took a group GMAT class - is that less bad? Do they discount people's work experience if they used the finance guides found on this website (that presumably some people can't afford)? Do they refuse to accept applications from people who got into Ivy League undergraduate schools only because their parents could afford a fancy SAT coach or could donate significant sums to the schools?
All of these things are technically "unfair" because many people do not have access to such resources. For better or worse, however, that is how the world works. Some people will always have better resources/opportunities than others, often through no work of their own. Tough to police this.
Also, I view the value prop of admissions consultants as mitigating downside risk, not maximizing upside potential. Meaning, consultants will make sure you don't accidentally make a fatal mistake, such as writing an essay that you think sounds good but actually makes you sound arrogant, or being unprepared for your interviews because you are usually a good interviewer, when b-school interviews are actually very different than job interviews. That is minimizing downside risk. They are not going to get a crappy candidate into HBS, regardless of how shiny their essays are. It is up to each individual to determine whether the cost of the consultant is worth this downside risk mitigation.
One additional thought: I do think that some qualified candidates have a hard time being introspective, and consultants can help tease out more interesting/thoughtful stories than the candidates could do themselves. Just my $0.02.
To me this is a lot like the question of what's plagiarism. The line isn't necessarily obvious, but it's clear. Prepping for a test with someone isn't cheating because they're not answering the test questions for you. Using content in an essay that was generated by someone else and claiming it's your own crosses a line in my opinion, even if the content is about your own life. If you lack the ability to be introspective, that's a real flaw and part of the purpose of having admission essays. If an admissions department received two very similar applications, and knew that one had the benefit of a consultant and one didn't, I think it would influence their decision.
Where maybe it starts to get gray is what if you ask your friend who got accepted last year to read your essays and give feedback? How is that ethically different from paying someone to do the same thing? It's mostly a moot point because consulting services offer much more than this or no one would pay them.
I'm not saying that everyone who uses a consultant is a cheater (or that everyone who doesn't use one isn't). It's an option that's available and allowed for everyone and if you use it that's your right. I just think the admissions process would make more sense for everyone if that changed. It's not about fairness per se, because people are naturally going to have advantages and disadvantages.
None of that changes my opinion of their value, which I think is minimal for the vast majority of people.