• Jun 6, 2012
  • School: Harvard University (HBS)
  • Comments  0 Comment

2012-2013 HBS Essay Analysis

Harvard dances to its own tune. It can afford to, mostly because it enjoys a reputation as arguably the best and most prestigious brand name in business schools around the world. The demand is so high, they invent newer and newer ways to skim off the tippity-top of the world’s finest business school candidates. But let’s think this through. If the demand is so screamingly high, and they need to improve their ability to discern who truly deserves a seat in their shop… why would they be asking for LESS writing from the candidates, and not more?

There is a simple and powerful lesson here. It’s not about saying “enough” stuff, it’s about saying “the right stuff.” The right stuff that suggests POTENCY.

Working backwards, potency is the stuff that makes the reader go, “Yep, this kid is Harvard material,” or, “Wow, this kid is gonna go places,” or, “Man, this kid just blew my mind,” or, “I don’t know why, but I find myself fascinated by this application.” Whatever leads to THOSE reactions is “the right stuff.” Great. Easier said than done, right?

Well, let’s consider the box they’ve given you to play in. Two essays, at 400 words apiece. Folks, that is SUCH a limited playpen, it’s worth understanding the goal here before diving in without a plan. The idea isn’t to find creative ways to cram a 2000-word app into an 800-word space. We need to rethink the approach entirely. We need to make super CLEAN points that have weight. Picture that group discussion where people are debating a topic. And the eager beavers raise their hands and start rattling off facts and keep yammering and yammering and yammering. And this ping-pongs back and forth for 20 insufferable minutes. And then, the quiet guy, who hasn’t said a word the entire time, raises his hand. The room quiets. And he makes a simple point, in a single sentence, with a soft, measured tone. That halts everyone in their tracks. Because the point he makes is incredibly smart, incredibly impactful, and incredibly succinct. 10 out of 10 times, that guy is gonna wield more influence than any of the other chatterboxes. Less is more. It’s time to channel our inner “THAT GUY!” Let’s dig.

Tell us something you’ve done well. (400 words)

A great response here pushes past merely execution of a great accomplishment, but also ropes in some element of DECISION-MAKING or JUDGMENT that truly underscores the success. Execution is mostly easy. Ever eaten at a 5-star restaurant? Do you think the Head Chef is there every night preparing every last element of every last dish? Hardly. That guy has developed the RECIPES (in more senses than one) for not only the concept of the dishes, but also their execution. At some point, it becomes as much of an assembly line as an automobile factory in Detroit. Finding that assembly guy is easy. Finding the CHEF that inspired the whole thing is hard.

So. When you’re mining your greatest accomplishments, include things that showcase something that YOU possess that has the potential to WOW. Did you do a simple task extraordinarily well under extraordinarily trying circumstances? There may be indications of unparalleled leadership here that would get HBS’s attention. But, and here’s the key, you need to isolate that “head chef” trait that belonged exclusively to YOU, that defines YOUR personal value that—when extrapolated—has exciting implications.

There is also a subtle hint here that implies repeat performance. If there is evidence of consistent success based on Trait X, it’s worth alluding to. If the accomplishment buttons up too well, and we can only imagine the value existing inside that singular moment, it will shrivel up on the spot. We need to get the sense of a thread that DEFINES something about you; something in your DNA. “Ah, this kid’s a born leader.” “Oh I get it, this guy was born to step up under intensely high-pressured situations.” “It’s clear here that this kid has been a visionary since age 5.”

Some versions will be able to convey this indirectly through an obscenely confident tone and an experience that makes it abundantly clear what that trait is. Other versions may need to work a bit to highlight that aspect.

400 words is consciously tight. Clutter is your worst enemy. This needs to weigh something thematically. Think long and hard about the trait in you that gives you your CRACKLE. If it’s not there, Harvard will know. If it is there, you need to foreground it with a ton of self-assurance and elegance of communication. Simplicity is your friend.

The quick breakdown: there will be (generally) three major components to this essay:

  1. Setup of the situation. 100 words.
  2. The situation itself, what you DID, and HOW you did it. And WHY you succeeded. 200 words.
  3. That sense of consistency throughout your “career.” The “this is in my DNA aspect.” 100 words.

Those are rough guidelines of course, but if you’re maxing out those three elements, good things will happen.

Tell us something you wish you had done better. (400 words)

The worst version of this response is the one that feels disingenuous. The best version is the one where we feel the high-level strategist in you. Before we dig, there’s a subtle hint here about what kind of event they’re interested in hearing about. They don’t wanna know about the time you FAILED. Instead, they’re looking for something you did WELL… but wish you could have done even “better.” So, by all outward appearances, this should seem like an accomplishment, and yet… the “Harvard Business School” caliber student in you wasn’t satisfied. There’s an itch there that left you wanting. This is what we wanna hear about.

To the average person this was a success, but to YOU it could have been better. In order for this to pack a punch, we need to see the success by itself and THEN be introduced to your dissatisfaction, or the itch that kept you up at night. And then understand why.

What are they going for here? What is the thing they’re gonna learn from this response?

Simple: Smartness. This one depends on the subject matter HEAVILY, folks. You need to have an intelligent response, or else. Imagine participating in a marathon. And WINNING. Imagine writing an essay about how you feel like in spite of winning the race, you felt like you could have improved your time by a few minutes had you NOT done X, Y, and Z.

Seriously? Sure, it speaks to a fighter in you, and sure that type of drive may have implications, but there’s a smallness to it that will cause a school like HBS to tune out. Improving your personal score by a few notches… big deal.

If you’d said, on the other hand, yes I won the marathon, but I was hoping to inspire a wave of interest in the youth in the city of Boston to take an interest in fitness. And sadly, the number of sign-ups for subsequent marathons actually dipped after my win. I could have make a statement by wearing a shirt with a different logo. I could have done X, Y, and Z, etc etc. See the difference? That’s a much… bigger idea. There’s a larger point here that gnaws at the Harvard guy, that others won’t see as clearly.

This is a way to ensnare those folks who have that sense of the big picture etched into their DNA. Explaining the “event” and the “outward-appearing success” should take no more than 100-150 words. The rest should be devoted to exploring the missed opportunity. In particular, the “big” thing that most others might not have even seen. If that missing piece was well understood by everyone, chances are it won’t be that cool an answer. That missing element has to surprise us in some way. “Wow, what a neat perspective.” That’s a great litmus test for this response. Were you alone in feeling like this thing could have been better? It’s a great starting point.

The 400-word interview reflection.

Something you wish you’d said during the interview but didn’t.

A neat twist. Hate to say it, folks, but too much premeditation here can be poisonous. First things first, go in and “say exactly what you hope to say during the interview!” In other words, don’t sabotage your interview to SET up some kind of game-changing response HERE that you hope will seal the deal. Go in and crush your interview.

Now, let’s say you do. Or, let’s say you don’t. There’s a TYPE of response here that can demonstrate your might no matter what. And it’s tied to the theme in Essay Question #2 “Tell us something you wish you had done better.” That theme is… bigness.

If you answered a question, and gave an A- minus response, and now you feel like you forgot to mention one aspect of your leadership experience that might end up painting it in a more favorable or impressive light, chances are you’re not gonna affect the outcome much. But, if you can demonstrate the idea that your gears are constantly churning, that you kept chewing on a certain theme after the interview had ended and wish you’d addressed it and asked your interviewer or mentioned it yourself, etc etc, and the idea is INTERESTING, and SURPRISING, now we’re getting somewhere. Newness. Surprises. Refreshing additions.

Think about an idea that might get your interviewer thinking a bit. Think about a perspective that adds a twist to the interview and recasts something that came up in perhaps a different light. This is your chance not to turn A- into an A, but rather to create a new “grade” altogether. “Wow, what an interesting thought.” “Wow, this kid is really smart.” “Wow, I hadn’t thought of that.”

NOT… “I wish I’d mentioned my fourth leadership experience because blablablabla.” Incremental additions will have not just diminishing returns, but will fall FLAT.

Okay, so how do we do that? How do we turn the written reflection of the interview experience into a crackling 400-word essay that gets people’s attention? Simple. Respond to the stuff that actually happened during the interview. Don’t pull a Sarah Palin and “pivot” and deliver a pre-programmed response. It’ll feel exactly as musty and stale as the potato chips that have been sitting on the shelf for a year. The best response shows your agility to respond to the present situation. The “Harvard Business School” bad-ass can respond to the toughest of situations, in real-time. This is an expectation, a given. This is your chance to prove it.

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