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May 9, 2022

Harvard Business School MBA Essay

The HBS Application Essay Prompt

As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program? (900 word limit)


A word limit! This is a huge change for Harvard. After more than a decade of open-ended responses, HBS has finally joined almost all of its peer institutions and imposed a word limit on the application essay. The adcom says they made the change to eliminate “stress about how much is too much to write.” Sure, but we’d guess the unpleasantness of throwing hundreds of novella-length submissions into the reject pile year after year also had something to do with it.

The HBS adcom never got essays like that from Admissionado clients! We’ve always recommended 600–800 words for this essay, very close to the new official limit (900 words).  What exactly do we talk about in those 900 words? Let’s zoom out a touch and consider your overall application. On a scale of zero to “President of the Galaxy” … how would you score yourself on leadership? If, on the basis of your resume, LORs, and all other aspects of your application alone, your leadership experience is plain as day, and mighty, then your need to make a point of it here in the essay may be less aggressive than the next person we’re going to talk about.

Imagine a candidate who IS a born leader, but may not have the kind of resume where such traits just LEAP off the page as readily as the first person. In this case, you’d want to lean heavily on anything and everything that helps to MAKE that quality plain to HBS. Zip forward to the end point for BOTH example candidates. The goal is for the adcom to conclude that EACH of those two candidates is “high” on HBS-style leadership. “Check!”

Let’s go back to Candidate 1. Pretend they’re a Military person with leadership screaming from every resume bullet. Maybe this person spends a touch more time revealing something sparkly about his/her personality, or future aspirations, that when COUPLED WITH the leadership that speaks for itself, makes the adcom all hot and bothered.

Candidate 2, however, perhaps an IT professional, doesn’t necessarily appear to have quite as much in the way of leadership experience on paper. Candidate 2 may want to focus less on future aspirations and more on “oh, and by the way, after you read this, you can stand me next to Candidate 1 and see that, in fact, we have a bunch more in common in the way of leadership than might have been evident on my resume. Aren’t you glad I told you that story here?” See the difference? Similar end point, but the paths might be a touch different.

HBS = Leadership.

If you can prove that you have future CEO, boss, leader, big and badass mover-shaker flowing through your blood, you will be considered strongly. Think about it for a second though. If someone tells you they’re a lawyer, do you believe them? Probably. Why wouldn’t you? If someone tells you they’re a school teacher, do you believe them? Yeah, why not? If, on the other hand, someone tells you they’re funny… do you believe them? Probably not, they need to make you laugh. In other words, you need proof.

Leadership (like funniness) is a quality, not a profession. You can’t just say it and expect others to buy in. At the same time, it’s one of those things where… the more you say, the less likely it may seem to be true. (Hence, 900 words = enough.) So, if you’re going to demonstrate your leadership chops through an anecdote, remember to focus on the types of actions that we can picture. The actions that reveal your particular leadership style and talent.

So, that’s just some general background. How do you begin to answer this HBS prompt? Work backwards. The adcom should conclude after reading your essay, in context with all the other aspects of your application that they have, that if introduced to the HBS community, you would help others to succeed, and you would benefit from others and succeed in kind. This is going to sound frustrating, but, there’s a vapor that comes off of the future “HBS admit” essay that is characterized by one word: confidence. You’re not going to get admitted to Harvard Business School to LEARN how to become a “manager.” You’re admitted because you’re ALREADY a manager, and HBS is gonna help you grow.

So, posture that way. As you write drafts (and this may melt some brains out there) posture as though you need Harvard to prove why they are YOUR best choice, not the other way around. Posture like you expect admits from Stanford and Wharton and Booth and Sloan and wherever else, and that you’re not so stuck on brand names. You’re looking for a place that’s going to be best for you to develop the talent you know you have. How does that posturing subtly affect your tone? Or your approach?

You are businessmen and businesswomen, right? When negotiating, do you ever prematurely show your hand and reveal just how badly you need the deal? Or is it a stronger move to posture the other way? “Here’s my final offer, I’m happy to walk away because… I already have many others.” You can be sure that that exact same deal weighs more than the one coming from the person who seems desperate.

So, embrace your inner badass. And be a little cocky. Be a little presumptuous. Be a little smug. (We can always dial it back to the perfect balance… but, no born leaders come to this particular game vulnerable, meek, shy, etc.) Puff your chest. And begin drafting your essay with the mentality that you already have Stanford’s “yes” in hand, and now you’re going to kick an application over to Harvard for fun, but… YOU are the one in high demand, not the other way around.

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October 10, 2019

Additional Essays:


Elaborate. . . yeah but, how, and to what end? Remember our talks on the 5-Pointed Star approach to college applications? (If not, email us at and ask us about it!) Well, this is an example of where they’re begging you to come out with it. If an extracurricular activity, as it shows up in redux form on your activities lists, or as a resume bullet, or whatever shortened form “tells everything you need to know about that experience,” then great, skip that one, and find the one that doesn’t NEARLY convey everything that’s cool about it.

Suppose you’re the captain of your volleyball team, but your captaining and leadership and skills and achievements – while impressive in their own right – are still garden variety. There’s little be gained from elaborating on THAT one here. If, however, you overcame a physical injury in spectacular fashion, or an emotional obstacle against all odds, and ascended to captain level, that is PRECISELY the kind of story “captain of volleyball team” does not adequately convey.

This is your opportunity to REVEAL something about your appetite for challenges, your risk-seeking nature, your fearlessness, your self-awareness, your unusual perspective, your unusual skill sets (and skill gaps). This is the place where you can “signal” meaningful indications of future success to the adcom. It begins with picking the right stuff to talk about, and then focusing on the 5-Pointed Star facets.



  • Unusual circumstances in your life

Great one. The trick is: don’t count on your “unusual circumstances” to be relatably unusual to anyone and everyone. It’s possible that YOUR situation was quite NORMAL to someone else. So if your focus on the unusual-ness is in a universal sense, you may be sunk. Instead, focus on why this unusual WITH RESPECT TO YOUR OWN status quo. Establish what should have been the normal way of things for you, and then how that was disrupted, and why that disruption was so powerful. No one can take that away from you, but t’s important to be mindful of how others will probably have experienced, endured, and potentially not even FLINCHED at… MORE UNUSUAL circumstances. If you can present this with a clear sense of humility, you will be golden.

The next key is to not be afraid of showing you at your vulnerable moments, times you may have almost failed (or even failed). And to show how you dealt with it all, the strangeness of it, the challenges, etc.

And finally, you’ll wanna indicate what you’ve taken away from it. Are you glad these were your circumstances? Or would you trade it for another version? It’s okay for it to be either. The way you grapple with this is the key, not the precise conclusion you reach.

  • Travel, living, or working experiences in your own or other communities

Again, however badass you think you are for having living in X exotic country, or A B C D E F G other countries… someone next to you has an even MORE EXTREME/IMPRESSIVE example. This isn’t a contest of volume or amplitude. It’s a contest of “how has this impacted your perspective”? It’s “how that the result of all this enriched the way you process information, interact with people, understand the world, etc.” Consider our favorite trick: examining the delta. Imagine what your life would have been like had it been settled in only ONE place the entire time, without ANY travel? And then replay that, except with all the experiences beyond your hometown or home country. What’s different about YOU and the way you understand things as a result of that SECOND version? To what can you attribute that difference?

  • What you would want your future college roommate to know about you.

This is a tricky one because the temptation is to write about thing you want “the admissions committee” to know about you. And so, we more often than not see forced, unimaginative first drafts. If you’re gonna live with someone (for only one year, mind you), a person who may or not be a friend, a person you may or may not interact with much AFTER first year… what would you want him/her to know about you? Well, you’d have to have a reason this person would need to know this, otherwise… what’s the point? Think of it this way, if your roommate were to NOT KNOW this thing about you… something could go wrong. (Rather than… it would be a missed opportunity.) Play with that version, see if it reveals something deeply personal.

  • An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper, poetry, or research topic in engineering, mathematics, science, or other modes of inquiry) that has meant the most to you

The key here is to write this out, and then imagine showing it to someone who knows you really really really really well. And for them to read it, look up at you stunned, and say “Um, holy crap, I had no idea.” Because you REVEALED something that wasn’t plainly obvious to someone else already. Why are we saying that? Because chances are, that “obvious” stuff, which may very well be one of the central THEMES of your profile, will probably be plain in many elements of your application: your personal statement perhaps, some of your LORs, activities lists, your transcripts, etc.

The real opportunity here is to reveal personal, probably-not-publicly-known connections to intellectual areas that are not heavily emphasize in the rest of your application. One, it’ll seem more authentic. Two, it’ll give the reader the impression that you dance to your own tune and that you’re not afraid to pursue your interests, regardless of whether someone else is looking or not. That’s the kind of person that typifies the Harvard student. The self-starter. It’s a neat test, to actually have someone close to you read this and see if they knew about it already, or not. If not, you’re on the right track.

  • How you hope to use your college education

For 9 out of 10 applicants we’d recommend steering clear of this one, because invariably it’s gonna be a trite response that’s designed to impress the adcom. Most people who have traveled the normal pathway and are generally a part of the typical trajectory toward college and beyond, skip this one.

If, however, college – let alone Harvard – was never an obvious part of your future, for whatever reason, then you may have something to write about. If there was a better than zero chance that you might not have even gotten a CHANCE to attend college (let alone Harvard), and your life was barreling toward some other pathway… and the opportunity to go to a place like Harvard is something you made possible by sheer will and determination, then yah, we’re interested to see how YOU hope to use your college education because it means something deeper to you. If that sounds like you, then be sure to lay out what life “could have been without college” and then let loose on what you are determined to do now that it’s very much in play…

  • A list of books you have read during the past twelve months

If you’re a voracious reader, go buck wild here. If there’s no variety in your list at all, it’s probably not a great idea to go with this one. If on the other hand your list is all over the place, it could be great. Every now and then, we may recommend deleting a few, in case those few distract from a cooler narrative created by the remaining list, in terms of what they say about you. There’s an art to that, not easy to prescribe by way of a formula.

Again, the only reason you wanna pick THIS one over others is if you’ve read a TON of books, and they’re cooooool. And show that you’re interested in STRETCHING. (And not just being cozy in your favorite genre.)

  • The Harvard College Honor Code declares that we “hold honesty as the foundation of our community.” As you consider entering this community that is committed to honesty, please reflect on a time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty.

Great one. But only if there’s a real choice. It can’t be something like, “I saw someone robbing an old lady at gun point, and so I wondered whether or not I should call the police. I decided to call the police. Yay me!” There has to be a very compelling rationale for you or the actor to be DISHONEST. If there isn’t, it’s not a real dilemma, and it’s no longer impressive that you or someone chose the action with integrity or honesty. It has to be the case that it could have easily gone the other way, and that quite possibly, no one would have really held it against him/her/you.

Here’s another way of putting it. If the choice to act with integrity was in any way INCONVENIENT… now we’re cookin. If it were convenient, not a good example. Yawn. It has to have been a decision that came with real personal RISK of some kind. That’s the perfect litmus test for this one, something that many applicants will miss.

  • The mission of Harvard College is to educate our students to be citizens and citizen-leaders for society. What would you do to contribute to the lives of your classmates in advancing this mission?

Another tricky one, and again for 9 out of 10 folks, we may recommend going with another choice. However…

Is there something you do, by example, that is a part of you, that has impacted others throughout your life, that you intend to carry through in college… BECAUSE it has become an important part of who you are? Be careful not to be presumptuous here, and to assume that you possess something (a trait, a belief, etc.) that others simply MUST adopt because … well, that would make you seem unbelievably arrogant. A good version of a contribution is something someone made that YOU benefitted from, that you are paying forward. That’s a little more bulletproof. Still, we hate to say it, but this wouldn’t be our first choice for prompts.

  • Each year a substantial number of students admitted to Harvard defer their admission for one year or take time off during college. If you decided in the future to choose either option, what would you like to do?

You should only choose this if you have a damn good sense for how you’d spend that year, and the “five-year” version of Harvard has a serious value-add compared to the normal “four-year” version. It’s easy to “come up with” a way to spend a year, and fill it with cool-sounding, enriching stuff. But, if it doesn’t feel very specific to YOU and your interests, it won’t resonate the way it needs to.

The coolest response here is the one that demonstrates a mature understanding of how the four “normal” years at Harvard will enrich you and propel you toward the next phase of your career and adulthood, but also makes a convincing case for a way in which time off during college can further improve that already damn-near perfect experience. Or, how a deferred year prior to matriculation is necessary given your goals. In every case, we need the reader to see not only (a) that it’s an interesting idea and pitch for how to spend that time, but also (b) why it’s necessary.

  • Harvard has long recognized the importance of student body diversity of all kinds. We welcome you to write about distinctive aspects of your background, personal development or the intellectual interests you might bring to your Harvard classmates.

We’ve got to be really careful here. If you claim something as distinctive, and it’s actually very common in the application pool, it can backfire and reveal just how out of touch you are and the extent to which you haven’t engaged with the world (through reading, exploring, etc.). Generally speaking, it will help your case if there’s some kind of track record of “something about you is different from others.” Let’s say you’ve been ostracized, marginalized, subdued somehow, outcast, excluded, or the like… it’s pretty hard for someone to argue with your case that there’s something distinct about you. Because not only can you claim it, you can talk about what it’s like to experience it.

Is there a version that isn’t “negative”? Like, what if you’re quirky, and you know it, and everyone around you knows it, and you’ve never been made to suffer on account of it… sure, there’s a case to be made here. But, still, we need to see “proof” of this thing manifesting somehow. In other words, to use that tired old writing adage, “show don’t tell.” This goes for something like “intellectual interests” in particular. Show us that your version of an unusual intellectual interest is going to be a value-add to the Harvard community by showing us how it has been already in your high school community.

It’s a much harder case to make (and usually a weaker one) to say simply “hey so I’m interested in this weird thing, and man, trust me, it’s gonna blow the doors off the Harvard campus, just you wait!” It goes down better if you can say “so, I like this bizarre thing that everyone in my class thinks makes me a total lunatic. But lemme tell you this story. One day when I blah, this thing happened, and then everyone’s lives changed one day later. They still think I’m from planet Mars, but they’re also waiting for the next occasion when I XYZ.” If we see it in action, we’ll be able to imagine it impacting Harvard that much more. See how that works?

  • If none of these options appeal to you, you have to option to write on a topic of your choice.

Whether you’re stating it outright, or you achieve this through implication only, the goal here is to demonstrate that you are a dangerous intellect with a unique mind, unique skills, and tons of potential energy to unleash onto the Harvard campus. Great, easy!

Ha, if only. To pull this off, you need to have a very keen sense of what the rest of your application is doing for you, and what’s missing that needs addressing RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW. That, my friends, is not easy. In order to do THAT, you need to understand what makes your candidacy particularly dangerous, and to understand precisely what needs to be conveyed that isn’t being adequately conveyed elsewhere.

Again, if you miss the mark, it can backfire. If you pick something that isn’t very cool, it can send an undesirable signal that we’ve reached the END OF THE LINE and this is it—you didn’t really need this essay! Whereas, if you absolutely crush your choice of what to talk about here and how to talk about it, the reader should be left wondering “man, does this kid’s talents and potential ever end? This kid is just endlessly exciting…” Now, offering advice to HOW to achieve that is damn near impossible in a space like this without understanding exactly who you are and therefore to help you decide which “facet” to your candidacy needs some airtime. But hopefully, framing it this way helps you begin the process and understand the inherent challenge of an open-ended prompt.

October 10, 2019

Your intellectual life may extend beyond the academic requirements of your particular school. Please use the space below to list additional intellectual activities that you have not mentioned or detailed elsewhere in your application. These could include, but are not limited to, supervised or self-directed projects not done as school work, training experiences, online courses not run by your school, or summer academic or research programs not described elsewhere. (Optional – 150 words)

It’s not the “what” here that matters… it’s the implied “why.” There’s a clue in that first sentence, did you catch it? It’s all about that word “requirements.” Things you’re required to do, you may do amazing things with, or not, but regardless—you did ’em because it was expected of you. With the world as your oyster, with an infinite number of things you can do, how do you enrich your INTELLECTUAL LIFE when no one is forcing you to? Because they’re asking for a list, you shouldn’t elaborate with explanations. But, you should aim to put together a list that has the following characteristics:

  • Doesn’t seem random and utterly disconnected (it shouldn’t seem surprising that the same person pursued all those things).
  • Isn’t too long. You may want to DELETE a few pieces to draw attention to something on here that ADDS to your well-rounded-ness, rather than falls into step with what’s been established. Quality over quantity.
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