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? (No word limit.)
“No word limit.” Yeah, there is actually. Maybe it’s not a hard number, but there is such a thing as a reasonable amount of space that it should take for someone to communicate something that moves the admissions needle. You can use past word limits as a reference. Generally, HBS essays have ranged from 400-750 words. Honestly, for a totally prompt-less prompt like this one, our recommendation is to land somewhere between 600-800 words. 1000 words is also fine, if you really need it. Over that… only if you absolutely-absolutely-absolutely need it. (These will be the exceptions, not the norms.)
Write much less than 500 or 600 words, and perhaps you’re wasting an opportunity. Write much more than 1000 words, and you’re likely expending words that other folks don’t need to expend – without actually saying more (which makes YOU look bad).
Now then, we have our made-up target of roughly 600–800 words (set 800 as your target max). What exactly do we talk about? 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, because this is going to circle back to the word limit issue at a certain point. 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, 600-800 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 people 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.