A Guide to the HBS Essay

Our guide to one of the most important parts of the MBA application for Harvard Business School: the essay, including our hand-picked HBS coach recommendations and other articles to get you started.

Posted September 27, 2023

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Harvard Business School is one of the most renowned universities and business programs in the world. Established in 1908, it boasts impressive alumni like Michael Bloomberg, George W. Bush, and Abigail Johnson. With such a reputation, it is no surprise that the HBS application can be a grueling process. This is our guide to one of the most important parts of that application: the essay. Read on for tips to help you distinguish your candidacy and present the best essay possible.

The Prompt

The HBS essay asks a simple and open-ended question that gives applicants the ability to highlight whatever they believe is most important and relevant. The prompt is as follows:

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 words maximum)

On its website, Harvard advises applicants, “Don’t overthink, over craft, and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don’t know your world can understand.” HBS has only recently instigated the limit of 900 words. With such an ambiguous question, it’s important to make every word count. It is easy to go on tangents, use the wrong example, or write simply to put words on the page. Students often don’t know where to start, and when to end.

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Now, here are our five HBS essay tips, designed to help you stand out among the over 9,000 applicants that apply to Harvard Business School each year.

HBS Essay Tips for Success

1. Tell a Story

There is no set formula or “right” way to write your HBS essay. Every MBA candidate comes from a different background and unique circumstances. Your job with this essay is to paint the most accurate picture you can of who you are and why you should be accepted into Harvard. They want you to stay true to yourself and let your personality shine. Your resume, test scores, and GPA are important, but they don’t show character; the essay is where you can really make a difference in your application.

With that being said, don’t write what you think the admissions committee wants to hear. They have read through thousands of essays, but they have never read an essay by you, so capitalize on your individuality. HBS wants to know where you have come from and what experiences have shaped who you are. This essay should absolutely not be a retelling of your resume and professional achievements.

Through this essay, HBS wants to see that you understand yourself. They also want to know whether you align with Harvard’s missions and values. They are looking for future leaders who want to make a difference in the world. The best way to prepare for this essay is to deeply reflect on yourself. Who are you? What matters to you? Why are you the way you are? At the end of the day, if you can answer this question, posed by an HBS alum, then you have got a good start: “Could this essay also describe someone else?” If so, then you probably need to do some more introspection.

2. Be Concise

When in doubt, ask yourself, “Does the admissions committee need to know this?” If not, it’s probably safe to take out. There is no “right” length to hit as every candidate will have a different story they’re trying to tell; however, there is a difference between telling a story and rambling. Include relevant information and paint an accurate picture, but do so in a clear and concise manner. Imagine that your essay is the hundredth that the adcom member is reading that day. How would you write to keep them engaged while also preserving the integrity of your story? That is the balance that you are looking for.

3. Don’t Just Answer “Why HBS?”

Unlike many other business schools, Harvard does not ask the stereotypical “Why HBS?” question. With that being said, applicants often feel like they need to use the essay to demonstrate their commitment to HBS. Most of the time, this is not the right approach. Your essay should be about you. Harvard is one of the most prestigious universities in the world and you don’t need to justify why you want to attend. Using the precious space you have to talk about HBS is a missed opportunity to shed light on your experiences.

The caveat to this is if providing your reason for attending Harvard makes your overall essay stronger. Some applicants may have a personal story tying them to HBS that they want to expound on. If that’s the case, then include it. The same adage from earlier applies here: If your “Why HBS?” answer could also explain someone else, then you probably don’t need it.

4. Build, Build, Build

Like any good story, your HBS essay should have a thread of continuity throughout. Introduce a theme or lesson, touch base on it every once in a while, and tie everything together in the conclusion. In addition to making your essay more interesting, this will prevent it from coming off as disjointed. Building up to the main point will also keep the reader in suspense and eager to read on. Because the prompt is so open-ended, it’s easy to have many different things you want to talk about. Sticking to a theme will help you ensure that everything you include is relevant.

5. Get Feedback

After spending lots of time writing something, it can be difficult to step back and view your work with a fresh, unbiased eye. Once you’ve written a rough draft, have a peer or mentor read through your essay and provide feedback. Ideally, the person reviewing your essay will be an alum of the school. But if that’s not an option, choose someone with business experience and writing skills that knows something about your background.

Don’t overedit your essay. Drafts, reviews, and edits are all part of the writing process but you don’t want to overpolish, especially to the point that you rub out your individuality. Instead, we recommend starting your essay early so that you have plenty of time to self-reflect, write, and step back for perspective. Once you’ve completed your first draft, ask for feedback and make some edits, but then put it away for a while. When you come back to it, you will have a fresher perspective and be less bogged down by the details.

At Leland, we have a broad network of world-class coaches who can help with any part of the MBA application. Many of them are experts in essay writing, browse them here. Want to work with an HBS alum who has first-hand experience of the Harvard application process? Here are some of our highest-rated MBA admissions coaches.

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