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Applicants to HBS must have the following:
A degree program at an accredited U.S. four-year undergraduate college/university or an international equivalent (unless you are a college senior applying to our 2+2 Program ). Equivalent programs include international three-year bachelor degree programs.
Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) or Graduate Record Examination (GRE) test taken in the timeframes on the chart below. The GMAT or GRE is a prerequisite for admission. We will accept the new, shorter GRE beginning September 2023. We will accept the GMAT Focus beginning with the 2+2 round in April 2024.
A TOEFL, IELTS, Pearson Test of English (PTE), or Duolingo English Test is required if you did not attend an undergraduate institution where the sole language of instruction is English. If you completed a graduate degree which was taught in English, it is recommended you submit one of these tests, but it is not required.
To apply to Harvard Business School, we ask you to assemble and prepare a variety of materials that will help us assess your qualifications. Remember, all materials must be submitted to HBS online by the application deadlines. The following serves as a preview of what you need to prepare.
Candidates must have the equivalent of a U.S. bachelor's degree from an accredited institution (unless applying through the 2+2 program — please see information for college seniors). Degrees from international universities offering three-year baccalaureate degrees are valid equivalents.
We require uploaded transcripts from all undergraduate and graduate academic institutions that you have attended (full- or part-time).
You may upload an "unofficial" or student copy of your transcript; however, we will request an official copy for verification purposes should you be admitted to HBS.
When the Admissions Board looks at your transcripts, we are looking at the whole picture — not just your GPA. We take into account where you went to school, the courses that you took, and your performance. We understand the structures of different grading systems worldwide. There is no minimum GPA to apply, although our students usually have strong undergraduate records. Undergraduate academics are just one factor the Admissions Board uses to evaluate a candidate.
- There is no minimum GMAT or GRE to apply and we do not have a preference toward one test or the other. If you look at our class profile , you can see that we have a range of GMAT and GRE scores in the current first-year class.
- We will accept the new, shorter GRE beginning September 2023. We will accept the GMAT Focus beginning with the 2+2 round in April 2024.
- When submitting your application, you may report the unofficial GMAT or GRE score given on the day of the test, or your official score if you have received it. Every applicant must request that the testing agency sends an official score report directly to HBS. We accept online versions of the GMAT or GRE.
- We require you to complete the AWA portion of the exam; however, you do not need the results in order to submit your application. Note: If you took the online version of the GMAT prior to the addition of the AWA section (i.e. before May 20, 2021), we will accept those test scores without the AWA as long as they have not expired.
- Be advised that in order to apply for admission, scores must be dated as follows:
Please note that the HBS code for the GMAT is HRLX892 and the HBS code for the GRE is 4064.
- A TOEFL, IELTS, Pearson Test of English (PTE), or Duolingo English Test is required if you did not attend an undergraduate institution where the sole language of instruction is English.
- If you completed a graduate degree which was taught in English, it is recommended you submit one of these tests, but it is not required.
HBS does not have a minimum test score to apply, however, the MBA Admissions Board discourages any candidate with a TOEFL score lower than 109 on the IBT, an IELTS score lower than 7.5, a PTE score lower than 75, or a Duolingo score lower than 145 from applying.
HBS only accepts the Internet-based (IBT) version of the TOEFL. Please note that the HBS code for the TOEFL is 3444.
There is one question for the Class of 2026 application:
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)
We invite you to share personal or professional experiences from your background that give you a unique ability to contribute to HBS. Try to remember to not overthink or overwrite in this essay; it is best to answer the question in clear and concise language that those of us who don't know your world can understand.
You will need to have two recommendations submitted online by the application deadlines. It is the applicant's responsibility to ensure that all recommendations are submitted online by the deadline date for the round in which the applicant is applying.
Use your best judgment on who you decide to ask - there is no set formula for who should be your recommenders. We know it is not always possible to have a direct supervisor write your recommendation – we would not want you to jeopardize your current position for the application process. Look at the questions we are asking recommenders to complete. Find people who know you well enough to answer them. This can be a former supervisor, a colleague, or someone you collaborate on an activity outside of work. How well a person knows you should take priority over level of seniority or HBS alumni status.
How do the candidate's performance, potential, background, or personal qualities compare to those of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? Please provide specific examples. (300 words)
Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant's response. (250 words)
This can be your standard business resume or CV. You do not need to have it in any special format. You can use whatever you would use to conduct a job search. Note: The HBS MBA Program is designed for students who have full-time work experience. While it is important for candidates to assess their own readiness to apply, the Admissions Board recommends that applicants have at least two years of full-time work experience (prior to enrolling).
- There is a nonrefundable application fee (credit card only) of $250 USD* to offset the cost of reviewing applications. All active duty military applicants and past SVMP participants do not have to pay the application fee.
If your annual income at your current or most recent place of employment is $65,000 USD or less, the need-based application fee waiver will automatically apply. If you do not automatically qualify but would like to request a fee waiver due to financial hardship, you may apply for a need-based application fee waiver after starting your application.
*Applicants to our 2+2 Program have a reduced application fee of $100.
After your written application has been submitted and reviewed, you may be invited to interview. Interviews are 30 minutes and are conducted by an MBA Admissions Board member who has reviewed your application. Your interview will be tailored to you and is designed for us to learn more about you in the context of a conversation.
The interview is a positive indicator of interest, but is not a guarantee of admission; it serves as one element among many that are considered as we complete a final review of your candidacy. All interviews are conducted by invitation only, at the discretion of the Admissions Board. If invited, however, you must participate in order to complete the application process.
Interviews may be scheduled on campus, in domestic or international hub cities, or via Zoom. Neither the timing of your interview invitation nor its format, whether in person or via Zoom, implies anything about the status of your application or affects your candidacy.
Within 24 hours of the interview, candidates are required to submit a written reflection through our online application system. Detailed instructions will be provided to those applicants who are invited to interview.
MBA Application Tips Video Series
Every HBS MBA student has been where you are right now. In this video series, we hope to help you learn how to break down your application into small, actionable steps so that you can submit a successful application that is true to you and your journey.
Joint Degree Programs
Applications for both Harvard Business School and the partnering Harvard graduate school must be submitted as explained on these overview pages:
- MS/MBA Engineering
- MS/MBA Life Sciences
- MPA-ID / MBA
- Student Applicants (2+2)
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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
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 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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Where Can I Start?
The application process can be daunting and difficult, especially without help. Read these articles to get started on your HBS journey.
- Harvard Business School: MBA Program & Application Overview
- How to Write a Powerful MBA Essay
- A Comprehensive MBA Timeline–With Chart
- How to Ace the HBS MBA Interview
The HBS Waitlist Strategy
- Harvard Business School MBA Application Deadlines (2023-2024)
How I Got Into Harvard Business School With Low Test Scores
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- The HBS Essay
The HBS Essay 2023-2024: Writing Strategies that Work and What to Avoid
For the last few years, Harvard Business School has challenged MBA applicants with its sole, open-ended essay question:
- 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)
Where to Begin?
With its broad nature and 900-word limit, it’s no surprise that many prospective business students have trouble getting started with the Harvard MBA essay, and wonder what direction they should take to answer this perplexing prompt.
Candidates who are applying to HBS in future rounds will likely face the same essay question. In this article, we highlight common mistakes that applicants make and consider the best way for future applicants to approach this unapologetically unlimited essay prompt.
The HBS Essay: What This Year’s Applicants Should Consider
First off, applicants must realize what they are up against before approaching the infamous HBS MBA admission essay. The Harvard Business School acceptance rate is just 11%. Of the roughly 930 individuals who are accepted, there is a very small slice of amazingly fantastic applicants who write the essay as merely a formality. For the rest of the applicants fighting for the available slots–perhaps loads of you reading this article–there are several candidates who are equally qualified fighting for the same seat: great jobs, great career trajectories, great GPAs and GMATs. This means that your personal essay is meant to differentiate you and show the admissions committee why they should select YOU rather than competing applicants.
Learn from those applicants that came before you and make sure to give special thought on how you can really convey who you are in answering this essay question. It is not your typical essay prompt, so it deserves your time and attention.
Looking for Last-Minute Essay Help?
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Our five-hour package starts at $2,500, and you can work with our MBA admissions consultants on anything you like, including:
✓ Essay and Resume Edits
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Menlo’s Expert Consultant, Yaron Dahan, on: “What more would you like us to know?”
The best advice I can give applicants answering the HBS essay question is this: select a topic that will play as well in the case method as it does with an admissions committee. Ultimately that is what HBS is looking for in its admits: Will this candidate be able to contribute something unique in a case discussion?
Think about the nine areas covered in HBS’s year-one required curriculum (finance, accounting, leadership, marketing, operations, entrepreneurship, strategy, ethics, and government/economics), and figure out where you will be able to add the most value. Dee Leopold, the former admissions director at HBS, told the story of one student who did this very successfully in his interview, and was admitted to the HBS class the following year:
“This is a guy who worked in a small manufacturing facility in a tiny town in Michigan where they make baby formula. He was in quality control, working with union people. Early on the job, they discovered there were bugs in the machinery of the factory. They are contaminating the product, and management was obviously deeply concerned about the problem. The news trucks have gathered outside. The CEO comes. That is an amazing voice to bring to our course on Leadership and Corporate Accountability.”
As an applicant, it’s your job to accomplish the same thing in your essay that this candidate did in his interview. Show them you have a unique contribution to make. If you can do that, then you’ve mastered the HBS essay question.
In the video below, Yaron elaborates on how to approach the personal essays at HBS and Stanford.
Yaron Dahan on Personal Essays for HBS and GSB Admissions
The harvard mba essay: what doesn’t work, playing it safe. .
HBS wants to see several qualities in the applicants it admits: aptitude, accomplishment, character, and passion. Your GMAT and GPA will speak to your analytical aptitude, your resume to your accomplishment, and your recommenders to your character. That leaves your HBS application essay to speak toward your passion: will you have interesting stories and opinions to contribute to the HBS case discussions? Will you involve yourself in the broader Harvard community? Do you have the drive to achieve ambitious things after you graduate? To give the admissions committee confidence in your candidacy, you must let your quirks and passions come through. You cannot play it safe and write a simple, boring essay.
Although you cannot be boring in your MBA essays, you do NOT want to go overboard. In the video below, our co-founder Alice talks about things to avoid while writing the personal essay, namely:
- Using the essay to show literary creativity
- Boasting in ways that are off-putting
- Dishonesty and trying to conceal failures
Alice van Harten on Common Mistakes in HBS Essays
Answering the hbs prompt like a typical mba essay question..
The key point of the Harvard Business School essay is the phrase “what more,” which is a clear signal that HBS does not want you using the essay to rehash things that are already covered by your resume, career goals statement, professional recommendations or written application form.
If the HBS admissions team wanted to know why you wanted a business degree, or why you wanted to go to Harvard, or what your career path was, then they would ask. They certainly have asked applicants those questions in years past. But realize that, in providing this very open-ended prompt, HBS expects very open-ended answers. They want answers from applicants that could never be prompted by any questions the admissions committee could ask. They want to learn the things that make you different as an applicant. So take the hint, and realize that HBS ditched the standard essay prompts for a reason. They are looking for something different here. Be creative, and be genuine.
Focusing on one or more of your weaknesses.
Every year, candidates seem to battle insecurities over the same issues: their GPA was only a 3.2; their GMAT is just a fraction too low; they don’t have many significant extracurriculars. It’s possible that those issues need to be addressed in your MBA application, but this essay is absolutely not the place to do it. HBS will never admit you for mitigating every possible weakness; they will only admit you for showing remarkable strength in one or two really interesting areas. Take the HBA essay question as the opportunity to demonstrate the latter, and leave addressing your GPA or extracurriculars for other parts of your application.
Discover Your Path To Success
Get expert mba admissions advice delivered straight to your inbox. 📨, one menlo client’s experience working on the hbs essay.
Harvard’s MBA admissions essay is not for the faint of heart. It takes dedication, perseverance, and quite a bit of time. It is not a personal essay that you can whip out in one sitting, and we’ve heard many clients say that they woefully underestimated the time and effort needed to complete it well.
For Menlo Coaching client Vicky, the secret to HBS success was to go beyond just talking about her successful career in consulting and retail, and talk about her long-term vision for her family’s manufacturing business.
In the video below, she discusses how we helped her through the MBA admissions process generally, and with finding the right story for HBS specifically (use the chapter “Essay Writing Process” to jump directly to that part).
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HBS Essay Examples: How Former Clients Approached the Harvard MBA Essay & Application Journey and Won Admission
- How to Get Into Harvard Business School
- The Harvard Business School MBA Program Overview
- Achieving Work-Life Balance as a Top MBA Graduate
- How One HBS Alum Leveraged Her MBA for Entrepreneurship
How to Write the Harvard HBS MBA Admissions Essay – Tips for 2022-2023
- May 10, 2022
7 Steps to Answer the Harvard MBA, HBS Essay Question:
“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?”
When you’re putting together a successful HBS essay, the most valuable thing you can do is tell an Epic Story . Before I get into what that means, let’s clear one thing up: There is no set formula for writing the Harvard essay. There’s no “right” way to do it, no “right” thing to say. But, take it from me, an Epic Life Story is the best thing you could possibly have in your application toolkit.
Table of Contents
Find out how to ace Harvard’s admission essay in 2022
So what is an Epic Story?
An Epic Story is a narrative that takes the reader — any reader, adcom members included!— on a journey through a series of key events .Epic Stories situate the reader in space and time and establish a crucial emotional connection between writer (you!) and reader. Emotional connection is king when it comes to MBA applications. It’s how you stand out from the pack. And that wide-open Harvard MBA Essay is the perfect platform for doing this work.
What if I don’t have an Epic Story?
If you’re afraid you don’t have what it takes to tell an Epic Story, let me let you in on a little secret: You do . It’s not about having the most page-turning life events under your belt—you don’t need to have cured cancer or sailed solo around the world, although that would be totally awesome if you did!—it’s about being human and sharing that essential, inspiring, loveable humanness with your reader in the most effective way possible.
Each of us has an Epic Story to tell. Promise. You just have to dig deep and tap into it. So before you protest that your life (or your writing skills) just don’t fit the bill for this kind of thing, take a look at the foolproof steps I’ve put together below for how to tell an Epic Story and write your Best Harvard MBA Essay !
1. Take a closer look at that HBS Essay Question; it’s not as open ended as you think!
Let’s take a closer look at that question. Here’s the Harvard Business School essay prompt, straight from the horse’s mouth: “ 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? ” And here are the essay tips HBS gives: “ There is no word limit for this question. We think you know what guidance we’re going to give here. Don’t overthink, overcraft and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don’t know your world can understand .”
Before we get into the how-to of all this, it’s worth pausing for a minute to pick those last two statements apart. Harvard asks you not to overthink, overcraft, or overwrite . They’re really driving at something here. They want YOU to remain in your essay—your essence, who you are at the core. They want a real person to come through the page, not some hollowed out, cookie-cutter façade designed to meet some assumption about who they want you to be.
Okay, that was a mouthful. But what I’m saying—and what Harvard is saying—is simple: be you . Don’t obscure (or write over ) who you really are by trying to fit some imaginary mold or by writing what you *think* “they” want to hear. As the HBS admissions director warns in their App Tips Series , “Be careful in all that polishing that you don’t ‘shine away’ your personality.”
Lest you forget, the adcom is made up of humans . And all humans want the opportunity to connect with and contribute to other humans. So give them that chance with your essay.
So what is Harvard really looking for?
“ What more would you like us to know?”
It’s a wide open question—and that’s part of what makes it so intimidating, as John Byrne, editor-in-chief of Poets & Quants, points out in a helpful piece written earlier this year—but Harvard does give you two key pieces of information about what they’re looking for in the essay instructions: clear language, and a ticket into your world . They want to know more about who you are based on where you’ve been (literally and figuratively speaking). The background, life experiences, and human encounters that shaped you.
“What more ” is the other key part of this equation. As the Harvard App Tips highlight, this essay should NOT be a rehashing of your resume. The adcom will be bored to tears if you give them your resume (again) in paragraph form.
Instead, your Harvard Essay should be a supplement: think of it as one key building block in the larger structure of your application. It builds on the rest, fits in with the rest, but it adds something completely new. Even more than that, it should create a world that is all your own for the reader to step into. (More on how to do that momentarily.)
With an essay question that leaves so much in your court, Harvard is really looking for evidence of self-knowledge . They want to know that you’ve done the deep introspection necessary to communicate what drives you and what you, as a one-of-a-kind human being, will contribute to their incoming class. They also want to see that you resonate with their values and their mission —that you can demonstrate a habit of leadership , among other qualities.
If you aren’t familiar with Harvard’s mission, here it is : “The mission of Harvard Business School is to educate leaders who make a difference in the world.” This is a really concrete mission that they have. They're not out to teach business; they're not out to help people make more money. They're out to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. And if you're talking to a leader, the most important question you can ask that person is, “What do you want me to know about you?” With this question, you're given free license to say whatever is meaningful, interesting, and important to you about yourself.
Soooo before you start getting too caught up in what they might “want” to hear from you (keep resisting that urge!), let’s talk about the most vital step in the entire application process: self-discovery .
2. Use Self-Reflection to ensure that your HBS Essay is unique
Step 1 in our magical essay process at Career Protocol is always self-discovery.
Self-discovery is a really underrated process. Seriously. Sooo SO underrated. As we’ve learned in over 30 years of collective admissions experience, the very best MBA applications are built on foundations of deep self-awareness, self-compassion, and clarity. Our Discovery Process is the tried-and-true, totally irreplaceable first step to essay-writing MAGIC. (I can’t get enough of it. Can you tell?)
So what should you write about for your Harvard essay?
Glad you asked! You’re gonna love the answer: It depends.
On what? On what you find out about yourself during the vital process of self-discovery. This is your starting point. There are no shortcuts to self-knowledge, and no successful Harvard Application Essay will come to fruition until you’ve taken a good hard look at yourself, your life, your accomplishments, and—most importantly—how you define all of the above.
One of the most valuable things the Discovery Process will teach you is that, as a candidate for admission, you are more than your GPA. You are more than your professional record. You are far more than any one component of your application, and Harvard’s adcom—like any other group of humans—wants to see the whole picture . The essay is where this all comes together.
There are 5 key areas of inquiry that you should dig into when you’re preparing to write the Harvard Essay (or any essay for a school of your choice).
1. Your Back Story
If you had to sum up your life story in a couple of paragraphs (or even pages), what would you choose to write down? What would you tell others, if you had to give a succinct “back story” for who you are? What snippets of information would make the cut? Which life experiences? As you explore your back story, you might also think about the people in your life who have had the greatest influence on you. Consider your hobbies and what makes you tick—even if it’s something you used to love to do, but haven’t found the time for lately. Write it all out.
2. Your Academic Achievements
I like to think in terms of achievements during the self-discovery process, because—as you’ll discover if you undertake this work—everyone defines achievement differently. We each have our own yardstick for measuring accomplishment. (Some of us find it painfully difficult to call anything at all an achievement.) What you deem an achievement is telling, and thinking in this way encourages you to drill down to what really matters (and has mattered) to you. So, first, consider what your top academic achievements would be.
3. Your Community and Extracurricular Achievements
Same thing here, only with community work and extracurricular involvement. What have you accomplished outside of school and work that really meant something to you?
4. Your Professional Achievements
You know the drill by now. If you had to list your top professional achievements, what would they be?
5. Your Personal Achievements
Last, but certainly not to be underestimated, what are your top personal achievements? What are some of the moments in your life that really stay with you—those poignant human-to-human experiences, the times when you were able to make a contribution, pure and simple, to another person (or group of people)?
If you want a sense of how all that discovery rolled up into successful essays for our clients, here is a smattering of general topics and big picture summaries of successful MBA essays:
- A few days in the life
- Career story twists and turns
- Difficult relationship with a parent
- Journey into entrepreneurship
- Journey to master confidence
- Lessons from observing managers
- Lessons learned through an important hobby
- Life story told through difficult decisions
- People who influenced me
- Perspectives on success and leadership in career to date
- Problem solving
- Rags to riches through failure, leadership style
- Sports and career
- Struggle to be a woman in male-dominated field
- Struggles to live up to values and culture
- Travel and passion for understanding others
The thing to notice is that there really isn’t anything special about any of these topics. You, too, could probably write an essay about a number of them. What made these essays unique wasn’t the executive summary of the story, it was the depth of character they revealed in the telling. Depth of character flows from values.
Homing in on your Values
By the time you’re done listing and evaluating your personal achievements, you’ll have built up some muscle for defining what matters to you at a fundamental level: what your intrinsic values are.
Values are the basis of a person's principles or standards of behavior—their judgment of what is important in life. These are the things you would never change about yourself, because if you did, you would no longer be recognizable to yourself as you. Without them, you’d be some other person. Any great Life Story Essay should encapsulate and reflect these intrinsic values, even if they’re never overtly mentioned, and that’s part of what makes any essay founded on self-discovery unique .
One great piece of advice from a Harvard alum is to ask yourself, after you’ve drafted the essay, “Could this essay also describe someone else?” If you’ve done the hard but rewarding work of self-discovery, the answer will be: No .
In an essay like Harvard’s, you are the hero of your own story. If you use the steps above to home in on your values, you will significantly deepen your awareness about the specific kind of hero you are. We want to get clearer and clearer about what kind of hero you are, because that's where your uniqueness lies.
Finding your Voice
The final aspect of essay-writing that self-reflection will help you tap into is your voice .
Your voice is critically important to your success in your MBA applications. It sets you apart, instantly and continually, from any other writer. Even if another applicant narrated the exact same experiences, it wouldn’t come out sounding the same. (Because they wouldn’t have your voice .)
So how do you find it? What defines it? It's really choice. When I help clients find their voice, what I’m really doing is helping them identify the key choices that produced their life as they know it and developed them into the people that they are.
Character is the combination of values and choices.
As I hope I’ve driven home by this point, values are an important part of the equation. But they're not the whole story. We become who we are by virtue of our choices . Sometimes those choices result in (or include) failure, whether it’s failing to live up to your values or failing in some other way because you adhered to those values. Keep in mind that these brushes with failure are a very important part of your story . They reveal your humility and your vulnerability.
Talking about success without revealing the human part of it—your failures, fears, and setbacks— will not inspire someone . It might read like an interesting set of facts, but the reader isn’t really going to understand, or respect, or feel connected to you. In order to be inspired, they need to see your humanity .
As you wrap up the self-discovery process and start planning your essay, ask yourself: What are some of the most important choices that I've made so far? And why did I make them? How did I make them? And what were the consequences? Where did they lead me? These kinds of questions will help you clarify your values and decide which life stories you want to include.
3. Create an Essay Outline
If you ever learned how to write college essay outlines, you may know a thing or two about the general outlining process. (Get some tips from the experts here and here .)
We’re not sticklers when it comes to the kind of outline you should make for your Harvard Essay—or any essay. It could be anything from a paragraph-by-paragraph or point-by-point game plan for your essay to a sketch of the general flow. (I prefer the latter, but if detailed outlines are your jam, have at it!!)
For me, the outlining process is a means to an end: a way to determine what’s in and what’s out, structure your thinking, and get that scary ole writing process kicked off!
However you choose to do it, don’t spend a lot of time trying to perfect the outline . Personal essay writing is an iterative process: You are learning the story as you tell it, and it's impossible to figure it all out before you sit down to write it. Use the outlining stage (even if you never actually create an outline!) as a space for answering this vital question: What will you include?
What’s In and What’s Out ?
As you probably know, Harvard has three criteria that they're looking for in every applicant:
- engaged community citizenship
- a habit of leadership
- and analytical aptitude and appetite.
(This is in their stated evaluation criteria .) Most applicants will show analytical aptitude and appetite through grades and scores, possibly in work experience and recommendations, and very definitely in some ways through the resume.
Likewise with a habit of leadership. If you're doing your resume right (check out our bomb crash course in MBA resumes ), it should show all the ways in which you've been a leader so far in your community and in your career. And your recommendations should further corroborate that, because your recommenders *should* be speaking to your leadership qualities. (More on our coaching for recommenders here , ‘cause that’s a whole other story.)
So for most people, the essays include an element of engaged community citizenship. This one is the hardest to quantify, and it's the hardest to turn into a resume bullet. One of the things that most of our successful HBS client essays have in common is that they are covering—in some way—the candidate’s penchant for being an engaged citizen of the communities that they've been a part of.
But—I can’t stress this enough—your resume is going to do the heavy lifting in conveying your accomplishments. The essay really isn't about how great you are, or how accomplished you are, or what you've achieved in your life. It's about the intangibles. It's about your values and your character. To put it one more way: it’s essentially about what you stand for.
Leaders of Consequence
Harvard wants to admit and shape Leaders of Consequence . But what does it mean to be a Leader of Consequence? First of all, it doesn’t mean that you’ve checked off a certain set of accomplishments. Rather, it’s a very powerful way of being .
- Leaders of Consequence are empathetic, so they have the ability to connect with other people.
- They're inspiring people, but they're also very human. They exude a sense of humility and vulnerability.
- They have a vision. To be a leader, you're going to have to have some kind of vision.
Schools are also looking for these qualities in the application. And the HBS Essay is the ideal place to exhibit them. This doesn't mean you won't talk about success and accomplishments in the essay, it just means that that's not really the point. The point of the Harvard MBA Essay is to reveal these softer and less tangible qualities about you, your values, and your character.
It’s a platform for sharing your authentic self. Sharing is the key word here: It's not about talking about or telling them who you are. Instead, it's about sharing your experiences, values, beliefs, thought processes and strategies, feelings, desires, hopes, and fears through some of the strategies I’ll discuss below. These are all the things that make you human.
What about my goals?
One of the most common questions I get from clients is whether the HBS Essay should include your goals. The quick answer ? Probably not. In our experience, for only one in about 9 or 10 MBA applicants is career vision an essential part of their Epic Story. For these people, fully sharing who they are and how they want to be known for the purposes of admission requires a discussion of the future. For everyone else, your goals belong squarely in the 500-character short answer box about goals.
Building a Narrative (Or, as we like to call it, Storyboarding )
Alright, now the next step in the process is storyboarding . You’ll take all of the material, all of the amazing things about your life that you identified in the Discovery stage, and boil it down into the few components that you're going to put together to answer this question.
The big thing you have to keep in mind when you're approaching the Harvard question, and really any essay question, is that you need to answer the question directly . Harvard is asking, “what more would you like us to know?” So you're going to have to tell them, “here's what I'd like you to know.” You don't have to have that sentence in there , but it is effectively the question that you're answering. So start from that place.
The Discovery Process will also help unearth the building blocks of your HBS Essay: key stories . In order to tell an Epic Story, you need to determine the pivotal anecdotes it’s comprised of. If your Epic Life Story is a constellation, think of your key stories as the individual star points.
Pro Tip: Imagine your Epic Life Story as a biopic.
I prefer to think about the Epic Life Story Essay in cinematic terms. From this perspective, it’s essentially a biopic : it’s a movie about your life so far. (You know, like that one about Mike Tyson that’s coming out?) So instead of using a traditional outlining framework—point one; subpoint A, B, C; point two; and so on—we’ll map your Life Story and your narrative in terms of scenes. At Career Protocol, we treat your essay like we would a screenplay.
In my experience, this leads to a much more dynamic version of your story. It also gives you more breathing room for the creative process than a tightly structured outline. So as you plan your Harvard essay, try thinking about it in these terms: What comes first in the movie? And then, what comes next? And what comes after that?
Oh, and make sure you nail that opening line.
TL;DR (A Step-by-Step Cheat Sheet for Our Storyboarding Process)
- Choose the core value that you want the Harvard adcom to know about you. You can choose at most two to focus on. (Typically one is enough. You don't need to boil the ocean on the values front.)
- Determine the three or four most important scenes in the film of your life related to this value. Think about which life choices were most revealing of your character and/or which experiences most shaped you and forced you to change. These are the key anecdotes (a.k.a. key stories).
- Decide what other scenes or details from your life are going to help fill in the rest of your film.
- Get writing! See what your story says, and then refine it around your values so that it reflects what you want the adcom to know about you to the greatest possible extent.
4. Decide how to start your essay (Note: That first line is crucial.)
Sitting down to write the first words of an essay can be an intimidating moment. Maybe you love that fresh start, that blank page staring back at you, but more likely you dread it. Never fear! I’m about to give you some great advice for tackling that first line and starting your writing process off on the right foot. (Er, finger?)
You want to be in the mindset of upliftment and inspiration before you sit down to write. That will ensure that what comes out will actually resonate with your best self and not, you know, the you who woke up on the wrong side of the bed and didn't drink your coffee.
So be sure that you're caffeinated if you drink caffeine. Be sure that you ate and slept well. Be inspired, and then sit down and see what comes out. For more great advice on how to write your Best MBA Essay—including how to get inspired!—check out our new article, Pro Tips: How to Write a Great MBA Essay. (The long and short of it is: Pixar movies .)
What should a first line look like?
Here are some first lines from actual winning Harvard essays:
Here are some examples. Some of these are from our clients, others are from The Harbus MBA Essay Guide (Summer 2020 Edition or the 2016-2017 Edition):
“On March 1st, 1995 my family boarded a plane at [INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT] with our entire lives packed into a few suitcases.”
“An early influence on my worldview was my father.”
“I never got along with my father.”
“As a six foot tall sixth grade girl, you really only have two choices: (1) stand up and be proud of your height or (2) slink off awkwardly and hide.”
“While my application materials have highlighted some of my proudest professional achievements, I want you to also know about the influence my parents have had on my life, my values, and the direction of my career.”
“I am defined by my appreciation for beauty.”
“I have cried exactly four times at work.”
“A wise woman once told me that I have had an extraordinary number of failures for someone my age. I’d never thought about it that way before, but she’s got a good point.”
“It’s summertime, I’m 11, and the cool things to do are ride around town on bikes, eat ice cream, and play tennis.”
“The proudest moment of my lacrosse career is also my most embarrassing one.”
“I didn’t do well in school as a kid.”
“‘What should I do about praying at work?' [Name] asked me, concern emanating from her voice.”
“I had a near-death accident in September last year that knocked me out and ended me up in a hospital with a brain haemorrhage, a broken shoulder and a fractured ankle.”
“My mother fully believed in being ahead of the curve at all times.”
What you'll notice about these opening lines is that they're very workmanlike. They're direct. They get right into the story—say what happened, what was happening, sum it up, hop to it.
Each one of these is also interesting . It grabs you. It makes you want to keep going. And that's because each of these first lines uses the rules of narrative to bring you into the story. One of the most important rules to remember is that stories take place in space and time . Good stories, stories that grip the reader, have to be grounded in these dimensions.
As you may have noticed, most if not all of these winning first lines set the stage: They give you something you can picture, a scenario or location you can imagine—something to sink your teeth into.
Excuse me, rules of narrative?
There are some rules to how you think about your first sentence. It doesn't have to be flowery, it doesn't have to set an elaborate scene (in fact, for gosh sake, please don’t do any of that!!). It's almost certainly better if it's not dialogue or a quotation, despite some things you may have read here or there on the internet. (That can sometimes work, but it's rarely the most jet-fueled, engaging way to bring the reader into your world.) Instead, you want to dive right into the story and let the story carry you as you're writing it.
Outline it if you want to, but don't waste a lot of time on that. Then get yourself to a position of being inspired. Decide on the opening line, and then just write—just write the story. You've got the big scenes, you've got the ideas in your head. Write it and see what comes out, and then iterate. The key scenes will come into focus as you edit.
For more on this—and for all my auditory learners out there—watch my MBA Monday video on how NOT to write a boring first line (or essay) .
And for an even more in-depth read on the storyboarding and essay writing processes we’ve developed at Career Protocol, dive into “ A Screen writer's Guide to Epic MBA Narratives. ”
5. Draft your HBS Essay (Write. Revise. Rewrite.)
“Good writing is essentially rewriting.” – Roald Dahl
“The only kind of writing is rewriting.” – Ernest Hemingway
The next step on this essay-magic journey is storyshaping . This is a huge labor of love.
Let me say that again. It’s a HUGE labor of love .
Drafting continues to deepen the Discovery process. (By drafting, or storyshaping, I mean some combination of writing and rewriting and revising.) Most of our clients are still discovering their story as they're in the process of telling it. Your understanding of your values and exactly how you want to communicate them is clarified with each passing draft. So that's why we call it storyshaping.
The first thing to know about this stage is that there is no right number of drafts . Everybody needs a different number of iterations. Here’s how many drafts it took some of our clients who got into Harvard to write their masterpieces:
Our process includes unlimited drafts and boy do we mean it!
It may take a while because you’re a perfectionist, or because you totally changed gears in the middle, or because the story continues to evolve. You have to follow that inspiration and allow the story to go where it wants to go.
There's nothing better or worse about taking more or fewer drafts. Like everything else in this process, it depends on you, your writing habits, and how much time and space your story needs to achieve its potential. So for those of you who plan to go through this process on your own, give yourself plenty of time to revisit your draft and shape the essay as you go.
And what about word count ?
Okay, so word count. This is one of my favorite subjects. If you had to guess the upper limit of word count for a successful HBS Essay, what would you say? The lower limit?
If you read any other advice about the Harvard Essay, you're going to find that almost everyone says 1000 words. Tops. Or 750-1250 words . Tops. Or 1100 words. Tops . Or something like that. So let me be the one to tell you: Any firm answer to this question is a load of hooey. The length of the essay is totally irrelevant.
A few stats from some of our recent Harvard admits will help you get a sense of just how varied and individualized the writing process is for the HBS Essay.
Here’s a sampling of our successful clients’ word count in recent years:
You want to tell the story in as much time as it takes to really do it justice. For most people—it’s true—that’s somewhere in the 1200-1400 range. But not for everyone! Some essays will take a lot more than that, and some will take less.
For successful essays in the 1000-word range, they’re shorter because they have a simpler and more straightforward story to tell. The successful client essays that broke into the 2000-word range had the most amazing, fascinating, and riveting life stories and experiences I’ve ever come across.
I repeat: There. Is. No. Right. Number.
The takeaway here is that each story has its own cadence and its own pace. It takes place in its own time. Again, the number of words that it has is completely irrelevant. You want to tell the story in the amount of space that allows you to fully show the admissions committee your best self . Because, ultimately, it's not your essay that gets you in. It's not your GMAT. It's not even your resume. It's who you are .
6. Seek out feedback
Please remember : Essays need readers . Every storyteller needs an audience.
One of the best things you can do for yourself when you’re writing the HBS Essay is find someone to bounce drafts off of. (Trust me, you’ll be SO thankful you did.) You need to know how the story that you’re telling is going to land for someone else.
Gauging a reader’s reaction and asking for feedback can help you answer questions like: Do any of my anecdotes need more detail? Is everything spelled out clearly enough? Do any parts of my essay seem to drag on endlessly? Am I emphasizing the right things? And—in more extreme but all-too-common cases—do I come off sounding like a selfish jerk? Or an airhead? (Obviously you’re not those things, which is exactly why we don’t want your essay putting off those vibes!!)
This back-and-forth between you and a trusted reader is a fantastic way to give greater definition to your narrative. If you move from draft 1 to draft 2 to draft 3 all inside the vacuum of your own mind, you’ll get caught up in one big smush of perfectionism and wordsmithing and miss the most important point: the big picture—emotional connection with the reader.
But do choose wisely . We’re the best at what we do (in large part, I’d argue, because we love doing it ). So if you want a buddy for your HBS essay-writing and beyond, start your journey with Career Protocol today.
If working with a professional is out of the question, ask a friend, peer, or mentor to be your trusted reader. Choose someone you can count on to be honest with you—to give you their true reactions and ask questions freely, rather than petting your ego. (This isn’t the time for that!!!)
But also make sure to choose someone whose opinions about you are generous and who doesn’t feel the need to control your narrative or grammar. Moms can sometimes be great. But sometimes they have their own preconceived notions about who they think you are that isn’t well aligned with who you ACTUALLY are today. And that grammar stickler friend of yours just might wordsmith all the life out of your writing voice.
More advice on this here:
So, I’ll say once more, choose your reading buddy wisely! To collect great feedback, try using our Friends-Family Fly Test . And remember, we’re here if you need us.
7. When in Doubt: Read more great advice & some solid essay samples
Here’s some advice on approaching the hbs essay from a few of our harvard admits:.
“I think for HBS, I always considered it a long shot, so I wasn't afraid to present what I felt was my true story. I think it's more of an opportunity to reflect on what the most important part of your story is. I wanted to be honest and true to myself, because I knew that I'd otherwise look back and think, ‘Wait a minute. What if I had just told the story I wanted them to know all along?’”
“Be honest! Show the school your capacity for self-reflection, give a thoughtful appraisal of your past actions/mistakes.”
“Be authentic! It is really easy to be caught in the trap of saying what you think is important or focusing on what may be perceived as ‘most impressive,’ but from what I have seen, admissions committees are so good at sniffing out inauthentic essays that it may end up backfiring!”
(are you noticing a trend here?)
“After you have a few drafts under your belt, take a break on your application for a few days. When you come back, reread your essay while asking yourself ‘does this cut to the core of who I really am?’ Share your essay with your family and close friends with the same question. If you don’t get a resounding yes from all parties, go back to the drawing board.”
“DON’T SUBMIT SOMETHING THAT FEELS FORCED OR FAKE. I wrote an entire draft of my HBS essay and spent two weeks trying to edit it into something I believed reflected who I really am, and at the end of it I decided to start over. Don’t be afraid to start over.”
One more nugget of wisdom from an HBS admit:
“Definitely try to be as concise and to-the-point in your essays as possible. Also, do not feel the need to crack open your SAT vocab books!”
And now a final word from me…
This is my most important piece of advice in approaching the Harvard Essay:
There are no guarantees. Most of you will not get in. That's a fact. So you might as well do yourself proud in the essay. Write it in such a way that you can look back on the choices that you made on this journey with no regrets , because you told the story that you wanted to tell. You authentically answered the question. You told Harvard what it was that you really wanted them to know about you.
If you remember, choice equals voice. You're making choices continually—even as you go through this process. I recommend that you make strong choices in your essays, and especially when you're applying to Harvard.
Harbus 2021 Essay Guide. Need I say more? (Check out earlier editions, too, to broaden your sample set.) But be sure to read SEVERAL essays so you get clear about the fact that there is no right answer. Don’t anchor your story to someone else’s. Own it.
Subscribe to our Career Protocol YouTube channel to watch my MBA Pro Tips, including my Top Tips for Writing the Harvard Essay.
And if you’re wondering how to write those other Epic Life Story essays, listen to me tackle Stanford’s “What Matters Most to You and Why?” (also on our YouTube channel)
Aaaaanddd on that note: Our Top 10 Tools for Your Creative MBA Essays
Student of Human Nature| Founder and Chief Education Officer of Career Protocol
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How to Write the Harvard Business School Essay
Harvard Business School’s MBA is one of the most well-known, acclaimed professional degrees in the world. When applying for such a competitive next step in your education and career, every aspect of your application deserves careful deliberation and preparation. The application essay requires even more thought because Harvard Business School views essays as a real-time representation of who you are, professionally and personally. This blog will take you through a step-by-step process so you’ll know exactly how to write the Harvard Business School essay. Hopefully, it will also help invigorate your pride in your own story, for Harvard Business School will be more likely to see your potential if you demonstrate that you see it too.
What is the Harvard Business School Essay?
The Harvard Business School essay is just one component of a complete MBA application, but it certainly has its own considerations. So, it is important that you take time to consider the essay separately from the rest of the documents and information in your application. The essay 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?
This essay question is particularly challenging for many applicants due to its vague nature. The other potentially unexpected kicker to this prompt: there is no word limit. Regarding the length of your essay, the Harvard Business School webpage suggests that you “use your best judgment, and try to be clear… and concise.” We’ll discuss how to best work on this deliverable later in the blog, as it is an important factor in the overall presentation of your writing.
Unless you have an exceedingly in-depth resume, the essay is definitely going to be the most personal aspect of your application. The essay is your chance to use your own words to describe yourself, your values, and your insights. It will be the most significant signal to the admissions committee as to how your background has influenced you and how HBS would fit well into your future.
Purpose of the Harvard Business School Essay
In light of this, the purpose of your essay is to give the admissions committee an integrated look into who you are as a student, professional, and person. Harvard wants you to reflect on the aspects of your education, work experience, and social life that you think are most significant and use the essay to tell the story behind them. In other words, the essay is your chance to demonstrate passion.
Your analytical abilities will be communicated through your GMAT scores and your undergrad transcript and GPA, so you do not need to use the essay to explain how exemplary you’ve been as a student. Your resume and letters of recommendation provide insight into what you have achieved professionally and academically and give a picture of how you present yourself to others. So, what’s missing from your application when these are complete are your motivations. This could include what your main motivating factors are, where and how they developed, and what goals have come from these points of inspiration. Again, this is really just the story of what you’re passionate about and why.
It’s through this kind of thought process that the seemingly broad essay question becomes more specific. Before deciding what you’d like to write about, consider what kind of information the admissions committee will gather in other parts of your application, and then consider what else would be important for the admissions committee to know about you. This will ensure an original, fascinating, and authentic essay that answers even more questions that Admissions might have about you.
Step by Step Guide on Writing the Harvard Business School Essay
Organization is key to ensuring quality in an open-ended writing assignment such as the prompt offered by HBS. It’s important to order tasks in an accomplishable, reasonable way where each goal is clear and manageable. Exploring blogs about MBA essay writing is one way to get ideas flowing. To help wrap your head around organizing your essay-writing efforts, here are some beginning-to-end steps for the creation of your Harvard Business School essay:
- Decide on the Right Story and Its Theme
- Write an Outline
- Start Your Essay Carefully and Deliberately
- Draft Your Essay and Revise
- Get an Outside Perspective
Start the process of HBS essay writing with something as equally fundamental as it is simple: thought. Consider the role that the essay will play in your application and how to make the essay benefit your goal of getting into Harvard Business School. There are two sides to useful self-reflection regarding a goal like a Harvard MBA.
First, think purposefully about your career goals and tie them to an MBA at Harvard Business School. Ask yourself, how would a Harvard MBA help you get to where you want to go, professionally? What would you most like to gain from your time studying at HBS? Thinking about these things and then including them in your essay will demonstrate to the admissions committee that you have a clear trajectory for your MBA experience and your career. Additionally, revealing these considerations in your essay will speak to your confidence in your aspirations and in your decision to apply for Harvard Business School, which will likewise be attractive to the admissions committee.
The other side to a useful introspection would be considering what you as a student would contribute to Harvard and to its MBA program. A US News article about successful MBA essays encourages you to highlight what you would contribute to the HBS MBA program, so that you come across as a useful addition instead of simply a “taker.” If you were in the admissions committee's shoes, what would be the most enticing aspects of your past education, your experiences, and your personality. Essentially, you should think, specifically and without judgment, about what your biggest strengths as an applicant are, realistically. Knowing this will help you, both consciously and subconsciously, weave your most compelling characteristics into your essay so that the admissions committee gets to know your best side.
2. Decide on the Right Story and Its Theme
You absolutely do not want to use your essay as a canvas on which to dump information about yourself. Harvard is not interested in reading an essay that expands on your entire resume or simply describes you. Tell a story! Elucidate on an impactful experience or explain a significant lesson you’ve learned. You’ll probably either overflow with abounding exciting examples to choose from, or you’ll struggle to find even one compelling anecdote. Don’t worry if you sit in this situation for a while; after all, you’ll ultimately still need to decide on just one topic, whether that means whittling down your options or sifting through your past to isolate that one perfect story.
Once you finally do settle on that one excellent, fascinating subject that excites you enough to write about, you should also deliberate about what you intend your themes and tones to be. What would the ideal takeaway(s) be for a reader of your essay? Additionally, and this is annoyingly subjective, so apologies; how do you want to sound ? You should have a picture of how your essay will present your information, and you should have a picture of how your essay will present you . The admissions committee will use the essay to try to imagine you and the role you’d play at Harvard, so keep in mind how they would do this with the essay you write.
3. Write an Outline
This step is fairly straightforward. Take the most important points of your topic, and put them in an order that would flow well as you write. Make sure, as you lay these points out, that they align with each other coherently and that they reflect your intended theme. From there, write out some thoughts on how best to integrate each point into a complete essay. You might want to explicitly write out which details are most crucial to each part of your story or subject. For example, let's say your compelling story about a transformative internship abroad begins by explaining what you were doing before it. Then, intuitively, you’d have to include details about where you were at this stage of the story and whether you were working, studying, traveling, etc. Put this information in your outline, so you know that you don’t leave things out and lose your reader.
4. Start Your Essay Carefully and Deliberately
The way you begin your essay is quite important and will in many ways determine how the rest of your essay will shape out. First things first, make sure you feel good about your first sentence. Just like the opening scene of a movie, the first statement or two of your HBS essay will introduce your writing style and general tone to the admissions committee readers. Consistency always improves readability, and consistency starts with your opening sentence. Try to make the first couple sentences intriguing to garner some interest right from the get-go.
From the first sentence, ensure you’re keeping to your tone, at least peripherally. We can all agree a shift in tone tends to break the flow of good writing, and to have that break early on in your essay might throw the admissions committee off. The more sentences you write in a consistent tone and manner, the easier it will be to continue to write in holding with them. Because you’re trying to tell one, coherent story, the reader will be most interested if your writing follows an intuitive flow of ideas.
5. Draft Your Essay and Revise
From this last point, try as best you can to find a steady pace, and begin expanding on your outline. The nice part of this step is that you don’t have to get carried away with wording, sentence structure, or length. Again, focus on including all the relevant details and continue matching your tone. Try to write at a reasonable rate for decent chunks of time instead of writing intermittently while giving in to distractions. The more consecutively you write each sentence and paragraph, the better they’ll run together when someone’s reading them.
The reason you’ve already prepared an outline, and plan to edit throughout the rest of your writing process, is to make your first attempt at writing the essay as easy as it can be. Mistakes and breaks in your thinking can easily be caught by careful reading after the fact, so capitalize on inspiration when it hits and simply get your first draft onto the page. When writing an important, personal essay like this one, it also serves you well to keep boosting your confidence. If you fixate on word choice and how your writing is sounding, you’ll be more likely to break up the flow of your statements and make reading your essay feel choppy. You are telling your own story, and the point of the essay is for the admissions committee to get a better idea of your personality and character, so take pride in the fact that you’re unambiguously the best writer for this subject.
6. Get an Outside Perspective
Once you’ve written the entirety of your essay and edited it carefully and precisely, get some extra peace of mind by having one or two other people read your essay. The more insightful and writing-experienced your readers of choice are, the more you’ll benefit from their critiques and opinions. The crucial part of this step is to get thoughts from someone unattached to your writing. As fervently and specifically as you may edit your own essay, you’ll always struggle to distance yourself from your emotional attachment to certain phrases, details, or even words. It’s ok. Every writer goes through this with the things they write. Trust us.
This other person allows you to hear a perspective from someone who read every sentence as how it sounded, not how it was intended. In this way, they fill the shoes of the admissions committee, but at a stage where you can still make changes to your essay. Don’t take criticisms personally; it's better to hear them now than to be at their mercy after submitting your application.
No, you don’t need to force yourself to accept every change proposed by your reader(s). The point of an outside perspective is not to find a qualified editor and let them rewrite an essay about something important to you. This step is more useful just in reinvigorating your own thoughts about your paper because, in the late stages of your essay writing, it's much easier to get bogged down with the same considerations and forget the bigger things you’re trying to say to the admissions committee.
Sample Harvard Business School Essay
“Start again,” my mother would demand after tossing my less-than-perfect homework into the trash. As a kid, I was taught that ‘work is finished when it’s not just your best work, but the best.’ Most kids would resent a parent for this, but I didn’t: my mom practiced the same rigor with her own work. She had to—a Latin immigrant with only a high school degree in 1980s [City] was held to a higher standard, especially one fighting to change both the media’s and corporations’ impressions about Latinx consumers.
Sample Body Paragraphs:
I have applied this doctrine of “do better, be better” throughout my life, focusing on improving my own communities, be it through offering students a taste of food around the world with a college underground pop-up kitchen or planning a [Latinx event] as a conference chair. Last year gave me the chance to continue to work on being an inclusive leader in the Black/Latinx (B/LX) community as a ‘white-passing’ individual. Ultimately, however, these concerns were unimportant when given the opportunity to improve things now for the B/LX community. My new work projects helped me confront leaders I felt had not supported teams during the summer’s tragedies. I learned how feedback framed as suggestions could have powerful consequences. In fact, one of my managers actually came to me for advice on how to engage his peers in order to help his local community use pooled funds from [consulting group].
These experiences have helped me refine my long-term aspirations. Though I would still like to build on my mother’s legacy of a community-minded entrepreneur, I dream of founding my own venture capital fund. I want to alter the face of business by empowering young, diverse entrepreneurs who will bring novel approaches to lingering problems from past generations. Rather than improve my community only through projects supporting others’ priorities, I intend to be an active participant, building an incubator for entrepreneurs of color to eliminate barriers that maintain inequality such as urban food insecurity and underfunded education systems.
HBS will immerse me in the rapidly evolving entrepreneurial environment, helping me to understand process and practice creating ideas as both a founder and funder. On campus, I intend to be an active participant in HBS’ Anti-Racism goals, fighting to bring equity and inclusion with the same passion I have brought to my office and B/LX network. After graduating, I plan to continue engaging with HBS, either by working with student-run investment groups (like IVP’s Steve Harrick and the students behind the inclusion-focused Phoenix Fund) or working with professors to influence HBS’ future (like alumni Lulu Curiel and Eric Calderon, who helped develop a case study with Professor Alvarez to improve Latinx representation in MBA programs). Internalizing the case-method and the hands-on experiences acquired in my two years on-campus will embolden me to disrupt the status quo, both from the grassroots and executive levels.
What Made It Successful
So, what works well in this thoughtful, personal HBS application essay? Starting with the introduction, the anecdote that this writer starts their essay with grabs attention through the strict rigor that their mother required for them growing up. Again, the key to the first few statements of an application essay lies in their ability to compel the reader to read on. An excellent introduction. will ensure reading your essay is a pleasure instead of a chore. Further on in this essay example, the reader understands where the applicant's motivation for equality and fair representation stems from, and this theme persists throughout the piece. It’s through demonstrating strong points like these that the reader reaches a higher empathy for the writer, which never hurts when applying to Harvard Business School. We also gain appreciation for the leadership skills of the writer due to their clear descriptions of past examples. Crucially, do not just hear how these examples played out, but what lessons the writer learned from them that they continue to apply. Finally, the essay’s conclusion cites both short-term and long-term goals for the writer's schooling and career, and this section feels very specifically written for HBS. Including references to Harvard Business School and its alumni, as done in this example, shows the admissions committee that your efforts in writing this essay are totally aimed at getting into HBS’s MBA, and that you’ve thought hard enough about the decision to do in-depth research.
Tips for Creating a Standout Essay
1. show don’t tell ..
If you use your essay to outright explain what you’re trying to show the admissions committee about yourself, you run a much higher risk of losing readability and taking your application from an opportunity to a plea. Instead, demonstrate your takeaways, your best qualities, through your story and its examples. The reader is far more likely to be compelled by the conclusions of your essay if they feel like they came to them themselves. By not explicitly explaining the point of your essay, you come across more sure in the topic you’ve chosen and its ability to reveal the point.
2. Use rich anecdotes .
Your essay will be bolstered or weakened by the intrinsic quality of the experiences about which you write. Only include anecdotes that you’d be just as comfortable and confident about retelling to dinner guests or friends at a bar. Obviously, the formality of those situations and the Harvard Business School MBA application differ starkly, but the gist of this statement is that if you’d feel awkward telling a story to your friends, it’d be hard to make it sound good for an unseen admissions committee reader. If it’s a story you’ll enjoy writing about, it’ll stand a better chance of being enjoyable to read.
3. Tell a story .
Allow for your topic to run a course through several experiences or lessons. Connecting the different events you’re using with cause and effect relationships will encourage the admissions committee to keep reading and see why each addition to the essay was included. That isn’t to say you should strive to connect unrelated experiences or anecdotes, just that your examples should run together well, with a beginning to end arch in mind.
4. Get professional help.
Utilize guides and blog posts about the undertaking of applying to an MBA program, getting as specific to Harvard Business School as you can. Reviewing a concise guide about applying to Harvard Business School can be the best way to ensure that your application is sound, not just for any MBA program, but for Harvard Business School’s MBA. Many resources, like Final Application Reviews , will focus heavily on your essay, but will also provide insight on every aspect of your application so you feel best about your attempt.
1. How can I best edit my essay?
It’s important to feel confident about the details you’re using in your essay. That being said, the actual content of your story should not be your main focus in the editing process; this could just lead to more doubt about your subject overall. The editing process is more for syntax, word choice, and the like. Luckily, there are many ways to make this easier for you. Start by looking up common mistakes made in MBA application essays, and professional essays in general. Rake through your essay for these issues; they aren’t just the most likely mistakes to be in there, but they’ll also be the ones that the admissions committee will be most likely to notice. Following this, we’d recommend using Grammarly to check over your whole essay. You have the option to accept whichever changes feel correct, but utilizing Grammarly’s editing database greatly decreases your likelihood of turning your essay in with mistakes.
2. How long should my essay be if there’s no word limit?
Trust your instincts. If your essay feels too wordy, it's in your best interest to submit an essay that’s quick and easy to read. Your allegiance is to your topic, not to having a lengthy essay, so tell your story clearly and don’t undercut your points by over-explaining anything. If you’re reading this looking for an exact suggested word count range, you’re out of luck. The HBS admissions committee chose not to implement a word limit for a reason. Completeness in this essay is not a matter of length, but of narrative, so shoot for one to three pages in length, but trust your gut.
3. Is the essay portion different if I’m reapplying?
Harvard Business School has not indicated an additional prompt for reapplicants. The only additional essay question is for joint program applicants for the Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Dental Medicine, Harvard Law School, and Harvard Kennedy School. All applicants, whether they’ve applied before or not, must answer the same essay question to ensure that no one applicant has any advantages or disadvantages.
4. Can I use the same essay if I’m reapplying?
HBS does not explicitly prohibit this, but, intuitively, it’s probably a better idea to write a new essay. You would have no way of knowing that your essay and the topic you chose played no role in your initial rejection. The issue is not that the admissions committee would recognize you and your re-use of the first essay. The issue is that your rejection is an indication that you could write a better essay, so make full use of your second chance and start fresh.
5. Are there bad topics to write about?
There should be a personal tinge to whatever you decide your essay should cover, as it’s really the only place that the admissions committee will glimpse your true personality. For this reason, resist the urge to describe some academic accomplishment or impressive professional success, unless it goes to a broader, more personal theme. Your resume will illustrate these kinds of milestones and achievements well enough for the admissions committee to factor them into your decision. So, writing your essay about this sort of topic with a simple take-away of showing how impressive you are could give the admissions committee the wrong impression of you and strips them of a better chance to get to know you in a deeper way.
Keeping with the issue of redundancy, also avoid writing an essay on something that’s alluded to or fundamental in one of your letters of recommendation. By telling the same story twice in your application, you’re short-selling your chance to give maximum opportunities for the admissions committee to see your value. Write about something original and unique, and from there keep reminding yourself of the importance of your topic. If you struggle to defend the importance to yourself, you might have picked a flimsy subject.
6. Can I over-edit my essay?
You can absolutely over-edit your paper, the result of which being that your writing will start to sound stilted and fragmented in style. Not to mention, the very idea of “over-editing” indicates that it uses time that would be better served following other objectives. It is difficult to know at what point your paper has been edited perfectly, and at what point you may have gone a bit too far with it. One tell-tale sign of over-editing would be instances where you make changes, and the before and after of your edit have no clear or substantive difference for how the sentence is delivered. At that point, you may realize that you’re at that point making changes just because they’re occurring to you, and that’s when you should start to ramp-down your efforts.
Harvard Business School’s MBA program is competitive and prestigious, so remember that the HBS application gives the same essay opportunity to every applicant. The essay is your chance to differentiate yourself from other prospective students and demonstrate how your unique experiences and insights make you a stronger MBA candidate. The key to writing the Harvard Business School essay is finding the right topic: something that you’re excited to write about and that reveals a better, more holistic representation of you. Along with this, use organizational resources and careful time management to progress your essay one step at a time so that it develops in the best way possible. Use the steps outlined in this article to keep this task as simple as it can be, and be authentic and enthusiastic throughout your writing. From there, the last important reminder in how to write the Harvard Business School essay is to maintain self-confidence in your choice of topic and your writing style and ability. Feeling sure of yourself as you write and when you finally submit your application will result in a more certain-sounding essay. Not to mention, your emotional health will end up in better shape. After all, you’re applying to the Harvard Business School for a reason; don’t let the essay portion stand in your way. Use it.
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2023-2024 Harvard Business School MBA Essay Tips and Example Essays
Jul 3, 2023
- Who is Harvard looking for?
- How should I answer Harvard essay questions?
- We help your Harvard essays shine
UPDATE : This article was originally posted on July 23, 2018. It has been updated with new information and tips below.
When many people think “business school,” the first MBA that pops into their mind is Harvard Business School. Established in 1908, HBS has been at the forefront of business education for more than a century.
However, receiving more than 8,000 applications per year, Harvard Business School is one of the most difficult MBA programs to enter.
That’s why we’ve prepared this guide to help you use your Harvard admissions essays to stand out. We’ve rounded up our best tips and links to Harvard Business School MBA sample essays to ensure you give your HBS application your best shot.
1. Who is Harvard looking for?
Every year, Harvard Business School admits the largest single MBA class in the world, with around 1000 students starting each year. In general, Harvard tends to admit applicants with 5 years of work experience and outstanding test scores. The median GMAT for the Class of 2023 was 730, and the median GRE was 163Q, 163V.
Harvard also places a strong emphasis on diversity, with the Class of 2024 containing 46% women and 38% international students.
According to Harvard’s Admissions team:
In addition, some of the key characteristics HBS looks for in applicants are:
Habit of Leadership
Leadership may be expressed in many forms, from college extracurricular activities to academic or business achievements, from personal accomplishments to community commitments. We appreciate leadership on any scale, from organizing a classroom to directing a combat squad, from running an independent business to spearheading initiatives at work. In essence, we are looking for evidence of your potential.
Analytical Aptitude and Appetite
Harvard Business School is a demanding, fast-paced, and highly-verbal environment. We look for individuals who enjoy lively discussion and debate. Our case and field-based methods of learning depend upon the active participation of prepared students who can assess, analyze, and act upon complex information within often-ambiguous contexts. The MBA Admissions Board will review your prior academic performance, the results of the GMAT or GRE, and, if applicable, TOEFL iBT and/or IELTS, and the nature of your work experience. There is no particular previous course of study required to apply; you must, however, demonstrate the ability to master analytical and quantitative concepts.
Engaged Community Citizenship
So much of our MBA experience – including the case method, section life, and student-organized events – requires the active collaboration of the entire HBS community. That’s why we look for students who exhibit the highest ethical standards and respect for others, and can make positive contributions to the MBA Program. The right candidates must be eager to share their experiences, support their colleagues, and teach as well as learn from their peers.
We want applicants who have these traits, as well as bring a variety of skills, accomplishments and aspirations. In each class, we create a dynamic environment that mirrors the breadth and depth of our world economy. Our promise to our faculty and to every student here is to create a class of 900 students who come from as many different backgrounds and perspectives as possible.
If this sounds like a community in which you’d be right at home, you’ll first have to prove you’ve got what it takes by successfully answering Harvard’s open-ended admissions essay question.
2. How should I answer Harvard essay questions?
Writing any admissions essay is a tough task, however, Harvard raises the bar with its highly-challenging yet open-ended prompt. In fact, HBS likes this question so much that they have kept it unchanged for multiple years.
Keep reading for a more in-depth look at how to turn this rather open-ended task into a standout essay!
Here’s the question:
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)
We think you know what guidance we’re going to give here. Don’t overthink, overcraft and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don’t know your world can understand.
As an admissions consultant who encourages clients to use the MBA application process to reflect on past accomplishments and future ambitions, I personally love this question.
The open format allows you to include plenty of information about the experiences and examples you think make you unique .
At its core, this essay is focused on allowing HBS to get to know the person behind the data, understanding how you have demonstrated leadership and excellence in your life, as well as gain insight into what motivates your decision.
That means your first task is to decide what you want HBS to know about you . Consider the fact that they have read your letters of recommendation, your CV, and all the information you typed into the online forms. If you’re not sure where to start, review who HBS is looking for here .
Need more guidance? Our MBA Resource Center has dozens of successful HBS MBA essays that worked to get our clients admitted to help you plan out a winning Harvard Business School essay. Our library also includes guides for all top global MBA programs, detailed essay brainstorms, interview tips and mocks, CV templates, and recommendation letter guides. Click to join !
Good examples of past experiences for your HBS essay would include — but are certainly not limited to — how you created a new volunteer initiative in your community, how you navigated complex work situations, context for the decisions you made, the motivations behind your professional choices, difficult challenges you faced and overcame, how you acted as a leader at work and/or at school, etc.
No matter what you choose, each example should add something new about you to the mix.
In addition, business schools, in general, often prefer essays that incorporate good storytelling techniques . In the past, some of our most successful clients have been those who select a defining theme and connect ~3-4 examples to this theme.
What not to do
Though HBS’ essay question is extremely open-ended, you cannot treat it as a “catch-all” for application materials you have already prepared elsewhere. For example, this should NOT be a copy/paste of your Stanford GSB “What Matters Most to You and Why” essay, nor a narrative retelling of your CV.
Remember that your goal is to show HBS who you are and demonstrate that you belong as a member of their elite university. Your essay is your best chance to do this, so make sure every word counts!
Harvard does also give applicants a 500-character optional essay to explain any extenuating circumstances.
3. We help your Harvard essays shine
One of the most common mistakes we see in MBA essays is that candidates fail to tell compelling stories . This is important because if your stories are not compelling, they will not be persuasive. At the same time, they must be backed by strong examples that establish a track record of success and prove to the admissions committees why you belong at their school.
Striking this balance between content and creativity can be tough, however, as succeeding means not only choosing the right stories but ensuring they are told in an optimal manner.
This is why our iterative developmental feedback process here at Ellin Lolis Consulting helps you mold your message through the application of our storytelling expertise until it reflects exactly what makes your profile stand out and show fit with your target program.
That’s the approach we took with Fernando, who was admitted to Harvard. In their words, “ I absolutely recommend Ellin’s work to anyone who is applying to – or thinking about applying to – an MBA program. She definitely made the process smoother and helped me get to the end goal: get accepted at Harvard!”
Not only can you take advantage of our editing expertise through multiple edits – you can also benefit from it after a single review! If your budget is tight, our editors will be happy to help polish your text as much as possible and leave “bonus comments” so you can keep working on it on your own!
No matter how long we work with you, we will always ensure your essays shine . Sign up to work with our team of storytelling experts and get accepted.
The HBS MBA deadlines for the 2023-2024 season are below. You can access the HBS application here .
Ellin Lolis MBA Resource Center
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With our expertise and 98.9% success rate in placing our consulting clients in at least one of their target schools, we can add more value to your application than you ever thought possible.
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Ask These Questions During Your MBA Interview
UPDATE: This article was originally posted on October 8, 2018. It has been updated with 2023/24 information and tips below. As your MBA interview draws to a close, you let out a sigh of relief knowing how well you answered the questions and showed your fit for the...
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June 29, 2023
Harvard Business School MBA Essay Tips and Deadlines [2023 – 2024]
The Admissions Office at Harvard Business School (HBS) has announced updates for the 2023-2024 admissions cycle. The most important update is that if you plan to apply to HBS and have yet to take an entrance exam, you should take the traditional GMAT test (including the AWA) or the GRE. HBS will not accept the GMAT Focus Edition exam because it will not be available until after the Round 1 deadline. This will eliminate any confusion that might occur across Rounds 1 and 2.
The essay prompt and word limit will remain the same, at a maximum (not necessarily a requirement) of 900 words. The team also indicates that if you can tell your story in 500 words, that’s fine too.
- HBS MBA essay tips
- HBS 2023-2024 deadlines
- HBS class profile
- Sample HBS Essay
- More resources
Harvard will continue being one of the few, if not the only, school with just two rounds (September and January). HBS uses an April deadline exclusively for HBS 2+2, its deferred admission program.
Let’s talk about Harvard’s MBA application
On to the Harvard MBA application and essay question itself: HBS clearly likes the responses it has received to the past several years’ excellent essay question because this year’s question is identical. The essay is again required, and there is a 900-word limit
Harvard Business School MBA essay tips
There is one question for the HBS Class of 2026:
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?
The website provides the following advice as well:
We think you know what guidance we’re going to give here. Don’t overthink, overcraft and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don’t know your world can understand.
Before you begin to complete your application I have two suggestions for you:
- Review Harvard’s criteria for admission , and its MBA Application Tips: Essay video .
- Watch the embedded video on the case method at HBS.
This is a great essay question. It allows you to choose what you want the school to know about you without having to fit that information into a framework required by a question that doesn’t really align with your story. It also allows you to demonstrate judgment and communication skills, which are critical given Harvard’s residential culture , study groups, and case method. Finally, this essay is a chance for HBS to get to know you beyond your resume and the limited (and limiting) boxes. In fact, as Chad Losee says in his essay tip video, they want to get to know you through your essay. That’s the essay’s purpose.
Now THINK. What else – really and truly – do you want Harvard Business School to know about you? The HBS admissions committee has told you what they want to know in the other sections of the application. “What more” do you want the HBS readers to know?
Please note that your essay has to be additive. “What more” are the key words in the prompt. It shouldn’t be a resume in prose. And it shouldn’t be a series of vague generalities and assertions that would apply to many others. Finally, it can’t be a series of anecdotes with no meaning or significance associated with the experiences. It should reflect at least part of your unique story, the part that you want HBS to know. Finally, your essay should reflect your motivations, values, and dreams.
The answer to HBS’ question is not something I can give or even suggest to you in a blog post aimed at the many (for individual guidance, please see Accepted’s MBA Admissions Consulting ). It must be different for each of you. Again, refer to the HBS criteria, as you contemplate possible topics, but the options are infinite. A few possibilities:
- Provide context for events described in the required elements.
- Delve into your motivations for the decisions or commitments you have made.
- Discuss experiences that shaped your dreams for the future, which might just benefit enormously from an HBS education (caveat: HBS doesn’t ask why you want to attend Harvard, so don’t make this a central theme of your essay).
- Examine challenges you have faced. These could be personal challenges, or perhaps interpersonal challenges.
- Envision something you would like to accomplish at HBS.
- Provide more detail about an activity or commitment that is particularly important to you.
Please don’t limit yourself to these suggestions. I am offering them to stimulate your creativity, not to shut it down.
If one thing is true, it is that HBS has valued concision. And, in today’s tweet- and sound-bite-driven world, it is requiring short responses in the other portions of the application. Don’t take this essay’s generous word limit as a license for verbosity. Make every word count, no pun intended.
A few cautions and warnings regarding this essay – it is NOT:
- Stanford’s “what matters most to you and why?” essay
- The kitchen sink in which you throw everything
- An autobiography
- A resume in prose or a rehash of your transcript and honors
- An ode to the awesomeness of Harvard (The admissions committee doesn’t need you to tell them they have a great institution that you would be honored to attend. They’ve heard it before.)
For expert guidance on your HBS application, check out Accepted’s MBA Application Packages , which include advising, editing, interview coaching, and a resume edit for the HBS application. Looking to score some scholarship money while you’re at it? Accepted’s clients received over $3.5 million dollars in scholarship offers in the most recent application cycle. Explore our services for more information on how Accepted can help you get into HBS.
Harvard Business School 2023-24 application deadlines
Source: HBS website
* Applications must be submitted online by 12 noon Boston time.
***Disclaimer: Information is subject to change. Please check with individual programs to verify the essay questions, instructions and deadlines.***
HBS class profile [Class of 2024]
Here’s a look at HBS’s Class of 2024 taken from the Harvard Business School website :
Number of applications: 8264
- United States: 62%
- Mexico, Central & South America: 5%
- Middle East: 3%
- Oceania: 1%
US minorities: 52%
Average GPA: 3.70
Average years work experience: 5.0
Percent of class taking GMAT: 74%
- Verbal range: 29– 51
- Quantitative range: 34 – 51
- Total range: 540–790
- Median verbal: 42
- Median quantitative: 48
- Median total : 730
Percent of class taking GRE: 30%
- Verbal range: 147 – 170
- Quantitative range: 150–170
- Median verbal: 163
- Median quantitative: 163
Breakdown of undergraduate majors (137 domestic universities and 158 international universities)
Breakdown of pre-mba industries, sample harvard business school essays from admitted hbs students.
Even after having read hundreds of HBS essays, I still found it worthwhile to read The 2020 Harbus MBA Essay Guide . For applicants who have preconceived notions of what an admissible essay should be, The Essay Guide will open your eyes to 22 successful and different responses. For applicants who are wondering how on earth they should approach their essay, the guide will give them 22 different answers.
For me it reinforced several valuable lessons:
- There really is no template for a successful HBS essay. The diversity of essays that are acceptable — no pun intended, well maybe a little intended — to Harvard Business School is striking.
- The commitment of most of the authors to telling their story is also noteworthy. Several said they asked friends to confirm that the essay really mirrors them. Others wrote that they were determined that the essay present an authentic portrait of them.
- Most of the students wrote the essay over the course of months. Give yourself time to draft a persuasive, introspective, and authentic essay.
Harvard’s question is a fantastic one. It is a probing one. And it requires you to probe yourself so that you can provide a profound reflection of you as you tell the HBS admissions committee what you really want them to know.
A successful Harvard Business School application essay 
This sample essay is from The Harbus MBA Essay Guide and is reprinted with permission from Harbus .
Essay: Vulnerable But Invincible
Home country: USA
Previous industry: Consulting
Analysis: The author takes a rather bold approach here. She uses the essay to point to the times when she showed vulnerability in the workplace. This essay presents a strong example of how an essay can be used to complement different aspects of your personality – while resume and application can be used to highlight accomplishments, the essay has been intelligently used to show author’s capacity to be strong enough to talk about situations when she broke down in a professional capacity, but took lessons from each of these situations and employed them to her strength.
I have cried exactly four times at work.
The first time was early in my career. It was 2AM and I was lying in bed struggling with an Excel model. An overachiever my whole life, I was wholly unused to the feelings of inadequacy and incompetence bubbling up inside me. After clicking through dozens of Excel forums with still no right answer, I gave up and cried myself to sleep, vowing to never let myself feel so incapable again.
The second time was a year and a half later. I was unsatisfied with my project and role, and questioning my decision to be a consultant. That uncertainty must have been apparent to everyone, because my manager pulled me aside and bluntly told me that my attitude was affecting the entire team. I cried in front of him, devastated that I had let my doubts bleed into my work.
The third time was just a year ago. I was overseeing a process redesign and struggling to balance the many changes needed. The Partner called me into his office to say, “I’m worried our process is not as sound as it needs to be. I need to know that you care about this as much as I do.” I nodded, say that I do, then ran to the bathroom to cry, overwhelmed by how much change I knew was coming.
Each of the first three times was driven by frustration and anger. I had tamped down my emotions to the point where they overwhelmed me. Particularly as a young woman in business, I never wanted to be viewed as a stereotype or incapable. I was ashamed of my tears and terrified at how others would perceive me.
However, each of those experiences proved to be a turning point. My tears motivated me to ask for help when I needed it, pushed me to restructure my mindset and approach, and gave me a moment to breathe, rebalance, and reprioritize. In each case, my work was better for it. I have also used each experience as a learning moment. Each time I asked myself what decisions led me to the point of tears, and what I could have done differently. I could have raised my hand earlier for help, initiated a conversation with my manager about my uncertainty and dissatisfaction, or involved the Partner more actively in the planning and prioritization. While I can’t change the past, I can learn from it, and am more considerate of such outcomes when I make these decisions today.
Emotions are an inevitable part of the human experience, and as such, an inevitable part of the office. Rather than keeping them at bay, I have begun embracing my emotions to be a better manager and leader, and build more authentic connections. As a manager, I understand my team as people, not just colleagues. I have regular conversations with each of my team members to understand their individual goals and motivations, so I can take those into consideration when building the team structure and delegating responsibilities. As a leader, I invest in traditions and events that foster camaraderie and high morale. I am the proud founder of [NAME OF OFFICE PROGRAM] in the office, a beloved tradition that is now an integral part of the office and that I hope will continue even after I leave.
The fourth time I cried was at the rollout of a process redesign I oversaw. This was our first time demo-ing the new process end-to-end for the rest of the team. As the demo progressed, I felt the team’s energy turn from nervous anticipation to dawning excitement, and finally to sheer awe and amazement. As the demo ended, one of my teammates turned to me, and asked in a hushed voice, “Are you crying?” And I was. This time, I cried not with frustration or anger. This time, I cried with joy for our success and with pride for my team. Embracing my emotions allowed me to show that tears are not shameful and don’t need to be hidden in the workplace. I am no longer ashamed of my tears, and I am proud to demonstrate that a strong leader can be pragmatic and emotional all at once.
Word count: 705
“I started early on my essay (~ 3 months before the submission deadline) because it was important to me to iterate and be thoughtful. I started by laying out potential themes and stories for my essay, and while there are a lot of similarities, the core message changed quite a bit. Don’t get too attached to any one story or theme and allow yourself to let go of a draft if it’s not the right one. What I found most helpful was having 2-3 close friends that I trust wholeheartedly review multiple drafts, because they were able to provide continuous feedback and help me combine pieces from multiple drafts. None of them had ever gone to or applied to business school, but were experienced in writing and communication (e.g. one is a screenwriter) which helped me focus on communicating MY story more so than what is the story that HBS Admissions would most like.”
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Harvard Business School Application Essay Example
Writing the Harvard Business School (HBS) essay is a daunting task, and candidates often find themselves staring at a blank screen wondering what on earth they should tell the HBS admissions committee and whether they have anything worthy of sharing. Try to ignore those seeds of doubt and take comfort in knowing that others have struggled with the same questions.
The following essay, along with its associated commentary, is one of fifty essays reviewed in “What Matters?” and “What More?”: 50 Successful Essays for the Stanford GSB and HBS (and Why They Worked) , a book co-authored by our firm’s founder, Liza Weale . We have selected this essay not only because it was successful (Andrey recently graduated from HBS and is building a career in investing) but also because the essay reads to us as approachable and might assure you that you do have things worthy of sharing!
Pre-Reading Commentary from Liza Weale, Founder of Gatehouse Admissions:
Andrey faces the unenviable task of needing to somewhat distract the admissions reader from his past, but not for the red flags you might imagine. On the contrary, his pre–business school credentials, including an analyst role at a prominent investment bank and a subsequent associate role at a fast-growing private equity firm, are very compelling. In fact, both HBS and the Stanford GSB allocate an impressive number of their seats to applicants from this very pool. Yet therein lies the problem: the path of “banker-to-investor-to-MBA” is incredibly crowded, which complicates such candidates’ efforts to stand out. Everyone in this group has worked on a “big deal,” pulled an all-nighter, and stepped up to pinch-hit in the role senior to them. HBS has heard these stories many times before! So, if you are part of this pool, what do you do?
The answer is to share things the school will not readily know about you rather than those it will! Andrey focuses his essay on the importance of community and how he strives to contribute to his. Although he mentions his work, it serves merely as a backdrop, and he discusses neither deals nor transactions and instead reflects on mentoring more junior analysts and building a new tool to benefit his entire group. Andrey thereby avoids characterizing himself as “just another finance applicant” and showcases traits that HBS might not be able to assume in reviewing his resume—compassion, humility, initiative, and empathy.
Andrey’s essay also exemplifies the old adage that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. None of Andrey’s stories on their own would likely be sufficient in convincing HBS that he is the stuff the school’s future alumni are made of. Yet by mentioning several examples (some bold and character building, others—such as his effort to drum up interest in his office’s March Madness tournament—smaller in nature), each of which deals with a slightly different challenge or learning, Andrey conveys his earnestness and proves to HBS that his dedication to strengthening communities will enable him to the very sort of leader the school desires.
Getting Outsiders In (885 words) – Harvard Business School Application Essay Written by Andrey, HBS MBA
I emigrated from Eastern Europe at the age of eleven without speaking a word of English. Enrolling in the 7th grade at a local public school, I was lost. No one helped—especially not the two other Eastern Europeans who seemed to enjoy watching me struggle. The more I was excluded, the stronger my commitment to learning English and dropping my accent became. I did whatever it took—watching the Olsen twins’ movies with my mother on weekends and reading ESL books during recess. As my English skills improved, so did my friendships. I initiated conversations—risking ridicule for my accent—and asked to join my classmates’ activities. Soon, I no longer had to ask to be included. In the 8th grade, my classmates gave their final proof of acceptance by electing me as class president.  Instead of staying on the outside looking in, I invested in friends, the culture, and the language. I had finally made America feel like home.
The next time I had to make a new place feel like home was in college. Though I had the language down this time, I again knew no one, so I immersed myself in student life. The organization I was drawn most to was Student Government which emphasized building an inclusive community above all else. I loved contributing to the sense of connectedness through planning and executing events such as the school-wide semi-formal, the annual gingerbread house competition, and our first carnival, a timely break right before exams. When elected as Community Lead, I shifted my focus to advocating on classmates’ behalf. I saw firsthand how my classmates were finding connections through our campus clubs. However, upon taking a closer look, I realized that many of my classmates felt that clubs could be improved. I investigated their issues; the themes I heard were consistent: “Not enough of a budget to get our word out there! Not enough help from the administration!” I launched an effort to help, putting together a proposal for the Senate Finance Team that showed the need for increased funding. I slowly built buy-in with the faculty chairs of the committee and ultimately defended our ask in front of the Dean of Student Life. As a result of my dedication, clubs were awarded increased budgets, and a new full-time staff member was added to liaise with the clubs. Not only was UPenn now home to me, but I had also changed that home for the better for current and future students. 
Starting out as a stranger in my own communities, I’ve discovered that I take joy in helping others get on the “inside” faster.  Throughout college, in addition to my roles in student government, I pursued positions as a Teacher’s Assistant (TA) for three professors and as a Welcome Member giving tours of the campus to prospective students. As a mentor to underclassmen, there were the easy tasks like editing a resume and explaining how to utilize Excel. But I’ve learned that helping others requires real dedication. After Alexander, a student with a learning disability, failed his accounting course, a professor asked me if I would help him with the class as he retook it. He needed much more of me than students I’d TA’ed—I created new materials better suited for his needs and started fresh, reviewing each individual concept with him. When he passed the class,I may have been happier than he was. Now, I’m helping Alexander navigate his first year in the professional world.
Today, I still invest deeply in building a sense of community and connections. My side sessions with fellow analysts on complicated modeling and new accounting topics led to me being selected as one of two first-years at BankCo to tutor the summer analysts. Two years later and they’re contacting me for guidance as they embark on the buy-side recruiting process—guidance I’m happy to provide. At Private Equity Partners (PEP), I introduced new energy into the March Madness and World Cup pools, replacing the generic email updates with my own 5-minute stand-up routine every Monday—drawing together partners and associates alike. As a UPenn alum, I’ve created panels and networking events to help current international students understand the visa process, a maze that I worked through myself years prior.
I also continue to make my mark on my “homes”: prior to leaving BankCo, I saw an opportunity to improve communication between industry groups and the M&A defense team by creating a website for defense team requests. On top of my regular responsibilities, I made the case for the investment and managed two technology developers in creating a website that is now used across the entire investment bank. At PEP, I championed the Tech Team Offsite, an opportunity to brainstorm sourcing strategies and new sub-sectors for investment. In addition to the new investment theses we articulated, the offsite served as a mechanism to further develop the relationships between junior members and senior advisors of the team. My experiences have shaped the type of leader I am today—one who believes strongly in the value of culture and connections and one who seeks change that will help a broader group. I know what it’s like to be on the “outs”—I strive to make an impact on others by helping them be on the “in.
Additional Commentary from Liza:
 Being elected class president one year after arriving at a school in a foreign land must have felt like a tremendous stamp of approval. Note, however, that Andrey does not focus too much on this success. Perhaps he recognized that in the eyes of the admissions committee, the achievement occurred too long ago to dwell on; perhaps he is humble and does not consider it as significant an accomplishment as the reader might. Whatever the reason, his choice ultimately strengthens the power of the example.
 Theme-wise, Andrey’s college story here is similar to his eighth grade story (starting on the outside, becoming a leader within), but he takes this one a step further by explaining how he made a lasting impact on the budget process. If you use a thematic approach in your essay, make sure that each story reveals something new or more about you.
 Note that only here at the start of paragraph three does Andrey state his thesis, but given what he has shared of his journey thus far, we already understand why community is so important to him.
If you would like to see more examples of successful HBS and GSB essays, you can purchase the entire guide here .
Wondering what to write for HBS’s essay? Read our essay analysis here.
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Harvard Business School
Harvard Business School Essay Example
June 8, 2023
How do you write a standout Harvard Business School (HBS) admissions essay? The answer might surprise you. Your goal is not to “wow” the admissions committee with fancy adjectives or to share spectacular achievements that admissions officers have never read or heard about before. Instead, your HBS admissions essay is your opportunity to share your values —to stand out on the basis of who you are and what you stand for.
Let us start with the basics. HBS actually has just one essay question, with no word limit: “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?”
The first thing to note about this question is that it is totally open-ended. Because it is so open-ended, many applicants have no idea where to start. And without a word limit, many also have no idea where to stop! Let us address the end first. We recommend that applicants target 1,000 to 1,250 words, but some candidates’ essays might be as short as 800 words or as long as 1,500. However, anything longer than 1,500 words can start to seem like an imposition on the admissions reader, while anything shorter than 800 could mean that you are short-changing yourself and not giving the admissions committee as full a picture of who you are.
As for the open-ended nature of the question, the whole essay really hinges on the word more —“what more would you like us to know?” The admissions committee should already be able to learn a lot about the path you have taken via your resume and short answers, and they should also learn about your professional performance and character via your recommendations. But through your essay, they should truly learn more about you . As I noted earlier, the goal of your essay is to share more about your values—possibly even about your soul.
To help illustrate my point, I would like to review here a successful application essay from my book “What Matters?” and “What More?”: 50 Successful Essays for the Stanford GSB and HBS (and Why They Worked) , titled “Shhh! Can You Hear Me Listening?” If you do not have a copy of the book, you can download the essay here. I want to start by highlighting a few key takeaways. First, this is not an essay about the kind of vocal leadership many people expect from an HBS MBA. In fact, it is the exact opposite; it is an essay about the often undervalued skill of listening and how it is reflective of the applicant Paul’s empathy. Those are the values Paul highlights throughout the essay: listening, empathy, better listening, more empathy. Rather than trying to hew to some perceived notion of who he thinks he “should” be for HBS, Paul discusses who he actually is! By doing so, he gets to a truly authentic place—he shares his soul. Second, this essay, like almost all essays should be, is a story of growth and change. We get a sense of both who Paul was and who he is now, and although he is not a radically different person, his growth and his ability to effectively wield his sense of empathy reveal themselves as very powerful, making his story compelling for the reader.
Third, Paul makes almost no mention of his work. In his 11-paragraph essay, his work does not come up until the ninth and tenth paragraphs, and even then, his workplace is merely a setting. Paul does not reveal a big product launch or a huge win for the team. He simply shares how he used his listening and empathy skills to break down interpersonal logjams at work, as he also does in his community and personal life. Now, I am not saying that you cannot write about your work accomplishments in this essay. My point is that you should not feel compelled to do so, and you definitely should not make your essay a work biography. Lastly, Paul does not mention his career goals or why he is targeting HBS for his MBA, and if you reread his essay, you will probably recognize that for him to suddenly shift gears at the end and begin discussing them would be very odd. His professional goals do not have much to do with listening or empathy, though these skills will serve him well. In short, the HBS prompt does not ask you to write about your career goals or “why HBS,” so do not feel that you must share this information in your essay, especially if you would have to force it to fit!
Okay, so, let us dig into how Paul gets to that authentic place with his story. He does so by writing with honesty and simplicity. In this case, it is almost an equation: honesty plus simplicity equals authenticity. Consider this excerpt from the essay:
The 10-hour surgery, though harrowing, was a stunning success. Assuming my work was done, I flew home to San Francisco with an enormous burden lifted. In the subsequent months, though, my mother would call me almost every day crying. Sometimes she was upset that my father—struggling with his recuperation—wasn’t appreciative or, worse, was harsh with her; other times she was stressed by the body- and mind-numbing labor that goes into postsurgical care. I listened and would tell her that everything was going to be alright, but no amount of reassurance seemed to make her feel better.
In this short paragraph, we learn that Paul and his family have experienced a medical miracle, but Paul is not giving us the Hollywood ending. He talks about the emotional struggle of the recuperation and the helplessness he experiences during this time. Because of his straightforward language and his honesty in terms of the ups and downs, we can trust him as a narrator. In short, he reveals his authentic persona, and the admissions officer reading the essay will know that this applicant is a real person.
I want to highlight in a little more detail how well Paul uses that simplicity in another part of his essay. The directness and clarity of the language is really wonderful.
One evening, I stumbled upon an opportunity to volunteer at Helping Hands, a suicide prevention hotline that focuses on providing emotional support. I knew that helping strangers would be rewarding in itself but also thought the program could expand my own perspective and help me guide my family through this emotional crisis, so I signed up on the spot.
Paul did not need to write, “I stumbled upon a compelling opportunity and urgently lunged for the phone. It was now my dream to volunteer with Helping Hands!” In short, creating faux drama is not an effective tactic. Your story either has a compelling angle or it does not. Because Paul’s does, the language does the work for him.
Of course, authenticity on its own is not enough. As I noted earlier, Paul’s story is compelling because we experience his growth. In the following excerpt, Paul discusses the impact of a challenge he faced, one for which he had to listen thoughtfully to a deeply troubled person as part of his volunteer work with the hotline. Clearly, he is tested when he has to empathetically listen to someone with whom he never would have engaged otherwise, and this becomes a unique catalyst.
Working with Helping Hands also taught me the importance of knowing my own emotional limits, so I learned to practice self-care as a means to engage others. I started journaling regularly and became far more open to being vulnerable. Having inherited a stoicism from my father, I had to take an honest, critical look at myself in order to manifest this shift. When I allowed myself to truly unmask my feelings, I started to find real strength and resilience within.
As you write your HBS essay, remind yourself that you are not just sharing your journey or a theme—that is an oversimplification. Almost everyone, at some level, is going to be sharing how they have grown, developed, and become the person they are today.
In the end, Paul’s essay is straightforward, yet fiercely original, not because he climbed Everest or cured cancer, but because he has engaged in life with tremendous self-awareness, faced deeply personal challenges, and grown by helping others. There is no magic recipe for how one should write their essay, but we can recognize a few key ingredients in Paul’s essay.
Of course, your story will be your own, and it will be distinct. For even more successful HBS essay examples, be sure to download a copy of our book “What Matters?” and “What More?”: 50 Successful Essays for the Stanford GSB and HBS (and Why They Worked) . If you would like to learn more about what your best story might be, or if you have any questions about your profile, sign up for a free 30-minute consultation . Members of our team are available to connect and give you thoughtful advice and feedback.
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HBS Essay: New word count + tips
September 28, 2023 | by Karla Cohen
Baker Library ©Susan Young for Harvard Business School
Harvard Business School relies on a singular question: “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?”
With this wide-open prompt, Harvard offers a wide-open opportunity to tell them who you are and what drives you — and they offer a generous limit of 900 words to tell your story. This is considerably longer than most schools’ essays, but other schools offer you more defined topics. Having just under two pages to work with gives you the space to tell a detailed story, but the defined limit has a focusing effect. It takes discipline to share meaningful, authentic details in a succinct and memorable way, without repeating facts from other application components.
This leaves you with the prompt itself to contend with. Where do I begin? What do I share? As a Fortuna Admissions coach and former Associate Director at HBS leading PhD admissions and supporting the MBA Interview Board, I spend a lot of time putting this essay into context for anxious candidates. Everyone wants to know, what is HBS looking for? (You can request a copy of the latest HBS application guide on Harvard’s website.)
Beyond credentials, HBS is looking for character. The Admissions Committee seeks principled, passionate individuals who have the potential to fulfill the HBS mission to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. While this aspect is readily understood, the process of how to do this effectively is far more complex.
Before I dive into your strategy, let me put a fine point on this: it’s all about your essay. Indeed, the essay is often the make-or-break factor for HBS. Character doesn’t show up on a resume, in your test scores, or through grades or your transcripts. Your opportunity to show them what you are made of, what drives you, is in the essay. The competition is fierce, so this is the place where you can convince them you have what it takes to be part of this incredible community.
Remember that the majority of applicants (roughly 10,000 of them) will come with impressive credentials. Those credentials get you to the threshold, but they won’t get the interview, because Harvard has seen it all. Once you’ve reached a certain level of exceptionalism in terms of being brilliant, driven and dedicated, it’s all about your story. Think of it like drafting a “movie trailer” for your life – your essay should be engaging, interesting, with a level of drama and a pace that keeps the story moving. A great essay will entice the reader to say “wow, I cannot wait to meet this person and learn more.”
5 Tips To Writing a Powerful Harvard MBA Essay
1. do not display a highlights reel of professional achievements..
The biggest temptation — and the biggest snooze — is a “resume-to-prose” essay, which will put your wearied admissions reader to sleep. (Truthfully, staying awake was the biggest challenge I faced when reading applications, from my time at INSEAD to HBS and even admissions work at Stanford . )Too many applicants wrote essays that were boring, lifeless and dull. What really made my eyes glaze over were narratives from candidates who sailed through life, having never failed or struggled, who always excelled at everything and then segued to the details of some deal or consulting project. This can’t be overstated: Your essay must not read simply as a story of successes and accomplishments. It’s a common pitfall, and it robs your story the potential for making an emotional connection.
So, when HBS asks you, “what else do you want us to know?” the focus is on the “what else .” You have already detailed your job experiences in the short answer section of the application along with your resume. Do not restate these same facts again and again. Remember, they know what consultants and bankers do in the office, so unless you are introducing something new or connecting your work to a broader theme, avoid trying to “show off” by writing at length about work achievements.
Above all, write an essay you yourself would want to read.
2. Be open, imperfect and real .
I find it disheartening that my strongest piece of advice, which is to tell the truth and be yourself, is also so difficult at times. Most people are afraid to be real, and they spend hours polishing and perfecting an “image” or “brand” that is an illusion. When you take the risk to be yourself, to be vulnerable, it inspires a human connection. It gives you credibility. What’s more interesting to read – the story of someone who sailed through life and had everything work out perfectly, every single time? Or the story of someone who struggled, faced extraordinary challenges, and demonstrated the tenacity and resilience to not only survive but to thrive?
That’s why the more personal and open you can be in terms of why you do what you do, the more memorable and appealing you’ll be. Because so few people are. Few people are rigorously honest, and fewer are vulnerable in the process of storytelling. Some of the best essays I have ever read open with the story of a failure and how that shaped them. From my perspective, if you are never making mistakes, you aren’t working hard enough. Besides, there is something so powerful about the truth when you read it – it hits you and tunes up your curiosity. And that’s what you want to inspire — enough enthusiasm and curiosity for the admissions committee to want to meet you and learn more. Always remember: this is a search for authenticity.
3. Show vs. tell.
In the process of storytelling, the details are everything. Avoid the temptation to qualify your experience or tell the readers what they are supposed to think. Show them instead. For example, what is more powerful – someone saying, “I had a horrible flight,” or, “We pulled onto the runway, and I could see from my window the dark clouds above; the captain announced once cleared for takeoff, we were in for a bumpy ride. I could feel my pulse quickening.” While you want to avoid detailing a terrible flight experience for the HBS adcom, this concept is critical for effective storytelling. Show them what you have been through and the challenges you have faced through vivid recollection. An admissions consultant can help you sift through your experience to help you identify what to focus on. Generally, experiences that shaped your values and attitude toward life are a great place to start. You might talk about a challenge, for example, or a time you fell and picked yourself back up. Underscore how it shaped you as a human being and what you learned from the experience and remember to SHOW them the impact vs. simply telling them.
4. Connect the dots.
Your essay should have what I refer to as the “thread of continuity” that will serve as a unifying theme. Perhaps, you can introduce an experience that was momentous or marked an important milestone in your opening paragraph. As you weave together stories that show the committee who you are and the twists and turns your life has taken, you will want to revisit this theme at different points in your story as a way to unify the narrative. The conclusion should serve to tie it all together. This may sound formulaic, but when in doubt, rest assured this is a tried and true model that allows you to connect the dots for your reader. Any great story or even speech – from Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream to the latest Hollywood blockbuster — have a cohesive flow and pace that keep the audience’s attention. There is always an intangible driving force that builds, which is an essential ingredient to a winning essay.
5. Choose your Words (and Story) Carefully
The new 900-word recommendation alleviates any anxiety about what HBS will be seeking in terms of length. Many clients often think this is a trick question, and in a way, it could be. When I worked at HBS I remember hearing, “It’s not an essay writing contest! And if I’m still flipping pages at 6 pages deep — perhaps you think a little too highly of yourself thinking we want to spend that much time on you!”
Whether the change is simply to dispel any confusion as the Direct from the Director HBS blog states, or (as I suspect), to speed up the review process (reading 10,000 applications is time consuming!), this means you need to be both increasingly vigilant and strategic in answering the “what more would you like us to know” question. It’s not a great idea to see how many random stories about you can fit into 900 words or fewer. Instead, embrace the “less is more” approach. You could zero in on a singular theme with some evidence to back it up, or tell a story that touches on elements the committee would never know about you (or safely assume they know) in a compelling narrative. Remember — this is not an “essay writing contest” — but rather a “search for authenticity.”
Given the volume of competing applications, keep it simple and succinct enough to ensure impact, and SHORT enough to ensure no eye rolling is happening while they turn page after page of what may be seen as an attempted autobiography. Reflect on what has been shared thus far in the process (don’t restate what they know already) and expand where there is a story. Open up! This will create intrigue and a desire to learn more about you… in an interview!
Ultimately, HBS is looking for people who are ambitious and extraordinary , with a habit of leadership, a history of engaging the community, and the appetite and aptitude for success that separates them from the simply smart and hard working. Beyond a demonstrated professional track record and impressive credentials, they also want to see a proclivity for consistently exceeding goals. More than that, they’re seeking mission-driven doers who are motivated by a deeper purpose and poised to make the institution proud. Your challenge with the essay — and opportunity –—is to fuse that with a captivating story of who you are as an individual. And if that feels daunting, keep in mind that no one else has lived your story but you, which makes you uniquely qualified to tell it.
For a deeper dive on what HBS is looking for and how to position your application for success, view my video strategy session with Fortuna Admissions industry experts and former HBS admissions gatekeepers, Matt Symonds, Taniel Chan, and Malvina Miller Complainville.
Updated Sept. 2023
Want more advice on applying to Harvard Business School?
View these essential articles on HBS by Karla and other members of the Fortuna Admissions team:
1. HBS + GSB: Comparing Our Deep Dive Analysis on Who Really Gets In
2. How to Ace the HBS Interview
3. Tips for Writing the HBS Post-Interview Reflection
4. Reapply to Harvard Business School: 5 Top Tips
5. Recommender Strategy for HBS & GSB
6. HBS video strategy sessions on our YouTube channel (8 videos)
You can also request a copy of our Insider Tips Report on HBS or the full deep dive reports on HBS and Stanford GSB.
Fortuna Admissions Expert Coach Karla Cohen is former Harvard Business School associate director of doctoral programs and an MBA interview board member. She was also a manager of the PhD program at INSEAD. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation .
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Harvard MBA Essay for the Class of 2026
In addition to the HBS deadlines , the Harvard MBA essay for the 2023-24 admissions season has been confirmed. The essay question remains unchanged and HBS will continue to impose a word limit this season.
Here is how Harvard Business School admissions explained the word count when they introduced it for the first time last year:
We have heard from some applicants that, without a word limit, sometimes questions (and stress) arise about the “right” word length. We hope that including a limit provides applicants with a little more direction and eliminates the stress about how much is too much to write.
Do you need to submit 900 words? No, certainly not. Successful applicants may share what they wish to in 500 or 700 words, for example, or go up to 900.
The Harvard MBA Essay
“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 max.)
We think you know what guidance we’re going to give here. Don’t overthink, overcraft and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don’t know your world can understand.
Joint program applicants for the Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Dental Medicine, Harvard Law School, and Harvard Kennedy School must provide an additional essay: How do you expect the joint degree experience to benefit you on both a professional and a personal level? (400 words)
“The essay really is make or break for HBS,” shares one of the former HBS Admissions Officers on the SBC team. “So many applications have acceptable credentials up to that point of the application. It really is the essay that sets the overall application apart and earns it the interview.”
The HBS MBA application will open in summer 2023.
Check out our targeted tips for the Harvard MBA essay. And don’t hesitate to contact us to learn how Stacy Blackman Consulting can help with your Harvard MBA application. Meanwhile, here’s a snapshot of the expertise on our consulting team :
SBC’s star-studded consultant team is unparalleled. Our clients benefit from current intelligence that we receive from the former MBA Admissions Officers from Harvard HBS, Wharton and every elite business program in the US and Europe. These MBA Admissions Officers have chosen to work exclusively with SBC.
Just two of the many superstars on the SBC team: Meet Anthony , who served as the Associate Director of MBA Admissions at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where he dedicated over 10 years of expertise.
Meet Andrea , who served as the Associate Director of MBA Admissions Marketing at Harvard Business School (HBS) for over five years.
Tap into this inside knowledge for your MBA applications by requesting a consultation .
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50 MBA Essays That Got Applicants Admitted To Harvard & Stanford
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What Matters? and What More? is a collection of 50 application essays written by successful MBA candidates to Harvard Business School and Stanford Graduate School of Business
I sat alone one Saturday night in a boardroom in Eastern Oregon, miles from home, my laptop lighting the room. I was painstakingly reviewing a complex spreadsheet of household energy consumption data, cell by cell. ‘Why am I doing this to myself? For remote transmission lines?’…I felt dejected. I’d felt that way before, during my summer at JP Morgan, standing alone in the printing room at 3 a.m., binding decks for a paper mill merger that wouldn’t affect my life in the least.
That’s how an analyst at an MBB firm started his MBA application essay to Stanford Graduate School of Business. His point: In a well-crafted essay, he confronts the challenge of finding meaning in his work and a place where he can make a meaningful difference. That is what really matters most to him, and his answer to Stanford’s iconic MBA application essay helped get him defy the formidable odds of acceptance and gain an admit to the school.
Getting into the prestigious MBA programs at either Stanford Graduate School of Business or Harvard Business School are among the most difficult journeys any young professional can make.
NEARLY 17,000 CANDIDATES APPLIED TO HARVARD & STANFORD LAST YEAR. 1,500 GOT IN
This collection of 50 successful HBS and GSB essays, with smart commentary, can be downloaded for $60
They are two of the most selective schools, routinely rejecting nine or more out of every ten applicants. Last year alone, 16,628 candidates applied to both schools; just 1,520 gained an acceptance, a mere 9.1% admit rate.
Business school admissions are holistic, meaning that while standardized test scores and undergraduate transcripts are a critical part of the admissions process, they aren’t the whole story. In fact, the stories that applicants tell the schools in the form of essays can be a critical component of a successful application.
So what kinds of stories are successful applicants to Harvard and Stanford telling their admission officers? For the first time ever, a newly published collection of 50 of these essays from current MBA students at these two schools has been published. In ten cases, applicants share the essays they wrote in applying to both schools so you can see whether they merely did a cut-and-paste job or approached the task anew. The 188-page book, What Matters? and What More?, gains its title from the two iconic essay prompts at Harvard and Stanford.
THOUGHTFUL CRITIQUES OF THE ESSAYS
Stanford can easily boast having the most difficult question posed to MBA applicants in any given year: In 650 words or less, candidates must tell the school what matters most to them and why. Harvard gives applicants ample room to hang themselves, providing no word limit at all, “What more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?”
One makes this unusual collection of essays powerful are the thoughtful critiques by the founders of two MBA admissions consulting firms, Jeremy Shinewald of mbaMission and Liza Weale of Gatehouse Admissions. They write overviews of each essay in the book and then tear apart portions by paragraphs to either underline a point or address a weakness. The book became available to download for $60 a pop.
As I note in a foreword to the collection, published in partnership with Poets&Quants, the essay portion of an application is where a person can give voice to who they are, what they have achieved so far, and what they imagine their future to be. Yet crafting a powerful and introspective essay can be incredibly daunting as you stare at a blank computer screen.
APPLICANTS OPEN UP WITH INTIMATE STORIES THAT SHOW VULNERABILITY
One successful applicant to Harvard Business School begins his essay by conveying a deeply personal story: The time his father was told that he had three months to live, with his only hope being a double lung transplant. had to undergo a lung transplant. His opening line: “Despite all we had been through in recent years, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I asked my mother one summer evening in Singapore, ‘What role did I play during those tough times?’”
For this candidate to Stanford Graduate School of Business, the essay provided a chance to creatively engage admission readers about what matters most to him–equality-by cleverly using zip codes as a hook.
60605, 60606, 60607.
These zip codes are just one digit apart, but the difference that digit makes in someone’s life is unfathomable. I realized this on my first day as a high school senior. Leafing through my out-of- date, stained, calculus textbook, I kept picturing the new books that my friend from a neighboring (more affluent) district had. As college acceptances came in, I saw educational inequality’s more lasting effects—my friends from affluent districts that better funded education were headed to prestigious universities, while most of my classmates were only accepted by the local junior college. I was unsettled that this divergence wasn’t the students’ doing, but rather institutionalized by the state’s education system. Since this experience, I realized that the fight for education equality will be won through equal opportunity. Overcoming inequality, to ensure that everyone has a fair shake at success, is what matters most to me.
HOW AN APPLICANT TO BOTH SCHOOLS ALTERED HIS ESSAYS
Yet another candidate, who applied to both Harvard and Stanford, writes about being at but not fully present at his friend’s wedding.
The morning after serving as my friend’s best man, I was waiting for my Uber to the airport and—as usual—scrolling through my phone,” he wrote. “I had taken seemingly hundreds of photos of the event, posting in real time to social media, but had not really looked through them. With growing unease, I noticed people and things that had not registered with me the night before and realized I had been so preoccupied with capturing the occasion on my phone that I had essentially missed the whole thing. I never learned the name of the woman beside me at the reception. I could not recall the wedding cake flavor. I never introduced myself to my friend’s grandfather from Edmonton. I was so mortified that before checking into my flight, I turned my phone off and stuffed it into my carry-on.
The Stanford version of his essay is more compact. In truth, it’s more succinctly written and more satisfying because it is to the point. By stripping away all but the most critical pieces of his narrative, the candidate focuses his essay entirely on his central point: the battle of man versus technology.
Even if you’re not applying to business school, the essays are entertaining and fun to read. Sure, precious few are New Yorker worthy. In fact, many are fairly straightforward tales, simply told. What the successful essays clearly show is that there is no cookie-cutter formula or paint-by-the-numbers approach. Some start bluntly and straightforwardly, without a compelling or even interesting opening. Some meander through different themes. Some betray real personality and passion. Others are frankly boring. If a pattern of any kind could be discerned, it is how genuine the essays read.
The greatest benefit of reading them? For obsessive applicants to two of the very best business schools, they’ll take a lot of pressure off of you because they are quite imperfect.
GET YOUR COPY OF WHAT MATTERS? AND WHAT MORE? NOW
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Here you'll find a detailed explanation of each admission application requirement. Most of the information here applies to both first-year and transfer applicants. Don't forget to reference our Application Tips for guidance on filling out the Common Application.
We accept the Common Application and the Coalition Application by Scoir . Both are treated equally by the Admissions Committee. Complete and submit your materials as soon as possible to ensure full and timely consideration of your application. If you use the Common Application, you must submit your application before your supporting materials (Secondary School Report, Teacher Recommendations, etc.) can be released to a college. Until you submit your own application sections, no part of your application will be transmitted to the Harvard Admissions Office.
Submitting Your Application
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Completing the Harvard supplement questions
Complete the Harvard Questions with the Common Application or Coalition Application, Powered by Scoir. This includes the following five required short-answer questions, each with a 200 word limit.
Harvard has long recognized the importance of enrolling a diverse student body. How will the life experiences that shape who you are today enable you to contribute to Harvard?
Briefly describe an intellectual experience that was important to you.
Briefly describe any of your extracurricular activities, employment experience, travel, or family responsibilities that have shaped who you are.
How do you hope to use your Harvard education in the future?
Top 3 things your roommates might like to know about you.
Additional application questions
What if i am homeschooled.
Each applicant to Harvard College is considered with great care and homeschooled applicants are treated the same as all other applicants. There is no special process, but all relevant information about your educational and personal background is welcome. In addition to the application, all applicants are required to submit a transcript (which can be created by the family member or agency overseeing your schooling), and recommendations. If the application fee presents a hardship for your family, simply request a fee waiver .
Hear from Harvard students who were homeschooled, in the Harvard Gazette article ‘ Homeschooled en route to Harvard .’
What if I need to make updates to my application after I submit it?
Do not resend your application in order to make updates. If you need to update your identification or contact information, or send updates, additional information, or corrections, please do so via the Applicant Portal .
Misrepresentation of Credentials
Be completely accurate in your application materials. If we discover a misrepresentation during the admissions process, you will be denied admission. If you have already been admitted, your offer will typically be withdrawn. If you have already registered, your admission will normally be revoked, and we will require you to leave the College. Harvard rescinds degrees if misrepresentations in application materials are discovered.
The determination that an application is inaccurate or contains misrepresentations rests solely with the Admissions Office and will be resolved outside the student disciplinary process.
School Reports and Teacher Recommendations
Midyear school report.
When you apply, your school counselor will often send your transcript with few or no senior year course grades included. That is why the midyear school report is required - to allow us to review your performance in the first half of your senior year coursework . The midyear school report must be completed by your school counselor or other school official. Please request that the midyear school report is completed and returned to our office as soon as possible.
Midyear School Report FAQs
What if i'm applying restrictive early action and i don't have my midyear grades yet.
Restrictive Early Action applicants are not required to submit the midyear report by the November 1 deadline. If you applied Restrictive Early Action and are deferred to Regular Decision, please submit the midyear report and transcript in February, or as soon as your midyear grades are available.
I'm an international student and my academic year is different. Do I still need to submit the midyear report?
If you study the IB curriculum or the A-level curriculum, then we expect that your school will send predicted grades, based on your current classroom work and the results of any internal or mock exams you have taken up to that point. If your school does not issue official or predicted midyear grades for your final year of school, then you do not need to submit the midyear report form, although the item may remain on your checklist.
What if I have already graduated from high school?
If you have already graduated from high school, you should ignore the midyear report requirement (though the item may remain on your Checklist in the Applicant Portal) and simply ask your school to send a final school report if you have not already done so.
Ask two teachers in different academic subjects who know you well to complete the Teacher Recommendation forms (which includes an evaluation form and a letter of recommendation). If you wish to submit additional letters of recommendation, you can do so after you submit your application. In your application confirmation email, there will be a personalized link to send to your recommenders.
What courses should I take to prepare for applying to Harvard?
There is no “one size fits all” rule about which curriculum to study during secondary school years. Students should challenge themselves by taking courses deemed appropriate by their teachers and counselors. But some students believe that “more is always better” when it comes to AP, IB or other advanced courses.
While some students prosper academically and personally by taking large numbers of such courses, others benefit from a more balanced approach that allows them additional time for extracurricular and personal development. Even the best students can be negatively affected by taking too many courses at once, and might benefit instead from writing, reading or research projects on subjects of great interest to them.
To learn more, read our Guide to Preparing for College. To avoid the “burnout” often seen among secondary school students, please refer to our article, Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation .
Is there a specific math requirement?
Applicants to Harvard should excel in a challenging high school math sequence corresponding to their educational interests and aspirations. We recommend that applicants take four years of math courses in high school. Ideally, these math courses will focus on conceptual understanding, promote higher-order thinking, and encourage students to use mathematical reasoning to critically examine the world. Examples include rigorous and relevant courses in computer science, statistics and its subfields, mathematical modeling, calculus, and other advanced math subjects.
Students’ math records are viewed holistically, and no specific course is required. Specifically, calculus is not a requirement for admission to Harvard. We understand that applicants do not have the same opportunities and course offerings in their high schools. Moreover, many programs of study at Harvard do not require knowledge of calculus. We encourage applicants to take the courses that are available to them and aligned with their interests and goals.
Students intending to study engineering, computer science, physics, mathematics, statistics or other fields where calculus is needed may benefit from taking calculus in high school. However, students at Harvard can still pursue such fields by starting with one of our introductory calculus classes that has no high school calculus prerequisite. On balance, we encourage all students to master foundational mathematical material instead of rushing through any of the more advanced courses.
Final School Report and Transcripts
All admitted students who choose to enroll are required to send a Final School Report and transcript as soon as their final grades become available – no later than July 1. The Final School Report and transcript should be completed and sent by a school counselor or other school official through Parchment/Docufide or Scrip-Safe International, if your school has access to these submission options.
IB students should send their final results as soon as they are released in mid-July. We will expect to see final A levels results by mid-August.
Standardized Test Scores
For the College Classes of 2027-2030, students may apply for admission without standardized test scores. Please read our announcement for more details on the application changes for the upcoming cycles.
If you choose to submit standardized tests, you may submit the SAT or ACT (with or without the writing component). While the College Board no longer offers Subject Tests and they are not a requirement for applying, you may submit Subject Tests taken in the last 5 years. If you choose to submit Subject Tests, it is more useful to choose only one mathematics test rather than two. Similarly, if your first language is not English, a Subject Test in your first language may be less helpful.
Standardized Testing FAQs
How do i let harvard know whether i would like my application reviewed with or without test scores.
When you apply for admission, you can choose whether or not our review of your application will include your standardized test scores (SAT and ACT).
- If your scores already are on file before you apply and you choose at the time of your application to proceed without scores, we will not consider those scores.
- If you initially chose an application review without scores and would now like to include scores in your file, you may make this request by submitting the "Change to consideration of test scores" form on your Applicant Portal.
- If you ask that our review includes your scores, either at the time of application or after you apply by submitting the form in the Applicant Portal, they will be part of your application throughout the admissions process.
Can I self-report my test scores?
Yes. Applicants may provide self-reported SAT and ACT test scores (including Subject Tests, Advanced Placement, IB, etc.). Admitted students who decide to enroll at Harvard College will be required to submit official test scores.
How do I send my test scores?
You are free to use the College Board Score Choice option or the similar option offered by the ACT. Our official codes are 3434 for the College Board SAT Reasoning Tests and 1840 for the ACT if you are submitting official test scores as part of your application.
- How to send your SAT scores
- How to send your ACT scores
Are there test score "cutoffs"?
There are no score cutoffs, and we do not admit “by the numbers.” For the ACT, we will evaluate your highest composite score and any other scores you choose to share with us. We take into account your educational background when reviewing your scores.
Should I prepare for standardized tests?
Opportunities to prepare for standardized tests vary greatly for students of different socioeconomic backgrounds. Research indicates that short term test preparation usually has little effect, but the free “test prep” now offered by the SAT and the ACT might make a significant difference for students who follow their programs for extended periods of time. Such free programs could help to level the playing field for students from under-resourced schools by providing the academic skills that will serve them well on standardized tests and also in college. Students can also do well by studying widely and deeply over a long period of time on their own with the help of family, school, or community organizations.
What do standardized tests and grades indicate about academic preparation for college?
Standardized tests provide a rough yardstick of what a student has learned over time and how that student might perform academically in college - but they are only one of many factors considered. High school grades in a rigorous academic program can also be helpful in assessing readiness for college courses, but the thousands of secondary schools around the country and the world employ various high school curricula and a wide range of grading systems - and some have no grades at all. Other students have been homeschooled or prepared for college by taking part in multiple schooling opportunities both in person and electronic.
Given the wide variation in how students prepare for Harvard – as well as the fact that most applicants and admitted students have outstanding academic records – it is difficult for high school grades to differentiate individual applications. That does not mean that high school grades are unimportant. Students who come to Harvard have done well day to day in their high school studies, providing a crucial foundation for academic success in college, including a 97% - 98% graduation rate.
SAT and ACT tests are better predictors of Harvard grades than high school grades, but this can vary greatly for any individual. Students who have not attended well-resourced schools throughout their lives, who come from modest economic backgrounds or first-generation college families have generally had fewer opportunities to prepare for standardized tests. Each application to Harvard is read with great care, keeping in mind that talent is everywhere, but opportunity and access are not.
Does Harvard accept SAT Subject Test scores?
As announced by the College Board, Subject Tests and the essay portion of the SAT have been terminated, except in certain special circumstances. See the College Board's announcement for more details. Harvard admission officers review all material that an applicant submits, so if you have already taken Subject Tests or the essay portion of the SAT, you may still submit it along with your other application materials.
How do I choose whether to submit my standardized test score?
Choosing whether or not to submit test scores is a personal decision for every applicant. There are many reasons why students do not submit test scores, including expense. In general, though, anything that might give a more complete or positive picture of an applicant can be helpful. Even if you feel your test scores do not fully represent your strengths, perhaps because of a lack of resources at your school or limited opportunities to prepare for or take the tests, you could note this fact in your application to provide context. There are no score cutoffs and we do not admit “by the numbers.”
Why can't I view my standardized test scores in the Common Application?
Since Harvard College is not requiring applicants to submit standardized test scores for the 2022-2026 application cycles , your standardized scores will not display in the Common Application PDF preview, even if you have chosen to submit them. However, if you entered your test score information and would like it to be considered, that data will still be transmitted to us with your application and we will review it. You can verify this by viewing the Application Checklist in your Applicant Portal. You will see a green check mark if we have received your standardized test scores.
How will Harvard evaluate the new digital SAT?
The College Board's shift to a digital delivery of the SAT will not impact the way in which Harvard reviews test scores within applications. For the College Classes of 2027-2030, students may apply for admission without standardized test scores. Students who do not submit standardized test scores will not be disadvantaged in their application process. Please visit the College Board FAQs for more information.
Our standard application materials typically give us ample information for making admission decisions. However, we recognize you may have truly exceptional talents or achievements you wish to share, and we want you to have every opportunity to best represent yourself.
At the discretion of the Admissions Committee, supplementary materials—such as music recordings, artwork, or selected samples of academic work—may be evaluated by faculty. These materials are entirely optional.
How to submit documents and articles.
Scholarly articles, research, creative writing or other documents of which you are the primary author should be submitted in the Upload Materials section of the Applicant Portal . This is the most efficient and direct method of submitting these materials, because they will be added directly to your official application. All submissions should include a list of any individuals with whom you collaborated in the production of the work. If appropriate, please identify your research sponsor, mentor, and/or laboratory or research group leader and provide a short description of your particular contribution to the work.
How to submit media (video, audio, or images)
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Harvard University Essay Examples (And Why They Worked)
The following essay examples were written by several different authors who were admitted to Harvard University and are intended to provide examples of successful Harvard University application essays. All names have been redacted for anonymity. Please note that Bullseye Admissions has shared these essays with admissions officers at Harvard University in order to deter potential plagiarism.
For more help with your Harvard supplemental essays, check out our 2020-2021 Harvard University Essay Guide ! For more guidance on personal essays and the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.
Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (50-150 words)
Feet moving, eyes up, every shot back, chants the silent mantra in my head. The ball becomes a beacon of neon green as I dart forward and backward, shuffling from corner to far corner of the court, determined not to let a single point escape me. With bated breath, I swing my racquet upwards and outwards and it catches the ball just in time to propel it, spinning, over the net. My heart soars as my grinning teammates cheer from the sidelines.
While I greatly value the endurance, tenacity, and persistence that I have developed while playing tennis throughout the last four years, I will always most cherish the bonds that I have created and maintained each year with my team.
Why this Harvard essay worked: From an ex-admissions officer
When responding to short essays or supplements, it can be difficult to know which info to include or omit. In this essay, the writer wastes no time and immediately captivates the reader. Not only are the descriptions vivid and compelling, but the second portion highlights what the writer gained from this activity. As an admissions officer, I learned about the student’s level of commitment, leadership abilities, resiliency, ability to cooperate with others, and writing abilities in 150 words.
I founded Teen Court at [High School Name Redacted] with my older brother in 2016. Teen Court is a unique collaboration with the Los Angeles Superior Court and Probation Department, trying real first-time juvenile offenders from all over Los Angeles in a courtroom setting with teen jurors. Teen Court’s foundational principle is restorative justice: we seek to rehabilitate at-risk minors rather than simply punish them. My work provides my peers the opportunity to learn about the justice system. I put in over fifty hours just as Secretary logging court attendance, and now as President, I mentor Teen Court attendees. My goal is to improve their empathy and courage in public speaking, and to expand their world view. People routinely tell me their experience with Teen Court has inspired them to explore law, and I know the effort I devoted bringing this club to [High School Name Redacted] was well worth it.
This writer discussed a passion project with a long-lasting impact. As admissions officers, we realize that post-secondary education will likely change the trajectory of your life. We hope that your education will also inspire you to change the trajectory of someone else’s life as well. This writer developed an organization that will have far-reaching impacts for both the juvenile offenders and the attendees. They saw the need for this service and initiated a program to improve their community.
Harvard University Supplemental Essay Option: Books Read During the Last Twelve Months
Reading Frankenstein in ninth grade changed my relationship to classic literature. In Frankenstein , I found characters and issues that resonate in a modern context, and I began to explore the literary canon outside of the classroom. During tenth grade, I picked up Jane Eyre and fell in love with the novel’s non-traditional heroine whose agency and cleverness far surpassed anything that I would have imagined coming from the 19th century. I have read the books listed below in the past year.
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Purple Hibiscus *
- Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger *
- Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
- Aphra Behn, The Fair Jilt ♰
- Mongo Beti, Mission Terminée * (in French)
- Kate Chopin, The Awakening
- Arthur Conan-Doyle, A Study in Scarlet
- Kamel Daoud, Meursault, contre-enquête * (in French)
- Roddy Doyle, A Star Called Henry *
- Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane *
- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
- William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying *
- Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
- E. M. Forster, Maurice
- E. M. Forster, A Passage to India
- E. M. Forster, Where Angels Fear to Tread
- Eliza Haywood, The City Jilt ♰
- Homer, The Iliad
- Christopher Isherwood, All The Conspirators
- Christopher Isherwood, A Meeting by the River
- Christopher Isherwood, Sally Bowles
- Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man
- Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle
- James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
- Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
- Franz Kafka, The Trial
- Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies *
- Morrissey, Autobiography
- Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy *
- Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago
- Charlotte Perkins-Gilman, Herland
- Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way
- Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove
- Mary Renault, Fire From Heaven
- Mary Renault, The Friendly Young Ladies
- Mary Renault, The King Must Die
- Mary Renault, The Persian Boy
- J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Terre des hommes * (in French)
- Shakespeare, Hamlet *
- Mary Shelley, The Last Man
- Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead *
- Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions
- Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan
- Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
- Evelyn Waugh, Scoop
- Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies
- Jeanette Winterson, The Passion
- Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary: A Fiction ♰
- Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman ♰
- Virginia Woolf, A Haunted House and Other Stories
- * indicates assigned reading
- ♰ indicates independent study reading
Harvard University Supplemental Essay Option: What would you want your future college roommate to know about you? (No word limit)
You probably have noticed that I put four exclamation points. Yes, I am that excited to meet you, roomie!
Also, I don’t believe in the Rule of Three. It’s completely unfair that three is always the most commonly used number. Am I biased in my feelings because four is my favorite number? Perhaps. However, you have to admit that our reason for the Rule of Three is kinda arbitrary. The Rule of Three states that a trio of events is more effective and satisfying than any other numbers. Still, the human psyche is easily manipulated through socially constructed perceptions such as beauty standards and gender roles. Is having three of everything actually influential or is it only influential because society says so? Hmm, it’s interesting to think about it, isn’t it?
But if you’re an avid follower of the Rule of three, don’t worry, I won’t judge. In fact, if there’s one thing I can promise you I will never do, it’s being judgmental. Life is too short to go around judging people. Besides, judgments are always based on socially constructed beliefs. With so many backgrounds present on campus, it really would be unfair if we start going around judging people based on our own limited beliefs. My personal philosophy is “Mind your own business and let people be,” So, if you have a quirk that you’re worrying is too “weird” and are afraid your roommate might be too judgy, rest assured, I won’t be.
In fact, thanks to my non-judginess, I am an excellent listener. If you ever need to rant with someone about stressful classes, harsh gradings, or the new ridiculous plot twists of your favorite TV show (*cough* Riverdale), I am always available.
Now, I know what you are thinking. A non-judgmental and open-minded roommate? This sounds too good to be true. This girl’s probably a secret villain waiting to hear all my deepest and darkest secrets and blackmail me with them!
Well, I promise you. I am not a secret villain. I am just someone who knows how important it is to be listened to and understood.
I grew up under the communist regime of Vietnam, where freedom of speech and thought was heavily suppressed. Since childhood, I was taught to keep my opinion to myself, especially if it is contradictory to the government’s. No matter how strongly I felt about an issue, I could never voice my true opinion nor do anything about it. Or else, my family and I would face oppression from the Vietnamese government.
After immigrating to America, I have made it my mission to fight for human rights and justice. Back in Vietnam, I have let fear keep me from doing the right thing. Now, in the land of freedom, I won’t use that excuse anymore. I can finally be myself and fight for what I believe in. However, I can still remember how suffocating it was to keep my beliefs bottled up and to be silenced. Trust me, a conversation may not seem much, but it can do wonders. So, if you ever need a listener, know that I am right here.
See, I just shared with you a deep secret of mine. What secret villain would do that?
See ya soon!!!!!
[Name redacted] : )
P/S: I really love writing postscripts. So, I hope you won’t find it weird when I always end my emails, letters, and even texts with a P/S. Bye for real this time!!!!!
Harvard University Supplemental Essay Option: Unusual circumstances in your life
I would like the Harvard Admissions Committee to know that my life circumstances are far from typical. I was born at twenty-four weeks gestation, which eighteen years ago was on the cusp of viability. Even if I was born today, under those same circumstances, my prospects for leading a normal life would be grim. Eighteen years ago, those odds were worse, and I was given a less than 5% chance of survival without suffering major cognitive and physical deficits.
The first six months of my life were spent in a large neonatal ICU in Canada. I spent most of that time in an incubator, kept breathing by a ventilator. When I was finally discharged home, it was with a feeding tube and oxygen, and it would be several more months before I was able to survive without the extra tubes connected to me. At the age of two, I was still unable to walk. I engaged in every conventional and non-conventional therapy available to me, including physical and speech therapy, massage therapy, gymnastics, and several nutritional plans, to try to remedy this. Slowly, I began to make progress in what would be a long and arduous journey towards recovery.
Some of my earliest childhood memories are of repeated, often unsuccessful attempts to grip a large-diameter crayon since I was unable to hold a regular pencil. I would attempt to scrawl out letters on a page to form words, fueled by either determination or outright stubbornness, persevering until I improved. I spent countless hours trying to control my gait, eventually learning to walk normally and proving the doctors wrong about their diagnoses. I also had to learn how to swallow without aspirating because the frequent intubations I had experienced as an infant left me with a uncoordinated swallow reflex. Perhaps most prominently, I remember becoming very winded as I tried to keep up with my elementary school peers on the playground and the frustration I experienced when I failed.
Little by little, my body’s tolerance for physical exertion grew, and my coordination improved. I enrolled in martial arts to learn how to keep my balance and to develop muscle coordination and an awareness of where my limbs were at any given time. I also became immersed in competition among my elementary school peers to determine which one of us could become the most accomplished on the recorder. For each piece of music played correctly, a “belt” was awarded in the form of a brightly colored piece of yarn tied around the bottom of our recorders- meant as symbols of our achievement. Despite the challenges I had in generating and controlling enough air, I practiced relentlessly, often going in before school or during my lunch hour to obtain the next increasingly difficult musical piece. By the time the competition concluded, I had broken the school record of how far an elementary school child could advance; in doing so, my love of instrumental music and my appreciation for the value of hard work and determination was born.
Throughout my middle and high school years, I have succeeded at the very highest level both academically and musically. I was even able to find a sport that I excelled at and would later be able to use as an avenue for helping others, volunteering as an assistant coach once I entered high school. I have mentored dozens of my high school peers in developing trumpet skills, teaching them how to control one’s breathing during musical phrases and how to develop effective fingering techniques in order to perform challenging passages. I believe that my positive attitude and hard work has allowed for not only my own success, but for the growth and success of my peers as well.
My scholastic and musical achievements, as well as my leadership abilities and potential to succeed at the highest level will hopefully be readily apparent to the committee when you review my application. Perhaps more importantly, however, is the behind-the-scenes character traits that have made these possible. I believe that I can conquer any challenge put in front of me. My past achievements provide testimony to my work ethic, aptitudes and grit, and are predictive of my future potential.
Thank you for your consideration.
In this essay, the writer highlighted their resilience. At some point, we will all endure challenges and struggles, but it is how we redeem ourselves that matters. This writer highlighted their initial struggles, their dedication and commitment, and the ways in which they’ve used those challenges as inspiration and motivation to persevere and also to encourage others to do the same.
Harvard University Supplemental Essay Option: 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.
I want to be a part of something amazing, and I believe I can. The first line of the chorus springs into my mind instantaneously as my fingers experiment with chords on the piano. In this moment, as I compose the protagonist’s solo number, I speak from my heart. I envision the stage and set, the actors, the orchestra, even the audience. Growing increasingly excited, I promptly begin to create recordings so I can release the music from the confines of my imagination and share it with any willing ears.
My brother [name redacted] and I are in the process of writing a full-length, two-act musical comprised of original scenes, songs, characters. I began creating the show not only because I love to write music and entertain my friends and family, but also with the hope that I might change the way my peers view society. Through Joan, the protagonist of my musical, I want to communicate how I feel about the world.
The story centers around Joan, a high schooler, and her connection to the pilot Amelia Earhart. Ever since I saw a theatrical rendition of Amelia Earhart’s life in fifth grade, she has fascinated me as an extraordinary feminist and a challenger of society’s beliefs and standards. As I began researching and writing for the show, I perused through biographies and clicked through countless youtube documentaries about the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, astounded by her bravery and ability to overcome a troubled childhood and achieve her dream. In my musical, as Amelia transcends 20th century norms, changing the way that people regard women and flight, Joan strives to convince her peers and superiors that the worth of one’s life spans not from material success and grades, but from self-love and passion.
As I compose, the essence of each character and the mood of each scene steer the flow of each song. To me, it seems as though everything falls into place at once – as I pluck a melody out of the air, the lyrics come to me naturally as if the two have been paired all along. As I listen to the newly born principal line, I hear the tremolo of strings underscoring and the blaring of a brass section that may someday audibly punctuate each musical phrase.
The project is certainly one of the most daunting tasks I’ve ever undertaken – we’ve been working on it for almost a year, and hope to be done by January – but, fueled by my passion for creating music and writing, it is also one of the most enjoyable. I dream that it may be performed one day and that it may influence society to appreciate the success that enthusiasm for one’s relationships and work can bring.
These essay examples were compiled by the advising team at Bullseye Admissions. If you want to get help writing your Harvard University application essays from Bullseye Admissions advisors , register with Bullseye today .
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10 Successful Harvard Application Essays | 2021
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Successful Harvard Essay
I had never seen houses floating down a river. Minutes before there had not even been a river. An immense wall of water was destroying everything in its wake, picking up fishing boats to smash them against buildings. It was the morning of March 11, 2011. Seeing the images of destruction wrought by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I felt as if something within myself was also being shaken, for I had just spent two of the happiest summers of my life there.
In the summer of my freshman year, I received the Kikkoman National Scholarship, which allowed me to travel to Japan to stay with a host family in Tokyo for ten weeks. I arrived just as the swine flu panic gripped the world, so I was not allowed to attend high school with my host brother, Yamato. Instead, I took Japanese language, judo, and karate classes and explored the confusing sprawl of the largest city in the world. I spent time with the old men of my neighborhood in the onsen, or hot spring, questioning them about the Japan of their youth. They laughed and told me that if I wanted to see for myself, I should work on a farm.
The next summer I returned to Japan, deciding to heed the old men’s advice and volunteer on a farm in Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido. I spent two weeks working more than fourteen hours a day. I held thirty-pound bags of garlic with one hand while trying to tie them to a rope hanging from the ceiling with the other, but couldn’t hold the bags in the air long enough. Other days were spent pulling up endless rows of daikon, or Japanese radish, which left rashes on my arms that itched for weeks. Completely exhausted, I stumbled back to the farmhouse, only to be greeted by the family’s young children who were eager to play. I passed out every night in a room too small for me to straighten my legs. One day, I overslept a lunch break by two hours. I awoke mortified, and hurried to the father. After I apologized in the most polite form of Japanese, his face broke into a broad grin. He patted me on the back and said, “You are a good worker, Anthony. There is no need to apologize.” This single exchange revealed the true spirit of the Japanese farmer. The family had lived for years in conditions that thoroughly wore me out in only a few days. I had missed two hours of work, yet they were still perpetually thankful to me. In their life of unbelievable hardship, they still found room for compassion.
In their life of unbelievable hardship, they still found room for compassion.
When I had first gone to Tokyo, I had sought the soul of the nation among its skyscrapers and urban hot springs. The next summer I spurned the beaten track in an attempt to discover the true spirit of Japan. While lugging enormously heavy bags of garlic and picking daikon, I found that spirit. The farmers worked harder than anyone I have ever met, but they still made room in their hearts for me. So when the tsunami threatened the people to whom I owed so much, I had to act. Remembering the lesson of compassion I learned from the farm family, I started a fund-raiser in my community called “One Thousand Cranes for Japan.” Little more than two weeks later, we had raised over $8,000 and a flock of one thousand cranes was on its way to Japan.
Professional Review by AcceptU
This essay is very clean and straightforward. Anthony wisely uses imagery from a well-known historic event, the 2011 tsunami, to set the scene for his story. He visited Japan for two summers and provides depth about what he learned: In his first summer, he explored Tokyo and studied the language and culture; in his second summer, he lived in rural Japan and worked long hours on a farm.
We like to see how applicants learn, grow or change from the beginning to the end - and Anthony rightfully spends more time describing the hard work and lifestyle of farming and what he learned from this experience.
The beauty of the essay actually lies in its simplicity. Admittedly, it is not a groundbreaking or original essay in the way he tells his story; instead, Anthony comes across as someone who is very interesting, hardworking, intellectually curious, dedicated, humble and likable - all traits that admissions officers are seeking in applicants.
We like to see how applicants learn, grow or change from the beginning to the end - and Anthony rightfully spends more time describing the hard work and lifestyle of farming and what he learned from this experience. Anthony concludes with a reference to his opening paragraph about the tsunami, and impresses the reader with his fundraising to help victims.
It is not necessarily missing, but perhaps a sentence or two could have been added to explain why Anthony was in Japan in the first place. What was his connection to the country, language or culture? Does it tie into an academic interest? If so, that would make his already strong essay even stronger in the eyes of admissions officers.
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I entered the surprisingly cool car. Since when is Beijing Line 13 air-conditioned? I’ll take it. At four o’clock in the afternoon only about twenty people were in the subway car. “At least it’s not crowded,” one might have thought. Wrong. The pressure of their eyes on me filled the car and smothered me. “看看！她是外国人！”(Look, look! She’s a foreigner!) An old man very loudly whispered to a child curled up in his lap. “Foreigner,” he called me. I hate that word, “foreigner.” It only explains my exterior. If only they could look inside.…
I want to keep reading because there is something she is saying about her identity--be it performative or actual--that I am curious about.
They would know that I actually speak Chinese—not just speak, but love. They would know that this love was born from my first love of Latin—the language that fostered my admiration of all languages. Latin lives in the words we speak around the world today. And translating this ancient language is like watching a play and performing in it at the same time. Each word is an adventure, and on the journey through Virgil’s Aeneid I found that I am more like Aeneas than any living, dead, or fictional hero I know. We share the intrinsic value of loyalty to friends, family, and society. We stand true to our own word, and we uphold others to theirs. Like Aeneas’s trek to find a new settlement for his collapsed Troy, with similar perseverance I, too, wander the seas for my own place in the world. Language has helped me do that.
If these subway passengers understood me, they would know that the very reason I sat beside them was because of Latin. Even before Aeneas and his tale, I met Caecilius and Grumio, characters in my first Latin textbook. In translations I learned grammar alongside Rome’s rich history. I realized how learning another language could expose me to other worlds and other people—something that has always excited me. I also realized that if I wanted to know more about the world and the people in it, I would have to learn a spoken language. Spanish, despite the seven years of study prior to Latin, did not stick with me. And the throatiness of French was not appealing. But Chinese, more than these other traditional languages, intrigued me. The doors to new worlds it could open seemed endless. Thus I chose Chinese.
If these subway passengers looked inside me, they would find that my knowledge of both Latin and Chinese makes me feel whole. It feels like the world of the past is flowing through me alongside the world of the future. Thanks to Latin, Chinese sticks in my mind like the Velcro on the little boy’s shoes in front of me. If this little boy and his family and friends could look inside, they would understand that Latin laid the foundation for my lifelong commitment to languages. Without words, thoughts and actions would be lost in the space between our ears. To them, I am a foreigner, “外国人” literally translated as “out-of-country person.” I feel, however, more like an advena, the Latin word for “foreigner,” translated as “(one who) comes to (this place).” I came to this place, and I came to this country to stay. Unfortunately, they will not know this until I speak. Then once I speak, the doors will open.
Professional Review by Bridge to College
Your college essay should serve two purposes: allow the reader to gain insights about you that they are not able to do in other parts of your application and provide an example of your writing abilities. To the former, you are hoping to demonstrate five soft skills that most colleges are at least implicitly interested in gleaning, those that indicate your capacity to be a good student at their institution.
Alex arrives at both goals in an interesting way. Without seeing the rest of her application, I can only assume that she is possibly interested in pursuing a major in a language (if she is pursuing a major in an applied math, this essay would be extremely interesting) and she has likely participated in some kind of team sport to demonstrate the soft skill of teamwork. To be honest, as someone who speaks five languages myself and studied Latin in undergrad, I don’t necessarily agree with her assessment of the languages. BUT I’m interested. I want to keep reading. She isn’t supposed to get everything right in this essay; she’s supposed to demonstrate a capacity for learning. And she does that.
I want to keep reading because there is something she is saying about her identity--be it performative or actual--that I am curious about. With our work in college access and admissions, we’ve only worked in underserved communities, be they students of color or girls interested in STEM or first-generation college students or more. People make an assumption that we are exploiting these identities into sob stories that admissions readers will immediately hang on to. We’re not doing that. We are encouraging students to write about something similar to what Alex did—describe how your identity has created a learning opportunity or a moment of resilience or determination. Alex seems like someone who is well resourced: her access to certain text; language curricula and the amount of time she spent studying those languages; even her sentence structure, gives that away. But her openness to adapt with humility is a critical skill that is so necessary to be a great student, and unfortunately a skill that many students miss.
For the second goal, she does a tremendous job of demonstrating her writing abilities. Her sentence structures are varied and there aren’t egregious mistakes in grammar and spelling. The last two sentences of the second paragraph sold me on her skill-level and personhood. I also really appreciated that she wasn’t shying away from what she has been able to access as far as her schooling. Alex is smart, witty, and well-traveled, and you’re going to know it. I love that.
The essay works as an introduction to who she is and her soft skills, as well as a demonstration of her writing abilities.
CEO and Founder of Bridge to College
Elite Educational Institute has been helping students reach their academic goals through test preparation, tutoring, and college consulting services since 1987. Learn more at www.eliteprep.com .
When I was a child, I begged my parents for my very own Brother PT-1400 P-Touch Handheld Label Maker to fulfill all of my labeling needs. Other kids had Nintendos and would spend their free time with Mario and Luigi. While they pummeled their video game controllers furiously, the pads of their thumbs dancing across their joysticks, I would type out labels on my industrial-standard P-Touch with just as much zeal. I labeled everything imaginable, dividing hundreds of pens into Ziploc bags by color, then rubber-banding them by point size. The finishing touch, of course, was always a glossy, three-eighths-inch-wide tag, freshly churned out from my handheld labeler and decisively pasted upon the numerous plastic bags I had successfully compiled.
Labeling became therapeutic for me; organizing my surroundings into specific groups to be labeled provides me with a sense of stability. I may not physically need the shiny color-coded label verifying the contents of a plastic bag as BLUE HIGHLIGHTERS—FAT, to identify them as such, but seeing these classifications so plainly allows me to appreciate the reliability of my categorizations. There are no exceptions when I label the top ledge of my bookshelf as containing works from ACHEBE, CHINUA TO CONRAD, JOSEPH. Each book is either filtered into that category or placed definitively into another one. Yet, such consistency only exists in these inanimate objects.
Thus, the break in my role as a labeler comes when I interact with people. Their lives are too complicated, their personalities too intricate for me to resolutely summarize in a few words or even with the 26.2 feet of laminated adhesive tape compatible with my label maker. I have learned that a thin line exists between labeling and just being judgmental when evaluating individuals. I can hardly superficially characterize others as simply as I do my material possessions because people refuse to be so cleanly separated and compartmentalized. My sister Joyce jokes freely and talks with me for hours about everything from the disturbing popularity of vampires in pop culture to cubic watermelons, yet those who don’t know her well usually think of her as timid and introverted. My mother is sometimes my biggest supporter, spouting words of encouragement and, at other instances, my most unrelenting critic. The overlap becomes too indistinct, the contradictions too apparent, even as I attempt to classify those people in the world whom I know best.
For all my love of order when it comes to my room, I don't want myself, or the people with whom I interact, to fit squarely into any one category.
Neither would I want others to be predictable enough for me to label. The real joy in human interaction lies in the excitement of the unknown. Overturning expectations can be necessary to preserving the vitality of relationships. If I were never surprised by the behaviors of those around me, my biggest source of entertainment would vanish. For all my love of order when it comes to my room, I don’t want myself, or the people with whom I interact, to fit squarely into any one category. I meticulously follow directions to the millimeter in the chemistry lab but measure ingredients by pinches and dashes in the comfort of my kitchen. I’m a self-proclaimed grammar Nazi, but I’ll admit e. e. cummings’s irreverence does appeal. I’ll chart my television show schedule on Excel, but I would never dream of confronting my chores with as much organization. I even call myself a labeler, but not when it comes to people. As Walt Whitman might put it, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well, then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.).”
I therefore refrain from the temptation to label—despite it being an act that makes me feel so fulfilled when applied to physical objects—when real people are the subjects. The consequences of premature labeling are too great, the risk of inaccuracy too high because, most of the time, not even the hundreds of alphanumeric digits and symbols available for entry on my P-Touch can effectively describe who an individual really is.
Professional Review by Elite Prep
Amusing yet insightful, perhaps the most outstanding quality of Justine’s personal statement lies in the balance she strikes between anecdotal flourish and honest introspection. By integrating occasional humour and witty commentary into an otherwise lyrical and earnest self-reflection, Justine masterfully conveys an unfettered, sincere wisdom and maturity coveted by prestigious universities.
Justine breaks the ice by recalling a moment in her childhood that captures her fervent passion for labelling. When applying to selective academic institutions, idiosyncrasies and peculiar personal habits, however trivial, are always appreciated as indicators of individuality. Justine veers safely away from the temptation of “playing it safe” by exploring her dedication towards organizing all her possessions, a dedication that has followed her into adolescence.
She also writes from a place of raw honesty and emotion by offering the rationale behind her bizarre passion. Justine's reliance on labelling is underpinned by her yearning for a sense of stability and order in a messy world—an unaffected yearning that readers, to varying degrees, can sympathize with.
She also writes from a place of raw honesty and emotion by offering the rationale behind her bizarre passion. Justine’s reliance on labelling is underpinned by her yearning for a sense of stability and order in a messy world—an unaffected yearning that readers, to varying degrees, can sympathize with. She recognizes, however, it would be imprudent to navigate all facets of life with an unfaltering drive to compartmentalize everything and everyone she encounters.
In doing so, Justine seamlessly transitions to the latter, more pensive half of her personal statement. She extracts several insights by analyzing how, in staunch contrast with her neatly-organized pencil cases, the world is confusing, and rife with contradictions. Within each individual lies yet another world of complexity—as Justine reflects, people can’t be boiled down into “a few words,” and it’s impossible to capture their character, “even with the 26.2 feet of laminated adhesive tape compatible with [her] label maker.”
In concluding, Justine returns back to the premise that started it all, reminding the reader of her take on why compartmentalizing the world would be an ultimately unproductive effort. The most magical part of Justine’s personal statement? It reads easily, flows with imagery, and employs a simple concept—her labelling practices—to introduce a larger, thoughtful conversation.
The best compliment I ever received was from my little brother: “My science teacher’s unbelievably good at telling stories,” he announced. “Nearly as good as you.” I thought about that, how I savor a good story the way some people savor last-minute touchdowns.
I learned in biology that I’m composed of 7 × 10 27 atoms, but that number didn’t mean anything to me until I read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. One sentence stayed with me for weeks: “Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you.” It estimates that each human has about 2 billion atoms of Shakespeare hanging around inside—quite a comfort, as I try to write this essay. I thought about every one of my atoms, wondering where they had been and what miracles they had witnessed.
My physical body is a string of atoms, but what of my inner self, my soul, my essence? I've come to the realization that my life has been a string as well, a string of stories.
My physical body is a string of atoms, but what of my inner self, my soul, my essence? I’ve come to the realization that my life has been a string as well, a string of stories. Every one of us is made of star stuff, forged through fires, and emerging as nicked as the surface of the moon. It frustrated me no end that I couldn’t sit down with all the people I met, interrogating them about their lives, identifying every last story that made them who they are.
I remember how magical it was the first time I read a fiction book: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I was duly impressed with Quidditch and the Invisibility Cloak, of course, but I was absolutely spellbound by how much I could learn about Harry. The kippers he had for breakfast, the supplies he bought for Potions—the details everyone skimmed over were remarkable to me. Fiction was a revelation. Here, at last, was a window into another person’s string of stories!
Over the years, I’ve thought long and hard about that immortal question: What superpower would you choose? I considered the usual suspects—invisibility, superhuman strength, flying—but threw them out immediately. My superhero alter ego would be Story Girl. She wouldn’t run marathons, but she could walk for miles and miles in other people’s shoes. She’d know that all it takes for empathy and understanding is the right story.
Imagine my astonishment when I discovered Radiolab on NPR. Here was my imaginary superpower, embodied in real life! I had been struggling with AP Biology, seeing it as a class full of complicated processes and alien vocabulary. That changed radically when I listened, enthralled, as Radiolab traced the effects of dopamine on love and gambling. This was science, sure, but it was science as I’d never heard it before. It contained conflict and emotion and a narrative; it made me anxious to learn more. It wasn’t that I was obtuse for biology; I just hadn’t found the stories in it before.
I’m convinced that you can learn anything in the form of a story. The layperson often writes off concepts—entropy, the Maginot Line, anapestic meter—as too foreign to comprehend. But with the right framing, the world suddenly becomes an open book, enticing and ripe for exploration. I want to become a writer to find those stories, much like Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich from Radiolab, making intimidating subjects become familiar and inviting for everyone. I want to become Story Girl.
By combining her previous interest with her newfound love for biology, Carrie is able to highlight how her past experiences have assisted her in overcoming novel challenges. This portrays her as a resilient and resourceful problem-solver: traits that colleges value heavily in their students.
Carrie begins her essay with a fondly-remembered compliment from her brother, introducing her most passionate endeavor: storytelling. By recalling anecdotes related to her love of stories, she establishes herself as a deeply inquisitive and creative person; someone whose greatest virtue is their unfettered thirst for knowledge. Curiosity is greatly prized by colleges, and Carrie’s inclusion of this particular value encourages admissions officers to keep reading.
Going on to explore the intersections between stories and science, Carrie reveals her past difficulties with AP biology; that is, until she learnt about the amazing stories hidden within the subject. By combining her previous interest with her newfound love for biology, Carrie is able to highlight how her past experiences have assisted her in overcoming novel challenges. This portrays her as a resilient and resourceful problem-solver: traits that colleges value heavily in their students.
Carrie ends her essay with her belief that through stories, everything is possible. She expounds on her future ambitions in regards to storytelling, as well as her desire to make learning both fun and accessible to everyone via the power of stories. By comparing her goals to that of a superhero, Carrie is able to emphasise her enthusiasm for contributing to social change. Most importantly, Carrie’s ambitions show how she can contribute to the Harvard community positively, making her a strong applicant.
As an admission essay specialist , Dan Lichterman has been empowering students to find their voice since 2004. He helps students stand out on paper, eliminating the unnecessary so the necessary may speak. Drawing upon his storytelling background, Dan guides applicants to craft authentic essays that leap off the page. He is available for online writing support within the US and internationally. To learn more and schedule a brief complimentary consultation visit danlichterman.com.
I have a fetish for writing.
I’m not talking about crafting prose or verses, or even sentences out of words. But simply constructing letters and characters from strokes of ink gives me immense satisfaction. It’s not quite calligraphy, as I don’t use calligraphic pens or Chinese writing brushes; I prefer it simple, spontaneous, and subconscious. I often find myself crafting characters in the margins of notebooks with a fifty-cent pencil, or tracing letters out of thin air with anything from chopsticks to fingertips.
"One's handwriting," said the ancient Chinese, "is a painting of one's mind." After all, when I practice my handwriting, I am crafting characters. My character.
The art of handwriting is a relic in the information era. Why write when one can type? Perhaps the Chinese had an answer before the advent of keyboards. “One’s handwriting,” said the ancient Chinese, “is a painting of one’s mind.” After all, when I practice my handwriting, I am crafting characters.
I particularly enjoy meticulously designing a character, stroke by stroke, and eventually building up, letter by letter, to a quote personalized in my own voice. Every movement of the pen and every droplet of ink all lead to something profound, as if the arches of every "m" are doorways to revelations. After all, characters are the building blocks of language, and language is the only vehicle through which knowledge unfolds. Thus, in a way, these letters under my pen are themselves representations of knowledge, and the delicate beauty of every letter proves, visually, the intrinsic beauty of knowing. I suppose handwriting reminds me of my conviction in this visual manner: through learning answers are found, lives enriched, and societies bettered.
Moreover, perhaps this strange passion in polishing every single character of a word delineates my dedication to learning, testifies my zeal for my conviction, and sketches a crucial stroke of my character.
"We--must--know ... " the mathematician David Hilbert's voice echoes in resolute cursive at the tip of my pen, as he, addressing German scientists in 1930, propounds the goal of modern intellectuals. My pen firmly nods in agreement with Hilbert, while my mind again fumbles for the path to knowledge.
The versatility of handwriting enthralls me. The Chinese developed many styles -- called hands -- of writing. Fittingly, each hand seems to parallel one of my many academic interests. Characters of the Regular Hand (kai shu), a legible script, serve me well during many long hours when I scratch my head and try to prove a mathematical statement rigorously, as the legibility illuminates my logic on paper. Words of the Running Hand (xing shu), a semi-cursive script, are like the passionate words that I speak before a committee of Model United Nations delegates, propounding a decisive course of action: the words, both spoken and written, are swift and coherent but resolute and emphatic. And strokes of the Cursive Hand (cao shu) resemble those sudden artistic sparks when I deliver a line on stage: free spontaneous, but emphatic syllables travel through the lights like rivers of ink flowing on the page.
Yet the fact that the three distinctive hands cooperate so seamlessly, fusing together the glorious culture of writing, is perhaps a fable of learning, a testament that the many talents of the Renaissance Man could all be worthwhile for enriching human society. Such is my methodology: just like I organize my different hands into a neat personal style with my fetish for writing, I can unify my broad interests with my passion for learning.
“...We -- will -- know!” Hilbert finishes his adage, as I frantically slice an exclamation mark as the final stroke of this painting of my mind.
I must know: for knowing, like well-crafted letters, has an inherent beauty and an intrinsic value. I will know: for my versatile interests in academics will flow like my versatile styles of writing.
I must know and I will know: for my fetish for writing is a fetish for learning.
Professional Review by Dan Lichterman
We learn that he expresses his innermost self through an art that has become a relic within the information age. As we peer into his mind, we learn something essential about Jiafeng's character–that he is irrepressibly drawn to the intricate beauty of pure learning.
Jiafeng’s essay succeeds by using the metaphor of handwriting, and it’s immense physical satisfaction, to showcase the unbounded pleasure of pursuing knowledge. We can visualize spontaneously crafted letters filling his notebooks. We see him trace Chinese characters into air by chopstick and fingertip. We learn that he expresses his innermost self through an art that has become a relic within the information age. As we peer into his mind, we learn something essential about Jiafeng’s character–that he is irrepressibly drawn to the intricate beauty of pure learning.
Jiafeng goes on to reveal that his intellectual pursuit has been shaped by not one but three Chinese styles of handwriting, each reflecting a distinct element of his intellectual growth. We see Jiafeng’s logic when engaged in mathematical proof, rhetorical flair when speaking before Model United Nations, and improvisational spark when delivering lines on stage. He presents these polymath pursuits as united by writing, indicating to readers that his broad interests are all an expression of the same principle of discovery. By the time readers finish Jiafeng’s essay they have no doubts regarding the pleasure he derives from learning–they have experienced him enacting this celebration of thought throughout every line of this well-crafted personal statement.
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“Ella, what did you think of Douglass’s view on Christianity?” I gulped. Increasingly powerful palpitations throbbed in my heart as my eyes darted around the classroom – searching for a profound response to Dr. Franklin’s question. I took a deep breath while reaching the most genuine answer I could conjure.
“Professor, I don’t know.”
Dr. Franklin stared at me blankly as he attempted to interpret the thoughts I didn’t voice. My lack of familiarity with the assigned text wasn’t a consideration that crossed his mind because he was familiar with my past contributions to class discussions. I was a fervent critic of the corrupted culture behind Christianity of the Puritans in Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and modern evangelicals involved in the puzzling divinity of Donald Trump. He arched his flummoxed brows as he began to open his mouth.
“Professor, what I mean is that I’m not sure whether or not I even have a say on Douglass’s statements on Christianity in his Narrative of the Life.”
In class, I often separated the culture of Christianity from the religion. To tie these immensely disparate concepts as one and coin it as Christianity would present fallacies that contradict with the Christianity I knew. Lack of tolerance and hostility were products of humans’ sinful nature – not the teachings of Christ. People were just using Christianity as an excuse to exalt themselves rather than the holy name of Jesus. These were the “facts.”
My greatest realization came when Douglass declared Christian slave-holders as the worst slave-holders he ever met because of their deceptive feign of piety and use of Christianity to justify the oppression of their slaves. I realized that I couldn’t bring myself to raise the same argument that I used to convince myself that my Christianity of love was the only true Christianity. To Douglass, Christianity was the opposite. I didn’t want to dismiss his story. People use this sacred religion to spread hatred, and to many, this is the only Christianity they know. Their experiences aren’t any bit falser than mine.
Christianity isn’t the only culture that harbors truth that transcends the “facts.” America’s less of a perfect amalgamation of different ethnic cultures and more of a society severed by tribal conflicts rooted in the long established political culture of the nation. Issues such as racism, white privilege, and gender disparity are highly salient topics of current political discussion. However, during a time when people can use online platforms with algorithms that provide content they want to see, we fail to acknowledge the truth in other people’s experiences and express empathy.
My protective nature drives my desire to connect with different people and build understanding. To do so, however, I step outside my Korean American Southern Baptist paradigm because my experiences do not constitute everyone else's.
As a Korean-American in the South, I am no stranger to intolerance. I remember the countless instances of people mocking my parents for their English pronunciation and my brother’s stutter. Because their words were less eloquent, people deemed their thoughts as less valuable as well. I protect my family and translate their words whenever they have a doctor’s appointment or need more ketchup at McDonald’s. My protective nature drives my desire to connect with different people and build understanding. To do so, however, I step outside my Korean American Southern Baptist paradigm because my experiences do not constitute everyone else’s.
Excluded from the Manichaean narrative of this country, I observe the turmoil in our nation through a separate lens - a blessing and a curse. Not only do I find myself awkwardly fixed in a black vs. white America, but I also fail to define my identity sandwiched between Korean and American. In the end, I find myself stuck amongst the conventional labels and binaries that divide America.
“You seem to work harder than most to understand other people’s points of view,” Dr. Franklin said after I shared these thoughts to the class.
“I find this easier because I spent my childhood assuming that my culture was always the exception,” I replied. As an anomaly, accepting different truths is second nature.
Professional Review by Crimson Education
At a time in which the Black Lives Matters movement was sweeping America and racial tension was at a high, Ella was able to offer a powerful and brave perspective: how she feels to be neither Black nor White. The true strength of this essay is its willingness to go where people rarely go in college essays: to race, to politics and to religion.
This is a trait that exists in a powerful independent thinker who could push all kinds of debates forwards - academic ones or otherwise.
Her dedication to her religion is evident - but so is her willingness to question the manipulation of the word ‘Christianty’ for less than genuine purposes. It requires intellectual bravery to ask the hard questions of your own religion as opposed to succumbing to cognitive dissonance. This is a trait that exists in a powerful independent thinker who could push all kinds of debates forwards - academic ones or otherwise.
Her word choice continues to emphasize bravery and strength. “I protect my family” inserts Ella as the shield between her family and the daily racism they experience in the south because of their accents and heritage. Her humorous quirks show the insidious racism. She even needs to shield her family from the humble request for some more Ketchup at McDonalds! Imagine if one is nervous to ask for some more Ketchup and even such a mundane activity becomes difficult through the friction of racial tension and misunderstanding. This is a powerful way to deliver a sobering commentary on the real state of society through Ellen’s lived experiences.
She demonstrates her intellectual prowess in her discussion of somewhat high-brow topics but also grounds herself in the descriptions of her daily acts of kindness.
She connects major societal debates (Trumpism for example) with daily experiences (her translations at the doctor’s office) with a gentle but powerful cadence. She demonstrates her intellectual prowess in her discussion of somewhat high-brow topics but also grounds herself in the descriptions of her daily acts of kindness.
Creatively Ella weaves numerous literary devices in and out of her story without them being overbearing. These include alliteration and the juxtaposition of longer sentences with shorter ones to make a point.
Her final dialogue is subtle but booming. “....my culture was the exception”. The reader is left genuinely sympathetic for her plight, challenges and bravery as she goes about her daily life.
Ella is a bold independent thinker with a clear social conscience and an ability to wade in the ambiguity and challenge of an imperfect world.
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"Paint this vase before you leave today," my teacher directed as she placed foreign brushes and paints in my hands. I looked at her blankly. Where were the charts of colors and books of techniques? Why was her smile so decidedly encouraging? The sudden expectations made no sense.
She smiled. "Don't worry, just paint."
In a daze, I assembled my supplies the way the older students did. I was scared. I knew everything but nothing. And even in those first blissful moments of experimentation, it hurt to realize that my painting was all wrong. The gleam of light. The distorted reflection. A thousand details taunted me with their refusal to melt into the glass. The vase was lifeless at best.
As the draining hours of work wore on, I began wearing reckless holes in my mixing plate. It was my fourth hour here. Why had I not received even a single piece of guidance?
At the peak of my frustration, she finally reentered the studio, yawning with excruciating casualness. I felt myself snap.
"I barely know how to hold a brush," I muttered almost aggressively, "how could I possibly have the technique to paint this?"
She looked at me with a shocked innocence that only heightened the feeling of abandonment. "What do you mean you don't have the technique?"
It was as though she failed to realize I was a complete beginner.
And then suddenly she broke into a pitch of urgent obviousness: "What are you doing! Don't you see those details?? There's orange from the wall and light brown from the floor. There's even dark green from that paint box over there. You have to look at the whole picture," she stole a glance at my face of bewilderment, and, sighing, grabbed my paint,stained hand. "Listen, it's not in here," she implored, shaking my captive limb. "It's here." The intensity with which she looked into my eyes was overwhelming.
I returned the gaze emptily. Never had I been so confused…
But over the years I did begin to see. The shades of red and blue in gray concrete, the tints of Phthalo in summer skies, and winter’s Currelean. It was beautiful and illogical. Black was darker with green and red, and white was never white.
I began to study animals. The proportions and fan brush techniques were certainly difficult, but they were the simple part. It was the strategic tints of light and bold color that created life. I would spend hours discovering the exact blue that would make a fish seem on the verge of tears and hours more shaping a deer’s ears to speak of serenity instead of danger.
As I run faster into the heart of art and my love for politics and law, I will learn to see the faces behind each page of cold policy text, the amazing innovation sketched in the tattered Constitution, and the progressiveness living in oak-paneled courts.
In return for probing into previously ignored details, my canvas and paints opened the world. I began to appreciate the pink kiss of ever-evolving sunsets and the even suppression of melancholy. When my father came home from a business trip, it was no longer a matter of simple happiness, but of fatigue and gladness' underlying shades. The personalities who had once seemed so annoyingly arrogant now turned soft with their complexities of doubt and inspiration. Each mundane scene is as deep and varied as the paint needed to capture it.
One day, I will learn to paint people. As I run faster into the heart of art and my love for politics and law, I will learn to see the faces behind each page of cold policy text, the amazing innovation sketched in the tattered Constitution, and the progressiveness living in oak-paneled courts.
It won’t be too far. I know that in a few years I will see a thousand more colors than I do today. Yet the most beautiful part about art is that there is no end. No matter how deep I penetrate its shimmering realms, the enigmatic caverns of wonder will stay.
Professional Review by College Confidential
My favorite college essays begin with one moment in time and end by tying that moment into a larger truth about the world. In this essay, Elizabeth uses this structure masterfully.
This essay is a great example of a create essay. It's real strength, however, lies in showing how the writer pursues her goal despite frustration and grapples with universal questions.
The essay opens with dialogue, placing the reader right in the middle of the action. She shares only the details that make the scene vivid, like the holes in her mixing plate and her teacher’s yawn. She skips backstory and explanations that can bore readers and bog down a short essay. The reader is left feeling as though we are sitting beside her, staring at an empty vase and a set of paints, with no idea how to begin.
The SPARC method of essay writing says that the best college essays show how a student can do one (or more) of these five things: Seize an opportunity, Pursue goals despite obstacles, Ask important questions, take smart Risks, or Create with limited resources. This essay is a great example of a “create” essay. It’s real strength, however, lies in showing how the writer pursues her goal despite frustration and grapples with universal questions.
As the essay transitions from the personal to the universal, her experience painting the vase becomes a metaphor for how she sees the world. Not only has painting helped her appreciate the subtle shades of color in the sunset, it has opened her up to understand that nothing in life is black and white. This parallel works especially well as a way to draw the connection between Elizabeth’s interest in political science and art.
Written by Joy Bullen, Senior Editor at College Confidential
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When I failed math in my sophomore year of high school, a bitter dispute engulfed my household -- “Nicolas Yan vs. Mathematics.” I was the plaintiff, appearing pro se, while my father represented the defendant (inanimate as it was). My brother and sister constituted a rather understaffed jury, and my mother presided over the case as judge.
In a frightening departure from racial stereotype, I charged Mathematics with the capital offences of being “too difficult” and “irrelevant to my aspirations," citing my recent shortcomings in the subject as evi. dence. My father entered a not guilty plea on the defendant's behalf, for he had always harbored hopes that I would follow in his entrepreneurial footsteps -- and who ever heard of a businessman who wasn't an accomplished mathematician? He argued that because I had fallen sick before my examination and had been unable to sit one of the papers, it would be a travesty of justice to blame my "Ungraded” mark on his client. The judge nodded sagely.
With heartrending pathos, I recalled how I had studied A-Level Mathematics with calculus a year before the rest of my cohort, bravely grappling with such perverse concepts as the poisson distribution to no avail. I decried the subject's lack of real-life utility and lamented my inability to reconcile further effort with any plausible success; so that to persist with Mathematics would be a Sisyphean endeavor. Since I had no interest in becoming the entrepreneur that my father envisioned, I petitioned the court for academic refuge in the humanities. The members of the jury exchanged sympathetic glances and put their heads together to deliberate.
Over the next year, however, new evidence that threw the court's initial verdict into question surfaced. Languishing on death row, Mathematics exercised its right to appeal, and so our quasi-court reconvened in the living room.
In hushed tones, they weighed the particulars of the case. Then, my sister announced their unanimous decision with magisterial gravity: "Nicolas shouldn't have to do math if he doesn't want to!" I was ecstatic; my father distraught. With a bang of her metaphorical gavel, the judge sentenced the defendant to "Death by Omission"-- and so I chose my subjects for 11th Grade sans Mathematics. To my father's disappointment, a future in business for me now seemed implausible.
Over the next year, however, new evidence that threw the court's initial verdict into question surfaced. Languishing on death row, Mathematics exercised its right to appeal, and so our quasi-court reconvened in the living room.
My father reiterated his client's innocence, maintaining that Mathematics was neither "irrelevant" nor "too difficult." He proudly recounted how just two months earlier, when my friends had convinced me to join them in creating a business case competition for high school students (clerical note: the loftily-titled New Zealand Secondary Schools Case Competition), I stood in front of the Board of a company and successfully pitched them to sponsor us-- was this not evidence that l could succeed in business? I think I saw a tear roll down his cheek as he implored me to give Mathematics another chance.
I considered the truth of his words. While writing a real-world business case for NZSSCC, l had been struck by how mathematical processes actually made sense when deployed in a practical context, and how numbers could tell a story just as vividly as words can. By reviewing business models and comparing financial projections to actual returns, one can read a company's story and identify areas of potential growth; whether the company then took advantage of these opportunities determined its success. It wasn't that my role in organizing NZSSCC had magically taught me to embrace all things mathematical or commercial -- I was still the same person -- but I recognized that no intellectual constraints prevented me from succeeding in Mathematics; I needed only the courage to seize an opportunity for personal growth.
I stood up and addressed my family: “I’ll do it.” Then, without waiting for the court’s final verdict, I crossed the room to embrace my father: and the rest, as they (seldom) say, was Mathematics.
Professional Review by KEY Education
For some, math concepts such as limits, logarithms, and derivatives can bring about feelings of apprehension or intimidation. So, Nicolas’s college essay reflecting on his personal conflict coming to terms with Mathematics offers a relatable, down-to-earth look at how he eventually came to realize and appreciate the importance of this once-dreaded subject. Not only does Nicolas’s statement use a unique, engaging approach to hook the reader in, but also he draws various connections from Mathematics to his relationship with his family, to his maturation process, and to his extracurricular involvement. A number of factors helped Nicolas’s statement add color to his application file, giving further insight into the person he is.
Nicolas’s choice of Mathematics as the focusing lens is effective for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is genuine and approachable. It is not about some grandiose idea, event, or achievement. Rather, it is about a topic to which many students—and people for that matter—can relate. And from this central theme, Nicolas draws insightful linkages to various aspects of his life. At the outset of his essay, Mathematics is presented as the antagonist, or as Nicolas skillfully portrays, the “defendant”. However, by the end of his piece, and as a demonstration of his growth, Nicolas has come to a resolution with the former defendant.
Adding to the various connections, Nicolas presents his case, literally, in an engaging manner in the form of a court scene, with Nicolas as the plaintiff charging the defendant, Mathematics, with being too difficult and irrelevant to his life.
Through Nicolas’s conflict over Mathematics, we gain a deeper understanding of his relationship with his father and the tension that exists in Nicolas fulfilling his father’s wishes of following in his entrepreneurial footsteps. His father’s initial attempts at reasoning with him are rebuffed, however Nicolas later acknowledges that he “considered the truth of his words” and eventually embraces his father, signifying their coming to a resolution with their shared understanding of each other. Furthermore, Nicolas connects his evolved understanding of Mathematics to his important organizational role in creating the business-focused New Zealand Secondary Schools Case Competition, acknowledging how “mathematical processes actually made sense when deployed in a practical context, and how numbers could tell a story just as vividly as words can.” As he states, “I needed only the courage to seize an opportunity for personal growth,” which he ultimately realizes.
Adding to the various connections, Nicolas presents his case, literally, in an engaging manner in the form of a court scene, with Nicolas as the plaintiff charging the defendant, Mathematics, with being too difficult and irrelevant to his life. Bearing in mind word count limitations, what would have been interesting to explore would be deeper insights into each of the connections that Nicolas drew and how he applied these various lessons to other parts of his life.
Nicolas employs a number of characteristics essential for a successful essay: a theme that allows for deeper introspection, an engaging hook or approach, and a number of linkages between his theme and various aspects of his life, providing insight into who he is and how he thinks.
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Successful Harvard Essay by Abigail Mack
Abigail gained national attention after reading her application essay on TikTok earlier this year, with over 19.9 million views on the first video. Her essay helped her to recieve a rare likely letter in the most competitive Harvard application cycle in history with a less than 4 percent acceptance rate, and now she uses her platform to help other college hopefuls navigate the application process. Watch her read the beginning of her essay here and check out her other writing tips on her TikTok .
I hate the letter S. Of the 164,777 words with S, I only grapple with one.
I hate the letter “S”. Of the 164,777 words with “S”, I only grapple with one. To condemn an entire letter because of its use 0.0006% of the time sounds statistically absurd, but that one case changed 100% of my life. I used to have two parents, but now I have one, and the “S” in “parents” isn’t going anywhere.
“S” follows me. I can’t get through a day without being reminded that while my friends went out to dinner with their parents, I ate with my parent. As I write this essay, there is a blue line under the word “parent” telling me to check my grammar; even Grammarly assumes that I should have parents, but cancer doesn’t listen to edit suggestions. I won’t claim that my situation is as unique as 1 in 164,777, but it is still an exception to the rule - an outlier. The world isn’t meant for this special case.
The world wouldn’t abandon “S” because of me, so I tried to abandon “S”. I could get away from “S” if I stayed busy; you can’t have dinner with your “parent” (thanks again, Grammarly) if you’re too busy to have family dinner. Any spare time that I had, I filled. I became known as the “busy kid”- the one that everyone always asks, “How do you have time?” Morning meetings, classes, after school meetings, volleyball practice, dance class, rehearsal in Boston, homework, sleep, repeat. Though my specific schedule has changed over time, the busyness has not. I couldn’t fill the loss that “S” left in my life, but I could at least make sure I didn’t have to think about it. There were so many things in my life that I couldn’t control, so I controlled what I could- my schedule. I never succumbed to the stress of potentially over-committing. I thrived. It became a challenge to juggle it all, but I’d soon find a rhythm. But rhythm wasn’t what I wanted. Rhythm may not have an “S”, but “S” sure liked to come by when I was idle. So, I added another ball, and another, and another. Soon I noticed that the same “color” balls kept falling into my hands- theater, academics, politics. I began to want to come into contact with these more and more, so I further narrowed the scope of my color wheel and increased the shades of my primary colors.
Life became easier to juggle, but for the first time, I didn’t add another ball. I found my rhythm, and I embraced it. I stopped running away from a single “S” and began chasing a double “S”- passion. Passion has given me purpose. I was shackled to “S” as I tried to escape the confines of the traditional familial structure. No matter how far I ran, “S” stayed behind me because I kept looking back. I’ve finally learned to move forward instead of away, and it is liberating. “S” got me moving, but it hasn’t kept me going.
I wish I could end here, triumphant and basking in my new inspiration, but life is more convoluted. Motivation is a double edged sword; it keeps me facing forward, but it also keeps me from having to look back. I want to claim that I showed courage in being able to turn from “S”, but I cannot. Motivation is what keeps “S” at bay. I am not perfectly healed, but I am perfect at navigating the best way to heal me. I don’t seek out sadness, so “S” must stay on the sidelines, and until I am completely ready, motivation is more than enough for me.
Professional Review by HS2 Academy
There's an honesty here as she reveals to the reader her attempts at filling this void in her life by constantly keeping busy. It's further satisfying to see these attempts at committing to various activities evolve into what she terms a double
Abigail’s essay navigates one of the most delicate sorts of topics in college applications: dealing with personal or family tragedy. Perhaps the most common pitfall is to take a tragic event and effuse it with too much pathos and sense of loss that the narrative fails to reveal much about the author’s own personality other than the loss itself. In short, a “sob story.” However, Abigail’s essay adeptly skirts this by utilizing wit and a framing device using the letter “S” to share a profoundly personal journey in a manner that is engaging and thought-provoking.
Rather than focus purely on the loss of one of her parents to cancer, Abigail reflects on her life and the adjustments she has had to make. It is particularly poignant how she expresses the sense that her life with only one remaining parent seems somehow anomalous, that the constant reminders of the completeness in the familial structures of others haunts her.
What also makes this essay all the more intriguing is how we get a glimpse into her internal life as she learns to cope with the loss. There’s an honesty here as she reveals to the reader her attempts at filling this void in her life by constantly keeping busy. It’s further satisfying to see these attempts at committing to various activities evolve into what she terms a “double S,” or “passion,” as she discovers things that she has become passionate about. Perhaps this essay could have been strengthened further by giving the reader a sense of what those passions might be, as we’re left to speculate based on the activities she had mentioned.
Lastly, we see a sense of realism and maturity in Abigail's closing reflection. It’s easy to end an essay like this with a sense of narrative perfection, but she wisely concedes that “life is more convoluted.” This poignant revelation gives us a window into her continuing struggles, but we are nonetheless left impressed by her growth and candor in this essay.
collegeMission is an undergraduate admissions consulting firm focused solely on helping applicants craft their best admissions essays to gain acceptance at top academic institutions. collegeMission's elite admissions consultants have assisted thousands of applicants in successfully pursuing their educational dreams. As accomplished writers and graduates of prestigious universities, our consultants are uniquely qualified to guide you through brainstorming, outlining, and writing your college essays so that the admissions committees take notice. To learn more or schedule a free brainstorming session, visit www.collegemission.com or email [email protected].
I learned the definition of cancer at the age of fourteen. I was taking my chapter 7 biology test when I came upon the last question, “What is cancer?”, to which I answered: “The abnormal, unrestricted growth of cells.” After handing in the test, I moved on to chapter 8, oblivious then to how earth-shattering such a disease could be.
I learned the meaning of cancer two years later. A girl named Kiersten came into my family by way of my oldest brother who had fallen in love with her. I distinctly recall her hair catching the sea breeze as she walked with us along the Jersey shore, a blonde wave in my surrounding family's sea of brunette. Physically, she may have been different, but she redefined what family meant to me. She attended my concerts, went to my award ceremonies, and helped me study for tests. Whenever I needed support, she was there. Little did I know that our roles would be reversed, forever changing my outlook on life.
Kiersten was diagnosed with Stage II Hodgkin's lymphoma at the age of 22. Tears and hair fell alike after each of her 20 rounds of chemotherapy as we feared the worst. It was an unbearable tragedy watching someone so vivacious skirt the line between life and death. Her cancer was later classified as refractory, or resistant to treatment. Frustration and despair flooded my mind as I heard this news. And so I prayed. In what universe did this dynamic make any sense? I prayed to God and to even her cancer itself to just leave her alone. Eventually, Kiersten was able to leave the hospital to stay for six weeks at my home.
But the beauty that resulted from sympathizing as opposed to analyzing and putting aside my own worries and troubles for someone else was an enormous epiphany for me. My problems dissipated into thin air the moment I came home and dropped my books and bags to talk with Kiersten. The more I talked, laughed, smiled, and shared memories with her, the more I began to realize all that she taught me.
My family and I transformed the house into an antimicrobial sanctuary, protecting Kiersten from any outside illness. I watched TV with her, baked cookies for her, and observed her persistence as she regained strength and achieved remission. We beat biology, time, and death, all at the same time, with cookies, TV, and friendship. Yet I was so concerned with helping Kiersten that I had not realized how she helped me during her battle with cancer.
I had been so used to solving my problems intellectually that when it came time to emotionally support someone, I was afraid. I could define cancer, but what do I say to someone with it? There were days where I did not think I could be optimistic in the face of such adversity. But the beauty that resulted from sympathizing as opposed to analyzing and putting aside my own worries and troubles for someone else was an enormous epiphany for me. My problems dissipated into thin air the moment I came home and dropped my books and bags to talk with Kiersten. The more I talked, laughed, smiled, and shared memories with her, the more I began to realize all that she taught me. She influenced me in the fact that she demonstrated the power of loyalty, companionship, and optimism in the face of desperate, life-threatening situations. She showed me the importance of loving to live and living to love. Most of all, she gave me the insight necessary to fully help others not just with intellect and preparation, but with solidarity and compassion. In this way, I became able to help myself and others with not only my brain, but with my heart. And that, in the words of Robert Frost, “has made all the difference.”
Professional Review by collegeMission
Nikolas is candid, writing about how he could solve problems intellectually, but struggled to cope emotionally during Kiersten's diagnosis and treatment. Ultimately, he finds his way and gains a deeper perspective on life, and thus shares a story of overcoming and of complex intellectual and emotional growth.
Nikolas uses an unexpected approach in this essay, sharing a story of someone else’s struggle, as he highlights change within himself. The emotions and connection that he felt for Kiersten, his older brother’s girlfriend, are quite powerful, as is his recognition of his own attempt to navigate his way through the experience. Nikolas is candid, writing about how he could solve problems intellectually, but struggled to cope emotionally during Kiersten’s diagnosis and treatment. Ultimately, he finds his way and gains a deeper perspective on life, and thus shares a story of overcoming and of complex intellectual and emotional growth.
Nikolas’ use of imagery is terrific. We first see it in the essay when he describes one of his first impressions of Kiersten, with her blonde hair flowing in the wind by the Jersey Shore and how that contrasted with the dark hair of his family. That description then flows as we read the next paragraph, where he talks about the impact of her cancer. “Tears and hair fell alike after each of her 20 rounds of chemotherapy as we feared the worst.” Instead of explicitly sharing everyone’s heartbreak, through details that heartbreak becomes so very evident.
One missing piece here is an explanation of why Kiersten stayed with Nikolas’ family rather than returning home to her own family. Maybe a quick explanation would have helped the reader make sense of her location, and create an even stronger linkage with Nikolas and his family. Additionally, Nikolas might have taken one more step toward the end of the essay to connect this newfound emotion to other parts of his life. The final paragraph feels slightly repetitive, and a compelling route could have been to show how he went on to embrace the idea of “loving to live and living to love.” Nonetheless, Nikolas reveals that he is capable of growing through adversity, a character trait that this admissions committee clearly appreciated.
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The Science of Strong Business Writing
- Bill Birchard
Lessons from neurobiology
Brain scans are showing us in new detail exactly what entices readers. Scientists can see a group of midbrain neurons—the “reward circuit”—light up as people respond to everything from a simple metaphor to an unexpected story twist. The big takeaway? Whether you’re crafting an email to a colleague or an important report for the board, you can write in a way that delights readers on a primal level, releasing pleasure chemicals in their brains.
Bill Birchard is an author and writing coach who’s worked with many successful businesspeople. He’s drawn on that experience and his review of the scientific literature to identify eight features of satisfying writing: simplicity, specificity, surprise, stirring language, seductiveness, smart ideas, social content, and storytelling. In this article, he shares tips for using those eight S’s to captivate readers and help your message stick.
Strong writing skills are essential for anyone in business. You need them to effectively communicate with colleagues, employees, and bosses and to sell any ideas, products, or services you’re offering.
- Bill Birchard is a business author and book-writing coach. His Writing for Impact: 8 Secrets from Science That Will Fire Up Your Reader’s Brain will be published by HarperCollins Leadership in April 2023. His previous books include Merchants of Virtue, Stairway to Earth, Nature’s Keepers, Counting What Counts, and others. For more writing tactics, see his website .
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