HBS students at graduation
On March 22, Max Wibaux made a quiet exit from his office in Kansas City just before noon EST. He drove the five minutes to his apartment, rushed to his computer and then sat briefly paralzyed in front of the screen, desperately wanting to know if Harvard Business School would admit him and not so desperately wanting to know if it didn’t.
Wibaux, marketing manager for Russell Stover chocolates, had invested a lot of time and energy in the decision. By his own estimate, the 30-year-old native of France spent nearly 50 hours over two to three months on as many as 30 drafts of his HBS essay. He also wrote essays for Stanford GSB, Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, and INSEAD.
“I had gone home at lunch time because I knew the posting would go up at noon on the dot,” he recalls. “So I went home, turned on my computer and stared at it for a number of minutes until I watched the clock roll past 12. I was so hesitant to push the button to see what my status was. I finally clicked on it and then jumped up and down.”
THE HARDEST PART OF HIS HBS ADMIT? KEEPING QUIET THAT AFTERNOON IN THE OFFICE
The latest edition of the MBA Essay Guide from The Harbus costs $61.49
He spent the next hour at home, relaying the good news of his HBS acceptance to family and friends. The hardest part of the experience was returning to his office that afternoon, with the widest grin he ever wore on his face, and not sharing the news with anyone other than his boss and his second recommender, the only two people at his employer who knew he had applied to Harvard’s MBA program.
Wibaux will start the MBA program on Aug. 28, but since his acceptance into HBS, he has been involved in a rather unique exercise: Reviewing the essays of recently successful applicants to HBS for inclusion in the just published summer 2017 edition of the MBA Essay Guide from The Harbus, the MBA student newspaper at Harvard.
At first, Wibaux merely volunteered to share his own essay. But when the newspaper’s leadership team found out that Wibaux boasts nearly 10 years of Brand Management experience working for GlaxoSmithKline, L’Oreal, Reckitt Benckiser, and Lindt & Sprüngli, he was drafted as the new product manager for The Harbus.
29 ESSAYS FROM 29 NEWLY ADMITTED STUDENTS TO HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL
His conclusion from reading nearly 50 essays, 29 of which are included in the new guidebook? “It would have taken a lot of the nervousness out of the process to see the wide range of essays out there,” says Wibaux. I was going off the premise that I just wanted to do my own thing. The reason why I went through so many iterations is I didn’t know what I was up against. I think I could have cut by drafts in two.”
The 29 submissions in the new guidebook, available for downloading at just over $60, are just a small fraction of all the 941 essays written by successful candidates who will become students at HBS by months’ end, of course. But they are representative of a wildly diverse student body from all walks of life, all industries, functions and geographies, and all ways of thinking. They come from HBS-bound applicants in Pakistan, India, the Ivory coast, Zimbabwe, and Egypt, among other places. They were written by people who worked in oil and gas, healthcare, nuclear engineering, transportation and community service, not merely consultants and financiers. The stories vary greatly as well, from a student who delivers a first-hand account of how it feels to run a triathlon to another who candidly describes a serious bout of depression that led to suicidal thoughts.
Ultimately, the real benefit of the guide is not that it will teach future applicants how to expertly craft the perfect HBS essay that will gain them an admit. Instead, like Wibaux himself learned, you may not have to be nearly as fussy as you think when answering the HBS prompt “what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program?”
‘YOU CAN HAVE A KILLER ESSAY BUT GET REJECTED IF YOUR APPLICATION IS WEAK’
Incoming HBS student Max Wibaux
That’s because this inside peek at winning essays will allow you to read well-crafted writing worthy of The New Yorker as well as fairly unremarkable essays that could have been written for a college freshmen intro class. What you can’t know is how important these essays were in Harvard’s admission decisions.
“It has been said over and over again that the essay is just one component,” concedes Wibaux. “So yes you can have a killer essay but if the application is weak, it won’t make a difference. Or conversely you can have a bad essay but still get in. Even so, it’s the only chance for you to get your story across in a way that is not formatted by the admissions committee. It is one of the few pieces in there that is truly in your own voice. It is purely you.”
Some of the successful applicants who forked over their essays to The Harbus make even Wibaux look like a piker for his 25 to 30 drafts. Almost all the essays in the book are the result of days, if not weeks, of work and multiple iterations. One 2+2 candidate from Canada, who had worked as a consultant, claims to have powered through 75 versions of the essay over a period of 50 to 60 solid hours of effort. The French Canadian even consulted a a psychologist to help him write his 963 words with with deep introspection.
A SUCCESSFUL INDIAN APPLICANT OFFERS SOME KEY TAKEAWAYS
Not surprisingly, many were highly methodical in their approach. A successful round one applicant from India who applied to Harvard, Stanford, Wharton and Chicago Booth say she started thinking about his esays in June. “I laid out my entire life on a linear storyline and starting hunting for defining moments that I could talk about,” he explains. On Stanford’s iconic “what matters most to you and why” prompt, he invested three to four weeks and did eight to ten iternations. On his HBS essay, he spent four to six weeks, with as many as a dozen drafts.
Starting Harvard’s MBA program later this month, he shares key takeaways:
- Spend adequate time brainstorming for defining moments and discuss them with someone who knows you really well
- Adopt a simple writing style, with short sentences and cause-effect relations clearly laid out. Run a grammar/text bloat test towards the end.
- Don’t read into the feedback you get from your reviewers too much. Often times feedback will be contradictory. Go with what you think is best.
- Wrap up the essays at least two weeks before submission and lay primary emphasis on other elements of your application – CV, referrals, short responses.
- Take time to discuss your application with your recommenders and prime them with interesting instances they can talk about while writing you referrals.
Sample Business School Essays
Since many business school admissions officers encourage applicants to “write less, say more,” it is important to communicate your background and career ambitions in a concise and clear way. The essay gives admissions officers an opportunity to learn who you are, where you're going, what you have done and why their school is right for you. Use this small space to give the admissions officers a deeper sense of who you are by answering the prompt with brevity.
This section contains three sample business school essays:
- Business School Essay One - The Business of Recovery
- Business School Essay Two - Leadership in Action
- Business School Essay Three - Repair and Restore
The Business of Recovery — Sample Essay One
Prompt: What are your career goals? What skills do you expect to gain from studying at ABC Business School and how will they contribute to your professional career? (500 words).
Watching my brother transform from a man who had lost his ability to walk to a man who can play basketball with my father kindled my fascination of the physical therapy world. The Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates the field of physical therapy to grow faster than average in the upcoming years. I hope to join this field during an exciting time of growth, furthering the rehabilitation of those who have been injured.
Following graduation from ABC Business School, I intend to serve a marketing team in a local physical therapy company, such as Ridgeview Physical Therapy. My short-term goal is to lead a team, furthering success in the Ridgeview area. Due to the popular physical therapy company thirty miles from Ridgeview, much of the local population is unaware of the quality services Ridgeview Physical Therapy has to offer. I hope to increase visits by 40 percent in the first 5 years of my employment. My long-term goal includes extending the company’s reach into surrounding cities, and eventually beyond national barriers, becoming a global marketing manager.
I expect to gain skills and experiences from ABC Business School that will propel my short and long-term goals. I hope to develop an experiential and diverse learning experience and have the opportunity to interact with different groups of people to learn from their business insights and endeavours. From ABC Business School, I seek the tools and resources needed to further engage in my marketing knowledge, perform professional strategic analyses, and re-evaluate my past work experiences. I look forward to taking courses from Professor Jim. W. Reid, who has published the research of the success of Matthews and Marketing in his book, “Matthews Commerce,” which has helped me continue my career this far. I also look forward to taking the unique classes taught by Professor Rachel E. Davis, introducing me to the physical therapy world and enriching my business skills in that area.
When my brother’s car accident in 2011 caused immobility in his left leg, he never thought he would be able to play his favorite sport again. David Andrews, a 1994 graduate from ABC Business School, ensured that that would not come to pass. I spoke with Andrews about his journey, and he told me that it was through the opportunities and education he received from the professors and students at ABC Business School that helped him open his own practice. I hope to follow in Andrews’s footsteps. With the passion I have for the success of Ridgeview Physical Therapy, and the determination I learned from watching my brother, all I need to complete my goals is the knowledge available to me through an MBA at ABC Business School. I look forward to completing my career aspirations using the tools received from ABC Business School to contribute to my professional career.
The world of physical therapy is growing, and with my skills in marketing, I hope to grow the local Ridgeview services across the globe.
In this essay, the applicant is assigned to answer the prompt in approximately 500 words. The admissions officer expects a clear and concise essay that does not veer off the question and exemplifies quality writing, grammar, and punctuation. In questions similar to these, the admissions officers are looking for:
- Student’s understanding and knowledge in answering questions: The writer explains his short and long-term career goals, referencing the future of the career (Bureau of Labor Statistics) and quantifying his goals (Increase by 40 percent within the first 5 years).
- A deeper look into who the applicant is: Writer shares personal information that also relates to answering the question (brother in physical therapy). Make sure that any personal information you share does not veer off of the question that needs to be answered.
- Proper research on the school to adequately answer the second question: Student mentions names of professors who have demonstrated help in the past (professor’s business research book) giving credibility to the student that he believes they will be able to help him in the future. Avoid flattery and only speak of the school in a way that shows proper research and answers the question presented.
Leadership in Action — Sample Essay Two
Prompt: Present evidence of your leadership capacity and/or potential. (Approx. 550 words)
Nancy, the CEO of Jasmine Publishing House, bought me a coffee and told me I should invest in warm gloves as we sat down at a corner diner for what would be a game-changing business meeting. As the leading publishing house in Europe, Nancy informed me that JPH was interested in closing a multi-million dollar deal with our fashion magazine, Zoelle, provided we changed the magazine's appearance to attract a broader European audience.
As production manager, my job was to lead and supervise a staff of 30 to match Nancy's vision, working closely with the design team, photographers, production staff and marketing team. After three weeks of heavy brainstorming, we developed a fresh appearance for the magazine.
I invited Nancy to a meeting with me and three of our executive producers. I shared with her the strategy we had created in order to solve our appearance problem, as well as estimated costs and complications. Nancy agreed that the direction our magazine was going fit well with her vision and audience, and that JPH would be happy to work with us within the next week.
Although the team was excited to accept the offer, I was concerned that we were not prepared to complete the project so quickly. Though the executive producers did not understand, as our production team was to begin work on the next issue the following day, I explained that there may include deep financial consequences if we rush into the process. I wanted to ensure that JPH received a consistent layout from Zoelle magazine. Nancy agreed to wait until the upcoming issue was complete before beginning work on the new look.
We began work the following Tuesday, after the latest issue was produced. I collaborated with an eight member marketing team to develop new branding for our magazine and mediated this branding with the design team, ensuring that it was able to blend well with their ideas and insights based on the first meeting with Nancy. I led the operation of the first issue to be published via JPH, supervising 30 employees.
After the issue was published, our sales increased by 42 percent in the first week. After leading the Zoelle team to a business deal close and a fresh start, I learned that with the proper leadership, a staff of varied talents, insights and opinions can work closely together to produce a magazine that continues to increase its sells each issue. My initiative helped provide Zoelle with its largest new contract that year, a $2 million deal. Customers from Europe and the United States commented with positive remarks on the new look, showing interest in the replacement of the former look, which had been being published for seven years.
After this leadership experience, I was able to see my potential as a leader. I can communicate effectively with all members of a group and help connect them with one another to make a larger picture. I protect my business discernment even against an upset crowd, and am able to properly persuade others to understand other perspectives. Through learning more about leadership every day with my work in Zoelle, I hope to continue to strengthen these abilities and witness the success they can bring to media production.
In this essay, the applicant was asked to detail her leadership abilities through the application of a relevant example. She was asked to do this in approximately 550 words, using concise language and proper grammar and punctuation. In questions similar to these, the admissions officers are looking for:
- Applicant's ability to share leadership qualities with a relevant example: This writer shared leadership qualities of communication (brainstorming with different staffs and helping them connect their ideas together), listening (brainstorming and understanding staff concerns), delegating (ensuring each team did what was supposed to be done), and managing (managed and supervised a staff of 30) through the use of an example from her work with Zoelle Magazine.
- Proof of a potential growth in these leadership skills: The writer hopes to “continue to strengthen” her leadership skills. She provides examples of how she learned from previous leadership roles.
- How these skills will help further your career: The writer used an example from her current career and concluded her essay with a look into the potential of leadership in her field.
Repair and Restore — Sample Essay Three
Prompt: Describe a challenging situation you have faced in the past. How did you overcome the challenge? (450 Words)
I looked across my celebratory cheesecake and beamed up at my new coworkers. I couldn't believe I had finally landed my dream job. All of the senior editors were having lunch in the cafe across the street from the bakery where the finance team and marketing team shared dessert. I had been hired as a budget analyst at my favorite magazine. My job was to work alongside the business manager to help create a more healthy marriage between the finance and marketing departments, thus improving our sales and workplace environment. On my way home, I reflected on my relief in finally having an exciting and secure career.
Just three months later, we met at the same bakery where I had celebrated my new job. Every department from our small, close-knit staff was present. As the publication manager began to tell us the news, I remember how our faces fell. Our publication company was going out of business, and every publication was to be shut down. She explained that they had tried to find another publishing company without success.
Not only did I feel as though I failed the company, I also knew that I, as well as the other 17 employees, was out of a job. We went back to our offices and packed up our things. Writers and designers were frantically calling around, asking for open positions. An employee from the finance department began tweaking his resume, and the marketing department apologized to the publication manager and editor-in-chief, who responded graciously.
I had to leave my apartment not long after losing my job. I stayed with a friend on the north side of town as I tried to find a job in a shrinking economic suburb. It took six months to find a position, and though I had to move and leave behind my dream, I found a new way to work toward my new dream.
From this experience, I learned the importance of adaptability. Only through my ability to embrace the change happening around me was I able to find a new job and start a new life with new visions and goals. Applying for my MBA would have sounded bizarre to the disheartened, homeless idealist who lost her dream. But now, after finding in me the strength to persevere, I am able to take what I learned from my previous job and pair it with what I learn from the university. This knowledge will help me ensure that the future companies I work with will not have to endure a similar fallout.
However, if there comes a time when I am again involved in a lost company, I know how to repair. I know how to restore.
In this essay, the applicant was asked to recall a challenging situation to which the writer overcame the boundaries. The writer was asked to do this in approximately 450 words, using concise language and proper grammar and punctuation. In questions similar to these, the admissions officers are looking for:
- Applicant's ability to identify a challenging moment in her life: This writer uses a relevant example of a challenging situation, describing the challenge of losing a job, losing housing, and having to move to a different city.
- Examples of how the applicant overcame these challenges: The writer cites her “adaptability” as the reason why she was able to overcome this challenge. Instead of giving up, the applicant tells of applying for other jobs, even ones that were out of her comfort zone and in another city.
- Brief insights to what the applicant learned from the challenge: This writer learned how to maintain strength, perseverance and adaptability in challenging situations. The applicant tells of continuing the learning process in her MBA program and allowing it to help future companies.
Here are our top five tips for writing a business school admissions essay:
- State specific reasons as to why you are a good “fit” for the school, rather than simply stating “I am the ideal candidate for your program.” Why are you the ideal candidate?
- Use real life examples in your essay. This will help to bring your essay to life.
- If you’ve taken an unorthodox path to business school, don’t be afraid to play that up. Business schools appreciate those who are unafraid to take risks.
- Thoroughly research your target schools in order to have a clear idea of how to appeal to each of them. Every school is looking for something different in their students.
- Avoid flattery. A good school knows that it’s good, and telling them so just wastes valuable space in your essay. Use that space to talk yourself up, instead.