HBS Essay Advice: Frameworks, What to Avoid, and a Strong Example

It’s ‘go’ time! HBS has announced next year’s deadlines and confirmed its essay question, which remained unchanged again this year. At first glance, the HBS essay question seems fairly simple. 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? However, after giving it some thought, many candidates find themselves lost, trying to figure out what the adcom is looking for and which experiences from their background would be best to include.  Also of note, HBS added a word count this year, limiting submissions to a maximum of 900 words – a significant deviation from past years where there was no specific length guidance.

To help you navigate this challenging and important piece of writing, we’re sharing our best HBS essay advice – some frameworks and a structure you might leverage, what to avoid including in your essay, and finally a strong example from a past client.

What Does HBS Look For

As a starting place, it’s important to keep in mind the qualities HBS seeks in its MBAs. HBS looks for: 1) Habit of Leadership, 2) Analytical Aptitude and Appetite; 3) Engaged Community Citizenship. It wants strong leaders who will change the world. Nearly every successful candidate meets the criteria above, so it’s important you demonstrate all of these throughout your application (but not necessarily all in the essays).

Ultimately, the HBS essay is the place where they will get to know you beyond the nitty-gritty things you provide elsewhere in your application. As such, it’s important to get personal. The goal is to show who you are, what drives you, and what has helped you become who you are today (and that person today is a strong, amazing leader). Your essay should be centered on a thesis that crystallizes this overarching insight about yourself.

We’ve had applicants write about personal mantras that coaches gave them, childhood experiences or cultural influences that impacted the way they think, hobbies that helped them think outside the box, etc. Your experiences and accomplishments don’t have to be massive things, relatively speaking – not everyone has started a non-profit or is on a mission to save the world — but they should be significant to you and your evolution as a person. So settle in and get comfortable turning the microscope on yourself!

Frameworks to Consider

From our years of advising successful applicants to HBS, we find that it’s helpful to brainstorm leveraging frameworks that can help tie various elements of a candidate’s profile together.  This approach provides some structure while leaving plenty of room for personal expression and creativity. To start, consider how your own story could fit into one of the following:

1) Life Theme: is there something from your life that’s been a theme and you can point to how it’s impacted you personally, professionally and otherwise? It can be cultural heritage, family, traditions (large and small), etc. We’ve even had clients write about something as simple as a hobby like soccer or riding horses.

2) Defining Trait: pick a trait that you believe really exemplifies who you are. For example, we recently had a client write about how he got comfortable not always being the best and sometimes being the worst; and how overcoming his fear of failure led him to some of his greatest achievements.

This is probably the most common tack to take. GSB’s prompt in prior years has been “What matters most to you, and why?” and sometimes people find that to be an easier framework to think inside. This approach could result in a similar essay for HBS and Stanford GSB.

3) A Passion: Pick something about which you’re really passionate. Maybe you have a strong passion that drives your goals? In the past, we’ve had clients write about diversity and inclusion, wanting to change industries, etc., but it’s atypical to spend an HBS essay focused on work.

Structure Ideas

Once you’ve brainstormed possible theses and the underlying stories you could use to support them in your HBS essay, begin building an outline. Ultimately, you want an essay that adheres to the new word limit of 900 words and follows a structure somewhat like the below. In reality, your essay will be more like 8-9 paragraphs because your stories can take up multiple paragraphs.

P1: Intro (summarizes the main point and is unique/interesting enough to pull the reader in)

P2: Context / history of what you asserted about yourself in P1 (the ‘origins’ story, if you will)

P3: Example story from some point in life (can be any time really)

P4: Example story from another point in life (stories should demonstrate leadership as much as possible – these should be your most impressive stories of stepping up to the plate)

P5: Conclusion

What to Avoid

You should never write about “Why HBS” or really “Why MBA” in your HBS essay. HBS has never directly asked ‘why HBS’ and that is intentional – they are confident that their program sets its graduates up for success as leaders. Word count spent detailing ‘why HBS’ is word count you don’t have to spend talking about yourself and that’s a missed opportunity. It’s possible that you integrate some “Why MBA” in the conclusion but try to avoid that initially and see how it goes.

In addition, be careful not to spend too much of your HBS essay focused on work. It is our strong, strong recommendation that your overarching essay topic should not be anything professionally specific or undifferentiated like a banking deal team story. If you include something like this, make it an example story somewhere in your essay, not the essay topic itself.

An Example of Success

Because it’s often hard to put theory into practice, below is a sample HBS essay from one of our clients who was accepted. You can also find it here, along with some color commentary from our team.

“My upbringing taught me to be proudly self-reliant. My mother, a construction worker by day and a waitress by night, worked relentlessly to afford to keep us in a strong Massachusetts school system. And her busy work schedule forced me to take on a high level of responsibility from a young age. By the time I was 10, I knew how to make dinner for myself and my younger sister. If I wanted to get ice cream with my friends, I earned money by babysitting for my neighbors. I had to spend extra time on my homework as I often did not have a second set of eyes checking for mistakes. Though the self-reliance I built was something I was proud of, the challenge was that these experiences also made me naively believe that I could tackle any obstacle by myself, and that I did not need help from others to achieve my goals.

However, my perspective changed when I was diagnosed with type I diabetes at the age of 13. I was initially unaffected by my diagnosis and insisted on doing my own insulin shots at the hospital as soon as the nurses would let me. Due to some unfortunate timing, I was forced to spend my third and final night at the hospital alone. During that quiet night my new reality finally sank in, and I started to question my ability to handle this challenge alone. Luckily, when I left the hospital I was assigned a fantastic team of nutritionists, nurses, and doctors who taught me how to manage my condition. But gradually, my appointments with this team became less frequent. As the only diabetic in my family, I felt isolated as I struggled with the daily ups and downs of diabetes. After years of staunch independence, I felt myself suddenly wanting a broader community for support.

I found this community initially on the softball field. I had been playing softball since the age of eight but the game took on new meaning after my diagnosis. Putting on my uniform and stepping onto the field, I bonded with a group of individuals focused on one goal: winning. Out of this mindset grew unconditional friendships and when low blood sugar forced me out of a game, every player would check on me and cheer loudly when I when went back on the field. In return, I put everything I had into our games; I even sport a permanent scar on my left leg from constantly sliding into bases. During my 2008 season on my college varsity softball team, Coach Tom asked us to write down our unique strengths. The day before playoffs, each player received a ball with a written quote encapsulating this self-evaluation. I now keep this softball on my desk at work to remind myself of my individualized mantra: “I may not be the biggest or the strongest, but I always give 100% of myself to the team”.

As a varsity softball player in college, my team devotion was tested when an over-zealous slide into third base sidelined me for most of the season. I was initially devastated by this accident: for years I had gauged my contribution to the team by my statistical performance, and I felt insignificant without this data. Fortunately, I discovered a renewed sense of purpose mentoring one of our struggling freshmen, Rachel. I empathized with Rachel’s frustrations and feelings of isolation, recalling my own emotions from that third night in the hospital. Together we worked tirelessly to improve her fielding skills and I felt immensely proud when Rachel fielded several games successfully later that season. This experience taught me that the impact I could have as a leader on a team was as important as the impact I could have at bat or in the outfield. I’ve carried this lesson with me to my Boston co-ed league where I currently add value to my team of talented but relatively inexperienced softball players every week by strategizing field positioning, directing base runners, and rallying morale. Each community I become a part of ―be it the leading bank where I now work, my coed softball team, or my volunteer leadership committee― receives the same level of collaborative enthusiasm from me. My experiences on the softball field have taught me the value of teamwork and leadership, which have become core to my personality and vital to my professional success. By knowing how to work with and motivate large groups, I have been able to lead cross-sector research projects at a leading bank, revealing unique investment insights. During these projects I have taken responsibility for ensuring that a team objective is established and that everyone contributes, leading to great successes and promotions not only for me but also for my teammates. And going forward, I believe that these qualities will enable me to become an effective and influential executive at a company focused on improving the quality of care and the quality of life for all individuals like me living with diabetes and seeking their own ”teams” for support.”

We hope this helps get you started with the HBS essay! The ambiguity of the question makes it tough, but with self-reflection, vulnerability, and patience you can write a great essay and hopefully have a bit of fun with it along the way.

If you would like some personalized guidance, click here to request a free 30-minute consultation!


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