HBS – How to Answer the New Essay Prompts (2024-2025)

Picture of Harvard Business School campus

HBS sent the MBA community reeling when it announced (after months of rumors) that it would be changing its longstanding, single essay prompt this year. The prior 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?”, was introduced in 2016 and lasted for 8 application cycles.

Now, under the new leadership of Rupal Gadhia, who replaced Chad Losee as the Managing Director of MBA Admissions and Financial Aid in 2023, the school has joined the latest MBA admissions trend: more but shorter essays.  

The 2024-2025 HBS Essay Prompts

Business-Minded Essay: Please reflect on how your experiences have influenced your career choices and aspirations and the impact you will have on the businesses, organizations, and communities you plan to serve. (up to 300 words)

Leadership-Focused Essay: What experiences have shaped who you are, how you invest in others, and what kind of leader you want to become? (up to 250 words)

Growth-Oriented Essay: Curiosity can be seen in many ways. Please share an example of how you have demonstrated curiosity and how that has influenced your growth. (up to 250 words)

For a full list of 2024-2025 application deadlines and essay prompts, click here.

A Mixed Bag

Our team has mixed feelings about these new essay prompts. On one hand, the change is a huge positive for applicants who were often anxious and paralyzed by the ambiguity of the prior open-ended essay prompt. The now very direct questions leave little to assumption and lay bare the school’s intentions behind each question.

However, as you may have noticed, the word count is extremely limiting in these essays. In fact, we’ll go as far as saying that the low word count limit will likely be the hardest part of writing these essays. Fitting impactful and introspective stories into 250-300 words will be an extraordinary feat in writing and editing. And we wonder if the brevity will come at the cost of depth. But the good news is that all applicants are playing by the same rules – and are subject to the same limitations. And we have no doubt you’re up for the challenge.

What Does HBS Look For?

As a starting point, it’s helpful to consider the qualities HBS looks for. Note that these qualities were updated this year as well and it’s no coincidence that they align with the essay prompts above.

  1. Business-Minded
  2. Leadership-Focused
  3. Growth-Oriented

HBS wants strong, conscientious leaders who will change the world. Every successful candidate needs to not only meet the criteria above but do so in their own distinctive way.

Start Big Picture, Then Drill Down to Each Question

It can be tempting to jump straight into the prompts and start brainstorming the best story to answer that specific question. But we urge you to pause and look at the big picture first. Go back to your personal brand and what you stand for. What is the message that you want to deliver to HBS loud and clear?  

Write that message at the top of your essay brainstorming document and refer to it frequently. Use it as your guidepost as you ideate on individual essay topics. And ask yourself, does this story a) answer the prompt? AND b) support and reinforce that message? Your answer should be yes.

The Career Goals Question

The first essay prompt centers around the “why” behind your career choices to-date and your aspirations for the future. HBS is looking for clear cause and effect here and a strong essay will draw simple but powerful connections between your past and your future.

We recommend starting by writing down key inflection points or “aha” moments in your past that sparked your interest in using business as a force for good. These can be but certainly don’t have to be professional experiences. From that list, choose the most influential 1-3 past experiences that you will expand on and connect with your passion for creating an impact.

Then the remainder of the essay can describe your future aspirations. It’s important to convey not just what you hope to accomplish, but also why it matters to you and how you plan to leverage your unique background and insights to make a difference.

The Leadership Question

In this question, HBS is asking you to elaborate on both who you are as a leader and how you’ve had an impact. In other words, this essay must reveal your character, your special brand of leadership, and how you lead – and how those have left a mark on others.

To accomplish this, we recommend following the outline of the prompt. Open by sharing a defining moment or experience that explains the origin of your leadership values and character. This will most likely be a personal experience and can certainly reflect the influence of a role model or leader you admire, a challenge you overcame, or even a unique family dynamic. Anything is fair game here so get creative.

Then you can tell a story of a specific time when you positively impacted others through your leadership. To select the best story here, we recommend writing down all of the key moments in your life where you demonstrated leadership, regardless of whether it was in a formal role. Then from that list, choose your proudest or most defining experience.

Lastly, with the remaining word count, you can close the essay by describing the kind of leader you hope to become, connecting that future vision with the leadership brand you have today and your career goals.

The Growth Mindset Question

If the first two questions put you in the driver’s seat of impact, the third question reverses the roles and asks you to discuss a time when you’ve been impacted. More specifically, the question is asking about a time when you sought out a new experience, new knowledge, a new perspective, or any other avenue that was the opposite of certainty.

Unlike the other questions that ask you to connect the dots between multiple experiences, this question is asking you to recount one specific story or anecdote. We recommend choosing the one most compelling story – the story that exemplifies your curiosity AND strongly supports your personal brand / overarching application theme.

Because curiosity is a core value for HBS, we recommend choosing a story where the stakes were high and the impact on you was truly meaningful. If you’re struggling to identify a good story here, start at the end. Identify specific instances where you experienced personal or professional growth – where there was a clear before and after. Then, backtrack to the actions you took that led to those leaps in growth.

A classic STAR (Situation, Action, Task, Result) format will help you make the most use of the limited word count here. Describe the context of the situation, what sparked your curiosity, and the steps you took to satisfy it. Then conclude by explaining the impact of your curiosity on your development.

What to Avoid

You’ll notice that none of the questions ask you “why HBS” or “why MBA”. This is not a trap. HBS simply isn’t interested in understanding your reasons. So, we don’t recommend spending your specious word count on addressing “why HBS” or “why MBA”. These essays should be deep and personal. What drives you? Who are you as a person (if someone were to start writing a biography about you right now?) And importantly, for HBS, it should point to good examples of how you are a leader.

Get Personal

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 if they are significant to you and your trajectory and evolution as a person, then that’s the point. The goal is to show who you are, what drives you, and what has helped you become who you are today.

Lastly, check out HBS’ Portrait Project. The stories students share and the level of personal depth they go into is exactly the kind of direction you should be taking with these essays. 

Reading this essay analysis is a great starting point in your HBS application process. It will point you in the direction and help you avoid some common pitfalls. But remember that general guidance will only get you so far. Feedback on your individual story and writing is what will supercharge your essays.

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

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