Tackling the HBS Essay? Start with This Step

Updated 11.30.2020 

At first glance, the Harvard Business School essay question, which remained unchanged again this year, seems fairly simple. What more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy? However, after giving it some thought, many candidates find themselves quite lost, trying to figure out what the adcom is looking for and what stories and experiences from their background would be best to include.

What Does HBS Look For

As a starting place, it’s important to keep in mind the qualities HBS is seeking 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 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 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.

This thing that drives you / motivates you / has made you who you are could be a thing, person, influence etc. 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. So settle in and get comfortable turning the microscope on yourself!


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 in the workplace, 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, begin building an outline. Ultimately, you want an essay that is no more than two pages 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.” 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 the essay focused on work. It is our strong, strong recommendation that your overarching essay topic not be anything hyper 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.

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 guidance, click here to request a free 30-minute consultation!


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