What Are Successful Harvard Business School Essays About?

People writing their Harvard Business School essays see the broad prompt, “what more would you like us to know?”, and often wonder which direction they should go in. We frequently hear questions such as “can I talk about my academic experiences?”, “should I focus on my long or short-term goals?”, and “how much of my community service should I mention?”

The Harbus, HBS’s independent news organization, published 22 essays from students admitted to the Harvard MBA classes of 2020 and 2021. We went through the essays for insights on what successful candidates write.

We started by sorting what applicants wrote about into eight categories:

  1. Professional Experience
  2. Personal Experience
  3. Academic Experience
  4. Community Experience
  5. Long-term Goals
  6. Short-term Goals
  7. Why an MBA
  8. Why Harvard

For example take the essay titled “Vulnerable But Invincible”, published in the book and publicly shared by Harbus. We found that it was a mix of professional (red) and personal (yellow) experiences:

Similar analysis of the 22 essays published by Harbus showed what successful candidates focus on:

In general, successful essays spend about 80% of their length discussing professional, personal, or other experiences. Broader goals, and the “why” of the application, each drive about 10% of the essay. Let’s go through each category in turn.

Professional Experience

Professional experiences were the most common thing that successful Harvard Business School applicants wrote about. On one level this is expected. These are, after all, people applying to the most storied professional program in the world.

Yet the amount of space devoted to this is still a little surprising. The Harvard MBA essay question is unique:

“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 application specifically asks what more the admissions committee should know. The committee already has the candidates’ résumés and so has decent insight into their professional experiences. But successful candidates still find ways to describe the impact their professional experiences had on them in ways not captured on the résumé.

Personal Experience

But Harvard wants well-rounded candidates, and that means applicants who are more than just their professional histories. Almost as important as academic experiences are personal experiences. Some write about their values and beliefs. Others write about the hardships that close family members have faced and how those contribute to the candidate’s motivation. Yet others take the reader inside a sporting event or a conversation, providing insights about the applicant’s mindset.

Academic Experience

These are essays for a professional program, sure, but Harvard is also a school. And 70% of successful applicants thought to share experiences from prior academic programs as a reason for why Harvard should admit them. It wasn’t just the 2+2 applicants – who understandably didn’t have much else to write about – but also applicants writing about their experiences in PhD programs, undergraduate colleges, and even high schools.

Academics play an important role in our formative years and most successful candidates shared with the admissions committee key experiences.

Community Experience

Less than half the essays discussed community experiences – those related to charities, public drives, or other activities that applicants did on the side to improve their communities. While it may not be a large component of most applicants’ essays, the résumé is a different story, and a topic for a different blog post.

Long And Short-term Goals

Over 80% of essays discussed the candidates’ long-term goals, usually after describing the experiences that led them to their goals, and typically with an explanation of how Harvard would help them achieve those goals.

But short-term goals – an explanation of what the candidate expects to do immediately after graduating from the program – were rare. Contrary to those other business schools that explicitly ask for this information, the Harvard Business School admissions committee is less interested in knowing where the candidate expects to end up after graduating.

All in all, while most candidates did mention their goals they didn’t spend too much time on it. Successful essays are typically more backwards looking, with an explanation of what the applicant has done, rather than what they hope to do.

Why An MBA And Why Harvard

Traditional business school essay advice holds that candidates should provide broad reasons for pursuing an MBA degree, and then explain why, specifically, they want to get an MBA a particular institution. That pattern broadly held in the essays published by Harbus.

Half the essays provided general reasons for pursuing an MBA program that weren’t tailored to Harvard Business School specifically. They didn’t spend much time on it though with the average candidate only writing about 50 words on the topic.

Contrast that with the 80% of applicants who explained what, precisely, about Harvard led them to apply. Those that did averaged over 100 words on the topic.

Still, though, in the grander scheme of things, explaining the motivation to get an MBA from Harvard was only a small component of most essays. A significant number of students got in without providing any reasons for wanting to go to Harvard.

Beacon Community

This analysis debunks common myths about the Harvard Business School application essay. You don’t need to talk about your community leadership. It’s ok to discuss academic experiences. The admissions committee doesn’t need to know what your first job will be after graduating with your MBA. Flattery about the greatness of Harvard is a “nice-to-have” not a “need-to-have”.

What this analysis shouldn’t do is lead you to believe that there’s a specific formula that applicants should follow. Successful HBS essays are unique with the individual’s voice shining through. There is immense variation across successful essays and the most striking are often the ones that take risks. This analysis should help guide, not drive your essay preparation.

Read our follow-up analysis on the ideal length for HBS essays here.

Beacon is an admission support consultancy that provides end-to-end admissions guidance for elite business school programs. We assist with GMAT preparation, essays, recommendation letters, and résumés. We use data analytics like the statistics above to guide our support. Our clients receive analysis from the many applicants we’ve worked with to top schools around the world. The data we have is tailored to each program and, for Harvard, goes beyond the 22 essays published by Harbus, encompassing the breadth of candidates we’ve worked with. But we also understand that building a successful application is an art, not a science, and that data can only be used to inform decisions, not make them.

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