HBS Applicants Should Get Personal in New Optional Essay

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Harvard Business School applicants should take advantage of its new optional application essay to show the admissions team their personal side, consultants say (Photograph by Adam Gault)

The optional MBA application essay that Harvard Business School announced May 30 is likely to be optional in name only, with the vast majority of applicants for 2014 expected to submit an essay to bolster their chances of admission, MBA admissions consultants say.

The consultants say they will be advising clients to take advantage of the essay to provide context for the rest of the application, including formative experiences, outside interests, and insights into their personalities.

“I take HBS at their word that a few may advance to the interview stage without writing anything,” says Alex Leventhal, a Harvard MBA and founder of Prep MBA in Los Angeles.
“However, unless you are a rock star on paper with near­perfect credentials, I would not LIVE TV advise that option, and even then I would not.”

The goal, consultants say, is to forge a connection with the admissions committee—the essay should be personal, not analytical. For that reason, applicants should avoid recycling essays they’re using for other programs, particularly answers to self­reflective questions such as those on the application to the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

“It would be a big mistake to say, ‘This is how this essay should be written,’” says Linda Abraham, founder of Accepted.com and a UCLA MBA. “It should be personal. I’ve consistently said Stanford’s ‘What matters most to you and why’ is the toughest question. I think this may replace it.”

Some applicants may find the essay useful for explaining a low college GPA or an unusual career choice, but it’s really an opportunity to describe the person behind the resume.

“Applicants should [not] write anything remotely like a traditional ‘accomplishment’ essay or highlight reel,” says Paul Bodine, founder of Paul Bodine Admissions Consulting. “Instead, I recommend creating something highly personal and self­revealing about the applicant’s evolution as a person. This essay should focus vividly and genuinely on the applicant’s ‘back story.’”

Graham Richmond, co­founder of Clear Admit, a Philadelphia­based consultancy, says applicants should keep their answers short. Given that HBS has been streamlining the application essays—from a maximum of 2,000 words in 2011­12 to 800 words in 2012­-13— he advises applicants who answer the new essay to do so in less than 800 words.

The other big change announced by Harvard was its decision to reduce the number of required letters of recommendation from three to two. Admissions consultants say the move will make the process easier for applicants, who frequently have a hard time coming up with a third recommendation, particularly if they’ve been at the same employer since college.

The two recommendations should come from current or former direct supervisors, at a current or previous employer, or from someone the applicant worked closely with at an extracurricular organization. The goal, Richmond says, should be two letters from individuals who “are in a position to judge the candidate’s managerial skills, leadership qualities, emotional intelligence, and intellectual firepower.”

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