Columbia Business School Essay Tips for 2023-24: Essays 2 & 3 and the Optional Essay
June 2, 2023Read More
The HBS essay gives you space for ~3 extended examples/stories about the key life (i.e., not just career or academics or even extracurricular) experiences. An essay structured around extended explorations of these key life inflection points from different aspects of your life (personal, professional or community) can be powerful. Often a theme or narrative thread of growth connects these examples and become the theme that unites the essay. Of course, you need not structure your essay around such extended examples; taking well-reasoned creative risks with HBS’s essay is worthwhile if done well as long as you make sure to balance personal self-disclosure and evolving self-knowledge over time with concrete examples showing you applying your ‘life learnings’ in the real world.
If you take the ‘extended example’ approach, don’t describe these experiences as accomplishments per se bulging with technical or procedural detail. Focus not on the ‘what’ (HBS can usually learn that elsewhere in your app) but on the ‘why’ and the leadership/EQ/self-knowledge that grew out of the experience. What were your challenges, how did you overcome them, what frustrated/surprised you, how did you feel, what did you learn, how did people help you or resist you? Show the reader how each of these 3-4 experiences (if you take the ‘extended example’ approach) showed you something new about yourself or life. Use transitions and lessons-learned sentences to explain the thread, logic or evolving theme that connects the 3 experiences. Capture the admissions reader with your spirit, your growth, your evolution from the self-focused person we tend to be when young to the world-focused person good leaders often are. Remember that while HBS values self-awareness they value leadership, decision-making chops, and impact in the world even more. An essay that consists entirely of introspection with no evidence that you applied your introspection in the world will hurt you.
Perhaps start the essay with 1-2 paragraphs about your childhood to establish your roots/key influences, but only to the extent that these paragraphs relate to your theme. Write with openness and personality (engaging, even funny) but be sure every sentence and example is serving the theme. Don’t give HBS an all-inclusive autobiography or resume-in-prose; stick to your theme like a laser. Don’t use canned ‘save the world’ language (e.g., “a cause I cared about in a country that is deeply close to my heart.” Whether sincere or not, such language sounds generic and inauthentic). Don’t let HBS conclude that you are accomplished because you were raised to be a super-achiever; show how your success is driven by your theme and connects back to your roots/formative life experiences. Show (use vivid examples/stories in which you walk the reader through your thoughts and interpersonal behavior in key moments in your life), Don’t Tell (“I grew into a highly extroverted programmer with a very strong technical background AND great interpersonal skills”).
The HBS essay can/may end with a very brief forward-looking statement about what you hope to accomplish in the future (should be natural/logical extension of the innovation they’ve seen in the essays’ examples) and what about HBS makes it the best place to gear up to realize your goal. But note that Harvard’s Chad Losee has said that while every applicant assumes s/he must end the essay in this way, you should only do so if it seems natural vis-a-vis the rest of the essay. Don’t dilute your essay’s carefully built momentum and force with a Goals / Why HBS section that feels tacked-on, boring, or generic.