Saturday, June 1, 2013

The new HBS application essay: Much ado about nothing?

HBS has released its application essay question for admission to the class of 2016, and it has already caused quite a stir! 

The essay is a triple whopper.  First, it is the only essay in the entire application, and it's optional.  Second, there is no word limit.  And third, the question is extremely broad, even moreso than Stanford's infamous "What matters most to you and why?" question. 

This essay could be a blessing or a curse.  On one hand, it will give applicants a chance to tell adcom something compelling and interesting about themselves that was not able to be expressed in the rest of the application.  On the other hand, applicants could abuse the flexible nature of this essay by simply expounding upon their resume bullet points but in greater excruciating detail or by presenting too much personal information that is of no interest to adcom.  The key to this essay, I think, is to present a truly holistic portrait of the applicant as a PERSON, while addressing any potential "red flag" issues, and doing all of this in a professional manner.  Definitely easier said than done.

I personally applaud HBS for taking such a radical approach this year and really shaking things up.  However, I am no so certain that this essay is a game changer in the way that Booth's powerpoint was.  By all accounts, since Booth introduced the powerpoint about 5 years ago, it has attracted more creative fun people, thereby undercutting the age-old stereotype of Booth being a finance school for geeks.  So will this essay lead to a fundamentally different type of class assembling at HBS? 

My initial thought is no.  I believe that HBS has the most formulaic admissions process among the top schools.  By this I mean that adcom has a very good idea of who they want and thus are able to shortlist interview invites fairly quickly after looking at the application.  HBS is blue chip heavy; they seek out people who went to top schools, got strong grades, worked at elite selective firms, and demonstrated substantive leadership in some form or fashion. 

I hope that this essay will allow late bloomers and more non-traditional types (especially older applicants and those who did not work at name brand finance or consulting firms) to stand out and demonstrate the qualities that make them attractive to HBS.  My impression though (I sincerely hope I'm wrong on this point) is that this new question will merely buttress the rest of the application, thereby serving to reinforce the confirmation bias that adcom formed after reading the application.  Only time will tell whether this new essay will be a game changer.  As of now, my advice to HBS applicants is to take a deep breath, think clearly, and start writing.  This is much ado about nothing.



  1. Incredibly astute assessment. Couldn't agree with you more.

  2. Somewhat I am satisfied with the most formulaic admissions process of HBS among the top schools. They shortlist interview invites fairly quickly after looking at MBA essay application.

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