HBS’s Single, Optional Admissions Essay: What It Means for you

Harvard Business School wants you to be a great candidate, not a great writer

If you have any intention of applying for a coveted spot at Harvard Business School this year, you’ve no doubt heard the news: as first announced in a May 30th blog by HBS Admissions Director Dee Leopold, there is now only one admissions essay.  And it’s completely open-ended. And it has no word count. And it’s optional.


This is a big change from the days of yore (A.K.A. until 2011), when applicants had four essays—all with clear questions and word limits—through which to convey their accomplishments, strengths, and carefully position their unique background, values, and perspectives.

While the broader community of self-proclaimed admissions experts debate whether or not these changes are good or bad (for the record, this self-proclaimed expert supports the changes), an important element has been largely ignored: What does this all mean to you, the applicant? Here’s our answer:

1. More than ever, you’re forced to decide if you are even HBS material. The new essay prompt makes one thing clear: the essay is a chance to talk about something not sufficiently covered in your resume, recs, test scores, transcript, etc. If you don’t have anything outside those areas that is significant enough to warrant writing an essay, then maybe you’re just not HBS material. After all, HBS looks for leaders who strive to make an impact in the world around them. If you’re not doing that—if you’re merely living life, putting in the hours at your job, and participating in the bare minimum extracurricular activities to avoid resembling a human slug—then it’s probably not your year to apply.  You either need to set your sights lower, or get out there and do something in the world that does warrant an essay—something that is big enough that others have gotten excited about it and have wanted to join you and your cause. If you’re not doing that, chances are you’re just not worthy of HBS.

2. You can’t talk your way into HBS anymore. When HBS had four required essays, there was a chance—even if only a slim one—that you could get by on charm and pretty words. By cutting the requirement down to one essay, they’ve leveled the playing field. They took away the writing crutch. They’re really going to be evaluating you more on who you really ARE, not on who you SAY you are. Candidates can’t just talk-the-talk anymore. They have to walk-the-walk.

3. It’s up to you to know your own superpowers. For years, HBS asked candidates to name their three most significant accomplishments in a 600-word essay. While you had to describe the accomplishments, it was up to admissions to try to glean what those accomplishments actually said about you, your strengths, and your leadership style. This new approach puts that responsibility where it belongs: on you. No longer can you just throw out a bunch of ideas and hope the Adcom sees a superpower at work. You need to choose stories and experiences that define what your superpower is, and show that you know exactly what you have to offer because of that power. Questions to ask yourself: what do I do well? How have I been successful in enacting change or inspiring others?  What is the one key attribute behind my greatest hits?   

4. Having no word limit is not an invitation to go to town. By removing the word limit, HBS has given you just enough rope to hang yourself. If you babble endlessly for pages, listing all the numerous reasons why you are worthy, you’ll come off as desperate and insecure—not qualities HBS (or anyone) likes to see. Conversely, dashing off a couple of short sentences in an attempt to look cool and confident will just make you look cocky and arrogant. Be reasonable, and keep in mind that an essay is only as good as the substance it contains. Our recommended word count range: 300-800 words.

If all of this sounds a bit like an ominous warning, well, don’t kill the messenger. At the end of the day, a mere fraction of all HBS applicants actually get into the school—and with only one essay, you have fewer opportunities to stand out above the pack. Words can no longer compete with actions, which is why we work with candidates early on, actually helping them to build their own candidacies through our Leadership Action Plan

Evan Forster is the co-founder of Forster-Thomas Inc, an educational and career consulting firm in New York City. Visit www.forsterthomas.com or our Admissions Experts Page for more information.

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