7 Secret Harvard Business School MBA Essay Brainstorming Exercises We Adore

Being good enough to get into Harvard Business School is not about GMAT scores, Ivy League undergrads, or big company brand names on your resume. It’s about character, purpose, and values. It’s a little understood fact, that Harvard only uses those statistical metrics as external proxies to gauge the internal character of their community members. But statistics are crude and error-prone.

If you want to show Harvard University you belong to them, your best bet is to dig deep and find how your life is fundamentally aligned with their own mission and values and then show that to them through your application essay and interview.

Heyo!! Angela Guido here! Career Protocol’s Chief Education Officer talking about two of my favorite subjects in this article: Harvard and Brainstorming.

Joining me in this epic post is none other than Louise Loeb, Career Protocol senior Instructor and Master storyteller.

We’re both pretty much obsessed with exploring the stories of the amazing students we work with. Actually, everyone at Career Protocol is! We just LOVE getting to the bottom of what makes you YOU and then helping you own and express that in the most inspiring and authentic way possible.

If you wanna talk to Louise or me about working together, please do that here any time.

But in the meantime, the two of us teamed up to geek out on brainstorming and story exploration in line with Harvard’s dynamic and complex community values in this article, so that you too can dig deep and unearth the gold in your own experiences that will make you shine like a Harvard kinda cat to the HBS admissions committee.

Enjoy!

By the way, head to these other great articles if you’re…

Table of Contents

Are You Aligned with What the Harvard MBA Is All About? HBS’s Mission

Now let’s jump in and examine the fundamental core of the Harvard MBA application.

At Career Protocol, we encourage our students to start with the school’s stated mission and values because schools tend to tell you exactly what the school stands for and what it is looking for when evaluating applicants. This is where you can tell right off the bat whether a school is fundamentally the right fit for you.

This values-based approach applies to life in general too! Go forth with the things, people, and places that resonate with your values.  You’ll make life a lot easier!

Harvard Business School’s mission is “to educate leaders who make a difference in the world.”

That is your first clue to a successful Harvard MBA application. HBS tells you, quite clearly, that it is looking for three things to help them achieve their mission: (1) leaders who (2) make a difference (3) in the world. So before you jump right into the mechanics of the HBS application, pause for a minute and breathe.

Then ask yourself, what do these three components really mean at deeper level? Never take something as important as a school’s mission at surface level, especially for HBS. Show the Harvard MBA admission’s committee that you have thoughtfully and meaningfully engaged with its mission in preparing your application.

Now let’s dive into each prong of the HBS mission. Luckily, HBS gives further guidance on its website on exactly what each piece of its mission means:

STEP 1: Understanding Leadership

Leaders“we mean people who embody a certain type of competence and character—both the competence that comes from the general manager’s perspective the School cultivates and the character to understand the difference between being self-interested and self-centered. It goes far beyond knowing that it’s not right to lie, cheat, or steal. It involves recognizing that you are a true leader only when you have earned the trust of others, and when others, whether in your organizations or your communities, recognize you as such.”

Let’s unpack that. According to HBS, they are looking to educate leaders are competent and can act from the perspective of a general manager. But an HBS-educated leader should also embody a character that goes beyond knowing right from wrong, and earns the trust of those they lead.

  • The competence part should be reflected in your MBA resume and HBS will further add to your competence through its general management program taught by its distinguished faculty.

  • The ethics and ability to build relationships based on trust parts are characteristics that you need to demonstrate through your application by showing how you’ve grown and developed those traits throughout your life.

Brainstorming Exercise 1 – Leadership:

So now get out a blank piece of paper or a new Microsoft Word doc as your brainstorming sheet. Start by listing all of the leadership experiences you have had at work, in school, and in the community (remember, leadership doesn’t necessarily mean you were in charge!) Look for places where you took initiative, built something, influenced others, and drove positive outcomes.

Then think about key moments when you had to build and earn trust. You know that people pretty much never do what they’re told. So if you want them to align with your vision, you’ve got to inspire that, and they need to trust you. Trust is never a given, it’s always earned. How did you do it?

Challenge facing you or the team
How did you earn trust?
Leadership Experience 1
Leadership Experience 2
Leadership Experience 3
Etc.

Take as much time as you need to walk down memory lane and when you’re ready, move onto the next prong of HBS’s mission statement.

Step 2: Understanding what it means to make a difference

Who Make a Difference – “means people who create real value for society, and who create value before claiming value. I’ve not found anyone who begrudges a leader for claiming value after creating value. Rather, the recent economic crisis showed us too many examples of leaders who claimed value without creating any. It is worth noting here that there are many ways of making a positive difference: as an investor, as a general manager, as an entrepreneur, as an active citizen of your community. Indeed, what distinguishes Harvard Business School is that our graduates provide leadership in all walks of life.”

The key phrase here is to create real value for society…before claiming value. So, HBS is obviously NOT looking to admit the world’s next narcissistic, white-collar criminal mastermind into its incoming MBA class. Whew!

Notice they chose the phrase “create real value for society” over the popular corporate buzz phrase “create value.” Part of the job of being a leader in business is to create value vis-à-vis profit for your company. But HBS expects leaders in its MBA program to go beyond corporate bottom lines to create value for society-at-large. To create company profits while increasing societal wellbeing and social capital. Further, HBS expects leaders to be purpose-driven to benefit society first before claiming credit or personal return on investment for your efforts. 

Brainstorming Exercise 2 – Making a Difference:

Next on the HBS brainstorming sheet, value creation. Take a moment and list five times you created value at work, at school, or in your community or personal life. This could be anything from winning a new customer for your company, reducing the complexity of a process and saving man-hours, and therefore company dollars. It could be mentoring someone and empowering them to reach further and achieve more. It could be inventing, initiating, or starting something new. Think broadly about the ways you’ve made a difference.

Then answer these questions about those experiences:

  1. Who was impacted by the results you created? (individuals, teams, groups, organizations, entire communities, populations, or societies – look as far out as you can see)

  2. What tangible and measurable impact did you produce? (What could someone see was different in the outside world from before?)

  3. What was the primary value that you brought into the world through this achievement? (for example, if you were tutoring a high school student, you were manifesting education, empowerment, upliftment, and self-esteem. Choose the values that most inspire you.)

  4. What about this contribution makes you the proudest? What other feelings accompany this reflection?

Again, take your time. The more you spend brainstorming now, the easier it is when you get to writing the epic HBS essay. Once you’re ready, let’s move onto the final prong of the HBS mission statement:

Step 3: Understanding the world

In the World –In the world reflects our understanding of a rapidly changing, dynamic environment, and the fact that many of the world’s most challenging issues will require a global perspective. Moreover, it involves embracing the view that the world desperately needs more leaders to address its most urgent and challenging problems, and that virtually none of these problems can be addressed without business leaders playing a vital role.”

This is where you need to start thinking ahead and much bigger. In the previous two brainstorming exercises, you looked to your past for evidence of demonstrated leadership and positive impact. Now you must project forward to the future and expand your horizons to the world. How do you want to go forward with a Harvard University education to positively impact the world? What pressing global challenges do you care about? How might you want to address them in your career or even through personal passion projects? 

Brainstorming Exercise 3 – It’s Your World, How Do You Want to Leave It?

Choose three things you really, really care about.

For example, do you care about the environment? About women’s education? About health and fitness? About love and human connection? List 3 values and goods you think are important and that you plan to dedicate some of your precious life to enhancing in the world. Try to stick to three. No more, no fewer.

Then let your mind run wild. Think about all the different ways you could play a role in creating impact in the world along those dimensions you care about.

For example, if you care about the environment, you could become a Chief Sustainability Officer of a major global brand with the goal of transforming it from one of the world’s largest polluters to the most sustainable. You could start a recycling initiative at your office. You could start a nonprofit focused on reducing plastic waste in the ocean. You could join the board of an existing organization doing just that. You could simply reduce, reuse, and recycle your own possessions and encourage your friends and neighbors to do the same. You could sort your elderly neighbor’s trash for her. You could become a vegetarian. You could ditch your car and start cycling and lobby your city to make the roads more bike-friendly. Protecting mama earth could become a way of living. It could also become the driving force in your career. The options are literally infinite! Which ones touch and inspire you most?

Take some time to play with the ideas that inspire you most and write them all down. As you do, think about how you might leverage your Harvard MBA or post-MBA career to have an impact and move the needle on solving the problems that matter to you. You may never mention any of these to Harvard in your goal statement or interview. But having done the work to envision the mark you want to leave on the world will inspire and move you forward into that vision of leadership that will uplift and engender the trust of your fellow humans sharing this world with you.

The world is your oyster. You have the choice to leave the biggest, prettiest pearl or an empty shell.

Oh baby! That was a lot of thinking and a lot of work already! And we’ve only analyzed Harvard Business School’s mission statement so far. We haven’t even gotten to its value or evaluation criteria yet. Exhausted?

Wake up, sunshine! You’re applying to Harvard Business School. You need to show them that you are a deep, critical, and engaged thinker who truly understands their mission and will be able to advance it. Which you are. So shine bright!

Can You Deliver on What Harvard Wants from Its Graduate Students? The Harvard Business School Community Values.

Once you’ve figured out who you are and what impact you want to make in the world, next step is to think very carefully about what the school stands for and how you have already embodied those values in your career and life.

HBS’s community values are clearly stated on its website:

At Harvard Business School we believe that leadership and values are inseparable. The teaching of ethics here is explicit, not implicit, and our community values of mutual respect, honesty and integrity, and personal accountability support the HBS learning environment and are at the heart of a School-wide aspiration: to make HBS a model of the highest standards essential to responsible leadership in the modern business world. Our values are a set of guiding principles for all that we do wherever we are and with everyone we meet.

So, if accepted into the Harvard MBA program, you would be expected to:

  • Respect the rights, differences, and dignity of others;
  • Demonstrate honesty and integrity in dealing with all members of the community; and
  • Take accountability for personal behavior.

You can also expect others in the community to do the same for you. Sounds pretty good, right? We’ve never met anyone who felt those ideas didn’t align with their personal values. Or at least no one who admitted it!

Brainstorming Exercise 4 – Proving and testing Values

Great! Now spend a little time with these three values (respect, honesty, and accountability). Reminisce about a handful of moments when these values were forged or challenged in your own life. Here are some questions to forward that reflection:

  1. Was there a time when your desire to treat others with respect was challenging to uphold? What happened? What did you do?

  2. Was there a time when you went above and beyond to respect the rights, differences, dignity of others? What did you do and what was the result?

  3. When have you demonstrated honesty and integrity under pressure or difficult circumstances?

  4. Was there ever a time you did not live up to your own standards of honesty and integrity? What did you do and how did you repair the damage?

  5. When did you take accountability for your own actions or behavior (possibly in a public manner) and drive a positive outcome for a larger group as a result?

  6. Was there a time you failed to take accountability for your own actions or behavior? What was the impact and how did you right the ship afterwards?

Some of these are hard questions to look at. But nobody ever said being values-driven was easy! Sometimes we learn the most when we fail or when we betray our own values. It seemed like the right move at the time, but only after mistakes can we truly understand the lines we cannot cross to be right with ourselves.

Don’t skip this step! It’s the most important brainstorming exercise you can do to make meaningful progress on your HBS application. Successful applicants show thoughtful engagement with HBS’s values by highlighting events in their life when they made hard choices reflecting respect, honesty, and accountability in their essays. So really take the time to sit with these values and mine your life for examples of these values in your character.

Do You Match What Makes Harvard’s Heart Beat Faster? The Harvard Business School Evaluation Criteria

Once you know what you want and what you stand for, the third step is to understand how the Harvard admissions committee evaluates each applicant.

The majority of what you will learn at Harvard comes from your fellow current students –  people like you and people very different from you, from diverse backgrounds and geographies, youngsters, 30-somethings, military veterans, former consultants, investment bankers, entrepreneurs, opera singers, comedians, and NFL Linebackers, you name it—through classroom discussion and case study preparation. HBS strives to shape a diverse class profile in terms of background, profession, and identity. Further, they want applicants who are community-minded and will share their diverse experiences with their peers through meaningful conversations in and outside the classroom. And finally, they want folks who just have a crap ton to contribute because they’ve lived, they’ve learned, and they’ve grown into capable and accomplished leaders before they even set foot on campus.

The following criteria is what HBS admissions is looking for in successful candidates:

  1. Habit of Leadership
  2. Analytical Aptitude and Appetite
  3. Engaged Community Citizenship

The Harvard MBA admissions committee looks for applicants who strongly demonstrate those three fundamental characteristics. Let’s dig deeper into what these mean…

Habit of Leadership

The most common mistake applicants make on the Harvard MBA application is that they assume this is as simple as listing a couple leadership titles on their resume and dropping it into their essay somewhere as a humble brag. Leadership box—check!

But hang on. Read the phrase again. Now focus on word “habit.” HBS actually wants more than listing a few leadership positions, however impressive they may be. The Harvard adcom actually wants to understand your nature and tendency to lead as part of your character. It’s not just the outcomes or achievements you made in a position of leadership that matter. In fact, positional leadership isn’t the point at all. It’s about what your actions and self-awareness about your motivating influences reveal about you as a person.

Brainstorming Exercise 5 – Your Habit of Leadership

HBS wants to know what kind of leader you will be in their MBA program and beyond if admitted. Help the adcom out by going deep in your personal essays to examine your imprint as a leader. Some good questions for you:

  • What drives you?
  • What motivating factors inspire you to take initiative in your organizations and communities?
  • What are your priorities when leading a team?
  • What’s your leadership style?
  • What are some examples from college, work, extracurricular, or community service that highlight your values and leadership style?

Remember, demonstrating a “habit of leadership” isn’t just about what you have done; it’s about the underlying DNA of your leadership profile, it’s about what kind of leader you might become in the MBA program, as well as what kind of impact you will make in the world beyond Harvard.

Analytical Aptitude and Appetite

Okay, it’s no big secret that the Harvard MBA seeks out smart applicants with strong analytical chops to handle its competitive, fast-paced, and highly-demanding academic environment. You need to be able to master the heavy quant stuff, as well as articulate thoughtful, insightful, and well-structured answers to your class discussion.

The main engine of the Harvard MBA is the case method. There are no lectures. HBS students learn from their peers through class discussions on real-life cases facilitated by faculty. Therefore, the HBS admissions committee seeks students who have analytical aptitude—the ability to dissect and analyze a lot of facts about a complex business issue, strategize viable solutions under a variety of constraints (and often upon incomplete information), and defend their rationale under pressure testing from the professor or challenges from their peers on the spot.

The Harvard admissions committee carefully considers your transcripts, GPA, and GMAT/GRE scores as indicators of your aptitude and potential for success in the HBS classroom. They also examine your resume and recommendations to understand the depth and breadth of your work experience and level of impact on your organization.

But high grades/scores and strong work experience with promotions aren’t enough. You also need to show analytical appetite. It’s not enough to have analytical skills and aptitude. You also have to show an ongoing tendency to constantly challenge and push yourself in your studies and career. Especially if you are concerned that your statistics are weak, you might want to show the admissions committee how your intellectual curiosity and analytical appetite has shone in other ways throughout your life.

Brainstorming Exercise 6 – Your Analytical Aptitude and Appetite

Take a look at the times in life when you were hungry to learn more, used data to make decisions, or solved a problem through reason, logic and thoughtful analysis. Answer these questions:

  • List all the times in life when you pursued learning for its own sake, when you immersed yourself in a subject, when you attempted to master something new just because you wanted to. What subjects have you dabbled in? Which ones have you mastered to some degree?

  • When during any of your schooling did you go way above and beyond in studying subjects of interest (think, doubling down on extra classes you found interesting, taking harder lasses because they challenged you, doing extra work just because, or even times when you worked extra hard to master something you at first found difficult)?

  • When did you persist in learning something or mastering something even though it seemed impossible and you faced many setbacks?

  • Think about times when you solved a problem using some kind of analysis. It might have involved data and spreadsheets. Or it could have just involved a series of conversations that led you to a sound conclusion. List all the times in your professional and personal life you used analysis to reach a sound conclusion.

  • Think about your most important teacher and role models. How have you used the examples of others to forward your own learning and development and satisfy your appetite for personal growth?

None of these reflections may land in your essay. On the other hand, this exercise might unearth some very meaningful insights about how you approach personal growth that are fundamental to understanding your character. You decide if those ideas are worthy of focus in your essay.

Engaged Community Citizenship

You can probably guess by now what we’re going to say…this element is so much more than your volunteering and participating in community service activities. We need to unpack all three words in order to understand the full meaning of this requirement.

Let’s dig deeper and get to the bottom of you as a citizen in your own communities.

Brainstorming Exercise 7 – Your Engaged Community Citizenship

Community

We’ll start with the word, “community” as that is the anchor word. You can define community in many ways. Your community could be the group of people living in your area. Or it could be a fellowship of people that share the same field, interests, hobbies, values, or beliefs as you do. What are the communities you are a part of? And how do you interact with them?

Engaged

This qualifying descriptor speaks to the level and degree of your involvement in your community. There’s a huge difference between a one-time or occasional participation in an activity versus an ongoing commitment to a cause. So, take a look at your list of extracurriculars and community service activities to see if there is a common driving motivation like a commitment to environmentalism, education, fitness and health, women’s empowerment, diversity, etc. Or take just one of your activities and examine why it’s so meaningful to you.

Citizenship

This word indicates that you are more than just a mere participant; you actually derive some part of your identity from your involvement in and fellowship with your community and network. It’s part of who you are as a person. How is your own sense of yourself supported, defined, and enhanced by the ways in which you affiliate with the communities in your life? How is your sense of self bolstered by the ways in which you participate in fulfilling your own values and those of the community through your participation?

Demonstrating these three criteria requires deep introspection into your life, values, passions, and goals. An authentic, thoughtful answer is necessary for laying a strong foundation upon which you will build the rest of your application. Of course, this is easier said than done. To help you tackle the HBS MBA application and its mammoth essay, please check out our special article on the Harvard MBA application essay.

Or even better,

Talk to us.

We absolutely LOVE helping our students get into Harvard. It’s our favorite school to work on because our process so uniquely equips our students to shine authentically through their essays and project confident humility and executive presence in their interviews. If you got value out of this article, it’s just the tiniest tip of the iceberg of value our clients get in sharing the process with us as their 1:1 dedicated guide.

Check out what one such student says about working with us:

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Angela Guido

Angela Guido

Student of Human Nature| Founder and
Chief Education Office of Career Protocol

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Louise Loeb

Louise Loeb

Archeologist of Joy | Senior
Instructor and Master Storyteller

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