How to Write the Harvard HBS MBA Application Essay

7 Steps to Answer the Harvard MBA Essay Question: "As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program?”

When you’re putting together a successful Harvard MBA essay, the most valuable thing you can do is tell an Epic Story. Before I get into what that means, let’s clear one thing up: There is no set formula for getting into Harvard or writing the Harvard Essay. There’s no “right” way to do it, no “right” thing to say. But, take it from me, an Epic Life Story is the best thing you could possibly have in your application toolkit. 

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So what is an Epic Story? An Epic Story is a narrative that takes the reader—any reader, adcom members included!—on a journey through a series of key events. Epic Stories situate the reader in space and time and establish a crucial emotional connection between writer (you!) and reader. Emotional connection is king when it comes to MBA applications. It’s how you stand out from the pack. And that wide-open Harvard MBA Essay is the perfect platform for doing this work.

What if I don’t have an Epic Story?

If you’re afraid you don’t have what it takes to tell an Epic Story, let me let you in on a little secret: You do. It’s not about having the most page-turning life events under your belt—you don’t need to have cured cancer or sailed solo around the world, although that would be totally awesome if you did!—it’s about being human and sharing that essential, inspiring, loveable humanness with your reader in the most effective way possible.

Each of us has an Epic Story to tell. Promise. You just have to dig deep and tap into it. So before you protest that your life (or your writing skills) just don’t fit the bill for this kind of thing, take a look at the foolproof steps I’ve put together below for how to tell an Epic Story and write your Best Harvard MBA Essay!

1. Take a closer look at that Harvard MBA Essay Question; it’s not as open ended as you think!

Let’s take a closer look at that question. Here’s the Harvard Business School essay prompt, straight from the horse’s mouth: “As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program?” And here are the essay tips HBS gives: “There is no word limit for this question. We think you know what guidance we’re going to give here. Don’t overthink, overcraft and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don’t know your world can understand.”

Before we get into the how-to of all this, it’s worth pausing for a minute to pick those last two statements apart. Harvard asks you not to overthink, overcraft, or overwrite. They’re really driving at something here. They want YOU to remain in your essay—your essence, who you are at the core. They want a real person to come through the page, not some hollowed out, cookie-cutter façade designed to meet some assumption about who they want you to be.

Okay, that was a mouthful. But what I’m saying—and what Harvard is saying—is simple: be you. Don’t obscure (or write over) who you really are by trying to fit some imaginary mold or by writing what you *think* “they” want to hear. As the HBS admissions director warns in their App Tips Series, “Be careful in all that polishing that you don’t ‘shine away’ your personality.”

Lest you forget, the adcom is made up of humans. And all humans want the opportunity to connect with and contribute to other humans. So give them that chance with your essay.

Shout out to any auditory learners out there:

If you’d rather listen to my advice, prefer YouTube to text, etc., etc., watch me break down the HBS Essay Question and more in Top tips and advice for the Harvard MBA essay.

So what is Harvard really looking for?

What more would you like us to know?”

It’s a wide open question—and that’s part of what makes it so intimidating, as John Byrne, editor-in-chief of Poets & Quants, points out in a helpful piece written earlier this year—but Harvard does give you two key pieces of information about what they’re looking for in the essay instructions: clear language, and a ticket into your world. They want to know more about who you are based on where you’ve been (literally and figuratively speaking). The background, life experiences, and human encounters that shaped you.

“What more” is the other key part of this equation. As the Harvard App Tips highlight, this essay should NOT be a rehashing of your resume. The adcom will be bored to tears if you give them your resume (again) in paragraph form.

Instead, your Harvard Essay should be a supplement: think of it as one key building block in the larger structure of your application. It builds on the rest, fits in with the rest, but it adds something completely new. Even more than that, it should create a world that is all your own for the reader to step into. (More on how to do that momentarily.)

With an essay question that leaves so much in your court, Harvard is really looking for evidence of self-knowledge. They want to know that you’ve done the deep introspection necessary to communicate what drives you and what you, as a one-of-a-kind human being, will contribute to their incoming class. They also want to see that you resonate with their values and their mission—that you can demonstrate a habit of leadership, among other qualities.

If you aren’t familiar with Harvard’s mission, here it is: “The mission of Harvard Business School is to educate leaders who make a difference in the world.” This is a really concrete mission that they have. They're not out to teach business; they're not out to help people make more money. They're out to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. And if you're talking to a leader, the most important question you can ask that person is, “What do you want me to know about you?” With this question, you're given free license to say whatever is meaningful, interesting, and important to you about yourself.

Soooo before you start getting too caught up in what they might “want” to hear from you (keep resisting that urge!), let’s talk about the most vital step in the entire application process: self-discovery.

2. Use Self-Reflection to ensure that your HBS Essay is unique

Step 1 in our magical essay process at Career Protocol is always self-discovery.

Self-discovery is a really underrated process. Seriously. Sooo SO underrated. As we’ve learned in over 30 years of collective admissions experience, the very best MBA applications are built on foundations of deep self-awareness, self-compassion, and clarity. Our Discovery Process is the tried-and-true, totally irreplaceable first step to essay-writing MAGIC. (I can’t get enough of it. Can you tell?)

So what should you write about for your Harvard essay?

Glad you asked! You’re gonna love the answer: It depends.

On what? On what you find out about yourself during the vital process of self-discovery. This is your starting point. There are no shortcuts to self-knowledge, and no successful Harvard Application Essay will come to fruition until you’ve taken a good hard look at yourself, your life, your accomplishments, and—most importantly—how you define all of the above.

One of the most valuable things the Discovery Process will teach you is that, as a candidate for admission, you are more than your GPA. You are more than your professional record. You are far more than any one component of your application, and Harvard’s adcom—like any other group of humans—wants to see the whole picture. The essay is where this all comes together. 

There are 5 key areas of inquiry that you should dig into when you’re preparing to write the Harvard Essay (or any essay for a school of your choice).

     1. Your Back Story

If you had to sum up your life story in a couple of paragraphs (or even pages), what would you choose to write down? What would you tell others, if you had to give a succinct “back story” for who you are? What snippets of information would make the cut? Which life experiences? As you explore your back story, you might also think about the people in your life who have had the greatest influence on you. Consider your hobbies and what makes you tick—even if it’s something you used to love to do, but haven’t found the time for lately. Write it all out.

     2. Your Academic Achievements

I like to think in terms of achievements during the self-discovery process, because—as you’ll discover if you undertake this work—everyone defines achievement differently. We each have our own yardstick for measuring accomplishment. (Some of us find it painfully difficult to call anything at all an achievement.) What you deem an achievement is telling, and thinking in this way encourages you to drill down to what really matters (and has mattered) to you. So, first, consider what your top academic achievements would be.

     3. Your Community and Extracurricular Achievements

Same thing here, only with community work and extracurricular involvement. What have you accomplished outside of school and work that really meant something to you?

     4. Your Professional Achievements

You know the drill by now. If you had to list your top professional achievements, what would they be?

     5. Your Personal Achievements

Last, but certainly not to be underestimated, what are your top personal achievements? What are some of the moments in your life that really stay with you—those poignant human-to-human experiences, the times when you were able to make a contribution, pure and simple, to another person (or group of people)?

If you want a sense of how all that discovery rolled up into successful essays for our clients, here is a smattering of general topics and big picture summaries of successful MBA essays:

  • A few days in the life
  • Career story twists and turns
  • Difficult relationship with a parent
  • Goals
  • Journey into entrepreneurship
  • Journey to master confidence
  • Lessons from observing managers
  • Lessons learned through an important hobby
  • Life story told through difficult decisions
  • People who influenced me
  • Perspectives on success and leadership in career to date
  • Problem solving
  • Rags to riches through failure, leadership style
  • Sports and career
  • Struggle to be a woman in male-dominated field
  • Struggles to live up to values and culture
  • Travel and passion for understanding others

The thing to notice is that there really isn’t anything special about any of these topics. You, too, could probably write an essay about a number of them. What made these essays unique wasn’t the executive summary of the story, it was the depth of character they revealed in the telling. Depth of character flows from values.

Homing in on your Values

By the time you’re done listing and evaluating your personal achievements, you’ll have built up some muscle for defining what matters to you at a fundamental level: what your intrinsic values are.

Values are the basis of a person's principles or standards of behavior—their judgment of what is important in life. These are the things you would never change about yourself, because if you did, you would no longer be recognizable to yourself as you. Without them, you’d be some other person. Any great Life Story Essay should encapsulate and reflect these intrinsic values, even if they’re never overtly mentioned, and that’s part of what makes any essay founded on self-discovery unique.

One great piece of advice from a Harvard alum is to ask yourself, after you’ve drafted the essay, “Could this essay also describe someone else?” If you’ve done the hard but rewarding work of self-discovery, the answer will be: No.

In an essay like Harvard’s, you are the hero of your own story. If you use the steps above to home in on your values, you will significantly deepen your awareness about the specific kind of hero you are. We want to get clearer and clearer about what kind of hero you are, because that's where your uniqueness lies.

Finding your Voice

The final aspect of essay-writing that self-reflection will help you tap into is your voice.

Your voice is critically important to your success in your MBA applications. It sets you apart, instantly and continually, from any other writer. Even if another applicant narrated the exact same experiences, it wouldn’t come out sounding the same. (Because they wouldn’t have your voice.)

So how do you find it? What defines it? It's really choice. When I help clients find their voice, what I’m really doing is helping them identify the key choices that produced their life as they know it and developed them into the people that they are.

Character is the combination of values and choices.

As I hope I’ve driven home by this point, values are an important part of the equation. But they're not the whole story. We become who we are by virtue of our choices. Sometimes those choices result in (or include) failure, whether it’s failing to live up to your values or failing in some other way because you adhered to those values. Keep in mind that these brushes with failure are a very important part of your story. They reveal your humility and your vulnerability.

Talking about success without revealing the human part of it—your failures, fears, and setbacks—will not inspire someone. It might read like an interesting set of facts, but the reader isn’t really going to understand, or respect, or feel connected to you. In order to be inspired, they need to see your humanity.

As you wrap up the self-discovery process and start planning your essay, ask yourself: What are some of the most important choices that I've made so far? And why did I make them? How did I make them? And what were the consequences? Where did they lead me? These kinds of questions will help you clarify your values and decide which life stories you want to include.

3. Create an Essay Outline

If you ever learned how to write college essay outlines, you may know a thing or two about the general outlining process. (Get some tips from the experts here and here.)

We’re not sticklers when it comes to the kind of outline you should make for your Harvard Essay—or any essay. It could be anything from a paragraph-by-paragraph or point-by-point game plan for your essay to a sketch of the general flow. (I prefer the latter, but if detailed outlines are your jam, have at it!!)

For me, the outlining process is a means to an end: a way to determine what’s in and what’s out, structure your thinking, and get that scary ole writing process kicked off!

However you choose to do it, don’t spend a lot of time trying to perfect the outline. Personal essay writing is an iterative process: You are learning the story as you tell it, and it's impossible to figure it all out before you sit down to write it. Use the outlining stage (even if you never actually create an outline!) as a space for answering this vital question: What will you include?

What’s In and What’s Out?

As you probably know, Harvard has three criteria that they're looking for in every applicant:

  • engaged community citizenship
  • a habit of leadership
  • and analytical aptitude and appetite.

(This is in their stated evaluation criteria.) Most applicants will show analytical aptitude and appetite through grades and scores, possibly in work experience and recommendations, and very definitely in some ways through the resume.

Likewise with a habit of leadership. If you're doing your resume right (check out our bomb crash course in MBA resumes), it should show all the ways in which you've been a leader so far in your community and in your career. And your recommendations should further corroborate that, because your recommenders *should* be speaking to your leadership qualities. (More on our coaching for recommenders here, ‘cause that’s a whole other story.)

So for most people, the essays include an element of engaged community citizenship. This one is the hardest to quantify, and it's the hardest to turn into a resume bullet. One of the things that most of our successful HBS client essays have in common is that they are covering—in some way—the candidate’s penchant for being an engaged citizen of the communities that they've been a part of.

But—I can’t stress this enough—your resume is going to do the heavy lifting in conveying your accomplishments. The essay really isn't about how great you are, or how accomplished you are, or what you've achieved in your life. It's about the intangibles. It's about your values and your character. To put it one more way: it’s essentially about what you stand for.

Leaders of Consequence

Harvard wants to admit and shape Leaders of Consequence. But what does it mean to be a Leader of Consequence? First of all, it doesn’t mean that you’ve checked off a certain set of accomplishments. Rather, it’s a very powerful way of being.

  1. Leaders of Consequence are empathetic, so they have the ability to connect with other people.
  2. They're inspiring people, but they're also very human. They exude a sense of humility and vulnerability.
  3. They have a vision. To be a leader, you're going to have to have some kind of vision.

Schools are also looking for these qualities in the application. And the HBS Essay is the ideal place to exhibit them. This doesn't mean you won't talk about success and accomplishments in the essay, it just means that that's not really the point. The point of the Harvard MBA Essay is to reveal these softer and less tangible qualities about you, your values, and your character.

It’s a platform for sharing your authentic self. Sharing is the key word here: It's not about talking about or telling them who you are. Instead, it's about sharing your experiences, values, beliefs, thought processes and strategies, feelings, desires, hopes, and fears through some of the strategies I’ll discuss below. These are all the things that make you human.

What about my goals?

One of the most common questions I get from clients is whether the HBS Essay should include your goals. The quick answer? Probably not. In our experience, for only one in about 9 or 10 MBA applicants is career vision an essential part of their Epic Story. For these people, fully sharing who they are and how they want to be known for the purposes of admission requires a discussion of the future. For everyone else, your goals belong squarely in the 500-character short answer box about goals.

Building a Narrative (Or, as we like to call it, Storyboarding)

Alright, now the next step in the process is storyboarding. You’ll take all of the material, all of the amazing things about your life that you identified in the Discovery stage, and boil it down into the few components that you're going to put together to answer this question.

The big thing you have to keep in mind when you're approaching the Harvard question, and really any essay question, is that you need to answer the question directly. Harvard is asking, “what more would you like us to know?” So you're going to have to tell them, “here's what I'd like you to know.” You don't have to have that sentence in there, but it is effectively the question that you're answering. So start from that place.

Key Stories

The Discovery Process will also help unearth the building blocks of your HBS Essay: key stories. In order to tell an Epic Story, you need to determine the pivotal anecdotes it’s comprised of. If your Epic Life Story is a constellation, think of your key stories as the individual star points.

Pro Tip: Imagine your Epic Life Story as a biopic.

I prefer to think about the Epic Life Story Essay in cinematic terms. From this perspective, it’s essentially a biopic: it’s a movie about your life so far. (You know, like that one about Mike Tyson that’s coming out?) So instead of using a traditional outlining framework—point one; subpoint A, B, C; point two; and so on—we’ll map your Life Story and your narrative in terms of scenes. At Career Protocol, we treat your essay like we would a screenplay.

In my experience, this leads to a much more dynamic version of your story. It also gives you more breathing room for the creative process than a tightly structured outline. So as you plan your Harvard essay, try thinking about it in these terms: What comes first in the movie? And then, what comes next? And what comes after that?

Oh, and make sure you nail that opening line.

TL;DR (A Step-by-Step Cheat Sheet for Our Storyboarding Process)

  1. Choose the core value that you want the Harvard adcom to know about you. You can choose at most two to focus on. (Typically one is enough. You don't need to boil the ocean on the values front.)

  2. Determine the three or four most important scenes in the film of your life related to this value. Think about which life choices were most revealing of your character and/or which experiences most shaped you and forced you to change. These are the key anecdotes (a.k.a. key stories).

  3. Decide what other scenes or details from your life are going to help fill in the rest of your film.

  4. Get writing! See what your story says, and then refine it around your values so that it reflects what you want the adcom to know about you to the greatest possible extent.

4. Decide how to start your essay (Note: That first line is crucial.)

Sitting down to write the first words of an essay can be an intimidating moment. Maybe you love that fresh start, that blank page staring back at you, but more likely you dread it. Never fear! I’m about to give you some great advice for tackling that first line and starting your writing process off on the right foot. (Er, finger?)

You want to be in the mindset of upliftment and inspiration before you sit down to write. That will ensure that what comes out will actually resonate with your best self and not, you know, the you who woke up on the wrong side of the bed and didn't drink your coffee.

So be sure that you're caffeinated if you drink caffeine. Be sure that you ate and slept well. Be inspired, and then sit down and see what comes out. For more great advice on how to write your Best MBA Essay—including how to get inspired!—check out our new article, Pro Tips: How to Write a Great MBA Essay. (The long and short of it is: Pixar movies.)

What should a first line look like?

Here are some first lines from actual winning Harvard essays:

Here are some examples. Some of these are from our clients, others are from The Harbus MBA Essay Guide (Summer 2020 Edition or the 2016-2017 Edition):

“On March 1st, 1995 my family boarded a plane at [INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT] with our entire lives packed into a few suitcases.”

“An early influence on my worldview was my father.”

“I never got along with my father.”

“As a six foot tall sixth grade girl, you really only have two choices: (1) stand up and be proud of your height or (2) slink off awkwardly and hide.”

“While my application materials have highlighted some of my proudest professional achievements, I want you to also know about the influence my parents have had on my life, my values, and the direction of my career.”

“I am defined by my appreciation for beauty.”

“I have cried exactly four times at work.”

“A wise woman once told me that I have had an extraordinary number of failures for someone my age.  I’d never thought about it that way before, but she’s got a good point.”

“It’s summertime, I’m 11, and the cool things to do are ride around town on bikes, eat ice cream, and play tennis.”

“The proudest moment of my lacrosse career is also my most embarrassing one.”

“I didn’t do well in school as a kid.”

“‘What should I do about praying at work?' [Name] asked me, concern emanating from her voice.”

“I had a near-death accident in September last year that knocked me out and ended me up in a hospital with a brain haemorrhage, a broken shoulder and a fractured ankle.”

“My mother fully believed in being ahead of the curve at all times.”

What you'll notice about these opening lines is that they're very workmanlike. They're direct. They get right into the story—say what happened, what was happening, sum it up, hop to it.

Each one of these is also interesting. It grabs you. It makes you want to keep going. And that's because each of these first lines uses the rules of narrative to bring you into the story. One of the most important rules to remember is that stories take place in space and time. Good stories, stories that grip the reader, have to be grounded in these dimensions.

As you may have noticed, most if not all of these winning first lines set the stage: They give you something you can picture, a scenario or location you can imagine—something to sink your teeth into.

Excuse me, rules of narrative?

There are some rules to how you think about your first sentence. It doesn't have to be flowery, it doesn't have to set an elaborate scene (in fact, for gosh sake, please don’t do any of that!!). It's almost certainly better if it's not dialogue or a quotation, despite some things you may have read here or there on the internet. (That can sometimes work, but it's rarely the most jet-fueled, engaging way to bring the reader into your world.) Instead, you want to dive right into the story and let the story carry you as you're writing it.

In summary.

Outline it if you want to, but don't waste a lot of time on that. Then get yourself to a position of being inspired. Decide on the opening line, and then just write—just write the story. You've got the big scenes, you've got the ideas in your head. Write it and see what comes out, and then iterate. The key scenes will come into focus as you edit.

For more on this—and for all my auditory learners out there—watch my MBA Monday video on how NOT to write a boring first line (or essay).

And for an even more in-depth read on the storyboarding and essay writing processes we’ve developed at Career Protocol, dive into “A Screen writer's Guide to Epic MBA Narratives.

5. Draft your HBS Essay (Write. Revise. Rewrite.)

“Good writing is essentially rewriting.”
                  – Roald Dahl

“The only kind of writing is rewriting.”
               – Ernest Hemingway

The next step on this essay-magic journey is storyshaping. This is a huge labor of love.

Let me say that again. It’s a HUGE labor of love.

Drafting continues to deepen the Discovery process. (By drafting, or storyshaping, I mean some combination of writing and rewriting and revising.) Most of our clients are still discovering their story as they're in the process of telling it. Your understanding of your values and exactly how you want to communicate them is clarified with each passing draft. So that's why we call it storyshaping.

The first thing to know about this stage is that there is no right number of drafts. Everybody needs a different number of iterations. Here’s how many drafts it took some of our clients who got into Harvard to write their masterpieces:

Gender
Drafts
Female
2
Female
3
Male
3
Male
4
Male
5
Female
5
Female
5
Male
5
Female
6
Male
6
Female
7
Male
7
Male
7
Female
10
Male
10
Male
13
Female
21
Male
22
Male
25

Our process includes unlimited drafts and boy do we mean it!

It may take a while because you’re a perfectionist, or because you totally changed gears in the middle, or because the story continues to evolve. You have to follow that inspiration and allow the story to go where it wants to go.

There's nothing better or worse about taking more or fewer drafts. Like everything else in this process, it depends on you, your writing habits, and how much time and space your story needs to achieve its potential. So for those of you who plan to go through this process on your own, give yourself plenty of time to revisit your draft and shape the essay as you go.

And what about word count?

Okay, so word count. This is one of my favorite subjects. If you had to guess the upper limit of word count for a successful HBS Essay, what would you say? The lower limit?

If you read any other advice about the Harvard Essay, you're going to find that almost everyone says 1000 words. Tops. Or 750-1250 words. Tops. Or 1100 words. Tops. Or something like that. So let me be the one to tell you: Any firm answer to this question is a load of hooey. The length of the essay is totally irrelevant.

A few stats from some of our recent Harvard admits will help you get a sense of just how varied and individualized the writing process is for the HBS Essay.

Here’s a sampling of our successful clients’ word count in recent years:

Gender
Word Length
Male
803
Male
826
Female
867
Female
884
Female
930
Male
1,011
Male
1,047
Male
1,181
Male
1,222
Female
1,321
Female
1,325
Male
1,329
Female
1,420
Female
1,439
Female
1,495
Male
1,525
Male
1,673
Female
1,750
Male
2,000
Female
2,041
Male
2,756

You want to tell the story in as much time as it takes to really do it justice. For most people—it’s true—that’s somewhere in the 1200-1400 range. But not for everyone! Some essays will take a lot more than that, and some will take less.

For successful essays in the 1000-word range, they’re shorter because they have a simpler and more straightforward story to tell. The successful client essays that broke into the 2000-word range had the most amazing, fascinating, and riveting life stories and experiences I’ve ever come across.

I repeat: There. Is. No. Right. Number.

The takeaway here is that each story has its own cadence and its own pace. It takes place in its own time. Again, the number of words that it has is completely irrelevant. You want to tell the story in the amount of space that allows you to fully show the admissions committee your best self. Because, ultimately, it's not your essay that gets you in. It's not your GMAT. It's not even your resume. It's who you are.

6. Seek out feedback

Please remember: Essays need readers. Every storyteller needs an audience.

One of the best things you can do for yourself when you’re writing the HBS Essay is find someone to bounce drafts off of. (Trust me, you’ll be SO thankful you did.) You need to know how the story that you’re telling is going to land for someone else.

Gauging a reader’s reaction and asking for feedback can help you answer questions like: Do any of my anecdotes need more detail? Is everything spelled out clearly enough? Do any parts of my essay seem to drag on endlessly? Am I emphasizing the right things? And—in more extreme but all-too-common cases—do I come off sounding like a selfish jerk? Or an airhead? (Obviously you’re not those things, which is exactly why we don’t want your essay putting off those vibes!!)

This back-and-forth between you and a trusted reader is a fantastic way to give greater definition to your narrative. If you move from draft 1 to draft 2 to draft 3 all inside the vacuum of your own mind, you’ll get caught up in one big smush of perfectionism and wordsmithing and miss the most important point: the big picture—emotional connection with the reader.

But do choose wisely. We’re the best at what we do (in large part, I’d argue, because we love doing it). So if you want a buddy for your HBS essay-writing and beyond, talk with us!!

If working with a professional is out of the question, ask a friend, peer, or mentor to be your trusted reader. Choose someone you can count on to be honest with you—to give you their true reactions and ask questions freely, rather than petting your ego. (This isn’t the time for that!!!)

But also make sure to choose someone whose opinions about you are generous and who doesn’t feel the need to control your narrative or grammar. Moms can sometimes be great. But sometimes they have their own preconceived notions about who they think you are that isn’t well aligned with who you ACTUALLY are today. And that grammar stickler friend of yours just might wordsmith all the life out of your writing voice.

More advice on this here:

So, I’ll say once more, choose your reading buddy wisely! To collect great feedback, try using our Friends-Family Fly Test. And remember, we’re here if you need us!

7. When in Doubt: Read more great advice & some solid essay samples

Here’s some advice on approaching the HBS Essay from a few of our Harvard admits:

“I think for HBS, I always considered it a long shot, so I wasn't afraid to present what I felt was my true story. I think it's more of an opportunity to reflect on what the most important part of your story is. I wanted to be honest and true to myself, because I knew that I'd otherwise look back and think, ‘Wait a minute. What if I had just told the story I wanted them to know all along?’”

“Be honest! Show the school your capacity for self-reflection, give a thoughtful appraisal of your past actions/mistakes.”

“Be authentic! It is really easy to be caught in the trap of saying what you think is important or focusing on what may be perceived as ‘most impressive,’ but from what I have seen, admissions committees are so good at sniffing out inauthentic essays that it may end up backfiring!”

(are you noticing a trend here?)

“After you have a few drafts under your belt, take a break on your application for a few days. When you come back, reread your essay while asking yourself ‘does this cut to the core of who I really am?’ Share your essay with your family and close friends with the same question. If you don’t get a resounding yes from all parties, go back to the drawing board.”

“DON’T SUBMIT SOMETHING THAT FEELS FORCED OR FAKE. I wrote an entire draft of my HBS essay and spent two weeks trying to edit it into something I believed reflected who I really am, and at the end of it I decided to start over. Don’t be afraid to start over.”

One more nugget of wisdom from an HBS admit:

“Definitely try to be as concise and to-the-point in your essays as possible. Also, do not feel the need to crack open your SAT vocab books!”

And now a final word from me…

This is my most important piece of advice in approaching the Harvard Essay:

There are no guarantees. Most of you will not get in. That's a fact. So you might as well do yourself proud in the essay. Write it in such a way that you can look back on the choices that you made on this journey with no regrets, because you told the story that you wanted to tell. You authentically answered the question. You told Harvard what it was that you really wanted them to know about you.

If you remember, choice equals voice. You're making choices continually—even as you go through this process. I recommend that you make strong choices in your essays, and especially when you're applying to Harvard.

Helpful Sources

Harbus 2020 Essay Book. Need I say more? (Check out earlier editions, too, to broaden your sample set.) But be sure to read SEVERAL essays so you get clear about the fact that there is no right answer. Don’t anchor your story to someone else’s. Own it.

More on the HBS essay from P&Q (with more examples!).

Subscribe to our Career Protocol YouTube channel to watch my MBA Pro Tips, including my Top Tips for Writing the Harvard Essay.

And if you’re wondering how to write those other Epic Life Story essays, listen to me tackle Stanford’s “What Matters Most to You and Why?” (also on our YouTube channel)

Aaaaanddd on that note: Our Top 10 Tools for Your Creative MBA Essays