Harvard Business School Essay Questions and Strategic Guidance, 2023-2024

Harvard Business School (HBS) announced its essay question for the 2023–2024 application season today. The good news is that this essay prompt is not new; in fact, HBS has used this exact question every year except one since the 2012–2013 application season, with the only notable change being the addition of an official word limit last season. In the past, the admissions committee had let applicants decide how long—or short—their essay would be, but after recognizing the angst that making such a judgment call caused for candidates (as if determining what to write about was not challenging enough!), it introduced the 900-word maximum to provide a bit of guidance.

The HBS essay prompt is therefore very familiar—at least to us. Collectively at Gatehouse Admissions, we have coached hundreds and hundreds of applicants in crafting their HBS essay, and we have read thousands more submitted essays. Based on our experience, we have developed the following guidance to help you develop your essay.

Essay prompt: 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? (900-word limit)

How should I get started on my HBS essay?

What makes Harvard’s essay question so perplexing is that it essentially offers you a blank slate; you have up to 900 words to write about whatever you want. That level of freedom can be intimidating and scary, but focus instead on the upside—you are in the driver’s seat, and you get to decide what to tell HBS!

To avoid becoming overwhelmed as you figure out where or how to start HBS’s essay, remember to look inward. Keep the perspective on you and what you want to tell the admissions committee; do not try to guess what HBS wants to know, compare yourself to your peers, or employ a tactic that you heard was successful for someone else. These strategies will likely lead you down the wrong path. Also, remember that the admissions committee will have your resume, short answer responses, transcript(s), and letters of recommendation. Your essay is your opportunity to go beyond all this information the admissions committee already has and provide color that the other materials cannot easily convey.

What should I write about in my HBS essay?

HBS is looking for evidence that you are someone who can lead, drive impact, work well with others, demonstrate empathy and humility, solve problems, implement solutions, be open to feedback and other perspectives, make decisions, and so on—all hallmarks of a good leader. HBS also wants to know that you can learn from both your wins and your failures. In fact, the school is very open about the kind of candidate it seeks! HBS states that it is looking for applicants who display a Habit of Leadership, Analytical Aptitude and Appetite, and Engaged Community Citizenship.

This does not mean that you must discuss any or all of these specific topics in your essay, however, and if you do, avoid addressing them head on (e.g., “A time I displayed leadership was…”). Just keep in mind what the admissions committee is watching for, and this should help you identify strong potential stories and the most relevant details to emphasize.

How much should I talk about HBS in my essay?

HBS should be in the back of your mind as you determine what you want to write about and as you draft. At each iteration of your essay, ask yourself, “Why do I want to tell them this? Will sharing this information [or story] give them confidence that I am the sort of leader, teammate, person, and citizen who will make an impact on the world?” If what you want to tell them does not add to or clarify the picture of your potential, then it probably does not belong in your essay.

That said, discussing anything specifically about HBS in your essay is not imperative. That is because HBS does not ask you to! HBS can be secondary or even an afterthought in your essay, and many successful applicants do not mention the school at all! Discuss HBS only if your rationale for business school and for choosing HBS in particular is truly core to your “What more?” story.

How should I construct my HBS essay?

Once you have brainstormed your experiences and have pinpointed the themes and/or stories you want to share, start by writing an overarching, one-line response to the essay prompt at the top of your essay draft. If you cannot articulate it well and distill it down into a single sentence (two max), your essay is likely trying to cover too many unrelated topics or lacks a cohesive theme.

Next, consider the different ways you could craft your essay, be it as a journey through key pivotal moments, a series of stories and examples that illustrate some superpower or core value of yours, or a fuller picture of you—a mosaic—that captures some of your most compelling and relevant traits. Whatever way you choose, make sure that your essay has a strong spine that ties together the different elements.

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