Here is my advice on approaching Harvard's essay question for those aiming to enter their MBA program in the fall of 2014.
First the essay question:
And the school's own comments:
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.
And here is my own analysis and advice, broken down into 4 sections:
1. You really should write this.
You're applying to spend two years of your life at this program. There must be something you can write that will help their admissions staff understand you a bit better.
2. Follow their instructions.
We can see your resume, school transcripts, extra-curricular activities, awards, post-MBA career goals, test scores and what your recommenders have to say about you. What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?
I think it is pretty clear that this is not the space for you to give a summary of your accomplishments at work and outside work, as this content will have been covered in other application elements.
3. Don't give them answers to someone else's questions.
I imagine that 750 words on "what matters most to you and why" would be a pretty bad idea.
4. The key is to provide some insight into you.
Clearly a persuasive answer will go beyond the other application elements you have provided, and so will involve a stronger degree of self-reflection in order to teach the reader something about who you are. What follows are four options, ordered in a very subjective way: from least appealing to most appealing.
Option: write about why you need an MBA, how you'll contribute to their program, or why you are choosing to apply to Harvard in particular.
These options fit the question, as they're not in the list of information you've already provided them. However, for most why MBA detail is tied to the goals story, something they'll get information about. Detailing your contribution to the program might only be a simple extrapolation on detail already provided in the resume (my experience doing A will help me to run the A club..). Finally, I don't think Harvard really needs to assess your desire to go to Harvard - this school has a tremendous yield and so isn't overly concerned with weeding out those intent on enrolling in other schools.
Option: connect one or more experiences and show how they follow a particular theme.
You could focus on a personal characteristic you have, how you developed it and how it relates to successful experiences in your working and personal life. You could write about how the choice of your post-undergraduate employer or the choice to change departments or even companies fits a particular theme related to your background or future. Alternatively, you could show how your experiences have prepared you to achieve your goals. Be careful: just lumping together experiences without a lot of thought will seem shallow, especially if the connections are weak or underwhelming to begin with.
Option: tell the story behind an accomplishment or a failure.
Don't write only what you did, but also how you did it, and how you learned from the experience. Consider the failure option, as failures aren't in the resume and might not be in any other application element. Leaders make bold decisions and take big risks, and so leaders necessarily fail sometimes. Be careful: without self-reflection and a clear sense of how you developed from the experience, this will just be a story and that might not be enough.
Option: give the "why" behind something you're particularly passionate about, and how you've benefitted from the experience.
Obviously the approach to the HBS essay will vary from one applicant to the next, but of the three options I've listed here this one to me has the most potential to really "draw back the curtain" and reveal something about yourself to HBS admissions. The resume only lists what you've done, not why you've done it, especially for the extra curricular activities. This last option, of the three, has in my opinion the most potential to be interesting and insightful.
Whatever you do, make sure it reveals something about you - your unique characteristics, your passions or interests, or how your experiences have contributed to a direction you're taking that you're passionate about continuing.