Mba Essay Innovation

Harvard Business School Baker Library – Ethan Baron photo

Over a six-month period, she went through three distinct exercises to decide what to write about in her Harvard Business School application essay. First, she wrote down every important moment in her life going back to kindergarten. Then, the candidate re-read all her journals. And finally, she jotted down everything she loved to do. All told, it took 30 hours of work that led to a first draft that was turned out in two hours.

He meticulously went through two dozen drafts of his HBS essay before finallying settling on version 25. The consultant’s first 15 tries were not constrained by length or perfect grammar, and he spend a fair amount of time writing down the traits he chose to highlight and then a handful of supporting examples for each. Whenever he felt something wasn’t fitting, the applicant swapped it out with a better example. He tightened up his final 10 drafts, removing superfluous points and paying attention to conversational yet proper grammar. His most important editors? The consultant’s parents and colleagues.

This female engineer began working on the essay in June when HBS made it public. Her drafts over two-plus months assumed four storylines, with about 10 versions between the two two when all was said and done. She estimates spending more than 30 hours writing and editing what would become her 958-word essay, having a writher and a friend critque each draft. She also employed a strategy of reading every version out loud to make it easier to single out awkward phrasings that needed smoother or more conversational tweaking.


The New 2016 Harbus MBA Essay Guide costs $49.99

The essays and strategies of these three successful MBA applicants to Harvard Business School are among a record 37 essays published in the newest edition of The Harbus’ MBA Essay Guide. Their responses to last year’s essay promp—Introduce yourself to your classmates on the first day of class—are a varied lot from an exceptionally diverse group of candidates who are starting the first year of Harvard’s MBA program this week.

Among the essays in the 2016 guide are those from applicants hailing from 15 countries, including Japan, Peru, France, Australia, Pakistan, and El Salvador. They were written by consultants, investment bankers, project managers, engineers, accountants, venture capitalists, brand managers, and an intelligence officer in the U.S. military. Some 16 of the 37 were women. The longest essay, from a female consultant who applied to five schools, comes in at 1,672 words. The shortest, from a former actor from Puerto Rico, is a mere 370 words long. Each year, incoming students share their essays–scrubbed for details that would more likely reveal the identity of the candidates–for publication by The Harbus.

Writing an essay that could make or break your chance of gaining admission to a highly selective business school can be a high wire act for many MBA applicants. How do successful candidates to the world’s number one business school do it? What do they actually write about their personal and professional lives?


The 126-page Essay Guide is a liberating tome, if only because of the remarkable variety of winning essays in it. As Shantanu Misra, product manager for The Harbus, points out, “The most valuable lesson candidates can draw from reading these essays is that there is no ‘right answer’ to the question and no standard path to arrive at the ‘perfect essay.’” In that sense, it’s a highly valuable peek at MBA essay writing whether you apply to Kellogg, Olin, or INSEAD, given the wide diversity of approaches taken by successful HBS applicants.

No kidding. A former military intelligence officer who got into HBS recalled the time he had to brief a high-level government official on the Arab Spring shortly after the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. “Within two hours of the invitation, I found myself sitting inside the secretary’s office describing the key actors, likely outcomes, and potential worst-case scenarios in each of several Arab countries experiencing large-scale protests,” he thoughtfully wrote. “After a few straightforward follow-up questions, I was asked to elaborate on the root causes of the uprisings. It was a question I was prepared for, so I confidently rattled off some stats. Four hundred million people living in the Arab world. Sixty percent under the age of 25. Unemployment rates of 25 to 50 percent—and rising. A perfect storm of economic underdevelopment, demographic pressures, and bad governance had compelled a generation of Arabs to take to the streets in protest against their unresponsive and unaccountable governments.”

Or how about this passage from the essay of a female accountant who worked for a private equity firm. “Basketball,” she wrote, “changed my life. I developed tolerance—the day I scanned the locker room and realized that gay or straight, black or white, rich or poor, my teammates had transformed into my sisters. I understood teamwork—after we overcame a losing record to play in a tournament championship game, shattering female sport attendance records in the process. I learned discipline—the first time I set a 4:30 AM alarm to study before practice. Most of all, I gained the quiet confidence to continue pitting myself against the best throughout my career. I learned to believe in myself, to trust that after selecting the next daunting path, I would muster the resolve to traverse it. The desire to share with other women the benefits that competitive athletics provided to me is why I have mentored an adolescent girl for the past eight years, and why I volunteer for a charity that teaches entrepreneurship to low income teenagers at a sports-focused high school. It is also why I want my MBA.”

Perhaps the most innovative approach this year was one adopted by a woman environmental onsultant. She imagines being interviewed by The New York Times as the CEO of a company. Just the way she began the essay—the longest one in the book at 1,672 words—immediately draws any reader. “One of my favorite Sunday rituals is reading ‘Corner Office’ in the New York Times business section,” she wrote. “Every week reporter Andy Bryant interviews top executives about lifeand leadership. I am fascinated to learn about how successful CEOs got their starts. I often think about how I would answer Bryant’s questions, as I aspire to one day hold a C-suite position. As a means of introducing myself to my HBS classmates, this is whatI will say if I have the chance to be interviewed for ‘Corner Office.'”

My background has allowed me many opportunities to be involved with diverse people and situations, where my values were different from others and my opinions did not fall in line with the majority. From my first summer job as a teen, to meeting with Sheiks in Iraq and facilitating group changes at the company I worked for, I believe that the lessons I obtained from these experiences, through which I grew significantly as a person, would definitely add value my fellow MBA students at Fuqua and contribute to the Fuqua community and culture.

My first moment of true responsibility occurred when I was a young teenager, and my parents decided it was time for me to get a job and earn a little money. A local self-storage facility was looking for someone to clean their storage doors, all 500 of them, for about $4.00 an hour. I worked eight hours a day, Monday through Friday, for what seemed like years, in the hot Memphis sun, cleaning every door from top to bottom until all 500 were completely clean. Believe me, those doors had more mildew and grime than any door I have seen to this day. Yet it was at this storage facility that I not only learned the value of hard work, but also taught myself how to create my own budget, to allocate the money I earned. I bought my first stereo soon after finishing that job, and by living according to the budget I created, several years later bought my own car, purchasing my own gas, insurance, and clothes for high school. I continue to value hard work, following a budget and overall self-reliance to this day. These simple lessons could enhance the culture at Fuqua in an ethics class or case method discussion based on integrity or leadership decisions based on moral principles. Additionally, I might be able to push my teammates to work a little harder or longer when the time arises.

Some years later, I found myself at the first “leader engagement” of my first deployment, with a Sheik nonetheless, and what seemed like his entire known family and friends. I spoke a different language, wore very different clothing, and even sat differently than anyone else present. Sitting uncomfortably in the Sheik’s living room, the only person in the room I had any connection with was our Iraqi interpreter. We were there because my platoon’s initial attempts to bring farming supplies and equipment to the local people had failed, turning into a mad grab for what was needed, rather than an organized distribution, and we needed the Sheik’s help to turn things around. From our first conversation, I quickly realized that my normal meeting etiquette and conversation customs would be of little use. Over time, at each of our meetings, I began to pick up the Sheik’s meaning based on his tone of voice, and began to rely more on non-verbal communication, like the shrug of a shoulder, even after my proficiency in Arabic had improved. Soon I could determine the Sheik’s response even before it was translated. I also learned to recognize the different norms and traditions within this culture and apply them in our interactions. Meanwhile, my team helped the local famers in the community to create a sound and organized plan, their trust in us increasing as my relationship with the Sheik grew. All of these meetings and the growing bond eventually allowed the farmers to become sustainable and economically viable in a relatively short amount of time.

I feel that this experience would be extremely beneficial at Fuqua in our group meetings and classroom environments, where different communication customs or habits might hinder others from getting their point across. Effective communication is one of the most important aspects in any business action, and I hope to enhance that aspect both in and out of the classroom at Fuqua. I also believe that those lessons I learned in my international experience would allow me to bring one more perspective to Fuqua’s already diverse culture. There is an extremely delicate balance with the respect to values and what is right or wrong when you are immersed in an entirely different environment. I understand that balance, and I would be able to share those lessons I learned in my experiences with others on Day 1 at Fuqua. In addition, as a day-to-day platoon leader, I could help my fellow study group partners analyze complex negotiation case studies and contribute to varied project planning discussions. Further along, I feel that I could contribute significantly to other Fuqua MBAs interested in participating in the GATE program. I hope that my understanding of diverse communication and varied backgrounds in an extremely dynamic setting would help others better understand the different business environments or dissimilar groups we might encounter.

Recently, my experience at the Energy I worked for has also allowed for me to use my value set to make a significant impact. Prior to my arrival as the Production Manager, it was common knowledge that the specified directions or course of action to improve production numbers, given by my predecessor, were to be followed without question. I decided to change this custom. Thus, every time there was a question raised concerning a troubleshooting method or a technique required to solve a problem, I would ask the questioner what he or she recommended in order to solve the problem. I would not dictate what needed to be done solely on what I thought was correct. This not only forced them to come up with possible solutions to their issues, but also allowed for open creativity and new ideas amongst our team. We shared these best practices on a regular basis in our weekly team meetings, and it resulted in a net ten percent increase in our production volume. This joint effort in understanding differing problem solving approaches reminded our team that individual input is paramount in overcoming obstacles and achieving our production goals. This change was not easy. Only after my team felt completely safe to voice their opinions and provide input was this change in how we sought to improve our production numbers achieved.

At Fuqua, I could impart some new best practices I have learned, from both a developmental and a sustainability standpoint, into the many inter-disciplinary settings at the Duke EDGE Center. I feel that my recent group experiences at the company could definitely help others within the center create workable solutions to the energy problems we face, regardless of the setting or sustainability problem we approach. Listening to others and allowing everyone to provide feedback is vital to solving such tough issues as energy sustainability and environmental impact. I might even be able to provide a supporting perspective to other Energy MBAs on those subjects that some students might not understand due to my background in the industry. Or, there might be subjects or ideas presented by key speakers where I would be able to provide first-hand knowledge of the successes or failures I experienced working in the Barnett Shale. Whether it be a Mentored Study Project that focuses on the efficiency of a clean-tech invention and how it affects the environment, or the Duke Startup Challenge, where our group pitches a new renewable energy-based business plan to industry leaders, I feel that my experiences in both teamwork and communication could greatly benefit the not only the EDGE center, but also my all fellow MBA students at Fuqua.


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