As we noted the other day, Harvard Business School (HBS) kicked off the admissions season with yet another early release of its essay questions. While Stanford has already followed suit and released its essay questions, we expect that many programs will stick with their late June/early July time frames. Time will tell…

HBS tends to tweak its essay questions ever so slightly each year. This year, HBS has maintained its first two mandatory questions and has removed one of its flexible choices. Gone is the question “What area of the world are you most curious about and why?” It has been replaced by two new questions (which are not really formulated in classic question form): “Tell us about a time when you made a difficult decision” and “Write a cover letter to your application introducing yourself to the Admissions Board.”

So, this year, HBS applicants will have two mandatory questions to answer and then will need to respond to two of five other questions, giving candidates greater opportunities to work to their strengths.

 Our analysis follows:

What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such? (600-word limit)

This mainstay of the Harvard MBA application challenges the applicant to quickly “wow” the reader with three individual accomplishments that, together, reveal a true depth of experience. Generally, the candidate should showcase different dimensions of him-/herself within the three subsections of this essay. Candidates can select from their professional, community, personal, academic (must be truly outstanding), athletic, interpersonal, experiential and entrepreneurial accomplishments, but certainly, no formula for the right mix of stories exists.

While this is HBS’s longest single essay in terms of word limit, many candidates treat it as three mini essays. Remember, though, that constructing individual stories within 200-word subsets is quite challenging. Candidates must keep in mind that the experiences they describe are crucial, but these descriptions only address half of HBS’s question. Indeed, two elements need to be addressed in this essay—(1) your accomplishments and (2) an analytical reflection on them (“why do you view them as such?”). The second half of this question should not be ignored; your personal thoughts and reflections are yours alone and will differentiate you from the pack.

What have you learned from a mistake? (400-word limit)

What makes this question interesting is that the Admissions Committee is not asking you to simply recount a failure or setback, which might allow you to shift the blame onto others or external circumstances. Instead, they are asking about a mistake that you have made or were in some way involved in making—which means that you cannot avoid taking personal responsibility for the error. We cannot emphasize this enough: the Admissions Committee wants to know that you can honestly and critically assess yourself. You do not need to be brutal, but your essay must leave you exposed in some way. Attempts to hide or minimize your mistake, or your role in it, will be transparent and will lessen the import of what you learned from it—as well as the strength of your essay. That said, however, be sure to note that this essay is not so much about the mistake itself as it is about what you learned from the mistake. So, you will need to explain the error, take responsibility in a mature manner and then be introspective, showing that learning occurred and led to real change in your thoughts and actions.

Please respond to two of the following (400-word limit each):

What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience?

Note: we generally do not recommend this essay question to candidates who are several years removed from their undergraduate experience, but exceptions are made for those who had truly extraordinary academic careers.

This question is quite open-ended, so you are not constrained to a historical recounting of your entire academic career; you can be selective and showcase the aspects that present you in the most positive light. This can be an opportunity to explain your choices (of school/major) and highlight your intellectual vitality—not review your coursework (the Admissions Committee has your transcript) or justify bad grades.

While “academic” is the operative word in this essay question, it can be interpreted broadly. Your academic experience can extend beyond the classroom and into, for example, vigorous discussions with professors during office hours. The idea is to show that while you were an undergraduate, you seized various opportunities to explore ideas and develop your own interests, thoughts and world view. You should try to create momentum in your essay, illustrating how you worked to discover your passions and then committed yourself to an appropriate course of study. However, this does not mean that you can only discuss your major; that quirky “Surrealist Cinema” or fascinating “Modern Architecture” class that was well outside your core course of study might be the perfect fodder to prove your intellectual curiosity and growth.

We should mention that we have seen successful candidates hone in on one spectacular academic experience that defined their academic career as a whole. Again, this essay need not be a historical recounting of an entire four-year degree. You have the freedom to offer what is important to you and showcase what will enable you to stand apart from others. 

Discuss how you have engaged with a community or organization.

“How” is the key word in this essay question. The Admissions Committee does not want you to simply recite your activities (they will have access to a complete list of these from the “short answer” section of your application). They want to understand the thought process behind your involvement and the actions you have taken to create your personal impact. 

Clearly, a candidate should choose this essay only if he/she has a profound connection to a community or organization. In many ways, this essay should be an expression of that connection, showing the spirit, meaning and purpose that inspired the engagement, as well as the efficacy of the involvement. Indeed, mere participation will not suffice. The Admissions Committee must take away from this essay that the applicant is a leader and has influenced a community or organization in an indelible way.

Tell us about a time when you made a difficult decision.

When approaching this essay, you must remember that for a decision to have been difficult you need to have weighed two competing and relatively equal sides of an argument. So, if your manager asked you to trade on insider information and you emphatically said, “No!” the human interaction might have been uncomfortable, but the decision itself should have been quite easy. When considering your response to this question, please ensure that you are balancing an issue, because the Admissions Committee is interested in how you reasoned and ultimately made your decision.

An effective essay will likely present the story of how the problem came to be and then emphasize the steps the applicant took to reason through it, either alone or by seeking the advice of others. The resolution of the problem need not be 100% favorable. After all, the choice was “difficult”—a strong essay will honestly assess the outcomes. 

Write a cover letter to your application introducing yourself to the Admissions Board.

We beg of you, please do not start this essay with a version of the following line: “My name is Jeremy Shinewald and I am an applicant for the Harvard Business School Class of 2012.” Many (many!) will use this completely uninspiring opening and will immediately bore the individual reading the essay. Further, we advise candidates to not use all this space to explore and expound on their professional careers. Remember, the Admissions Committee has your resume, recommendations and responses to your short answer questions—they will therefore already have a strong sense of your professional history. Finally, we ask that you not flagrantly appeal to the Admissions Committee to accept you—let your story do the talking. Do not plead your case!

So, you now know what we advise you not to do, but what about what you should do? In many ways, this essay offers you “free space.” If you have a standout story that simply does not fit as a response to any of the other questions, you should be able to work it in here, but you will need to add context. If you feel that your personal circumstances are interesting or unusual, you might explore them in this essay. If you have something unique to contribute—remember, “unique” is the key word—you can discuss it here. The bottom line is that you can use this space to add personality and vitality to your candidacy, offering some emotional depth behind your potentially rigid accomplishments.

What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?

Many candidates feel anxious about not answering this question, because, for the most part, every top school asks candidates to directly discuss their goals. Well, for the record, mbaMission has worked with candidates in each of the past two years (i.e., since this essay became an option) who have succeeded in gaining admission to HBS without answering this question. It is, indeed, optional. Essentially, we feel that if you are truly passionate about a certain career path and this path has some distinctiveness to it, then you should answer this question. However, if you are still contemplating your career or can reveal something unique about yourself by answering one of the other essay questions instead, then you need not respond to this one.

If you choose to address this question, it offers you flexibility in discussing your career path, because the Admissions Committee wants to hear about vision, not narrow goals. Still, even though no blatant request is made for a description of your short- and long-term goals, you cannot afford to be whimsical. To ensure your credibility, you must demonstrate that you are focused in your ambitions and show that your desired career path is built on a legitimate, existing foundation.

HBS strives to restrict the illustrious HBS experience to those with clear vision, potential and purpose. The latter portion of this essay question (“why is this choice meaningful to you?”) places the onus on you to explore and explain your motivations. The question’s structure prevents superficial answers and forces you to show a fundamental understanding of, and personal connection to, your goals.

For a thorough exploration of HBS's academic program/merits, defining characteristics, crucial statistics, social life, academic environment and more, please check out the mbaMission Insider's Guide to HBS.