For many candidates, writing essays for business school applications can feel intimidating because of the slim margin for error. Admissions officers at highly selective business schools look for justifications to reject candidates, and when they cannot find those justifications in work experience, undergraduate grades, or admissions test scores, they search for them in application essays. “Your personal story is what will set you apart from other applicants,” according to Poets & Quants contributor and Personal MBA coach Scott Edinburgh.
Best practices in application essay writing indeed exist, although some of them are not obvious and a few may seem counterintuitive. BSchools editors reviewed the analysis, advice from several authorities, and essay examples from admitted students. Although this information is mainly sourced from essays submitted to the Harvard Business School and the Stanford Graduate School of Business, the principles outlined below apply to any top MBA program, whether on-campus, executive, or online.
Before discussing the findings, it should be noted that schools have shifted from experimentation to implementing high-tech replacements for their written application essays, according to Poets & Quants. Since 2020, most business schools require video submissions of essay questions in the application process, including London Business School and Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. MIT’s video essay gives candidates sixty seconds to present themselves in one shot, while New York University asks for six captioned images describing candidates.
Below is an overview of the most frequent application essay prompts or discussion topics and best practices for writing.
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Common MBA Application Essay Prompts
Most application essay prompts can be divided into five categories: introduction, career objectives, school selection motivation, achievements and setbacks, and additional optional essays.
Introduction (“Introduce Yourself”) Prompts
These prompts ask applicants to introduce themselves to the admissions committee members. Here the actual class of 2021 required essay prompt from Harvard:
You’re applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your resume, academic transcripts, extracurricular activities, awards, post-MBA career goals, test scores, and what your recommenders have to say about you. 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?
A variant includes a previous Harvard prompt asking candidates what they would say when introducing themselves to other new students on the first day of classes. Stanford’s famous embodiment of this prompt simply reads:
“What matters most to you and why?”
Career Objective Prompts
These prompts ask applicants to explain their career goals and why they believe an MBA is necessary to accomplish those goals.
School Selection Motivation Prompts
These prompts ask candidates to discuss why they want to attend that particular business school and the benefits the school and classmates will receive should they win admission. Experts believe this topic is highly significant to admissions officers and needs to be incorporated into most essays—especially introduction essays—in some fashion.
Achievements and Setbacks Prompts
These prompts request discussions of inflection points in an applicant’s career. The questions seek to uncover what contributed to these accomplishments, how they recovered from setbacks, and what candidates learned from them.
Additional Optional Essays
This last prompt typically asks applicants to discuss any additional topics about which admissions committees need to know before rendering decisions.
Essay Writing Best Practices
Writing expert and admissions consultant, Sandy Kreisberg, offers a great deal of insight about successful application essays. In an interview with Poets & Quants, she points out that many successful HBS essays follow a typical structure. First, they state the applicant’s goals, then identify three or four crucial experiences that helped shape those goals. Frequently, candidates also include how those experiences helped form their values. Another admissions consultant argues that emphasizing values is necessary within any approach or structure.
Frequent Essay Themes
Admissions consultant Stacy Blackman advises clients to select themes that will enable them to display qualities HBS highly values, especially drive, accomplishment, and leadership:
We have found that both personal and career-oriented topics can work, and most candidates tell more than one story in the essay. In the past, we have observed that successful HBS essays also demonstrate a core driving passion […] HBS has always been highly focused on leadership and really loves candidates with a track record of leadership impact and a success trajectory that indicates upper management potential. Accomplishments have traditionally been a strong focus of HBS essays, and using at least one accomplishment story in this essay may be a good strategy.
According to Kreisberg, frequent themes include overcoming adversity, helping others overcome adversity, overcoming victimization, or assisting others in overcoming victimization. In fact, he argues that this theme accounted for as much as 70 percent of recent Stanford Business School essays. In addition, Kreisberg says absent parents, especially absent fathers, embody themes in many successful Harvard essays from 2014 and 2015.
Voice Is The Most Important Factor
By saying that “voice trumps everything,” Kreisberg points out that the voice with which candidates speak through their essays can be more important than any other aspect of application essay writing. Characteristics of a “good voice” include:
The essay must convey that, above all, the candidate seems like a genuinely likable person. If it does not, the piece can render an otherwise outstanding candidate vulnerable to a “ding,” which is business school lingo for a denial. According to Kreisberg, the critical test the HBS admission committee reportedly relies on is this question: Is this someone you would want to sit next to in a case method class?
Authenticity, Sincerity, and Vulnerability
All experts agree that authenticity is a necessary winning essay hallmark. Admissions consultant Eric Allen states, “The key character traits built from your personal, professional, and community stories and experiences that provide a unique and authentic story differentiating you from other applicants.” It may be surprising how many MBA application essays display vulnerability because this quality is not generally associated with business leaders.
Candidates need to present examples demonstrating their introspection and self-awareness.
One of the most difficult challenges of application essay composition is figuring out a balance between presenting a string of impressive accomplishments while also being humble. Unfortunately, any form of bragging in an essay amounts to self-sabotage.
Candidates must show careful attention, especially to other people’s needs.
Ideally, candidates need to sound like previous applicants from the same industry. For example, applicants with work experience in investment banking need to sound like students the school accepted with investment banking experience, applicants with military experience need to sound like students the school admitted from the armed services, and so on.
Many experts suggest that effective application essays do not need to be exceptionally well-written. They contend that admissions committees overlook less-than-perfect writing as long as applicants deliver compelling pitches. Business schools are interested in selecting and training future business leaders, not Pulitzer Prize-winning writers.
Moreover, the reviewed HBS essays do not appear to be particularly well-written. The errors and defects found in the samples suggested that the authors won admission because of other factors, like their work experience, undergraduate grades, or admissions test scores. Nevertheless, the most successful essays appear to demonstrate many characteristics of good writing, such as:
Powerful, Compelling, and Sometimes Shocking Introductions
“In all essay writing, of course, you learn that a lead, the way you entice a reader into your writing, is all-important, in part, because it should generally be compelling enough to grab someone and make them want to read on. In that regard, there are some fairly grabby leads,” according to Byrne, who knows how a significant lead reads; he was a magazine editor at BusinessWeek and FastCompany.
Consider for a moment why a powerful lead can be critical in this kind of essay. A typical admission committee member might review as many as 30 or 40 of these essays within candidate files on average. A compelling lead not only differentiates an article in the mind of that reviewer, but also grabs their attention.
The best essays display compelling first paragraphs and lead with first sentences that grab readers’ attention through vivid, shocking images. Here is a remarkable example:
“You are a woman AND a vegetarian! You will never make it at this place”. As a senior midshipman screamed those words at me from across the table, I instantly decided to change the one aspect of that statement within my control. I scarfed down Stouffer’s meat lasagna during my first dinner at the United States Naval Academy and wracked my brain, pondering how the females before me had survived. After leaving the comfort of my childhood home, I found myself blindsided by a brutal indoctrination into the male-dominated military.
The contention and excitement in the first sentence virtually guarantee further reading because it arouses the reader’s curiosity about what sort of place the applicant ended up treating women (and vegetarians) with such disrespect. The writer eventually introduces the controversial topic of male domination of organizations and explains how she adapted to that domination and finally overcame it.
Here is another compelling introduction:
During my first year in college, my parents declared bankruptcy. The bankruptcy was caused by my father’s growing drug addiction and it had a cascading impact on our entire family. Since my parents were co-signers on my student loans, our bank refused to renew them after my first year. I did a number of things to get by, including working three jobs simultaneously to make ends meet. I also tried to support my dad by helping to manage his rehabilitation process as much as a teenager reasonably could.
Displaying vulnerability, this example surprises readers who may not expect an HBS student to have faced damaging family issues like bankruptcy and drug addiction. The lead also arouses the curiosity of readers who want to know how the applicant eventually overcame these traumas.
Active Voice and Verbs
The best essays tend to avoid the passive voice. Notice the active voice and the vivid choice of the verbs in the below essay:
After college, I joined the Ivy Club in D.C., serving as the chair of Young Alums. The club had declining admissions, so I galvanized support by changing its mission and expanding its demographics […] Still, I craved more impact and contribution to a company’s success […] Now I thrive on helping other people and organizations do the same: identify problems, then clarify and meet their goals.
Essay Length and Word Limits
Some universities do not specify word limits for their essays. However, the best pieces display judicious word counts, sometimes in two separate essays. MBA Mission explains in more detail:
In the past, when Chicago Booth required only one essay, we often suggested 1,000 words as a guide; now with two essays, we propose keeping your responses to 500–600 words each. Approximately double the minimum seems to be a reasonable high-end target, though you will not be rejected from the applicant pool for going even higher. That said, we would recommend 1,000 words per essay as the absolute upper limit, and only in exceedingly rare cases.
Stacy Blackman concurs, saying that essays should be under 1,200 words. It is always easier to cut words down than add more during the editing process. A good rule of thumb is to write until the essay feels complete, and then take a second pass through the article essay to cut any unnecessary words.
Sample Harvard Business School Essay
The following outstanding Harvard Business School essay—which was written by a published author—satisfies all of the above criteria. It is an inspiring, compelling, and well-written example that can be read below in its entirety, followed by a brief analysis from Harbus, the essay’s publisher. This sample appears in The Harbus MBA Essay Guide.
In 2012, I realized a life ambition—I completed my first novel, all while working full time at [Top U.S. Investment Bank]. I could not wait to share it with the world and eagerly went in search of a literary agent. But each agent I contacted declined to represent my novel.
Nevertheless, I was passionate about my work and was determined to put it into readers’ hands. In true entrepreneurial fashion, I self-published my novel through the digital platforms Smashwords and Createspace. I worked with a promotional expert to organize a month-long book tour to promote the book to prominent book bloggers and their readers. The result? My novel has received multiple 5-star reader reviews, from Amazon to Goodreads, and was a semifinalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.
Storytelling is my lifelong passion; it saw me through a difficult childhood. After my father left, my mother raised me as a single parent in [U.S. City/State], a rural Bible Belt town two hours south of [U.S. State]. We did not have much money and that coupled with my bookishness made me a target for bullies. Books and writing were an escape; they gave me an avenue to articulate the feelings of abandonment and powerlessness I otherwise did not want to express. Writing made me happy and the more I wrote, the more my talent blossomed. I began to win awards and my work was published in youth literary journals. These experiences made me more confident, a key part of my success later in life. It all started with a pen, a notebook, and my imagination.
Stories are an integral part of the human experience. They uplift and inspire, give us permission to dream and to visualize what could be. Storytelling has been an integral part of my career, from building financial models at [Top U.S. Investment Bank] that illustrated my expectations for the companies that I covered to delivering a presentation to [International Daily Newspaper]’s chief revenue officer explaining why reducing ad prices for tender house advertisers would not lead to an increase in revenue.
My passion has also informed my growth as a leader; I believe my most impactful expressions of leadership have been my efforts to help others write the narratives of their own lives and careers. At [Top U.S. Investment Bank], I created an informal mentorship program for female and minority interns and first-year analysts in the research division and led a “soft skills” class to help new analysts handle difficult interpersonal situations. For four years, I’ve mentored a young Hispanic woman through Student Sponsor Partners, a nonprofit that gives low-income students scholarships to private high schools. Being a mentor gave me the privilege of guiding another first generation college student along what I know can be a lonely, difficult path. This fall, she started college with a full scholarship.
Storytelling will be a part of my future career path; as an MBA graduate, my goal is to obtain a position in strategy and business development at an entertainment company that specializes in film or television. Long term, I want to start a multimedia and merchandising company with a publishing arm (books and magazines) as well as film, TV, and digital operations. Using strong, fictional heroines and informative lifestyle content, my company’s goal will be to educate and inspire women to become their best selves. My particular focus is creating compelling, multidimensional characters to inspire young women of color, who are constantly bombarded by negative images of women who look like them in media.
I’m pursuing a Harvard MBA because I want to become a better business strategist and strong general manager. Also, I want to further develop my leadership and presentation skills as I will manage professionals on the content and business side; it will be my task to unite them behind a shared strategic vision. Specifically, I want to learn how to motivate teams and individuals to perform at their highest level, and to become more adept at persuasion and generating “buy-in” from others. Harvard’s unique approach using the case method and emphasis on leadership development will challenge me to grow in both these areas. I also feel that I have much to contribute to Harvard’s community. My varied background in finance and media has given me a unique perspective that will be valuable in classroom discussions and team projects. I want to share my passion for the entertainment industry with my classmates by chairing the Entertainment & Media club and planning conferences, career treks, and other opportunities.
My background gives me the capacity for fearless thinking that is needed to meet the challenges of the entertainment industry’s shifting landscape. A Harvard MBA will strengthen that foundation and help me to become the kind of dynamic leader who can bring the vision for my own company to life and be at the forefront of entertainment’s structural shift.
A brief analysis from Harbus:
The author sets the stage for the remainder of the essay by first presenting a notable accomplishment of hers and then explicitly illustrating the entrepreneurial drive and diligence she used to see it through. More importantly, the author’s opening introduces a theme—storytelling—that is consistently interwoven through different stages of her life. The reader is led through the author’s childhood, professional and extracurricular experiences, along with accomplishments, all the while being reminded of the integral role storytelling has played. Beyond highlighting her gift, or passion for the art of storytelling, the author goes on to connect this theme with her future career ambitions, as well as describe how this could also serve the HBS community.