HOW TO ANSWER THE NEW HBS UNLIMITED WORD COUNT ONE-ESSAY APPLICATION: MYINTERVIEW WITH POETS AND QUANTS
Sandy On Harvard’s New MBA Application
by John A. Byrne
Harvard Business School kicked off the unofficial start to the 2013-2014 MBA admissions cycle today (May 30) with a radical change in its application process. The school reduced the number of essays to just one open-ended question–and even suggested that it would be possible for prospective applicants to the Class of 2016 to skip the essay entirely.
For analysis and commentary on the change, we turned to Sandy Kreisberg, of HBAGuru.com, a prominent MBA admissions consultant who works closely with candidates who apply to Harvard, Stanford and Wharton. In a wide-ranging interview, Kreisberg commented on who will gain from this new format, who will be in danger, what mistakes to now avoid, his suggested word counts on both the single essay and Harvard’s post-interview reflection and other issues.
JOHN A. BYRNE: So Sandy, there’s big news today from Harvard Business School. Dee Leopold, the admissions director, shook things up last year and she’s at it again with a new application that requires only one essay. Last year HBS asked applicants two questions,
Tell us something you’ve done well (400 words) and Tell us something you wish you had done better (400 words).
The new question is “What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?” and there is no word limit. What is going on?
SANDY KREISBERG: A lot and nothing.
Let’s start with the nothing. The essay, however mystical it can seem, and this one comes wrapped in mystery, with no word limit, remains some other piece of the application–along with the rock hard facts of your GMAT/GRE, college and GPA, your major (HBS likes STEM), your age, your work history and its selectivity, your recommendations and extras, plus the usual identity politics issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation. As Dee says, the essay is one piece, and that is true and unchanged.
The essay BY ITSELF can, in some 10% of cases, damage you, and in some 20% of cases help you, and in most cases, confirm what they already know from the other stuff — which is a lot. To that extent, nothing is new. The new HBS essay is actually very similar to the famous Stanford essay, “What Matters Most to You and Why?” in that it is open-ended, and especially in the no word limit format, it can provide lots of room for you to drift into trouble. To the extent you can drift into trouble because it is open-ended, well, I suppose that is new and important. It was really harder to screw up last year’s essays and become offensive or annoying. That is now easier. On the positive side, it gives some people lots of room to explain their backgrounds (that was not the case last year), career goals, if they are career switchers (that was also hard to do last year) and you have the satisfaction of being able to say whatever you want.
BYRNE: How can the essay damage you?
KREISBERG: As noted, you can drift into trouble, especially since it is open-ended. The most common way is that you can go down some rabbit hole of personal story telling, quirky affectations, “literary” style, and bragging. To that extent, developing a personal voice in the essay versus just being bland in some acceptable way, can be dangerous if 1. you were marginal in the first place, 2. your voice turn offs the reader in some hard-to-define but easy to feel way. You can sound dislikable, whiny, immature, and unaware.
BYRNE: Give me some examples.
KREISBERG: Well, bragging in all its many overt and covert forms is the most common way to seem immature and silly. Writing an essay along the lines “that I would like you to know what is behind those bullets on my resume and what a swell job I did on projects X Y and Z” and then straining to make that case, even if true, by rehearsing a lot of facts and cliches, and then having that pile up, for a lot of examples, even if all of them are ‘true,’ well, yeah, I could see that turning some OK candidate into someone you don’t want to interview. They would blame you for the lack of self-awareness, for not knowing how you are coming across. At HBS, being boring or unaware or immature then leads to the $64 Billion Dollar Question, “Is this someone you would want to sit next to in a case method class?” And the answer is NO!. There are a million variants of bragging. There is being boring, there is saying too much of the same thing, there is presenting OK material with cliches and overstatement. There is just sounding immature, in all its varieties, which is probably more frequent and deadly than sounding boring, although boring is not good either.
BYRNE: What about saying something offensive or politically incorrect?
KREISBERG: That needs to be watched and I suppose it comes to mind first, and will be listed as first by others, but in reality, that is pretty rare.
It is rare for someone to say, “Gee, I want you know what a good job I did in planning Joey’s retirement party and arranging for those strippers and getting that Mormon guy drunk, and even the gals got a kick out of the fact that I also had a male stripper, because, you know, everyone loves strippers and booze and cigars . . .” I mean, you love to tell stories about essays like that, and you hope those stories are true, but gaffes like that are really rare. Although, yes, for the record, do not write about strippers, or how Islam is a religion that is hard to square with Western business practices, or how gay marriage could logically lead to plural marriage, or how your brilliant marketing scheme for that tobacco or beer company was so good because it appealed to kids. But more importantly, because this is likely to happen more frequently, do not use a megaphone in any context. And when you find yourself on an easy roll, ask yourself if you are slipping into cliches and possibly offensive ideas.
Let me also add, most adcoms are liberal in general outlook. It may be unfair, but you can write a good essay about how you were effective in organizing a campaign to support gay marriage. It is taking a real risk to write about organizing a ballot initiative against gay marriage or in favor of banning abortions–don’t argue with me. Argue with the academy. Adcoms, will, of course, deny this, but don’t believe the denials. At bottom they will blame you, in their own minds, not for your political views, but for taking risks and a lack of judgment. Not for being against gay marriage, but for writing about it in this context. Catch-22.
BYRNE: OK, how can this new and no-limit essay help an applicant?
KREISBERG: If you have powerful extra-currics or if you have an adversity story that is hard to fully ‘get’ in a shorter context, this essay can give you the chance to flip a switch in the reader’s head that says, “I REALLY LIKE THIS KID.’ Keep in mind that you get a chance to list extra-currics on your resume and in some outline form in the body of the application, and most applicants do not realize how powerful that list can be all by itself. But beyond that, this essay, as with the famous Stanford essay, can give you a chance to talk about how those experiences helped form your values, who your mentors were, how you evolved as a thinker and doer, and also how that impacts your goals. That would actually be my “go to” advice if you don’t need to use this essay to explain bad grades, or too many jobs, etc. Or even if you do.
BASICALLY THE TEMPLATE ANSWER FOR BOTH THIS ESSAY AND STANFORD ONE IS, I’D LIKE YOU TO KNOW, AS YOU CONSIDER MY APPLICATION, WHO I AM, WHERE I COME FROM, AND HOW MY VALUES AND GOALS WERE FORMED BY MENTORS, TEACHERS, PARENTS, AND EXPERIENCES. I mean, don’t say it that way, but make that the content in whatever format works for you.
You can include work experiences in that, just focus on how you were effective, why that project was important to your larger development, how you convinced others, led, negotiated, made friends out of foes.
BYRNE: Sandy, do you think a lot of applicants will be retrofitting their Stanford “What Matters Most Essay” into this one?
KREISBERG: Ha, ha, good one. Actually, given that the Round One HBS deadline is in mid-September and Stanford’s Round One deadline is several weeks later, I can see the opposite. A lot of HBS essays fitted into Stanford, with some transitional material, of course.
BYRNE: Do you think HBS was copying Stanford?
KREISBERG: No. I think Dee was feeling her oats and wanted to do something new and fun and not too crazy, and this is what emerged.
It is, a perfectly logical question, in some ways, the mother of all questions. “What else do you want to tell us that we don’ t know?” It is only after the essay consultants go to town on it that it emerges, through the iron of the essay writing process and the quirks of the application process, that a good way to answer this question is very similar to THE good way to answer Stanford.
BYRNE: Dee mentioned in my interview with her that it was possible that some applicants will not write anything at all. Do you think that is wise?
KREISBERG: Well, I salute anyone who does that, and gets away with it, and some peeps probably can.
I would advise against it, just on a risk/reward basis. It puts into play your own cockiness and if there is other evidence to support that, you could be in trouble.
I can also see a question during the last 5 minutes of your 30 minute HBS interview along the lines of, “Gee, now that we have found out all about why you attended school X, and what you learned from jobs 1, 2 and 3, and what advice you would give each of your bosses, and what industries besides yours you think are attractive, and how you work with others”–which are all classic HBS interview questions–”how come you did not think any of that was worth adding to your application to help us to get to know you better, or do you think this interview has been a waste of time??”
OK, there is an answer to that, but still…….
BYRNE: What about applicants who do have issues like grades or low GMATs to explain.
KREISBERG: Well, they used to give you some really short space to do that and now you have unlimited space. I suppose that is an improvement, just from the demands of brevity, but I am not expecting to see the new unlimited space make a difference in any one case. There are only so many ways you can say, “I screwed up college because I was a jerk but now I am serious . . .” Although let me add, there may only be so many ways to say that, but some ways are better than others. As with everything else, remember, “Is this the kind of excuse making I would want to hear from the kid sitting next to me?” That is a golden test for HBS. That is the way adcoms think. Now that I think about it, having more space, as noted, can lead to drift, and drift can lead to bad judgment and affectation, so this new format might be dangerous for “explainers” as well. Let me also add that you can also write a Stanford type essay and then draw a line and explain why your GMATs are not a fair predictive metric of how well you will do at HBS. Writing the full BS essay does not preclude you from also explaining things like grades or GMATs. Although the change in tone and sensibility is often jarring.
BYRNE: What about strong applicants with super solid grades from Ivy schools and top feeder firm jobs who just don’t want to blow this question. What is your advice for playing it safe.
KREISBERG: This becomes a similar exercise to the post-interview reflection they asked last year. You recall that question was, “You’ve just had your HBS interview. Tell us about it. How well did we get to know you?” The formula answer to that, and, ahem, one that worked in 100s cases that I am familiar with, was, about 400-600 words, along the lines of
“Thanks for the interview, and just a list of things that were sorta special and did not come up in the interview. My guess is, if you want to neutralize this essay, the standard answer will be like that. Something close to 750 words, to let them know you are not blowing this off (that is also a similar word count to Stanford Essay One), and some kind of discussion of what three or four things in your background mean, and how you were effective at doing those things, and what those events mean to you. Some discussion of 4-8 events, people, etc. in 750 words, my guess is, you just described 70 percent of the essays of the admitted class, and 70 percent of the essays of the dinged class.
Another issue is goals and why HBS. Last year you had 500 characters (including spaces) to discuss that, as a required short answer inside the application. That may give you some idea of how important they think that is. Not very. I suppose you could stuff out an essay this year with some rap about your goals and why HBS, blah, blah. That won’t hurt you, unless you are already in the warning zone of being boring and banal, but it won’t help either. It is especially a low gain situation to talk about why HBS. Talking about your goals, well, sure, especially if you can make that discussion follow powerfully from some prior discussion about what your values are how the two match up.
BYRNE: Sandy, what about stunt essays, like making a list or writing in verse or drawing a picture?
KREISBERG: Well, not sure if you can draw a picture. Just in terms of technology. Making a list of people and places that mattered to you, if done well, would get you a pass, which means if you were getting in, you would still get in. If you were a reject, you would still be rejected. It could depend on what you said about each. In theory, that would be as good as a regular essay. Writing in verse, phew, risky, but I am rooting for you.
BYRNE: What about writing about ONE event?
KREISBERG: Sure, along the lines of “I’d like you to know about X, which reveals several things about me . . .”
Stanford essays often work that way. “What matters most to me is the year I spent doing X”
BYRNE: Any final tips?
KREISBERG: Don’t fall down a hole. Writing can be a drug. That is good and bad. The drug can energize you and distort your judgment. Leave lots of time for revision. Show your essay to people. They may not be able to tell you what is good or bad, although sometimes they can, but they can alert you to what is odd, offensive, unclear, or just annoying, Trust those responses, even if they are inarticulate. As with the HBS interview, the real test is not to blow it. This essay, in terms of adding value to what they actually do know about you from everything else, is not going to turn bronze into gold. It may turn high silver into low gold, and that can be critical. It can also turn gold into gold dust, seriously, so make sure that does not happen.