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Sample Essays from Admitted HBS Students

Sample essays from admitted HBS students

I read the new 2020 Harbus MBA Essay Guide wondering what I was going to gain from it. I’ve been reading HBS MBA application essays for 26 years. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. I also had read the previous Harbus MBA Essay Guide , and the question Harvard is asking hasn’t changed since that one was published. However, while I started The Essay Guide a skeptic, I quickly saw its value, and can whole-heartedly recommend it to HBS applicants. 

Even after having read hundreds of HBS essays, I still found it worthwhile to read The Essay Guide . For applicants who have preconceived notions of what an admissible essay should be, The Essay Guide will open your eyes to 22 successful and different responses. For applicants who are wondering how on earth they should approach their essay, the guide will give them 22 different answers. 

For me it reinforced several valuable lessons:

Harvard’s question is a fantastic one. It is a probing one. And it requires you to probe yourself so that you can provide a profound reflection of you as you tell the HBS admissions committee what you really want them to know.

A successful Harvard Business School application essay [2020]

This sample essay is from The Harbus MBA Essay Guide and is reprinted with permission from Harbus .  

Essay: Vulnerable But Invincible 

Home country: USA

Previous industry: Consulting

Analysis: The author takes a rather bold approach here. She uses the essay to point to the times when she showed vulnerability in the workplace. This essay presents a strong example of how an essay can be used to complement different aspects of your personality – while resume and application can be used to highlight accomplishments, the essay has been intelligently used to show author’s capacity to be strong enough to talk about situations when she broke down in a professional capacity, but took lessons from each of these situations and employed them to her strength.

I have cried exactly four times at work.

The first time was early in my career. It was 2AM and I was lying in bed struggling with an Excel model. An overachiever my whole life, I was wholly unused to the feelings of inadequacy and incompetence bubbling up inside me. After clicking through dozens of Excel forums with still no right answer, I gave up and cried myself to sleep, vowing to never let myself feel so incapable again.

The second time was a year and a half later. I was unsatisfied with my project and role, and questioning my decision to be a consultant. That uncertainty must have been apparent to everyone, because my manager pulled me aside and bluntly told me that my attitude was affecting the entire team. I cried in front of him, devastated that I had let my doubts bleed into my work.

The third time was just a year ago. I was overseeing a process redesign and struggling to balance the many changes needed. The Partner called me into his office to say, “I’m worried our process is not as sound as it needs to be. I need to know that you care about this as much as I do.” I nodded, say that I do, then ran to the bathroom to cry, overwhelmed by how much change I knew was coming.

Each of the first three times was driven by frustration and anger. I had tamped down my emotions to the point where they overwhelmed me. Particularly as a young woman in business, I never wanted to be viewed as a stereotype or incapable. I was ashamed of my tears and terrified at how others would perceive me.

However, each of those experiences proved to be a turning point. My tears motivated me to ask for help when I needed it, pushed me to restructure my mindset and approach, and gave me a moment to breathe, rebalance, and reprioritize. In each case, my work was better for it. I have also used each experience as a learning moment. Each time I asked myself what decisions led me to the point of tears, and what I could have done differently. I could have raised my hand earlier for help, initiated a conversation with my manager about my uncertainty and dissatisfaction, or involved the Partner more actively in the planning and prioritization. While I can’t change the past, I can learn from it, and am more considerate of such outcomes when I make these decisions today.

Emotions are an inevitable part of the human experience, and as such, an inevitable part of the office. Rather than keeping them at bay, I have begun embracing my emotions to be a better manager and leader, and build more authentic connections. As a manager, I understand my team as people, not just colleagues. I have regular conversations with each of my team members to understand their individual goals and motivations, so I can take those into consideration when building the team structure and delegating responsibilities. As a leader, I invest in traditions and events that foster camaraderie and high morale. I am the proud founder of [NAME OF OFFICE PROGRAM] in the office, a beloved tradition that is now an integral part of the office and that I hope will continue even after I leave.

The fourth time I cried was at the rollout of a process redesign I oversaw. This was our first time demo-ing the new process end-to-end for the rest of the team. As the demo progressed, I felt the team’s energy turn from nervous anticipation to dawning excitement, and finally to sheer awe and amazement. As the demo ended, one of my teammates turned to me, and asked in a hushed voice, “Are you crying?” And I was. This time, I cried not with frustration or anger. This time, I cried with joy for our success and with pride for my team. Embracing my emotions allowed me to show that tears are not shameful and don’t need to be hidden in the workplace. I am no longer ashamed of my tears, and I am proud to demonstrate that a strong leader can be pragmatic and emotional all at once.

Word count: 705

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Author’s comment: “I started early on my essay (~ 3 months before the submission deadline) because it was important to me to iterate and be thoughtful. I started by laying out potential themes and stories for my essay, and while there are a lot of similarities, the core message changed quite a bit. Don’t get too attached to any one story or theme and allow yourself to let go of a draft if it’s not the right one. What I found most helpful was having 2-3 close friends that I trust wholeheartedly review multiple drafts, because they were able to provide continuous feedback and help me combine pieces from multiple drafts. None of them had ever gone to or applied to business school, but were experienced in writing and communication (e.g. one is a screenwriter) which helped me focus on communicating MY story more so than what is the story that HBS Admissions would most like.”

A successful Harvard Business School application essay [2016]

This sample essay is from  The Harbus MBA Essay Guide  and is reprinted with permission from Harbus. 

Essay: The Mechanical Engineer

Author’s home country: United States of America Author’s previous industry/profession: Operations consulting, operations management  Author gender: Male

Analysis:   The author focuses his essay on two themes – his professional experience as an operations consultant and an experience which motivated him to go for an MBA. Through the essay, the author is able to highlight his professional skills, achievement as well as give a clear picture of his long-term career plans and his reasons for doing an MBA.

I’m [APPLICANT’S FIRST NAME] and I have journeyed here from the hallowed grounds of [APPLICANT’S U.S. NEW ENGLAND HOMETOWN], where I spent my formative years amid wild dreams of achieving greatness by setting world records and winning the Olympics. As I’ve hung up my [OLYMPIC SPORT’S TRADITIONAL SHOES] in favor of business shoes, those dreams have evolved into a desire to achieve greatness in a different arena. Today, my dream centers on helping companies leverage technology to propel their operations into the future, providing unparalleled customer service and delivery, with an operational efficiency to match.

I graduated with a BS in Mechanical Engineering in [GRADUATION YEAR] and spent my first 3 years out of college working as an operations consultant. It was my job to walk into a manufacturing plant and drive significant operational change – for example, I once spent 3 months walking the sticky floors of a milk plant in [MID-SIZED U.S. SOUTHEASTERN CITY] helping plant management boost throughput by 30% in order to take on a new customer. We accomplished this goal with zero capital spend, a feat many had believed was impossible. In our projects, the biggest challenge was almost always convincing managers to reach for that extra tad of unseen opportunity hiding within the operation, because oftentimes it was very difficult to look beyond the daily struggles that plagued their operations. I worked directly with 5-8 person “rapid results teams,” coaching them on how to think about operational improvement, motivating them to sprint towards it, and leading them through the analysis required to capture it. I left those milk, water and oil sands plants with many enduring friendships and inspiring operational victories borne from our journey from ambitious goals to concrete results.

<< READ: What is HBS Looking For? >>

I’ve spent the past two years working in supply chain management at a private industrial goods supplier. I chose direct management because I wanted to drive these same inspirational improvements in an operation I owned. My role was to manage and improve the operation, and through my experience, I learned the nuts and bolts of the supply chain industry. However, my dream of innovating supply chain operations pushed me to consider transitioning to an organization with an ambitious, transformative purpose. In fact, last year I had a unique opportunity to reflect on what type of impact matters to me. This opportunity was my first ever trip to [NORTHWEST AFRICAN REGION], the place of my family’s origin.

On the second day of the trip, I journeyed to [LOCAL NORTHEASTERN AFRICAN TOWN], a small town nestled next an enormous active volcano that is surrounded by a wide expanse of rich volcanic soil, which is used to make wine. This wine is sipped by adventure-seeking tourists relaxing after a long day on the volcano, and thus the town’s two major industries, wine and tourism, are sustained. When we arrived at the town, I was shocked to see it buried by an avalanche of volcanic rock from an eruption [A FEW YEARS PRIOR]. As our guide lamented on the dreary prospects of the Page 2 of 2 town, I was amazed to see just how important these two industries had been to its development.

Through this real world example, I was able to clearly visualize the impact businesses can have on their broader environment, an understanding that had not been as evident to me while working in the larger, more complex American economy. For example, I had spent hours walking among the dilapidated buildings speckling the warehouse district in Cleveland, but only after my trip did I connect them to the decline of the Midwestern manufacturing industry. Upon my return, armed with this broader perspective, I decided my next step would be to attend business school. There I would gain the technical, operational and leadership skills to make my transition to an organization whose goal was to drive change in its broader industry and community, as those wine and tourism companies had done in [LOCAL NORTHEASTERN AFRICAN TOWN OF FAMILY’S ORIGIN].

So, that is how I arrived in front of you today. My goal is to humbly learn as much as I can from our section, our professors, and our experiences. I am excited to get to know you, and will always do my best to support our section intellectually and athletically (we will be the future section Olympics champions!).

How about yourself?

Word Count: 711

Author’s comment:   While the initial draft of my essay did not take more than an hour or two, it was the revision process that I spent a significant amount of time on. I think the most important part of the essay writing process is to ensure that your story and personality come through – and this is perhaps the most difficult part! To help with this, I had individuals who were not as familiar with my story and why I wanted to go to business school provide me with feedback in addition to those with whom I worked closely.

Linda’s comment:

I would hate for any of you to read this essay or any of the other essays in  The Harbus MBA Essay Guide , which I recommend, and think “This is a great template. I’m going to tell a story just like this one!” Bad idea. Wrong response.

The one take-away from this essay and the other successful essays in this book is that the reader feels a little like s/he is meeting the author – not someone else and not some masked being.  Individuality is the common thread in those essays; it isn’t brilliant prose or incredible writing. It’s authenticity and humanity. And yes, the author is accomplished too.

I chose this essay from the Harbus collection because I know there are many engineers applying. Some — both in and out of their field — think of the profession as boring or common. But this essay is neither boring nor common. I loved it because the writer comes to life, and  his passion  and personality shine through. He doesn’t get bogged down in technicalities, industrial jargon, or an alphabet soup of acronyms. He tells his story with energy and clarity, from his perspective, and with a focus on his impact.

Now that’s an example you can follow: Tell  your  story with energy and clarity, from  your  perspective, and with a focus on  your  impact.

Check out what recent applicants have to say about working with Accepted:

A successful harvard business school application essay [2015], the 2014-15 harvard business school essay question:.

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. What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?

This sample essay is from The Harbus MBA Essay Guide and is reprinted with permission from Harbus.  

Essay: The Author

Author’s Background: Finance & Media

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 lead 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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

Time & Effort: “It was about 6 or 7 drafts. Not sure on the hours.”

Word Count: 805

This sample essay is from The Harbus MBA Essay Guide and is reprinted with permission from Harbus . We highly recommend the book!

If you would like advice on responding to this year’s HBS essay question, (which is different from the 2014-15 prompt) please read our Harvard Business School essay tips .

Linda’s comments:

Bottom line: You want your readers to feel like that they are meeting you — not someone else, not a scripted piece of shallow PR devoid of personality and humanity, and not some phony combo of you and the author of an essay in a guidebook or on a website. They really and truly want to meet you!

So think about your story. 

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For expert guidance on your Harvard Business School application, check out Accepted’s MBA Application Packages , which include advising, editing, interview coaching, and a resume edit for the HBS application. We’ve helped hundreds of applicants get accepted to the Harvard MBA program and look forward to helping you too! And did you know that Accepted’s clients received over $1 million dollars in scholarship offers in the last application cycle? Yes – we can help you with that too!    


Related Resources:

• Get Accepted to Harvard Business School , a free webinar • Harvard Business School MBA Essay Tips & Deadlines • What is HBS Looking For:   Analytical Aptitude and Appetite , The Habit of Leadership , Engaged Community Citizenship • M7 MBA Programs: Everything You Need to Know in 2022 • More sample MBA application essays

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Application Process

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Applicants to HBS must have the following:

A degree program at an accredited U.S. four-year undergraduate college/university or its equivalent (unless you are a college senior applying to our 2+2 Program ). Equivalent programs include international three-year bachelor degree programs.

Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) or Graduate Record Examination (GRE) test taken in the timeframes on the chart below. The GMAT or GRE is a prerequisite for admission.

A TOEFL, IELTS, Pearson Test of English (PTE), or Duolingo English Test is required if you did not attend an undergraduate institution where the sole language of instruction is English. If you completed a graduate degree which was taught in English, it is recommended you submit one of these tests, but it is not required.

Written Application

To apply to Harvard Business School, we ask you to assemble and prepare a variety of materials that will help us assess your qualifications. Remember, all materials must be submitted to HBS online by the application deadlines. The following serves as a preview of what you need to prepare.

Candidates must have the equivalent of a U.S. bachelor's degree from an accredited institution (unless applying through the 2+2 program — please see information for college seniors). Degrees from international universities offering three-year baccalaureate degrees are valid equivalents.

We require uploaded transcripts from all undergraduate and graduate academic institutions that you have attended (full- or part-time).

You may upload an "unofficial" or student copy of your transcript; however, we will request an official copy for verification purposes should you be admitted to HBS.

When the Admissions Board looks at your transcripts, we are looking at the whole picture — not just your GPA. We take into account where you went to school, the courses that you took and your performance. We understand the structures of different grading systems worldwide. There is no minimum GPA to apply, although our students usually have strong undergraduate records. Undergraduate academics are just one factor the Admissions Board uses to evaluate a candidate.

There is no minimum GMAT or GRE to apply and we do not have a preference toward one test or the other. If you look at our class profile , you can see that we have a range of GMAT and GRE scores in the current first year class.

Please note that the HBS code for the GMAT is HRLX892 and the HBS code for the GRE is 4064.

HBS does not have a minimum test score to apply, however, the MBA Admissions Board discourages any candidate with a TOEFL score lower than 109 on the IBT, an IELTS score lower than 7.5, or a PTE score lower than 75, or a Duolingo score lower than 130 from applying.

HBS only accepts the Internet-based (IBT) version of the TOEFL. Please note that the HBS code for the TOEFL is 3444.

There is one question for the Class of 2025 application:

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?

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.

You will need to have two recommendations submitted online by the application deadlines.

Recommenders will be asked to fill out a personal qualities and skills grid and answer our two additional questions (see below).

It is the applicant's responsibility to ensure that all recommendations are submitted online by the deadline date for the round in which the applicant is applying.

Use your best judgment on who you decide to ask - there is no set formula for who should be your recommenders. We know it is not always possible to have a direct supervisor write your recommendation – we would not want you to jeopardize your current position for the application process. Look at the questions we are asking recommenders to complete. Find people who know you well enough to answer them. This can be a former supervisor, a colleague, someone you collaborate on an activity outside of work. How well a person knows you should take priority over level of seniority or HBS alumni status.

Recommender Questions

How do the candidate's performance, potential, background, or personal qualities compare to those of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? Please provide specific examples. (300 words)

Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant's response. (250 words)

A current business resume uploaded through our online application system.

This can be your standard business resume or CV. You do not need to have it in any special format. You can use whatever you would use to conduct a job search. Note: The HBS MBA program is designed for students who will have at least two years of full-time work experience before matriculation. While it is important for candidates to assess their own readiness to apply, the Admissions Board considers two years of work experience as the minimum needed to be a competitive candidate in the applicant pool.

*Applicants to our 2+2 Program have a reduced application fee of $100.

→ Application Deadlines

After your written application has been submitted and reviewed, you may be invited to interview.

The interview is a positive indicator of interest, but is not a guarantee of admission; it serves as one element among many that are considered as we complete a final review of your candidacy. All interviews are conducted by invitation only, at the discretion of the Admissions Board. If invited, however, you must participate in order to complete the application process.

Interviews may be scheduled on campus, in domestic or international hub cities, or via Zoom. Neither the timing of your interview invitation nor its format, whether in person or via Zoom, implies anything about the status of your application or affects your candidacy.

Interviews are 30 minutes and are conducted by an MBA Admissions Board member who has reviewed your application. Your interview will be tailored to you and is designed for us to learn more about you in the context of a conversation. Candidates will be required to submit a written reflection after their interview.

Post-Interview Reflection

Within 24 hours of the interview, candidates are required to submit a written reflection through our online application system. Detailed instructions will be provided to those applicants who are invited to the interview process.

MBA Application Tips Video Series

Every HBS MBA student has been where you are right now. In this video series, we hope to help you learn how to break down your application into small, actionable steps so that you can submit a successful application that is true to you and your journey.


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Applications for both Harvard Business School and the partnering Harvard graduate school must be submitted as explained on these overview pages:

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