I consider the essays to be the most significant part of the application because they are the only component that one really has full control over. You can't change your work experience or GPA, and once you are done with the GMAT, the essays are the only thing that you can really continue to influence. It's important that the essays are developed as part of your overall strategy, and I recommend writing all the essays for HBS together (instead of going from one school application to the next and back) in order to paint a coherent picture.
One of the most important pieces of advice I tried to follow was using the essays to mitigate my perceived weaknesses, vice playing up my presumed strengths. What do I mean by this? Based on your general profile (consultant, engineer, military, etc), a reader probably has a pre-conceived notion about your strengths and weaknesses. For example...
You may or may not agree with these stereotypes, but that is not what's important here. The important thing is to realize that essay readers are human beings like the rest of us, and what they don't need to is to be convinced that a consultant has strong organizational skills, that a military applicant has strong leadership skills, or that an i-banker has strong business skills. Your resume should speak to those issues. What they do need to know is that the engineer has people skills, that the non-traditionalist has aptitude to succeed in a quantitative environment, and that a consultant has strong leadership potential. These are all just examples and indeed stereotypes. Perhaps nobody can be thrown into such a specific bucket, but this is an important concept to understand when framing your overall application strategy. Use stories that counter concerns about your weaknesses, not only those that reinforce your presumed strengths.
With that in mind, here are some thoughts on some common essay subjects:
Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don't know your world can understand. Joint program applicants for the Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Dental Medicine, Harvard Law School, and Harvard Kennedy School must provide an additional essay:
This is the HBS cornerstone essay; it's always there and the three accomplishment question is fairly well associated with HBS. Many applicants use a formula of (1) professional accomlishment, (1) personal accomplishment, and (1) academic accomplishments. However, there is no reason why you cannot choose to focus on your own area of emphasis. Keep in mind that the more important part of the question is the second part, the WHY, not the WHAT. Many peopple have great accomplishments, but just the fact you closed a deal worth XYZ dollars or won a gold medal in the olympics is not what they want to hear (again, that's what the resume is for). They want to know what makes you tick, and what's important to you. This essay should not only be used to impress someone with your accomplishments, but to convey your self-awareness, thought process, and maturity. Therefore the emphasis here should be on why the accomlpishment is important to you, and ideally, what lessons you learned from it about yourself and the world around you. This is quite a challenge with an average of 200 words per accomplishment! Remember that this essay should set the tone for your entire application. It should clearly express what kind of person you are, what you've done, and what's important to you.
Make sure it's really a mistake.... something you actually messed up on. No false negatives here. The mistake itself should be short and to the point. Don't dwell on it. You don't have much room in this essay. The focus of the essay should be on what you learned from the mistake, and ideally how you applied that lesson in the future. Furthermore, this essay should add another dimension to your personality. What insight can the reader take away about who you are? For example, a great essay in my opinion might show that you have reached a level of emotional maturity after learning from a mistake, or how you have come to formulate your view of the world, of challenges, or of family, etc. Think big picture.
They turn that admission decision in your favor. Identify such experiences, use them to answer the direct questions on leadership, or to substantiate points you make in other essays. The most effective leadership story is one where you identify problems in an existing way of doing things, conceive a better way, persuade others to accept you way, overcome obstacles on the path of execution, and deliver a great result. TEAMWORK Just because you work in teams or lead teams doesn’t mean you are a good team player.
This is a good essay for everybody. The important thing is that it's not the decision that was made which is important, but the thought process you used to get there. It's important you show your approach to decision making, and to incorporate your understanding of not only immediate consequences, but also 2nd and 3rd order effects. It should reveal what you value the most. Many people might use this essay to present how they dealt with an ethical dilemma. However, a word of caution here. I would argue that "do I lie to help my company or do I deny my boss' request" is not an ethical dilemma. It's not an ethical dilemma because you know the ethical answer... don't lie! So where's the dilemma? The real decision there is personal gain versus ethical action, so don't expect anyone to be impressed with an essay about how you chose ethical responsibility. A real ethical dilemma involves compromising one of your values for the benefit of another. For example, the seven Army values are Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage. If you have ever had to make a difficult decision in which you had to put one value over another, and learned about yourself and what you value the most in the process, then that might be an excellent essay topic.
This is the classic business school essay, and I won't speculate into why Harvard does not mandate it. I would say certain applicants should be heavily encouraged to exercise this option. For example, older applicants and non-traditionalists. If you're older - closer to 30 - then your career path should be more well developed than a 23 year old. It's probably more acceptable to still be figuring out your career goals in your early 20s, but I imagine HBS is less tolerant if you are doing so and graduating in your early 30s. So this essay is a good opportunity to alleviate such concern. Similarly for non-traditionalits... for example, let's say you're a successful photographer or an athlete. Why would you be leaving a successful career to come to HBS? What do you want out of it? These are questions that I imagine would naturally pop in a reader's mind when looking at a non-traditional applicant, so answer those questions here. Conversely, if you are an investment banker or a consultant and have followed a more traditional path, it may not be as important to spell out your career vision. For the latter, it may be more important to convey your involvement with community, University, or your decision making. Of course, if you do have a career trajectory in mind which you think will give you an advantage over your fellow applicants, definitely consider answering this essay question.