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The 2014/15 Application Cycle has started! HBS and Stanford release questions for the class of 2017.

May 19, 2014

Harvard and Stanford recently released their essay questions for the 2014-15 MBA application cycle. It’s never too early to start thinking about themes for this year’s applications, so here is our view on how to approach each set:


You're applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your resume, academic transcripts, extracurricular activities, awards, post-MBA career intentions, 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 was a difficult question for clients to process last year, because of all the possible directions an applicant can take it. As Harvard’s Admissions Office mentioned in their blog, there were few if any common characteristics that made for a “successful” essay.

That being said, our successful clients from last year kept the essay to fewer than 1000 words, and did a great adding context to the other components of their application (i.e. resume, activities). Many of them shared deeply personal stories that highlighted why they would be a great fit for Harvard.  Essays typically covered at least 3 of the following topics:

  • Future career plans and how they relate to past experiences
  • College experiences and lessons learned
  • Recent career accomplishments and insights that drive the decision to pursue an MBA
  • Discussion of recent extracurricular activities for which they had a particular passion
  • Context for the impact they are expecting their experience at HBS to have on their career

Most importantly, successful candidates treated the essay as an opportunity for a conversation, rather than a formulaic, check-the-box academic approach. Consider what you would say to the admissions team if you 30-60 seconds to convince them that you have the excellence that they seek.  Write those words down. That will be a great starting point for this essay.


Essay 1: What matters most to you and why? (750 words)

Essay 2: Why Stanford? (350 words)

Essay 1 has been used for several years.  Each year, it is the highlight (and most challenging part of) many applicant’s process.  The essay requires thoughtful self-reflection and serves a dual purpose of introducing your “story” while also answering a very specific question. The key here is that no answer is better than another; how you tell your story is more important than what story you tell.

In our experience, some successful applicants have chosen fairly common topics (e.g., family, faith, heritage, perseverance, etc.), while others choose topics that are best described as unconventional. What should be unique is the story that you share: it should be intensely personal, allowing the reader to learn your past and how that will drive your future. These stories should reflect characteristics that will make you a better Stanford student and alum. And near the end, you should start laying the groundwork for the next essay… why Stanford?

Essay 2 is where you dig into more specifics about Stanford and explicitly introduce your goals (aim for 1-2 sentences to introduce your goals, which should link to themes introduced in Essay 1). Again, select a few features that are unique to Stanford (alumni, student clubs, faculty, research centers, anything about the program that genuinely appeals to you) and really dig into how those features will help you achieve the goals you have just detailed.

So get started thinking about topics and really explore the image you want to portray to these two schools and others. If you need help identifying themes and approaches, click here to set up an appointment with us!