Read an Excerpt
65 Successful Harvard Business School Application Essays
With Analysis by the Staff of The Harbus, the Harvard Business School Newspaper
By Lauren Sullivan, Staff of the Harbus
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 The Harbus News Corporation
All rights reserved.
Discuss a defining experience in your leadership development. How did this experience highlight your strengths and weaknesses as a leader?
This question may appear quite daunting. By default many applicants first think about their most significant accomplishments. If you have led troops in battle or started a nonprofit, you may think you have this essay in the bag. That is the first trap of this subtle question. A "defining experience" is not necessarily one that results in achievement relative to peers. In fact, some of the strongest essays focus on monumental failures. Sometimes focusing on a failure actually allows you to answer the question more easily. Many people fail to reflect on their weaknesses and to delve deeply enough into the lessons they have learned. I assure you, you do not have to be Superman to get into business school. Reveal a little of your Clark Kent side. In doing so, you will not only address each component of the essay topic but you will also, and more importantly, become a more interesting applicant.
There is no particular calculus behind what type of anecdote to pick. Just dig deep. Be introspective. Find an anecdote that describes what makes you unique as a person and a leader. Find that story that talks about how you developed into who you are today. Then tell that story with passion. Explain both your actions and thought processes. Leave the reader with a deep understanding of your motivations, character, and goals.
If you choose to focus on an accomplishment, this essay can be a great opportunity for you to add color to something that does not jump off your resume. Though while adding color, make sure you leaven it with humility. Arrogance is one trait that the admissions staff will not appreciate.
— Zachary Surak
A great leader aspires to do more than simply accomplish her objective. Until I offered to lead a team of skeptical engineers and accountants to develop a marketing department, and to actively participate in business development, I did not recognize how valuable the "more" could be.
I began the project at a disadvantage; the owners had already spent three months and $20,000 with an advertising agency, but developed no usable material. I wanted to inspire my team's confidence as I led them into the unknown world of marketing, so I took several strong, decisive actions. I fired the agency and hired a more contemporary group whose personality was a closer match to what my firm wanted to broadcast. I established a marketing committee and presented them with a vivid vision of our goals and my plan to achieve them. While confidence-inspiring, these decisive actions had an undesired consequence: I discouraged my team from providing their input. My actions indicated that I had already made all of the decisions, and that the team's suggestions would carry no weight.
I had to change my leadership approach to focus on facilitating collaboration rather than dictating a course of action. Because our consultants present information in a systematic and analytical fashion when communicating with our clients, I took this familiar approach in my communications with my team. Instead of presenting my strategy and looking for feedback, I coached the team through the process, and we developed strategies together.
As a result, the consulting team took ownership of the project and got more involved. We worked with the new agency to create an identity that highlighted our unique personality. Marketing committee meetings were well-attended, and members were active participants; they planned business development initiatives under the theme, "Growing the business is everybody's business." Most importantly, many of the consulting team members personally thanked me for making participation in business development so easy.
Through this experience, I matured as a leader and learned that leading is as much about accomplishing your objective as it is about holding your team together. I learned the value of guiding my team to define a shared vision in which we could all be stakeholders rather than simply presenting a strategy. I was most effective by leading strongly enough to inspire confidence but not so strongly that I prevented involvement.
Stacie's experience may look very similar to your experience. Do not fret. Her essay is traditional in both its anecdote and style. Many applicants will discuss lessons learned when effecting change from a consultative role. More still will start their essay with a thesis statement, followed by an example, and end with more detailed reflection on the example. That being said, Stacie still manages to stand out in several ways.
When competing with thousands of essays on the same topic, grabbing the reader's attention with a compelling opening paragraph can be a key differentiator. Beginning with a personal statement on leadership and a brief description of the management challenge Stacie faced stimulates the reader's curiosity about the context and resolution.
Throughout the rest of the essay, Stacie reinforces the outcomes of her actions with strong logic. Despite her initial failure, she establishes herself as an effective leader who takes time to analyze the situation, reflects on her actions and mistakes, devises a tactical plan, and leads her team to achieve their desired outcome. Stacie exhibits strong self-awareness and a willingness to recognize her mistakes and leaves no doubt as to her ability to build consensus and lead change.
What makes this essay come together is Stacie's nuanced, mature takeaway in the final paragraph: effective leadership is not as black and white as choosing whether to articulate a vision or coach others. There is a healthy balance that effective leaders must continually manage. In her conclusions about what traits contribute to management success, Stacie demonstrates her potential for leadership in business. Future applicants should strive to do the same.
R. J. O'Leary, a retired Marine and three-war veteran who mentored my father, presented the offer: "Son, how 'bout I find you a real job next summer." Fifteen years old, I had just completed two mind-numbing months of employment at a burger shack. I didn't wait for an explanation; I accepted.
The Padlock Ranch stretches from the snow-capped Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming to the short-grass prairie of southern Montana. I arrived and joined the Forks crew: twelve men, fifty-six horses, and three thousand cattle. On my first day, the foreman, Tony, sat at the head of the dinner table. I walked in and he announced, "Here's our cowboy from Rhode Island." The room fell deathly silent.
It was branding season. I took the bruising job of wrestling calves. After branding season, I joined the fencing crew, five men led by the oldest hand, Morris. We worked ten-hour days planting railroad ties and anchoring fence braces. I admired Morris's expertise and calm demeanor. But Morris never did any physical work, and he constantly aired his disdain for fencing.
After two weeks, Morris abruptly quit. Tony approached me. He said that I had earned his trust and wanted me to lead the crew. I replied that I would be honored but first wanted to consult Lon, now the oldest crew member (twice my age). Lon, a quiet man, was not interested in taking on more responsibility. I told Lon I respected him and asked for his support. "You've got it," he replied.
Our team struggled at first. I remained focused and took on the unglamorous jobs, such as pounding the rocky soil to set fence posts into the ground. I spoke for the team and represented all members favorably to Tony, even when some performed poorly. This promoted loyalty within our group. I went to Lon for advice. Not only did he offer useful feedback, but he became more invested in the team. After two weeks, our performance improved. Soon, each member of the team pushed the others to work harder. This was my first true glimpse at leadership. It inspired me. Just like at the Forks, I now lead small teams of men who are older, more experienced, and generally more technically proficient than I am. The Forks taught me to take chances, lead from the front, promote a team mentality and loyalty, and work with the strongest members to improve the weakest.
Despite using atypical elements like quotes, this essay comes across as incredibly thoughtful and well-organized with enough originality to make the applicant memorable. The essay exudes maturity. The author discusses a challenge that many young professionals face — trying to lead a group with members who possess more experience than the leader. Rather than use his own voice to describe the situation at the Padlock Ranch, the author brings in voices from three different characters in the story. His unique form of narrative effectively uses these voices to drive home key points and takeaways that might come across less powerfully if he paraphrased them. His use of quotes also saves him space in a word-constrained essay, allowing him to redeploy his words to describe the situation more deeply and emphasize his conclusion. Even though the conclusion is relatively brief in its explicit discussion of takeaways, the author coyly embeds his lessons learned throughout in places like Morris's leadership strengths and interactions with Lon.
The author also comes across as a very humble and insightful leader. He provides evidence that he is willing to take direction from the people he is leading and "represent all team members favorably" to the boss. These traits will translate well to a business school environment where as much learning occurs on a peer-to-peer basis outside the classroom as from professors in the classroom.
Most importantly, the author directly connects this decade-old ranching experience to his current job where he leads "older, more experienced, and generally more technically proficient" employees. In doing so, he clearly demonstrates how this experience has had a meaningful impact on how he chooses to lead. Be sure to remember that what you've learned from the experience is much more important than the experience itself.
In my senior year of college, I was selected from a pool of more than fifty applicants to serve as one of ten student directors for the Big Siblings Program. Shortly into my tenure, school guidance counselors reported that a number of volunteers had failed to establish contact with their little siblings. Refusing to accept this unfortunate but recurring problem, I resolved to change it. My initial reaction was to launch a supplemental recruiting effort to replace the inactive volunteers. The other directors, however, believed that a concerted attempt to engage dormant volunteers would be more effective. To that end, we contacted our inactive volunteers to understand their circumstances and discovered that many lacked ideas to engage their little siblings or felt uncomfortable interacting outside the university community.
In response to these concerns, I developed a plan to organize and advertise various on-campus group social activities. I excitedly outlined the project's various benefits and offered to coordinate the group's efforts, thereby overcoming the directors' initial skepticism regarding the time commitment required. I organized the directors into pairs to brainstorm and implement one unique group activity, creating personal ownership in the project and an open forum for exchanging ideas. Recognizing that a compelling example could drive the plan forward, I took the initiative to plan the first event. Despite my personal embarrassment of donning a full Santa suit, the inaugural Holiday Party was successful, attracting more than fifty volunteers. Furthermore, three events implemented by the directors later that year resulted in 75 percent of the inactive volunteers ultimately contacting their little siblings. I was extremely proud that our efforts had enhanced the program's impact, and I felt for the first time that I had meaningfully connected with my community.
This experience helped me realize that my drive to implement solutions quickly can cause me to overlook certain details when analyzing problems. Had I replaced inactive volunteers based on my original assumption that they were lazy and unconcerned, I would have missed the opportunity to devise the plan that jump-started their involvement. This experience also highlighted leadership strengths that balance this weakness. Most important, I am a good listener. Openness to others' input allows me a broader perspective for analyzing problems and leads to more thorough solutions. Furthermore, I pour my heart into everything I do. My enthusiasm enables me to work well in teams, motivate others, and create a fun and supportive team environment.
This essay is evidence that the right choice of anecdote will set you up for success. The author chooses a situation with a clearly defined problem, and then points to measurable impact as a direct result of his actions. The reader is left having to connect very few dots, ensuring that the author's intended message gets conveyed. The more unconnected dots in your essay, the more room there is for the reader to arrive at the wrong or at least a less powerful conclusion.
This essay's greatest strength, however, lies in the author's subtle framing of his strengths and his weaknesses. He clearly answers that part of the question by pointing to a bias for action as something that would have made him arrive at a less "thorough" solution. But does this weakness sound like a deep-seated character flaw? No. In fact, many readers can probably point to circumstances where this trait could be perceived as a strength. Consider this outcome a strategic victory for the author. He leaves the audience believing his weakness will actually help him lead on occasion. Framing the weakness in this way helps mitigate this essay's greatest cause of angst: leaving oneself defenseless against criticism. It is human nature to cringe at the thought of having to discuss our mistakes and flaws (which may be why some people fail to even answer that part of the prompt), but don't run away from the challenge. Tackle it head-on, but like this author, be selective in your choice of topic. Do not use the essay to confess your greatest professional sins (that might preclude you from getting into business school), but rather use it as an opportunity to show how you have grown.
David La Fiura
I dreaded Mondays during the winter of 2004–2005. I dealt with problems: we ran into the wrong silo, ruining 150,000 pounds of material (a $75,000 mistake), Line 4's motor blew, and the 1600 jammed. We just moved to the seven-day schedule, which meant running sixty hours without management on-site. I hated Mondays.
As the new production manager at Ultra-Poly's main plant, I managed the company's largest department through the biggest expansion of its thirty-year history. That fall we doubled capacity by transitioning to a twenty-four-hour, seven-day schedule and installing a fifth production line. The department's workforce grew from thirty to sixty-five-plus in two months.
My first challenge was devising a strategy to facilitate the schedule change. Initially employees, unhappy with prospects of working twelve-hour shifts, threatened to quit. I realized employees' anger stemmed from their perceived powerlessness. My proposal, designed to win support for change through communication and employee involvement, included interviewing every employee. In meetings, I explained the company's need for change and presented scheduling options. Importantly, employees determined the adopted schedule via companywide vote. Thus, they controlled part of the process that fostered support. I built consensus and, amazingly, no employees left after the change.
Despite higher capacity, output dropped after we started running seven days. Restructuring meant experienced employees were spread thin. Mistakes caused downtime and quality problems. As pressure mounted, increasing production became critical. We needed to train the thirty-plus new employees fast. I initiated and oversaw development of an extruder-operator training course, complete with custom videos, tests, and certification criteria. The program delivered results: since early 2005, fifteen operators have been certified and daily production has increased by 25 percent.
Excerpted from 65 Successful Harvard Business School Application Essays by Lauren Sullivan, Staff of the Harbus. Copyright © 2009 The Harbus News Corporation. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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