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For 2014-2015 HBS applicants, the open-ended question provides the same set of challenges it did last year -- first among them, should I answer at all?

Ben Feuer

It's back.  That terrifying creature you thought was dead has emerged after a brief hibernation to once again terrorize your days and haunt your nights.

No no, the OTHER terrifying creature -- HBS's new old 2014-2015 optional essay!

This question raises all the same bugaboos it always did, first among them, should I answer it or give it a pass?  See, the thing about optional essays is, unlike required ones, they can actually hurt your candidacy if you do them wrong.  Look at it this way -- if you mess up a required essay, you still get more points than the guy who didn't write one at all.  But with optional essays, you don't have that out anymore.  No one is holding a pencil to your head and forcing you to write about the awesome (read: snoozefest) $20 million deal you helped close by sheer Excel wizardry.

So should you answer the HBS prompt?  That depends.

1.  Something new.  The question is exquisitely clear -- do NOT rehash anything that already exists in your application.  So if you want to answer HBS's prompt, you had better bring something new.

2.  Something you.   The question is clearly asking you to ILLUMINATE your candidacy -- shine a light on it in a way they would not otherwise have seen.  What's the amazing thing about you as a human being that you did not have a chance to talk about anywhere else?

3.  Something true.  This one ought to go without saying, but the sad fact is, I see people replacing their own life experience with platitudes every single day, just because it's too much effort to remember the specifics of what you thought, felt, said and did.  Well, buddy, if you want to get into Harvard, you're going to have to dig deeper than that.  I need to feel that exquisite resonance of authenticity.  Just gotta have it.

Can you fulfill these three criteria with your idea?  If so, go write an essay!  If not, go back to the drawing board.

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