Evan Forster, founder of Forster-Thomas, provides his tips and advice on how to answer the HBS essay question for the class of 2016.

Now that we’ve all gotten over the shock that HBS only has one essay (which, for the record, is all you need), let’s look at how to actually answer that question. Here it is:

You’re applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your resume, school transcripts, extra-curricular 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? (no word limit)

First, notice there is no word limit. But don’t take this as an invitation to test the limits of HBS admissions board’s patience. Exercise self-control. Don’t babble or give an expanded laundry list of every achievement you’ve ever been a part of. Our rule of thumb for this essay is 300-600 words. If it takes more words than that to make a case for why HBS should take you, then you’re probably not HBS material.

As for what to write? Something new!! Something not in your other application materials, just as the prompt says. Your essay also needs to demonstrate that you have those essential HBS values and attributes: “A habit of leadership, analytical aptitude and appetite, and engaged community citizenship.” (FYI, we didn’t make those up ourselves. They came from a recent HBS info session, during which HBS admissions board member Kelly Ward stated that those would be excellent attributes to discuss in the essay).

There are two ways you could communicate these qualities. The first would be to give three stories, each of which demonstrates one of the attributes. But the more sophisticated method—the one Forster-Thomas prefers—is coming up with ONE story that demonstrates ALL THREE qualities. Think you don’t have such a story? You do. You just have to find it. Chances are it’s a story you don’t think of often, because it’s not “impressive” enough. But it is impressive—it’s that defining moment that made you realize that you could learn to be a leader in a community. It might be a bit old, or even be embarrassing, but it shows how you think and how you became the person you are today, with the attributes to do the great things you have done.

If you’re struggling to find your story, here are some hints:

  • What’s that story your family loves to tell about you—the one that embarrasses the Hell out of you when they recount it each year during Thanksgiving dinner? What does that story say about you and how you operate…or how you’ve changed? 
  • “What if” questions—or the kind of kooky questions other MBA programs ask—are great areas to mine for stories that express you as a leader: What would you do if you had the afternoon off from work? What are you most passionate about? What is your favorite song and what does it say about you? Such questions might seem like odd places to look, but they can unearth powerful stories. 
  • Embrace those defining moments in your life—the powerful moments where “a way of being” was altered, a moral changed, or an emotional muscle grew. Focusing solely on what you do now fails to show HOW you’ve developed as a person. You need to dig deeper by going back and figuring out what experiences led you to be who you are today. Those are the stories that demonstrate your ability to adapt, learn, and evolve. 
  • Let your family help you. They know your secrets and they’re not afraid to remind you of them. They also know what your greatest qualities are. Ask ‘em. They’ll share. And then ask when they’ve seen it in action. Mother does know best… 
Warning! Warning! Whichever story you come up with, don’t oversell it. Don’t tell us you’re the “only person who has ever done something like this.” Remember, it’s HBS you’re applying to—your competition is filled with “Firsts” and “Bests.” Let your accomplishments speak for themselves.

--Evan Forster

For more information, check out our HBS Essay Guide for the Class of 2016.