Forster-Thomas founder Evan Forster provides his tips and suggestions on how to answer the HBS MBA essay questions.

The more things change, the more things stay the same. In the nearly twenty years I’ve been coaching people on how to approach their MBA essays, I’ve seen all the schools, from the top echelon to the bottom of the barrel, pretty much stay the same at their core. Sure, sometimes schools ask for your “long-term goals,” and sometimes they call them “career expectations.” Sometimes schools call a mistake a mistake, and sometimes they call it a setback. But essentially the approach is always the same: Be specific, tell the truth, dig down deep, and take risks. That said, here we go with Harvard Business School’s 2011-12 essay questions.

Tell us about three of your accomplishments (600 words).

Yeah, I know, it’s not exactly the same as last year, but its damn close. Here’s the deal: all they took out was “tell us why.” The likely reason? Because no one ever bothered to answer it—except for Forster-Thomas candidates. So we say tell them anyway.

What should you write about? Firsts and bests. “I launched the first ever…” “I was rated the best in my….” Whether it’s a first or a best, you better have overcome a hurdle. Some big-ass Goliath better have stood in your way. But remember, it’s all about context. What’s big for someone else might not have been a big deal for you. For example: completing the Ironman isn’t such a big deal nowadays. Unless, of course, you have one leg. After all, we are talking about Harvard.

And of course it’s the biggest deal when what you’ve accomplished lives on without you. Like that training manual for the telecom group, or that college-bound program for inner city kids you no longer run.

Here’s the structure, kids: you get 200 words for each of the three accomplishments. Each one goes like this: about 100-125 words for what you did, and at least 75 for why it’s so significant, as in what did it teach you, how did it change you, what’s the impact you made on yourself or that organization? In a perfect world, one accomplishment is personal, one is professional, and one is about an extracurricular act of service.

Tell us three setbacks you have faced. (600 words)

This year, HBS changed “failure” to “setback.” This is a big distinction. They are not the same. Like it says in Chapter 13 of The MBA Reality Check, a failure is something you screwed up, or that went wrong because of you. A failure is something you take responsibility for.

Whereas, while you might be responsible for a setback, you are not always responsible for a setback. It can be something you have no control over. For example, we had a client who had a brain aneurysm. That can be used as a setback. But there can be no more than one of these.

One of your setbacks should definitely be a failure or a screw up—something you can’t take back. In this type of setback, the failure causes the setback. For example, your low-income mentee missed his early decision or first round college application deadlines because you missed two sessions of the mentoring program due to last-minute work conflicts. What’s the failure? Work came first, even though you made a commitment to that kid. (Please note: I realize the mentee should take responsibility as well, but you’re writing about your part in the matter, not his.) A straight up setback with this topic would have been that the wireless system at your mentee’s high school went down hours before the deadline. How did you help meet the deadline or get the deadline pushed back?

The question for all of these is how you handled it moving forward. And the key to all of these is being really honest.

Structure? Don’t use more that 50% of your word count describing the actual situation. You want to save half of it for analyzing and synthesizing the situation and how it defined or matured you.

Why do you want an MBA? (400 words)

One word: KISS. Keep it simple, stupid. Harvard’s gone back and forth with this question. For many years they asked it, then they made it optional, and last year they got rid of it altogether. But, like Herpes, it moves around and eventually comes back. Here’s how it goes: like all great goals essays, you need to be really clear about what you want to do (see Chapter 8 of The MBA Reality Check) in the long term. Is it okay to have more than one long-term goal? Yes. While your goal doesn’t necessarily have to be groundbreaking, it needs to create change (that’s the HBS watchword) and make a difference. If you don’t believe us, read the HBS mission statement. What has shifted a little bit since our book was written is the economy and the relative importance of a short-term goal. Harvard, and every other school, wants to make sure you know how you’re going to make your dream happen. What’s the road map?

What is NOT important for Harvard is why you want to go to Harvard. While you might mention a specific HBS attribute (and not just the tired old Case Method), why you want to go to Harvard in particular doesn’t need to be explained. That’s right, the place has an attitude. But remember, the key to getting in is that yours better be bigger. In this essay, be up to something big, and invite Harvard to join you.

Answer a question you wish we’d asked (400 words).

This is a Forster-Thomas favorite. It requires the ultimate in creativity. Don’t just read Chapter 15 of The MBA Reality Check, imbibe it. To get this one going, use the right side of your brain. Questions to ask yourself would be the following: What’s something really surprising about you? For example, do you play hockey and tap dance? What’s the worst thing people would say about you? (No really, the worst thing.) What’s the best thing people would say about you? When people make fun of you, what story do they tell? Who do you really look up to and what do you have in common with that person? Most importantly, what negative attributes do you share with that person? This essay is an opportunity for you to show how in touch with yourself you are. It is not an opportunity to show how big your junk is. That should be self-evident. Rule of thumb: if you have to talk about it, it’s probably not all that.

On that note, is any topic sacred? Probably not. It’s all about the grace and maturity with which you handle it, with a small side of self-deprecation.  One last thing: never use this as a space to write about your bad grades!!!! This is not an optional essay. And, of course, only write an optional essay if absolutely necessary!

For more infomation, see our HBS 2011-2012 MBA Essay Guide