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 By Susan Clark.  Cartoon by Frits Ahlefeldt.

Picture this: it’s three AM, and you’re hanging out at the dorm of one of your HBS section mates finishing up a group project.  The five of you have been banging away at Excel spreadsheets since nine – nobody’s eaten.  You’re all completely exhausted – but you just realized there’s a key element that isn’t done yet.  How do you break the news to your friends?  How do you avoid the dreaded, “Aah, it’s good enough”? After all, these people know you, but they don’t really know you.  Why should they listen to what you have to say when you ask them to give the maximum effort -- that one last push?

The whole situation brings you back a few years to when you chose to leave your cushy job at JP Morgan to go to Haiti, where you didn’t know a single person, to create a social entrepreneurship venture to solve their ongoing water crisis.   There were so many late nights on that project, so many moments it would have been easier to give up – but you had a shared sense of mission that kept you pulling together. 

Without even thinking about it, you find yourself telling the story to your HBS classmates -- you explain to them that where you grew up, in a small town outside Rio de Janiero, clean water was hard to come be – you explain this ‘random’ class project is actually (for you) part of a larger mission, a dream to go out there and solve the problem of clean water once and for all via a social entrepeneurship startup you’re building.

You half expect them to laugh at you – but instead they pat you on the back and ask you what they can do to help.  Forget the class project – you’ve just made four friends that will last the rest of your life, because you introduced yourself to your HBS classmates in a way that matters.

Or look at it this way – it’s Friday night at your favorite hangout, be it Per Se or the local tap house, and somebody brings up a great topic of conversation.  You think to yourself -- oh my God, yes!  I remember when I did that … and you tell the story.

That’s exactly how you should write your HBS ‘Introduce Yourself’ essay.


HBS wants each member of its community to bring something unique and defining to the table; they’re looking for people who transcend simple brands on a resume, buck the odds and make a difference.  

There is no simple formula for this kind of expression; every essay needs to be as unique as the person writing it.  There are, however, certain key elements the essay should reveal.  You don’t need to have every one of these, but you should touch on at least most of these elements --

  • Your deep passion that has moved you forward, and excited your intellectual curiosity.
  • How that passion caused to grow beyond yourself and be a leader. 
  • How your efforts helped to refine your leadership style, or hone a new leadership skill.
  • How you made a real impact on people around you, big or small, whether it was saving a tree or selling your company’s product.  
  • A thoughtful expression of what makes you tick.
  • An indication of how you grew when you honored your commitments.
  • Something you want us to know about yourself, told through story, and applied to other areas in your life

This essay is NOT:

  • A chance to brag about how wonderful you are.
  • A chronological review of your accomplishments.
  • A rehash of material someone could glean from simply reading your resume.


A great HBS essay really shouldn’t be more than 600 words.  I know HBS is giving you more than enough rope to hang yourself with, but that doesn’t mean you need to spool out your own noose.  When it comes to introductions, less is more, and simplicity is the best policy.

Don’t make the essay a series of anecdotes.  Examples should grow naturally out of the broader points you want to make.

And it wouldn’t hurt to use a few words, no more than a hundred, about how HBS provides what you need to take the next step.


How to start?  How do you brainstorm an essay like this?  Start by making a list.  Five from each category.  Don’t self-censor, either, telling yourself, aah, that one’s not really good enough.  Just list them, and don’t question it.  Discuss:

  • How you discovered some value that was important to you
  • A time you were tested and came to realize your own strength. 
  • What you learned about yourself through failure. 
  • How you made a difference in someone else’s life.


The most important thing to know about the new Harvard essay is that it is not about what you have done, but about how you operate, what commitment drives you to succeed and how you demonstrate leadership. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

How to come up with great essay ideas

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For many people, brainstorming great essay topics is more intimidating than actually having to write them!  Here are some tips to get you past the writer's block.

By Ben Feuer

You're a creative person -- most of the time.  But when it comes to choosing a topic for your essay, you're drawing a blank.  You have no idea what to write about -- you don't even know how to DECIDE what to write about!  Don't worry -- you've come to the right place.

Step One: Know your prompt and your word count -- and then forget them.  Ah, Zen.  Let's begin with a contradiction, shall we?  The very first thing you should do when you're trying to answer an essay question is read the prompt, word for word, out loud, at least twice.  Mouth it to yourself if you are super shy but reading aloud is better.  Notice each and every word.  Now look at the word count.  Is it a character count?  Page count?  No limit?  Will you be putting it into a form or sending it as an attachment?  Consider the context of what you're about to write.  Think about it from a reader's perspective.

Now forget all of that.  It will help you later, but for the next step it will only get in your way.

Step Two: Go to the feeling.  Fear, joy, rage -- these are powerful emotions.  And because they're powerful, we tend to avoid them on a day to day basis.  We try to make our lives ordinary.  And that's just fine.  Except when we're setting out to write essays.  Because the number one rule of essay writing is MAKE IT INTERESTING, and it's very hard to get other people excited about a topic that you don't even care about yourself!  So think about times in your life when you were frightened or elated.  Think about the hardest things you ever had to do.

Step Three: Be questioned.  The one essential tool in coming up with ideas is your brain.  Problem is, most people's brains and memories don't work well in a vacuum.  You need to have a conversation with someone who can push you, someone who can ask odd and unexpected questions, rapid fire, to throw you out of your usual patterns of thought.  You have a lot of preconceptions built up inside, and a good interrogation can help break some of them down.

Step Four: Never say no.  As you come up with ideas, your first instinct is going to be to shut yourself and others down.  No, that won't work.  Because of this, or that, or the other thing.  Reject that instinct.  Leave everything on the table.  Explore the corners and contours of your initial thought rather than throw it away.  Try to find aspects of it you didn't consider at first.  And even if you still don't think it works, write it down anyway.

Step Five:  Think like a journalist.  So now you should have a couple pages of ideas.   What do you do with this scrawled list of half-recalled stories?  Who, what, where, why, how, when.  The details of the story you're about to write might be second nature to you, or you might not have thought about them for years.  Either way, you're going to be writing for an audience that does not know anything about you.  So do them a favor and give them something to sink their teeth into.  Before you try to make your essay perfect, just tell the simple facts of the story in 200 words or so, more if you need them.  The purpose of this exercise is to let yourself (and your reader) see clearly what actually happened.  Choose AT LEAST FIVE that you think have some chance at working.

Step six:  Get feedback.  Now that your ideas are fleshed out and legible, go back to your reader.  Ask him or her which of the ideas seems most promising.  Chase down any leads he or she suggests.  Maybe explore this person more, or this side of the story more.

Step seven: Repeat as needed.   People don't like this step much, but it's often necessary.  New parts of your life, new questions you haven't heard.  There is ALWAYS something you haven't considered.  Maybe whatever it is is about to be your next awesome essay topic.

I know this can look kind of overwhelming.  Whatever happens, don't get discouraged.  Take things one step at a time.  Trust me, the process works, we've been doing it for years.  With a little faith and a little honesty, you'll soon have a big menu of ideas to choose from.


Need help? Don't be shy! Schedule a consultation to find out how we can help you.