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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.

BRING IT

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.

BARE BONES

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.

BEST BEGINNINGS?

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.

FOR GREAT JUSTICE

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.