Close to 10,000 applicants will be tackling the HBS essay this season, and I wanted to share the two major mistakes folks will make in approaching this prompt.
First, let’s get oriented with the question:
It’s the first day of class at HBS. You are in Aldrich Hall meeting your “section.” This is the group of 90 classmates who will become your close companions in the first-year MBA classroom. Our signature case method participant-based learning model ensures that you will get to know each other very well. The bonds you collectively create throughout this shared experience will be lasting.
Aldrich Hall certainly brings back intense memories. I loved the HBS case dynamic, and I learned to be a better public speaker and thinker. But that is memory lane for me, and not particularly useful for you so let’s get to the mistakes to avoid.
Mistake One: Don’t Brag Them to Death
You have been asked to introduce yourself. I have clients every year who are hyper aware of how incredible some HBS applicants are in terms of scores, awards, achievements and other accolades. Some will mistakenly try to jam in as many self-congratulatory brags into the essay, regardless of the question. To see how potentially off-putting this could be, let me try this type of self-admiration based on my own life:
I was born in New York City and was admitted into the city’s top high school, Horace Mann. I decided to turn down some Ivy League universities to attend a small liberal arts school, where I could also get playing time on the Varsity soccer team. It turned out to be a great decision as my college team won the Middle Atlantic Conference Championship, the first time in decades. I was also Co-President of the Student Body while being a 3.9 philosophy major…
Are you turned off? You should be. Who would introduce themselves this way? Not anybody who will likely get into HBS. Your resume and application form will provide opportunities to include flattering things like this in an empirical manner. But this “introduce yourself” essay is not a place to be repeatedly chest-thumping. I believe that HBS over the last several years has been trying to select more emotionally intelligent applicants. So don’t fall into this incredibly unattractive mode of writing.
Mistake Two: Don’t Introduce Yourself Via the Case Method
Now, there is a bear trap waiting for some applicants. HBS also suggests that you watch a video on the case method. It’s a very informative and inspiring video, and I jotted down around 10-12 major points or “take-aways” from the video. For example, the case method puts you in the “role of the protagonist” and you have to be “open to change your opinions” and you have to make decisions with “limited information and time pressures.” Now I know that many folks will start to introduce themselves by trying to explain how they are so well suited for the case method and share examples of how they have practiced or epitomized these take-aways. My advice is don’t do that. Would you really introduce yourself to your future classmates that way? On the other hand, you may find a tactful way to show (versus tell) how you indeed had to do one or two of these types of things in your professional or extracurricular life. And that is fine, and smart, but don’t center your essay around these points in a heavy handed manner. If you do this, I guarantee your essay will sound corny and stilted.
So try to introduce yourself highlighting the risks you have taken, the mentors you have had, how your childhood love of chess impacted your path, the enjoyments you have had on the sports fields, the influence your parents had on you, the hobbies you passionately dedicate time to….And do so with tact and emotional intelligence!
So go have some fun with this essay, and don’t feel the need to sound infallible and born for the case method!