There is one essay question for the Class of 2018:
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.
Note: Should you enroll at HBS, there will be an opportunity for you to share this with them.
We suggest you view this video before beginning to write.
Yes, it’s “new”…but most of you are embarking on this business school application journey for the first time too!
Why do we like it?
• It’s just about as straightforward and practical as we can make it. It gives you a chance to tell your story however you choose. Imagine simply saying it out loud. This is what we mean when we’ve been encouraging you to use your own “voice” when approaching this part of the application. We have no pre-conceived ideas of what “good” looks like. We look forward to lots of variance.
• It’s useful. You will actually be introducing yourself to classmates at HBS.
Why did we drop the “optional” option?
• We were trying to signal that the essay wasn’t The Most Important Element of the application so we thought saying “optional” might accomplish that. But, this season, every applicant submitted a response. We get it. You want to tell us things.
Tell us again what the essay is for?
• For you: an opportunity to pause and reflect. Business school is a big experience – it’s exciting, it’s an unknown,it’s a beginning, it’s an investment in your future. Stopping to reflect and gather your thoughts in writing is a useful exercise. That’s not just our opinion – it’s what we hear from students all the time.
• For us: a chance to get to know you beyond the elements of the application that feel fixed and stationary. Can also be a starting point for interview conversations.”
In addition to watching the case video, please refer to my prior post for a full analysis of HBS, the case method, and what admissions looks for. I will update my whole analysis when the online application is updated. Here I am going to just focus on the new question.
HBS is far from the first school to ask applicants to introduce themselves to classmates. In this case, the length seems unlimited (See below, I don’t recommend a very long essay) and the classmates in question are the other 89 students in your section.
You need to think about what you would actually say to your future classmates. Since you will need to introduce yourself, think of one core requirement of this essay being how to make an effective introduction to people you are going to be working with for an entire year. First impressions matter a lot. You need to put significant time into thinking about the impression you will make.
Assume that the length is not unlimited even though it appears to be up to you. How long of an introduction would you make? My suggestion is that whatever length of a text you write, read it out loud and ask yourself, how long you would actually speak. HBS suggests that you “Imagine simply saying it out loud.” Suggestion: one to three minutes is good, five minutes is probably a max out.
Treat this like a transcription of what you would say. In other words, this is spoken rather than written text. I know that when I start reviewing my client’s HBS essays for 2016 entry, I will be reading them out loud and testing the way they sound. I will be advising my clients to do that.
Make it easy to understand. You are introducing yourself to strangers who you want to become your friends and colleagues. They will have very diverse backgrounds. Your job is to make this essay easy to understand. Think big picture, clear stories, and no extreme complications.
Make it believable. This should go without saying, but some applicants have a tendency to overstate their accomplishments. This is not the place for it. Be honest and show your authentic self.
Make it interesting. Your objective is to get your classmates to like you and become interested in you. You need to help HBS see why you deserve a shot to be in one of the 90 student sections. You need to show your selling points and make it clear what differentiates you. Simultaneously, you can’t focus just on accomplishments, instead you want to reveal something positive and personal that will be perceived as attractive and memorable.
While I don’t necessarily suggest writing what you can contribute to your section in this essay, I do think that should be implied. In other words, someone reading this essay should have a clear sense of how you will be a positive addition to the section through the diversity of your experience, values, and or skills.
Also, keep in mind that the essay is not the whole application. Your resume, application form, and recommendations all have an important role in the application process. Don’t unnecessarily duplicate information found elsewhere in your application. This is the place to come to life as an applicant, so that you are perceived as someone who can add value to your section and to HBS as a whole.
HBS Class of 2019 MBA Admissions Application
May, 18, 2016
In this post, I will be analyzing the essay question and key components of the HBS Application for the Class of 2019. At this time, the online application is not live yet but the essay was released on the HBS Director’s Blog on May 11, 2016. In addition to discussing overall HBS application strategy and the required essay, I will discuss key parts of the application form, resume, and transcript (SUBJECT TO REVISION AFTER THE ONLINE APPLICATION GOES LIVE IN EARLY JUNE). I also provide some advice at the end of this post for HBS reapplicants. For my posts on recommendation, please see my Key Posts on recommendations. For my post on HBS interviews, please see here.
My comprehensive service clients have been admitted to HBS for the Classes of 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, and 2005. My clients’ results and testimonials can be found here. In addition to providing comprehensive application consulting on HBS, I regularly help additional candidates with HBS interview preparation. Since I started my own counseling service in 2007, I have worked with 34 successful applicants from Canada, Europe, India, the Middle East, Japan, South Korea, other parts of Asia, and the United States on HBS application. I think that this range of experience has helped me understand the many possible ways of making an effective application to HBS. l I can tell you is that HBS takes a truly diverse range of people. Some had high GPAs and great GMAT scores, others had GPAs and scores well below the 80% range for HBS, but what they all had in common were strong personal professional backgrounds that came out in their essays.
“As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA Program?”
“No word limit and no right answers.”
Based on the above, you should be asking yourself: Given the question, what do HBS admissions need to know in order to offer me an interview and then admit me? My answer would be to take a deep dive into HBS’ criteria for admission and consider how they can apply to you. You will need to take two deep dives. One into HBS and another into yourself. HBS introduced this more open style of question for the Class of 2016. I had 6 clients admitted to that Class, 10 to the Class of 2017, and 7 to the Class of 2018, so the advice here is based on helping a very diverse range of clients gain admission to HBS.
Regarding length, most of my clients admitted to HBS have written between 800 and 1500 words with 1000-1200 being most common. I have done interview practice with someone who was admitted with an essay of almost 2000 words (I thought that essay could have used a trim, but hey the applicant was admitted, so who cares what I think?). The key point about length is that it should be as long as you need it to be in order to convey what you think HBS needs to know to invite you for an interview and ultimately admit you.
If you are trying to understand the diverse range of essays that gets someone admitted to HBS, I do recommend The Unofficial Harvard Business School Essay Book. In fact, one of my clients admitted to the Class of 2016 contributed his or her essay to it, which made me really happy. I can’t tell you which one. I do highly recommend reading this book because it will give you a really good idea about the range of possible answers and dispel any myths about needing to submit something that is professionally written. I would also recommend the old book that contained HBS admits essays. That collection is still a good read for understanding how to put together an MBA essay though the specific questions are no longer being asked by HBS. Combined, both books are really great guides for someone looking to see sample successful MBA essays. Beyond those essay books, a piece of absolutely required reading for HBS admissions is Poets & Quants’ John Byrne’s interview with Dee Leopold, Managing Director of MBA Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard Business School. If you are looking for one article to give you overall insight into how HBS makes admissions decisions, John Byrne has done an exceptional job of asking Dee Leopold the right questions.
Four Ways HBS Evaluates Applicants
My objective when working with each of my clients is to help them identify the best content in their essays, resume, interview and other application components to show fit for each school they apply to. My approach is to understand the audience that is being communicated to because the only objective of your application is to communicate effectively to your audience, the admissions committee. We can summarize what HBS is looking for in terms of three stated values-Habit of Leadership, Analytical Aptitude and Appetite, and Engaged Community Citizenship– plus Diversity. These four core ways, which I discuss in detail below, that HBS evaluates applicants need to be communicated in your application and one or more of them should be used in your essay. The following summarizes what HBS is looking for in terms of three stated values (Habit of Leadership, Analytical Aptitude and Appetite, and Engaged Community Citizenship) plus Diversity and the possible places where you can demonstrate these in your initial application (Interview and post-interview not considered below):
These four core ways that HBS evaluates applicants need to be communicated in your application and one or more of them should be used in your essay.
In addition to those four elements, other possible common topics for inclusion here would be:
-Your wider post-MBA career vision that you could not explain in the 500 character answer on the Employment page. Some applicants will not touch on this topic at all in their essays.
-Why you want an MBA in general? Again, some will address this, others will not. Since there is no place in the application to indicate this otherwise, it would reasonable to explain your rationale for doing an MBA, whether you state this in general and/or terms of HBS in particular is your choice, but my bias is certainly for being HBS specific.
-Why HBS? I don’t think one has to necessarily write in detail about why you want to go to HBS, but providing your overall rationale for why you want to go HBS now is certainly reasonable. If your career vision is something you are writing about and there are particular aspects of HBS that really relate to it, feel free to mention them.
For a discussion of career vision, why an MBA? or how to explain why you want to attend a particular program, see my analysis of Stanford Essay B.
Now I will discuss those four ways in detail in order to elaborate how you might utilize them in your essay:
Habit of Leadership
The mission of HBS is to educate leaders. All my clients admitted to HBS had a diversity of educational, extracurricular, and professional backgrounds, but were united by one thing: In one or more aspects of their lives, they demonstrated this habit of leadership. HBS takes a very broad view of what they are looking for:
Leadership may be expressed in many forms, from college extracurricular activities to academic or business achievements, from personal accomplishments to community commitments. We appreciate leadership on any scale, from organizing a classroom to directing a combat squad, from running an independent business to spearheading initiatives at work. In essence, we are looking for evidence of your potential.
HBS does not explicitly ask you to show your potential for leadership in your essay, but it may very well be something you decide to write about, ask one or both of your recommenders to write about, and certainly show in your resume and application form. Leadership is no easy thing. Nor is it always obvious. If you leadership is fully obvious from your resume and then perhaps your essay need not discuss it, but the worst possible thing is to conceive of leadership as simple formal responsibility or a title because this conveys nothing about the person in that position. While some applicants will have held formal leadership positions, many will not. Formal leadership positions are great to write about if they involve the applicant actually having a significant impact, making a difficult decision, being a visionary, showing creativity, or otherwise going beyond their formal responsibility, but the same is true for those showing leadership without having a formal title. If you are having difficulty really understanding leadership, one great place to read about leadership, and business in general, is Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.
Some clients I have worked with have never really considered themselves as leaders. I think it is critical that if you are applying to HBS that you have an idea about what kind of leader you are. While there are number of ways to describe leadership, I particularly like this formulation of leadership types that INSEAD Professor Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries has used in one of his Harvard Business Review blog posts (Disclosure I am a student in an INSEAD program that he co-directs):
I have previously suggested that applicants who are having difficulty really understanding leadership find out what kind of leader they are by taking this quiz based on Lewin’s classic framework. While leadership is more complicated than Lewin’s framework, the quiz is a great way to get you started thinking about yourself, a key part of answering any leadership essay question effectively. However, I think the 8 archetypes above provide a much better guide for those who both have extensive leadership experience and those who think they lack it. Think of these 8 archetypes as aspirational images of certain kinds of leader. You may fit into more than one category. You may find you don’t feel like you are really good at any of the above in comparison to the descriptions above, but that is OK because you are trying to identify your potential even if it seems based on relatively little “objective evidence.” If leadership is not obvious from your resume or likely to be a topic your recommenders will focus on, you should certainly consider how you show your leadership potential. I have never worked with anyone who could not demonstrate potential in at least one of the categories above.
Some types of leadership experiences that make for effective content in essays, recommendations, and interviews:
-A time you convinced someone or some group.
-A time you led others.
-A time you demonstrated courage.
-A time you made a difficult decision.
-A time you were innovative.
-A time you formulated and executed a strategy or tactics.
-A time you turned around a situation, overcame an obstacle.
-A time reformed something.
-A time you changed something.
-A time you effectively negotiated with someone.
-A time created something.
-A time you managed or organized something.
-A time you mentored or coached someone.
-A time you represented an organization in public.
-A time you managed up, down, or across an organization.
Some of these are simply derived from the archetypes above, but all reflect what I have seen in my clients’ essays over the years.
Engaged Community Citizenship
While “Engaged Community Citizenship” might take the form of leadership, it is quite distinct:
So much of our MBA experience – including the case method, section life, and student-organized events – requires the active collaboration of the entire HBS community. That’s why we look for students who exhibit the highest ethical standards and respect for others, and can make positive contributions to the MBA Program. The right candidates must be eager to share their experiences, support their colleagues, and teach as well as learn from their peers.
HBS and other MBA programs are looking for students who will make a contribution. This really makes sense because of the collaborative nature of MBA education. While professors play an important role in the classroom, students learn from each other on a continuous basis both inside and outside of class. An MBA education is very much one based on relationship building. One of the chief functions of an MBA admissions committee is to select people who will be good classmates. The director and the rest of the committee have done their job properly if they have selected students who can work well together, learn from each other, and if these students become alumni who value the relationships they initially formed at business school. Given that two of the major takeaways from an HBS education are the relationships that a student forms during the program and access to the alumni network, HBS is looking for candidates who will fully engage with others. It is important to show engagement with others in your HBS essay, in your interview, in your post-interview essay, in your application, and/or in your resume. You should also make it a point to get your recommenders to discuss how you add value to the team, to whatever “community” (A workplace is a community) they worked with you in.
Engagement in a community may take many different forms. Over the years, I have found the following types of activities to be very effective for MBA applications:
-Volunteer or social activities at work, whether it is actually organizing them or participating in them.
-Volunteer or social activities at school, whether it is actually organizing them or participating in them.
-Volunteer or social activities outside of work or school, whether it is actually organizing them or participating in them.
-A volunteer activity related to your post-MBA goals
-A volunteer activity that allowed for the development of leadership and/or teamwork experience
-A volunteer activity that put you in contact with people who are quite different from you in terms of nationality, income level, and/or educational background
-An international volunteer or social activity
-Active involvement in an alumni organization
-Active participation in a sports team
-Active political involvement (Not just voting or knowledge of politics, but actual activities)
-Participation in an orchestra, band or other musical groups
-Participation in drama or dance or other types of group performance
-Organizing trips or other activities for a group of friends
-Serving as the leader, organizer, or active member of a team-based educational activity such as a seminar, project, or overseas trip
The above are just some possibilities.
Some people will no doubt worry that they lack extracurricular activities to demonstrate such community citizenship, but in my experience, there is always some way to demonstrate this. Part of my job is to help my clients identify such activities and communicate about them effectively. If you have demonstrated extensive community citizenship in your resume, you may very well not need to write about in the HBS essay, but you might still find that explaining your motivation for such activities is something you want to convey to HBS. For those with limited objective resume content in this area, if there is an effective way to get some positive aspect of your community citizenship into the essay, do so.
Analytical Aptitude and Appetite
Harvard Business School is a demanding, fast-paced, and highly-verbal environment. We look for individuals who enjoy lively discussion and debate. Our case and field-based methods of learning depend upon the active participation of prepared students who can assess, analyze, and act upon complex information within often-ambiguous contexts. The MBA Admissions Board will review your prior academic performance, the results of the GMAT or GRE, and, if applicable, TOEFL iBT and/or IELTS, and the nature of your work experience. There is no particular previous course of study required to apply; you must, however, demonstrate the ability to master analytical and quantitative concepts.
HBS is a highly competitive and challenging academic environment. It is not for anyone. “Analytical Aptitude And Appetite,” what can more generally be thought of as academic potential, will be very easy for some candidates to demonstrate without ever writing an essay on the topic. You must demonstrate your analytical intelligence somewhere in your application. Yes, a solid GPA and GMAT are enough for that purpose, but if you think your academic record and GMAT are weak, I do suggest demonstrating your high analytical aptitude and appetite in your essay. Also, whether you address your analytical abilities in your essay, for most applicants, it would also be very useful to have one or more recommenders discussing this.
Some effective ways to demonstrate analytical intelligence include the following:
-Solving a complex problem at work, school, or elsewhere
-Discussing the successful completion of complex analytical tasks
-Breaking down a complex problem that you solved and communicating it a very brief and clear way
– Demonstrating great personal insight into one’s weaknesses, failures, and/or mistakes
-Showing the ability to learn from weaknesses, failures, and/or mistakes
-Showing the ability to learn and master something highly complex
-Demonstrating a high level of creativity
Those with truly outstanding academic background and test scores need to likely focus less attention on this area. If you think you have weaknesses in this area, consider how to use the essay and Additional Information section to mitigate them. The above list provides some effective ways to do that.
A truly diverse student body — in background, nationality, interests and ambitions — is the foundation of the HBS experience. Indeed, these differences are critical to the HBS learning model, which thrives on the many perspectives and life experiences our students from all over the world bring to their classes. From academic assignments to casual conversations, the unique qualities of individual lives enrich the education of the entire community.
This overall intention to create a highly diverse class significantly impacts HBS admissions’ decisions. The critical thing is that you demonstrate why you are unique and how you will add to the diversity of the class. In your essay, you need to show what makes you stand out. Especially if you think your academic, personal, professional, and/or extracurricular experiences are not inherently unique, it is very important that your essay demonstrates what makes you stand out.
Some ways of demonstrating diversity that my clients have used successfully include the following:
-Being the first person or kind of person to do something
-Being the youngest person to do do something
-Making an original contribution to something
-Having an unusual family, academic, personal, or professional background
-Unusual skills or talents
-Extensive international experience
-Receiving prestigious awards or scholarships
-Even post-MBA goals might be used for this purpose if your goals help to make you stand out.
Keep in mind that diversity is a matter of interpretation and presentation and it is each applicant’s responsibility to best demonstrate how they will add value to their classmates. One of my jobs as a consultant is to always help my clients identify ways that make them distinct even if they think they are not special. I operate on the assumption that everyone is unique.
So far I have discussed on topic selection. I think it is useful to think about what makes for a good essay and in particular, I think about stories. When it comes to telling stories, I think it is most important to think about your audience. You are not writing these essays for yourself, you are writing them to convince your audience. How to convince them?
The following grid connects the parts of an essay (the first column) to three core aspects of writing an effective essay. The table should help you see the relationship between the components of a story and what I would consider to be three major questions to ask about any story.
|Essay Outline||What was your role?||What does it mean?||Why will this essay sell them on you?|
|Effective answers to when, where, who, what, and how should all relate directly to your role in the situation. You are the hero or heroine of your story.||Your reader should have a clear understanding of the situation. They are not reading a mystery story, a poem, or some other form of writing where withholding information will be valued.||The situation needs to be one that the reader will believe, consider to be important, and hopefully be impressed by.|
What actions did you take?Action Step 1:
Action Step 2:
Action Step 3:
|Stories break down into steps. For each step, make sure you are clear about what you did.||Each action step should be meaningful and demonstrate your potential. This is the core of the story and it is important the rationale for your actions be stated as clearly as possible. Effective essays involve both description and interpretation.||If you are actions are clear and their value is clear in terms of your leadership, analytical, engaged community citizenship, or unique background, you will be on a firm basis for selling your story to admissions.|
|Result||Results should be stated as clearly as possible. Your relationship to the results should be clear.||Explain the significance of results clearly.||Make your results meaningful so that they will be impressive.|
The grid above is based on the following assumptions, which I consider to be basic for writing effective essays:
Your reader must understand you. Provide a clear interpretation of what you have done. Write in simple language, even about complex things. Assume your reader has a basic business background, but don’t assume any expertise. Cause-effect relationships should not be merely implied where possible. Showing your actual action steps is critical. A full explanation might be impossible because of word count, but if you tell things in sequence, it usually provides that explanation.
You reader must believe you. If your reader is not convinced by your story, you are dead. I am all in favor of telling the best version of a story that you can, provided it is also believable. Bad self-marketing is frequently based on lies that can be seen through. I have met many admissions officers and while not all of them were brilliant, all the good ones had finely tuned “bullshit detectors.” If your essays have a seemingly tenuous relationship with reality, you are likely to be setting yourself up for a ding.
Your reader must be engaged.If a reader does not become interested in what they reading, there is a problem. The problem may be that the essay is simply generic or it might be the way a story is being told is boring or it maybe a lack of passion in the writing. Whatever the case, it needs fixing. One of my roles as a consultant is to coach my clients on writing essays that will be engaging.
You must sell your reader on your high potential for admission. Great essays don’t just need to be believable and interesting, they have to be convincing. You are trying to get admissions to take a specific action after they read your file: admit you or invite you for an interview. Thus, essays must convince them to take action, they have to see why you should be admitted. I help my understand how to do this and give very specific advice on how to do so.
Your reader should be interpreting your essay the way you intend. In writing, there is always room for misinterpretation. If you have not effectively interpreted yourself, there is always the possibility that your reader will draw opposite conclusions from what you intended. I help my clients make sure that they understand and correct for all such negative interpretations.
My final point is that HBS is looking for people who want to be leaders, not mere managers. They are looking for people who will use their “one precious and wild life” to achieve great things, not those who will be satisfied at being mediocrities. If you can’t show the potential for that now, when will you?
HBS REAPPLICANTS: Reapplication as a topic in the Essay
If you are a reapplying to HBS, I do recommend addressing that issue either in the essay or, if you only need a brief amount of words, in the Additional Information section (see below). If you are reapplicant, please see here. It is usually the case that one tries to show growth since the last application. Whatever form(s) this growth takes, you might need a brief amount of word count or significant word count. Common topics:
1. Changes in career goals since the previous application. Feel free to alter your goals, just explain why.
2. Why you are a better candidate now. This could be everything from a career change to increased GMAT scores to improved English ability to taking courses to overcome an academic weakness to a valuable extracurricular activity.
3. Why you have a better understanding of how you will use an MBA education from HBS. This could be based on learning more about the school and talking with current students and alumni and then show how the program will really help you.
If you only use the Additional Information section (See below) to discuss reapplication I know 500 characters (not words!) is not much, so use the 500 characters here to highlight positive changes that you especially want HBS to take into consideration when evaluating you. On the other hand, I think it is perfectly fine to address reapplication in the main essay, which is a change from last year (Class of 2018) when the question made the topic of reapplication hard to fit into the essay.
For more about reapplication, please see the Reapplication section of my Key Posts page.
PLEASE NOTE: THE ONLINE APPLICATION IS NOT YET LIVE SO THIS SECTION IS BASED ON THE APPLICATION FOR THE CLASS OF 2018. IF CHANGES OCCUR I WILL ALTER THIS POST ACCORDINGLY.
“Instructions: Please provide a current resume or CV. Ideally, this would be about 1-2 pages in length.”
The resume has always been an important part of any HBS application. You can find a resume template I have linked to on my blog here. That resume template can also simply serve as a checklist for what to include. While many schools prefer a one-page resume, HBS really does not care. Depending on a client’s background, I will recommend 1 or 2 pages. I think it best to think of a resume as a record of accomplishment. If you have sufficient accomplishments, 2 pages is fine. Some applicants try to a use an MBA student’s recruitment resume format as the basis for their own resume, but I generally don’t consider this a good idea as such resumes serve a very different purpose. An MBA resume should really designed to focus on you overall, that is your academic, professional, and personal accomplishments and key facts. A recruiting resume is meant for a different kind of audience, recruiters, and typically focuses on a much more narrow range of information.
When I first start working comprehensively with any client, whether they are applying to HBS or not, I always start with the resume for a couple of reasons:
1. It is a great way for any applicant to summarize the most important information about them and their accomplishments. It sometimes helps applicants actually remind themselves of what they have done.
2. For me, it is a way I learn about a client so that I can better understand their background.
One key thing to remember about what you include on your resume: Anything that is there, just like any component of the application, may become the basis for a HBS interview question. Therefore if you don’t want to talk about it and don’t need to write about it, leave it off the resume.
There is also an Employment Section of the application that provides space for you to discuss two positions in detail including providing brief descriptions of your professional accomplishments and challenges. To some extent this information will overlap with the resume. This is nothing to worry about. That said the challenge question (“Most Significant Challenge” 250 characters) in particular is very possibly something you would not be covering in your resume. Stanford has a similar detailed employment section in their application, which they seriously. I assume HBS does as well, so just as with the resume, make sure your answers in the application are as effective as possible. Don’t treat it like some form you do at the last minute.
First, keep in mind that admissions officers read transcripts and are trained to know what they are reading. They don’t just look at GPA (If your school calculates it). If there is something really bad on your transcript (a fail, a withdrawal, etc) or odd, you really do want to explain it in the 500 character (not word) Additional Section. If is just a C and you have no specific excuse, don’t bother trying to explain it. If your academic performance varied greatly from year to year (or semester to semester), was there a reason for it? Is it one that you want to provide? I don’t recommend discussing how you became depressed after your boy/girlfriend broke up with you, but if, for example, you were taking a major leadership position in a student organization, running a start-up, working a lot to pay for school, doing major research, experienced a major illness or misfortune, or playing a varsity sport, you do have a topic worth discussing. Finally, If your transcript, GMAT/GRE, or resume don’t indicate that you have solid quantitative skills, you should explain why you do if you can. The proper place to provide that explanation is in the additional section or the essay.
Given HBS’ instructions on this, I do highly recommend including your best extracurricular activities with perhaps 2 out of 3 being focused on college/university activities, unless you have some particularly impressive post college/university activities, where I might see including only 1 activity from college/university. If you have done nothing impressive extracurricular-wise after graduating and have 3 good activities from university, feel free to just use use this section for those activities. If you did nothing but study during college or university and really have no activities, hopefully you have three post-college things to include. If you have any activities that are directly relevant to your professional goals or to your personal story and you really want to emphasize them, use this space accordingly. While I would surely emphasize the most impressive activities in terms of leadership or engagement, if you need to focus on personal interests that were not group focused (running for example) because you simply don’t anything better, put it here. Activities that show you are well-rounded, civically engaged, artistic, athletic are all possibilities here.
Keep in mind that extracurricular activities can (and usually should) also be fully accounted for on the resume and given the fact that you can submit a two-page resume, there is no reason that can’t account for an activity. Also, if you are not using the space for anything else, the 500 character additional information section could be used for elaborating on anything you consider really important, but could not include in this section or in the resume.
AWARDS AND RECOGNITION
“Instructions: Were you on the Dean’s List? Did your apple pie win a blue ribbon at the state fair? Tell us about it here. List any distinctions, honors, and awards (academic, military, extracurricular, professional, community) in order of importance to you (i.e., list the most important first). You may list up to three awards.”
For some applicants this section is really easy to fill out because they have won a number of awards, distinctions, or honors and just need to prioritize them. Other candidates will freak out about this section because they never won anything that they think fits. While, it is sometimes really the case that I will have perfectly great applicant who has nothing to report in this section, most applicants are actually likely to have something. HBS is not asking you a narrow question here, so think broadly. It is possible that this section will overlap with the resume, employment, essay, or extracurricular section of the application.
INTENDED POST-MBA CAREER GOALS
You don’t have to perfect post-MBA plan, but you need to have a plan. You most likely will spend more time thinking about what you are going to write here than writing it. I think it is fine to include the longer term here if it helps to explain the rationale for your short-term objectives. Keep in mind that your wider vision is a perfectly acceptable topic to discuss in the essay (if you think it will really help your section mates understand who you are) and not here. Also, since this question does not ask about HBS, you should not necessarily include any why HBS content here. If you are having difficulty with your career goals, see my analysis of Stanford Essay B for a method for thinking about goals. I frequently work with my clients on their goals.
“Instructions: Please only add additional information here if you need to clarify any information provided in the other sections of your application. This is not meant to be used as an additional essay.Please limit your additional information to the space in this section. We’ll know you’ll be tempted, but please don’t send us any additional materials (e.g., additional recommendations, work portfolios). To be fair to all applicants, extra materials won’t be considered.” (500 characters, not words)
Use this space to explain anything that can be effectively explained in the space provided. This is a great place to explain your choice of recommenders, a problem in your past, or to add in information about something you really think HBS needs to know. It is completely fine to leave this space blank if you have nothing you need to add. See above in this post for using the additional section if you are a reapplicant to HBS.
Best of luck to everyone applying to HBS.
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Please enter your Intended Post-MBA goals below.
Diversified Financial Services/Insurance
Energy: Alternative Energy/Renewables/Cleantech
Government: U.S. (Federal/State/Local)
High Technology Electronics/Equipment/Networking
Highly Diversified Manufacturing & Service
Hospitality: Lodging, Restaurants, Tourism, Theme Parks, Gaming
Machinery and Heavy Equipment
Medical/Health Care Devices
New Media/Social Networking Media
Paper and Forest Products
Sports & Sports Management
Transportation Services & Logistics
Finance: Investment Management
Finance: Investor Relations
Finance: Mergers and Acquisitions
Finance: Sales and Trading
Finance: Wealth Management
Information Services management
Marketing: Brand/Product Management
Research and Development