HBS students at graduation
On March 22, Max Wibaux made a quiet exit from his office in Kansas City just before noon EST. He drove the five minutes to his apartment, rushed to his computer and then sat briefly paralzyed in front of the screen, desperately wanting to know if Harvard Business School would admit him and not so desperately wanting to know if it didn’t.
Wibaux, marketing manager for Russell Stover chocolates, had invested a lot of time and energy in the decision. By his own estimate, the 30-year-old native of France spent nearly 50 hours over two to three months on as many as 30 drafts of his HBS essay. He also wrote essays for Stanford GSB, Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, and INSEAD.
“I had gone home at lunch time because I knew the posting would go up at noon on the dot,” he recalls. “So I went home, turned on my computer and stared at it for a number of minutes until I watched the clock roll past 12. I was so hesitant to push the button to see what my status was. I finally clicked on it and then jumped up and down.”
THE HARDEST PART OF HIS HBS ADMIT? KEEPING QUIET THAT AFTERNOON IN THE OFFICE
The latest edition of the MBA Essay Guide from The Harbus costs $61.49
He spent the next hour at home, relaying the good news of his HBS acceptance to family and friends. The hardest part of the experience was returning to his office that afternoon, with the widest grin he ever wore on his face, and not sharing the news with anyone other than his boss and his second recommender, the only two people at his employer who knew he had applied to Harvard’s MBA program.
Wibaux will start the MBA program on Aug. 28, but since his acceptance into HBS, he has been involved in a rather unique exercise: Reviewing the essays of recently successful applicants to HBS for inclusion in the just published summer 2017 edition of the MBA Essay Guide from The Harbus, the MBA student newspaper at Harvard.
At first, Wibaux merely volunteered to share his own essay. But when the newspaper’s leadership team found out that Wibaux boasts nearly 10 years of Brand Management experience working for GlaxoSmithKline, L’Oreal, Reckitt Benckiser, and Lindt & Sprüngli, he was drafted as the new product manager for The Harbus.
29 ESSAYS FROM 29 NEWLY ADMITTED STUDENTS TO HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL
His conclusion from reading nearly 50 essays, 29 of which are included in the new guidebook? “It would have taken a lot of the nervousness out of the process to see the wide range of essays out there,” says Wibaux. I was going off the premise that I just wanted to do my own thing. The reason why I went through so many iterations is I didn’t know what I was up against. I think I could have cut by drafts in two.”
The 29 submissions in the new guidebook, available for downloading at just over $60, are just a small fraction of all the 941 essays written by successful candidates who will become students at HBS by months’ end, of course. But they are representative of a wildly diverse student body from all walks of life, all industries, functions and geographies, and all ways of thinking. They come from HBS-bound applicants in Pakistan, India, the Ivory coast, Zimbabwe, and Egypt, among other places. They were written by people who worked in oil and gas, healthcare, nuclear engineering, transportation and community service, not merely consultants and financiers. The stories vary greatly as well, from a student who delivers a first-hand account of how it feels to run a triathlon to another who candidly describes a serious bout of depression that led to suicidal thoughts.
Ultimately, the real benefit of the guide is not that it will teach future applicants how to expertly craft the perfect HBS essay that will gain them an admit. Instead, like Wibaux himself learned, you may not have to be nearly as fussy as you think when answering the HBS prompt “what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program?”
‘YOU CAN HAVE A KILLER ESSAY BUT GET REJECTED IF YOUR APPLICATION IS WEAK’
Incoming HBS student Max Wibaux
That’s because this inside peek at winning essays will allow you to read well-crafted writing worthy of The New Yorker as well as fairly unremarkable essays that could have been written for a college freshmen intro class. What you can’t know is how important these essays were in Harvard’s admission decisions.
“It has been said over and over again that the essay is just one component,” concedes Wibaux. “So yes you can have a killer essay but if the application is weak, it won’t make a difference. Or conversely you can have a bad essay but still get in. Even so, it’s the only chance for you to get your story across in a way that is not formatted by the admissions committee. It is one of the few pieces in there that is truly in your own voice. It is purely you.”
Some of the successful applicants who forked over their essays to The Harbus make even Wibaux look like a piker for his 25 to 30 drafts. Almost all the essays in the book are the result of days, if not weeks, of work and multiple iterations. One 2+2 candidate from Canada, who had worked as a consultant, claims to have powered through 75 versions of the essay over a period of 50 to 60 solid hours of effort. The French Canadian even consulted a a psychologist to help him write his 963 words with with deep introspection.
A SUCCESSFUL INDIAN APPLICANT OFFERS SOME KEY TAKEAWAYS
Not surprisingly, many were highly methodical in their approach. A successful round one applicant from India who applied to Harvard, Stanford, Wharton and Chicago Booth say she started thinking about his esays in June. “I laid out my entire life on a linear storyline and starting hunting for defining moments that I could talk about,” he explains. On Stanford’s iconic “what matters most to you and why” prompt, he invested three to four weeks and did eight to ten iternations. On his HBS essay, he spent four to six weeks, with as many as a dozen drafts.
Starting Harvard’s MBA program later this month, he shares key takeaways:
- Spend adequate time brainstorming for defining moments and discuss them with someone who knows you really well
- Adopt a simple writing style, with short sentences and cause-effect relations clearly laid out. Run a grammar/text bloat test towards the end.
- Don’t read into the feedback you get from your reviewers too much. Often times feedback will be contradictory. Go with what you think is best.
- Wrap up the essays at least two weeks before submission and lay primary emphasis on other elements of your application – CV, referrals, short responses.
- Take time to discuss your application with your recommenders and prime them with interesting instances they can talk about while writing you referrals.
A Harvard Business School case study class
At the most simplistic level, you can think of Wharton as the school of facts and Harvard as the school of stories. Wharton is a numbers-driven, fact-craved MBA institution. Harvard is a story-driven place, as evidenced by its near total reliance on the case study method of teaching. As J.J. Cutler, deputy dean of Wharton’s MBA Admissions and Career Services, puts it, “We are a fact-based and data-driven school. We do not have a charisma-style approach. We let the data drive us and help lead us to the solutions.”
That sounds like a disguised knock on Harvard, and it might very well be. Yet, it gives you a clue as the basic difference between these two great MBA schools. Though Wharton and Harvard live in very different places, Philadelphia vs. Boston, finance vs. general management, facts vs. stories, they attract many of the same aspiring candidates who make up the very best of the world’s MBA applicant pool. These are world-class educational enterprises with best practice admissions offices, MBA programming, career services staffs, and alumni offices. Obviously, the faculty at both these schools is second to none, with Wharton leaning more toward the conventional B-school research side and Harvard leaning closer to professional practice and pragmatic relevance.
One rather startling fact to keep in mind: When Thomas Robertson became dean of Wharton in 2007, he said his goal was to double the school’s $690 million endowment over five years. At the time, Harvard Business School’s endowment was a whopping $2.8 billion. That’s right: Harvard’s endowment was four times the size of Wharton’s. That treasure chest buys a lot of faculty, great staff, and world-class buildings. The financial crisis hasn’t helped Robertson with his goal, and it has also led to a setback in the HBS endowment which shrunk to $2.1 billion at the end of 2009. But the numbers give you a sense of Harvard’s strength and dominance in the world of business school education.
How else do these two exceptional schools differ from each other? Let’s start with the major business school rankings.
Over the years, Wharton has done better than Harvard in many of the rankings, from BusinessWeek to the Financial Times. More lately, however, Wharton has lagged a bit–not much, just a spot or two. Currently, Wharton is slightly favored by both The Financial Times, which ranks it number two, and The Economist, which ranks it number three. Otherwise, BusinessWeek, Forbes, and U.S. News & World Report give Harvard a higher rank. The P&Q rank–which factors into consideration all the major rankings weighted by their individual authority–puts Harvard at the very top at number one and Wharton in fourth place, behind only HBS, Stanford, and Chicago. These are the up-to-date rankings from each ranking organization.
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