How to Write a Strong MBA Application Essay or Personal Statement
Note: This guide, the first in our series on application essays, focuses on long-form essays, similar to those required by the Harvard Business School (HBS). See our second guide for specific tips on writing short-answer essays constrained by tight word limits.
For many candidates, writing essays for business school applications can feel intimidating because of the slim margin for error. Admissions officers at highly selective business schools look for justifications to reject candidates, and when they cannot find those justifications in work experience, undergraduate grades, or admissions test scores, they search for them in application essays. “An essay that reveals any weakness in your candidacy could quickly put you in the reject pile,” according to Poets & Quants editor John Byrne.
Best practices in application essay writing indeed exist, although some of them are not obvious and a few may seem counterintuitive. BSchools’ editors reviewed analysis and advice from several authorities, along with essay examples from admitted students. Although this research is mostly sourced from essays submitted to the Harvard Business School and the Stanford Graduate School of Business, the principles outlined below apply to any top MBA program, whether on-campus, executive, or online.
Understand that some schools have started experimenting with high-tech replacements for their written application essays, according to Poets & Quants. Northwestern University, the University of Texas at Austin, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have all introduced video essay questions. MIT’s video essay gives candidates a mere sixty seconds to present themselves in one shot. A variant asks for photos; for example, New York University asks for six captioned images that describe candidates.
The research below presents an overview of the most frequent kinds of application essay topics, known as “prompts,” as well as best practices for writing.
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Common MBA Application Essay Prompts
Most application essay prompts can be divided into five categories: introduction, career objectives, school selection motivation, achievements and setbacks, and additional optional essays.
Introduction (“Introduce Yourself”) Prompts
These prompts ask applicants to introduce themselves to the admissions committee members. The Harvard Business School has used the same prompt for the last few years. Here is their actual class of 2022 required essay prompt:
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?
A variant includes a previous Harvard prompt asking candidates what they would say while introducing themselves to other new students on the first day of classes. Stanford’s famous embodiment of this prompt simply reads:
What matters most to you and why?
Career Objective Prompts
These prompts ask applicants to explain their career goals and why they believe an MBA is necessary to accomplish those goals.
School Selection Motivation Prompts
These prompts ask candidates to discuss why they want to attend that particular business school, along with the benefits that the school and classmates will receive should they win admission. Experts believe that this topic is highly significant to admissions officers and needs to be incorporated into most essays—and especially into introduction essays—in some fashion.
Achievements and Setbacks Prompts
These prompts request discussions of inflection points in an applicant’s career. The questions seek to uncover what contributed to their accomplishments, along with how they recovered from setbacks, and what candidates learned from them.
Additional Optional Essays
This last prompt typically asks applicants to discuss any additional topics about which admissions committees need to know before rendering decisions.
Essay Writing Best Practices
Writing expert and admissions consultant Sanford Kreisberg offers a great deal of insight about successful application essays. He points out in a 2015 interview with Poets & Quants that many successful HBS essays follow a common structure. They state the applicant’s goals, then identify three or four crucial experiences that helped shape those goals. Frequently, candidates also include how those experiences helped form their values. Another admissions consultant argues that emphasizing values is necessary, irrespective of the structure a candidate selects.
Frequent Essay Themes
Admissions consultant Stacy Blackman advises clients to select themes that will enable them to display qualities HBS highly values, especially drive, accomplishment, and leadership:
We have found that both personal and career-oriented topics can work, and most candidates tell more than one story in the essay. In the past, we have observed that successful HBS essays also demonstrate a core driving passion. . .HBS has always been highly focused on leadership and really loves candidates with a track record of leadership impact and a success trajectory that indicates upper management potential.
Accomplishments have traditionally been a strong focus of HBS essays, and using at least one accomplishment story in this essay may be a good strategy.
According to Kreisberg, frequent themes include overcoming adversity, or helping others overcome adversity, and overcoming victimization, or helping others overcome victimization. In fact, he argues that this theme accounted for as many as 70 percent of recent Stanford GSB essays. Kreisberg also says that absent parents, especially absent fathers, embody themes in many of the successful HBS essays from 2014 and 2015.
Voice Is The Most Important Factor
By saying that “voice trumps everything,” Kreisberg points out that the voice with which candidates speak through their essays can be more important than any other aspect of application essay writing. Characteristics of “good voice” include:
The essay must convey that, above all, the candidate seems like a genuinely likable person. If it does not, the piece can render an otherwise outstanding candidate vulnerable to a “ding,” which is business school lingo for a denial. According to Kreisberg, the critical test the HBS admission committee reportedly relies on is this question: Is this someone you would want to sit next to in a case method class?
Authenticity and Sincerity
All experts agree that authenticity is a necessary winning essay hallmark. According to New York City admissions consultant Manhattan Prep, “with this essay, you essentially want to forge a meaningful connection with a complete stranger, and if you try to present yourself as something or someone you are not, you will fail.”
Candidates need to present examples demonstrating their introspection and self-awareness.
One of the most difficult challenges of application essay writing involves balancing a string of impressive accomplishments with humility. Any form of bragging in an essay amounts to self-sabotage—don’t do that.
Candidates must present themselves as showing careful attention or consideration, including consideration of the needs of other people.
Ideally, candidates need to sound like previous applicants from the same industry. Applicants with work experience in investment banking need to sound like students the school accepted with investment banking experience; applicants with military experience need to sound like students the school admitted from the armed services, and so on.
Many experts suggest that effective application essays do not need to be particularly well-written. They contend that admissions committees are willing to overlook less-than-perfect writing so long as applicants deliver compelling pitches. After all, business schools are interested in selecting and training future business leaders, not Pulitzer Prize-winning writers.
Moreover, the HBS essays we reviewed for this guide do not appear to be particularly well-written. The errors and defects found in the samples suggested that the authors won admission because of other factors, like their work experience, undergraduate grades, or admissions test scores.
Nevertheless, the most successful essays do appear to demonstrate many characteristics of great writing, such as:
Alice van Harten is a founding partner with Menlo Coaching, one of the most favorably-reviewed MBA admissions consulting firms in the world. As of April 2019, her firm had received 94 five-star reviews in the Poets and Quants directory, and van Harten ranked #3 in the publication’s 2018 article, “The Top Ten Most Favorably Reviewed MBA Admission Counselors.”
In this video, van Harten explains Classic Style, a writing style she encourages her clients to use which is based on the 2011 writing guide Clear and Simple as the Truth. The style focuses on distinctive features of the candidate’s story that make it compelling. She says this approach is effective because it helps differentiate writers from other candidates and exudes confidence.
Powerful, Compelling, and Sometimes Shocking Introductions
“In all essay writing, of course, you learn that a lead, the way you entice a reader into your writing, is all important, in part, because it should generally be compelling enough to grab someone and make them want to read on. In that regard, there are some fairly grabby leads,” according to Byrne, who knows a great lead—he was the executive editor of Businessweek and the editor-in-chief of Fast Company.
Consider for a moment why a powerful lead can be critical in this kind of essay. A typical admission committee member might review as many of 30 or 40 of these applicant essays on an average day. A compelling lead not only differentiates an essay in the mind of that reviewer, but also grabs their attention.
The best essays not only display compelling first paragraphs, they also lead with first sentences that grab the reader’s attention through vivid and sometimes shocking images. Here is a remarkable example:
“You are a woman AND a vegetarian! You will never make it in this place!” As a senior midshipman screamed those words at me from across the table, I instantly decided to change the one aspect of that statement within my control. I scarfed down Stouffer’s meat lasagna during my first dinner at the United States Naval Academy and wracked my brain, pondering how the females before me had survived. After leaving the comfort of my childhood home, I found myself blindsided by a brutal indoctrination into the male-dominated military.
The first sentence virtually guarantees further reading because it arouses the reader’s curiosity about what sort of place the applicant ended up in that treats women (and vegetarians) with such disrespect. The writer eventually introduces the controversial topic of male domination of organizations, and explains how she adapted to that domination and finally overcame it.
Here is another compelling introduction:
During my first year in college, my parents declared bankruptcy. The bankruptcy was caused by my father’s growing drug addiction and it had a cascading impact on our entire family. Since my parents were co-signers on my student loans, our bank refused to renew them after my first year. I did a number of things to get by, including working three jobs simultaneously to make ends meet. I also tried to support my dad by helping to manage his rehabilitation process as much as a teenager reasonably could.
Displaying vulnerability, this example surprises readers who may not expect an HBS student to have faced damaging family issues like bankruptcy and drug addiction. The lead also arouses the curiosity of readers who want to know how the applicant eventually overcame these traumas.
Active Voice and Verbs
The best essays avoid passive voice. Notice the active voice and the vivid choice of the verbs in this excerpt:
After college, I joined the Ivy Club in D.C., serving as the chair of Young Alums. The club had declining admissions, so I galvanized support by changing its mission and expanding its demographics. . .Still, I craved more impact and contribution to a company’s success. . .Now I thrive on helping other people and organizations do the same: identify problems, then clarify and meet their goals.
Essay Length and Word Limits
HBS does not specify word limits for their essays. However, the best pieces display judicious word counts. MBA Mission explains in more detail:
We expect that most of our clients will use between 750 and 1,000 words, with some using as few as 600 and a small minority using as many as 1,250. We have difficulty imagining a scenario in which an applicant would truly need more than 1,250, but we certainly know of candidates who were accepted with essays that exceeded that high target. In short, take the space you need to tell your story properly and showcase your personality and experience, and then work to reduce your essay to its lowest possible word count, without sacrificing any impact or effectiveness.
Stacy Blackman concurs, saying that essays should be under 1,200 words. It is always easier to eliminate words than add more during editing. A good rule of thumb is to write until the essay feels complete, and then take a second pass through the essay to cut any unnecessary words.
Sample Harvard Business School Essay
The following outstanding Harvard Business School essay—which was written by a published author—satisfies all of the above criteria. It is an inspiring, compelling, and well-written example that appears below in its entirety, followed by a brief analysis from Harbus, the essay’s publisher. This sample appears in The Harbus MBA Essay Guide.
In 2012, I realized a life ambition—I completed my first novel, all while working full time at [Top U.S. Investment Bank]. I could not wait to share it with the world and eagerly went in search of a literary agent. But each agent I contacted declined to represent my novel.
Nevertheless, I was passionate about my work and was determined to put it into readers’ hands. In true entrepreneurial fashion, I self-published my novel through the digital platforms Smashwords and Createspace. I worked with a promotional expert to organize a month-long book tour to promote the book to prominent book bloggers and their readers. The result? My novel has received multiple 5-star reader reviews, from Amazon to Goodreads, and was a semifinalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.
Storytelling is my lifelong passion; it saw me through a difficult childhood. After my father left, my mother raised me as a single parent in [U.S. City/State], a rural Bible Belt town two hours south of [U.S. State]. We did not have much money and that coupled with my bookishness made me a target for bullies. Books and writing were an escape; they gave me an avenue to articulate the feelings of abandonment and powerlessness I otherwise did not want to express. Writing made me happy and the more I wrote, the more my talent blossomed. I began to win awards and my work was published in youth literary journals. These experiences made me more confident, a key part of my success later in life. It all started with a pen, a notebook, and my imagination.
Stories are an integral part of the human experience. They uplift and inspire, give us permission to dream and to visualize what could be. Storytelling has been an integral part of my career, from building financial models at [Top U.S. Investment Bank] that illustrated my expectations for the companies that I covered to delivering a presentation to [International Daily Newspaper]’s chief revenue officer explaining why reducing ad prices for tender house advertisers would not lead to an increase in revenue.
My passion has also informed my growth as a leader; I believe my most impactful expressions of leadership have been my efforts to help others write the narratives of their own lives and careers. At [Top U.S. Investment Bank], I created an informal mentorship program for female and minority interns and first-year analysts in the research division and led a “soft skills” class to help new analysts handle difficult interpersonal situations. For four years, I’ve mentored a young Hispanic woman through Student Sponsor Partners, a nonprofit that gives low-income students scholarships to private high schools. Being a mentor gave me the privilege of guiding another first generation college student along what I know can be a lonely, difficult path. This fall, she started college with a full scholarship.
Storytelling will be a part of my future career path; as an MBA graduate, my goal is to obtain a position in strategy and business development at an entertainment company that specializes in film or television. Long term, I want to start a multimedia and merchandising company with a publishing arm (books and magazines) as well as film, TV, and digital operations. Using strong, fictional heroines and informative lifestyle content, my company’s goal will be to educate and inspire women to become their best selves. My particular focus is creating compelling, multidimensional characters to inspire young women of color, who are constantly bombarded by negative images of women who look like them in media.
I’m pursuing a Harvard MBA because I want to become a better business strategist and strong general manager. Also, I want to further develop my leadership and presentation skills as I will manage professionals on the content and business side; it will be my task to unite them behind a shared strategic vision. Specifically, I want to learn how to motivate teams and individuals to perform at their highest level, and to become more adept at persuasion and generating “buy-in” from others. Harvard’s unique approach using the case method and emphasis on leadership development will challenge me to grow in both these areas. I also feel that I have much to contribute to Harvard’s community. My varied background in finance and media has given me a unique perspective that will be valuable in classroom discussions and team projects. I want to share my passion for the entertainment industry with my classmates by chairing the Entertainment & Media club and planning conferences, career treks, and other opportunities.
My background gives me the capacity for fearless thinking that is needed to meet the challenges of the entertainment industry’s shifting landscape. A Harvard MBA will strengthen that foundation and help me to become the kind of dynamic leader who can bring the vision for my own company to life and be at the forefront of entertainment’s structural shift.
A brief analysis from The Harbus:
The author sets the stage for the remainder of the essay by first presenting a notable accomplishment of hers and then explicitly illustrating the entrepreneurial drive and diligence she used to see it through.
More importantly, the author’s opening introduces a theme—storytelling—that is consistently interwoven through different stages of her life. The reader is led through the author’s childhood, professional and extracurricular experiences, along with accomplishments, all the while being reminded of the integral role storytelling has played.
Beyond highlighting her gift, or passion for the art of storytelling, the author goes on to connect this theme with her future career ambitions, as well as describe how this could also serve the HBS community.