Four Sample HBS Essays, With Comments
Three of these are IT focused, just to show you that not all good essays are about saving the world or winning the Olympics (but if you have done either of those, well, feel free to write about it).
These were done when the essay length was 300 words (it is now 400 for most essays today) so these also prove that with concise writing you CAN get a lot of information in to an essay in 400 or even 300 words!!! The last essay, the strongest, is 297 words!!!
All these applicants got in, but they also had strong records, good extra curriculars, and rock solid gpa/gmats.
Admission to HBS is not a writing contest–if you have the assets they are looking for (some of those assets change slightly in terms of age, background, country of origin, etc) , and your essays are solid and present you as reflective and likeable, that is often enough.
There is one caution, these essays were done in the early 90’s, when IT and Indian applicants were much more rare than they are today, it is not crystal clear that these same applicants would be admitted today, for one thing, they are might be considered on the old side.
CHANGE ESSAY 1–Turning Programers Into Contultants
What specifically have you done to help a group or organization change? (300 word limit)
In 1990 as a senior associate at Condor Consulting, I headed a four person Condor team for two years at Monitor Software (MS), a mid-size firm which sold data-base management software products. Our mission was to convince 120 key MS programmers and engineers to sell MS consulting services as a new ‘product,’ in addition to their old engineering and programming tasks. These valued and long-term employees were not sales oriented and were comfortable with the status quo. Also, they were committed to finishing their current projects, not adding to them. I helped plan several company meetings and question-and-answer sessions to share the company’s new vision. I explained the need for MS to change in order to remain competitive. But many MS programmers and engineers, at the end of our first orientation ‘phase’ (6 months), were not committed to the change. After carefully assessing these meetings with my own ‘change’ team, I told senior management the original plan would take 3 years instead of 15 months. We had to hire new people, deal with winning over more recruits, and craft an exit strategy for those unwilling to join.
Over the next two years 70 percent of the initial target audience signed on, and 30 percent were transferred, quit, or let go. The new consulting ‘business’ became 25 percent of MS’ total revenues.
Executing lay-offs at the same time as making new hires was hard. So was integrating new hires into this roiling environment. My team’s success was based on (i) open communication, (ii) a willingness to change the first plan, (iii) hiring outplacement and recruitment experts (after a failure of trying this in-house) and (iv) constantly sharing the new vision and benefits. Although we revised the ‘change’ plan, we never waivered in our ultimate commitment to it–and it showed. [word count– 300]
Not a pretty picture at MS, but a classic change essay with great content and adequate execution and analysis. The essay deals with a key change situation: veteran, skilled employees must adapt to an additional function: selling consulting services rather than just products. Reclusive engineering types must start selling themselves, an impossible transition for a substantial minority. The writer spearheads the change. The set up is adequately described, followed by the the buzz-word filled analysis (explained our vision, valued feedback, gave credit to resistance, recognized early mistakes, hired experts, showed our commitment to change). While the analysis is cursory, and repetitive, what gives this essay power is the underlying explosiveness of the situation, a real blood bath (30 percent firings) and for the survivors, a top-down change that nobody really welcomed. What comes through by implication is that the writer is tough, smart, and a natural leader. He is ‘compassionate’ not so much by nature, but by training. A perfect HBS type. He knew what you are supposed to do in such a situation (hold meetings, explain the change, listen to resistance) but that is where the book learning stopped and reality took over. All that jazz did not really work–at least it did not work as originally planned. Time for Phase Two: extend the deadline, keep up the ‘vision’ drill, fire people, and hire replacements. The detail about out-sourcing the hires and fires, after failing to do it in-house, is powerful and telling. So is last sentence about being committed to change, and showing that commitment. Within the context of this essay, it rings true, and you can almost picture the writer heading the entire two-year operation in a collected, firm, intelligent, by-the-book business-like way.
More condensed writing and less repetition could have opened some space to screw in further powerful details, but the big picture comes through, and the situation is compelling. The writer touches all the right bases, and the essay scores high.
CHANGE ESSAY 2– Same Situation–Turning Salesmen Into Consultants– Seen From The Trenches
In 1991, Monitor Software’s (MS) management understood that real growth was going to come from adding the sale of ‘consulting services’ to their core product: specialized data-base software. As one of four consultants from Condor Consulting assigned to help make this transition, my challenge was to guide the government accounts sales force into selling consulting engagements as well as products.
Because the government account sales force already perceived itself as successful, the first thing I had to do was explain why a ‘relationship building’ approach was needed for long term profitability. I met with each member of the 30 person sales force in person for one-hour and from these meetings I developed a 10-day “Change In Mission” training program. Also, as the field specialist, I accompanied sales people on sales calls and showed them how to qualify sales leads into real consulting opportunities.
Because closing a consulting ‘contract’ was more complex and prolonged than selling a product, I also suggested a new profit plan to accommodate the changes. I also built in other standard ‘salesmen’ incentives such as premiums, bonuses, and prizes which were new to MS. In two years, the software consulting practice at MS grew from zero to $ 8 million. Looking back, one key was redesigning the compensation package, and selling that idea to MS management. Management thought the package too ‘rich’ but I stressed that they were asking the sales force to ‘change’ dramatically, and this also required some radical ‘re-thinking’ on their part. They still balked, and I suggested a pilot program for volunteer early adapters. That worked, and soon the benefits became clear to the sales staff and management. [word count– 272]
A good companion piece to Essay 1 since this guy was a junior member of the same team. Good set-up, fast but maybe a little too curt (might be hard to understand if you had not read Essay 1). The body mixes lots of details with the usual “change buzz-set” [explained the need for change, held meetings, listened to feed-back]. The writer also shows an attractive variety of skills, including designing compensation packages and accompanying the MS sales force as a guide, plus dreaming up the pilot program. (When our writer acted as guide to the MS sales force it no doubt struck the funny bell for all you Big Consulting firm types. This guy had never sold anything.) Be that as it may, this is a very solid piece of work which touches a lot of bases, deals with a dead-on ‘change’ situation, and crams in a lot of specifics and buzz terms. In many ways it is a better essay than 1, since the specifics are more telling and detailed. That is the pay-off. Note that an entire essay could have been written by this writer about how he ‘changed’ management’s mind about the compensation package, but since the other specifics are so strong, it was probably better to go with a wider approach. As a rule, though, the more narrow topic is better. This candidate represents the very solid, very smart, non-charismatic young worker bee that is the backbone of HBS. The writer of 1 represents the extraordinary top 15 percent, but this could be judged the superior essay. In truth both essays are outstanding
CHANGE ESSAY 3 — Savvy IT Consultant With Perhaps Too Much Attitude
As an Information Technology consultant to a major state’s Department of Motor Vehicles [DOMV], I led a 22 person cross-functional decison team (technical and management) in selecting a single vendor (from six) for a $10 million ‘call center’ upgrade.
My first hurdle was credibility. I was a twenty-eight year old consultant and most of the DOMV managers were older, sometimes by 10 years or more. I was extremely respectful to everyone, even going so far as to call senior people ‘Mr.’ or ‘Ms’ until asked to use their first name. I also made it a point of meeting individually with 10 leading managers my first two days on the job and personally asking for their help. Many Motor Vehicle senior people were ‘political’ and I made it a point to respect that as the ‘corporate culture’ (it helped that my Dad had been a state ‘lifer’ although not in this state). But I also confirmed from my consulting company that the very reason we were brought in was to make a merit decision. (This is not always the case.)
After ‘earning’ some good faith, I then made it clear, through weekly memos, technical reports, and meetings, that I was firm about reaching an objective decision. I actually made the process more quantative than strictly necessary. The danger of running this ‘wizard’ show was not getting full information about each department’s needs, but I tried to do that informally. Also, my clear objectivity ‘freed’ up the internal technical people, who proved very helpful.
When disagreements emerged, I resorted to an ‘objective scoring process’ to build consensus. At one point, I had to initiate a second round of scoring. I could have been more of “a people” person but given my age, the internal culture, and the limited task, the ‘super straight arrow’ model worked. [word count –303]
A paradoxical topic, perhaps more suited to Q. 1 about leadership than this question because this answer is not really about how the writer helped an organization change, it is about how the writer helped an organization change computers, a key difference. One of the charms of this essay, in fact, is the writer’s awareness that he is not going to change this organization, it’s a bunch of Motor Vehicle ‘state-lifer’ types, and nobody is going to change that. The writer is smart enough to work around the political culture with his ‘wizard’ show (a great term I had never heard before). The writer is further aware enough to know that possibly he overdid the ‘straight arrow’ routine, but it was an acceptable strategy given the situation. Like most good essays (but see below) it gains force by self-awareness. In addition to discussing some business ‘buzz’ words (establishing respect, earning good will, respecting the corporate culture) we also have the author convincingly reflecting on his motives (maybe he was too much a straight arrow, he was putting on a wizard show, he understood the culture because his father had worked in a similar one).
This essay runs a risk that you may not like this guy. He is both technical and crafty at the same time. I like this guy, but I am a little more cynical than the average HBS essay reader, who is more often than not a politcally-correct, therapeutically oriented, do-gooder type with a strong commitment to process. That type of reader might criticize the author for being elitist (he knows best), patronizing (intentionally calling his elders Mr and Ms) and anti-democratic (obscuring the consensus process with a ‘wizard’ show, and bragging about it in the essay). That all sounds a little nutty to me (I’ve worked in state government and know this situation exactly), but I’m not an admissions officer. You could make a strong case, given that possible critique, to change or abandon this essay. If other parts of the app. confirmed the “elitist” “wizard” picture, it could be fatal. Also realize that readers are not Saints and possibly not genius critics either. It is possible for this essay to annoy someone who could not really explain why, but the author would pay the price anyway. The writer does not have the chance to argue back. Personality in an essay is a strong suit, but subtle “attitude” can be deadly. Bear in mind that the subtext of every answer is a picture of you that the reader is drawing. You do get credit for your achievements, but the essays are mostly a way to get beyond your achievements, or more precisely, to use your achievements to show who you are. That is why the directions point you away from the facts and into the process. Describe how you were an effective leader, not what you accomplished, list how you helped change an organization, not what the change was, etc.
OK? So would I advise submitting this essay? It would depend on the rest of the app. Usually disturbing traits (bragging, overstatement, lecturing, anger, pay-back, insecurity, fuzziness, immaturity, Pollyanna-ism, whining, shrillness, egotism, sexism) in one essay appear in all the essays. If the alleged elitism and smarmy self-satisfaction (‘Oh he is a happy straight arrow isn’t he’) in this essay were isolated, I would go with it. I still think it’s a strong essay. If it were all over the app., I would hold an intervention with the writer and his friends and family to cure it.
By the way, do not consider the discussion of the ‘personality’ given off by an essay to be an interesting side-bar. The ‘voice’ of your essay (to use the technical rhetorical term, e.g. its personality, its sound, its human-ness) is very important, and in close cases, it can be determining. And the scary part is that sometimes a very negative trait like anger can be cured over the course of seven essays by making 30 minutes worth of revisions (‘Hey, cut all that angry stuff’) and that 30 minutes can determine your admission fate.
CHANGE ESSAY 4– Changing The Family Business
In 1995, during the second year of my internship with Mogul Investment Bank (MIB) in New York, my father was diagnosed with lung cancer, and told he had 6 months to live. My father owned a sporting goods store in Queens. In the next two months, I was able to hire a store manager, add a bill paying system, and educate my mother to run the store alone. My father died four months after the initial diagnosis.
I first used contacts at MIB to obtain a definitive diagnosis of my father’s cancer from world-famous specialists at Sloan Kettering Hospital. After consultation with them, my family elected to peruse a ‘care’ not a ‘treatment’ course for the cancer. That decision gave us more time to focus on preparing my mother to take over the business rather than ‘fight’ the cancer. Through a local priest, I located a recent immigrant from Greece (our own ethnic heritage) who was smart and happy to have the manager’s job. He was a lucky hire.
I spent a month training the new manager and going through the old records. (I took an unprecedented three-week leave from MIB and moved back home.) My father was able to help a little, but he soon became too sick. I computerized the bill paying system, and concluded that computerizing the inventory was not worth it. My mother had worked in the store in the past (as had I), and I was able to make her feel comfortable about taking over by making her a collaborator in the reorganization. Also working in the store was a way to take our minds off my father’s illness, and my father was pleased to know that my mother would be financially secure and the store would go on. [word count–297]
‘Wild card’ good answer in which the facts speak for themselves without much need of ‘buzz word’ embellishments or analysis. We are impressed here most by the writer’s character and his strong family background. Although working in a blue-chip investment banking internship, the writer takes an ‘unprecedented’ three-week leave to deal with a family crisis. Not many people would leave a top Wall Street job to move back to the ‘old neighborhood’ and immerse themselves in a small family business. We are also impressed by the writer’s apparent competence, maturity, and confidence. After all, hiring someone to manage a small business, and training someone else to ‘own’ it, are not skills taught at Wall Street investment banks. The decision not to aggressively fight the cancer, made after consultation with leading experts, is also powerful and ‘counter-intuitive’ to Wall Street and HBS types, but correct under the circumstances. That kind of authentic and ‘wisdom-laden’ detail scores super high with admissions readers (and normal readers too). The answer gains from its business-like recital of both the practical and psychological issues: hiring the manager through the local priest, organizing a bill paying system, deciding early to ‘accept’ his father’s death not fight it, the recognition that working in the store helped the family deal with their grief, his father’s pleasure at seeing his wife taken care of after his death. The set-up is stated quickly in the first paragraph, and what follows is a narrative containing both facts and insights, each of which illustrate ‘specifically’ what the writer did to help an organization change. We are left with a picture of a high-functioning, caring, out-of-the-box thinking and strong family values young man, but the power of the essay is that is shows us those traits through good specifics rather than just telling us. Many writers baldly state “I am determined, hard working, and believe in truth and justice . . . .” but the trick is provide the unique and personalized details that show those things, and this writer has done it.