HBS is the first of schools I'm looking at to post their Fall 2010 essay and letter of recommendation guidelines/topics. You can find the essays here.
At first blush I am pretty excited about the essay choices - you actually have choices! Allowing us to pick 2 of 5 very different topics to write on (vs. 2 of 3 or 1 of 2 pretty similar questions I think is a great idea (hint hint to Kellogg & Booth). I never understood why such an involved application process at these schools was at the same time so narrow in your essay topic choice. With each AdCon reading hundreds of applications they will still be plenty comfortable working with all 7 essays so why not allow applicants the latitude to present themselves how they think best? In some sense it makes the AdCon's life easier - you can easily weed out & reject anyone with a weak essay because with this much choice there's simply no excuse.
After the choices, the next thing that struck me was the number and length: 5 essays with 4 of them being only 400 words. Structure as interesting to tackle as much as content. Each one needs to be like the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan as they assault the beach, instantly powerful and dynamic. With 5 essays over 2,200 total words you're much more writing vignettes than essays.. .and I'll feel right at home having just taken the CFA. Not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing :)
The next thing to strike me… "I've seen these somewhere before". I like that HBS took the best of other schools' ideas and adopted some of them - in addition to the ubiquitous "difficult decision" & "career vision" essays, you also have a version of Sloan's cover letter, as well as an option time to address your undergraduate experience.
Two things about the Undergrad Experience essay:
- First is that you'll note it is worded to allow for much broader content than a standard "explain away your crappy GPA" but if that's what you need it for the option is there.
- Second, and unfortunately for me, the "undergrad weakness" essay isn't an extra/optional essay like at many schools. Instead it takes up one of your 2 "elective" spots in which people with stellar undergrad resumes will instead be bragging about career accomplishments , goals, or their community involvement. Just makes your other essays and parts of your application, including interview, even more important.
Hopefully a few other schools do something similar as HBS did this year - there's no denying this will be a huge help to people spending 70+ hours at work then going home and trying to apply to 5 schools all in R1. Obviously you don't want to select essays simply because they overlap schools, and you also need to make sure they fit both the particular verbiage of each question while focusing your content individually for each school… but a lot of the thought process should be able to bridge the gap between different applications. Ideally it's moving to something like a BSchool Common App, although since BSchools all like to market themselves as very different from one another I doubt it'll go all the way.
Maybe one day we'll see the top schools (then trickling down to the rest) having half of the word count be common across all schools, which still allows for 2-3 short individual essays specific to each application.