Posted on May 16, 2012

Harvard Essay Questions Analysis – 2011-2012

Essay #1: Tell us about three of your accomplishments. (600 words)

For years Harvard has asked this question, “What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such?" Even though they have reworded the question now, and instead of “most significant accomplishments”, they are asking “accomplishments”, they still want you to discuss your most impressive accomplishments only. Also, whether they have asked or not, you still need to explain to why these achievements are meaningful to you.

Since this is a multi-accomplishments essay, you have the freedom to cover a lot of ground. It will be in your best interest to choose one professional, one community, and one personal accomplishment to demonstrate that you are a multi-faceted personality. In case you do not have any community service experience, you may choose two professional and one personal accomplishment story. Please make sure that at least one (preferably two) of your examples highlight your leadership skills. Other traits that your stories should demonstrate include teamwork, innovation, integrity, honesty, and maturity.

Since the essay allows you to use 600 words, you may roughly allot 200 words to each of your stories, focusing on each aspect of the story: the challenge, the achievement, the outcome, and the significance. In the following example, the applicant explains the outcome and the significance (the last two stages).


"These proposals collectively brought in additional engagements worth $ 20 million and 400 associates to my company. Thus, a young, four -year old team succeeded in accomplishing what the entire management had been struggling with for two years."

Here is what you should NOT do in the ‘accomplishment’ essay.

  • Do not provide a list of your accomplishments e.g. My first accomplishment is---my second accomplishment is …. Let your story/ experience speak for you.
  • Do not discuss high school accomplishment unless it is exceptional. Also, do not count on college experience because you are 4-5 years out of high school. Focus on something within the past 2-3 years.
  • Never tell the whole story in the first sentence itself. It is like telling the climax of the story in the first sentence itself.
  • Do not select accomplishments involving your friend, family, marriage or romantic relationships unless your story is truly distinctive and the impact substantial.

Essay #2: Tell us three setbacks you have faced. (600 words)

Harvard not only expects you to share your three accomplishments, but it also requires you to reflect on three setbacks or failures. The setback question may turn out to be a greater challenge for bright Harvard applicants who have tons of accomplishments to boast of but cannot think of failures. So, you need to dig deeper, do a lot of introspection, and look for experiences when you could not achieve what you had deserved or expected. Then reflect on how that experience helped you grow as a human being and as a professional.

When choosing your setbacks/ failure stories, please keep in mind that you can discuss challenges that were not necessarily of your doing. For example, getting laid off from your company because of the crumbling economy is your setback, not your fault. Make sure to discuss those experiences when things did not go right for you despite sincerest efforts on your part. But the experience sill taught you important lessons which you later used in your professional/ personal life. The most important part of each of your stories should be to explain how the experience impacted you, what you learned from it, and how you applied that lesson later to improve yourself.

Example: "This experience was a huge blow to my self-confidence, but it taught me two great lessons: being assertive when required and allocating responsibilities to all. Later, when I faced a similar situation, I did not hesitate to escalate it, and this time the overall result was much positive. Thus, this setback taught me valuable team-working skills that I am now practicing successfully."

Lastly, like the accomplishment essay, choose your stories from varied situations/aspects of your life. Make sure you choose one or two stories from your professional life and at least one from your personal life. A perfect balance of work-life and non-work life would showcase you as a well-rounded human.

Essay #3: Why do you want an MBA? (400 words)

This is a typical ‘goals’ question that requires you to make a realistic connection between your past (experience and skills), present (your need of an MBA), and future (your career vision/your goals). In other words, you need to demonstrate how your professional accomplishments have enabled you to set your goals and how an MBA is the logical next step towards the realization of those goals/ objectives. It is important to explain which aspects of the MBA curriculum interest you and match your needs. Remember, earning an MBA is just one piece of your career puzzle, and you want to prove it to the admissions committee that you understand where it fits in the grand scheme of things.

Example: "In my work experiences, I never had the opportunity to look into acquisitions, which is one of the most interesting aspects of my current job. After gaining insight into the area and getting the first-hand experience from start to finish, becoming the Finance leader within Corporate Strategy and Development is where I see myself in the next few years. To reach these goals, I believe, I must supplement my current education and work experience with a top-notch graduate business education, Harvard".

Essay #4: Answer a question you wish we would have asked. (400 words)

This question is an opportunity for you to cover those important themes that you did not get a chance to do in other essays. This is your chance to present a story/ anecdote of your life that brings out your best personal and/ or professional traits. You may use this essay in the following ways:

First, you may use this question to reveal your non-work side. If you have significant extracurricular accomplishments (sports, music, writing, painting, etc.) or a community welfare activity that you initiated or led, you should share those stories. Do not worry if it gets personal because the personal side is always reflected in our professional performance in any way. For example, a person who is hardworking, honest, conscientious, and accountable in his personal life is expected to demonstrate the same degree of sincerity in his/her professional life as well

Secondly, if you feel you have covered all aspects of your personality in other essays but would like to elaborate /re-emphasize the most significant of them in detail, here is your opportunity to do that. For example, if you have an amazing example of your ability to take initiative or to think outside the box or exceptional work ethic, but could not describe it in detail in other essays because you had a lot of other ground to cover in a limited space, it is a good idea to provide details of that particular story here.

Also, you can use this essay to provide context for a weakness in your profile, like a low GPA or GMAT or a gap in your job history. Make sure your reason is genuine to convince them that your low grades occurred due to unforeseen circumstances beyond your control. Also, keep in mind that your story should not only explain that weakness in your profile but also bring out your other strong personality traits. That means your response should be positive and should not sound like you are making excuses for a weakness in your profile.

Lastly, make sure that your response to this question should tie back to your overall story, so it does not look like patchwork. For example, if you are telling a story of your passion/ interest in sports and there is absolutely no clue about this passion of yours in your other essays, it may not be a convincing and persuasive read for the Ad Com.

Example: “Continuing this strenuous tutoring job for the entire four years of my undergraduate studies resulted in pulling down my grades to 70%.However, the tutoring experience benefitted me in two ways. It not only reinforced my passion for teaching (I still find 10 hours/ week to teach my home maid’s children) but also provided me the satisfaction of being a dutiful son."

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